A basketful of hope
In Rwanda, weaving happens to be a centuries-old skill passed on from mothers to daughters, down innumerable generations. Quaint handmade baskets in traditional Rwandan patterns are not only beautiful works of art, but unique too, writes Hema Vijay
“My story has a humble beginning,” she begins, which is a huge understatement. The fact is, Janet Nkubana, co-founder of Gahaya Links, the famous, award-winning, women-centric, Rwandan handicrafts organisation, was born in the middle of sheer despair and poverty; a beginning she shares with numerous other Rwandans, following the 1994 Rwanda genocide against the Tutsi clan, which left the country in tatters and pushed women and children into pathetic refugee camps in neighbouring Uganda and elsewhere.
“The genocide created a million widows and many times as many orphans, besides a large number of women with husbands in prisons,” Janet shares. Considering that Rwanda is a tiny country with a population of just millions, this must have been a colossal tragedy.
“But I was blessed in that I got an education,” she says in her charming manner of speaking, in flawless English. Weaving was perhaps the only extra skill that most women in the camps were left with. Like the American quilting tradition or the Indian rangoli tradition, in Rwanda, weaving happens to be a centuries-old skill passed on from mothers to daughters, down innumerable generations. In Rwanda, baskets are woven from sisal fibres, sweet grass, banana leaves and raffia, and dyed with plant pigments or tea leaves and woven in a unique style that leans towards geometric colour patterns.
“Every mom taught her daughters how to weave and make baskets. It was so hard for my own mom to control her nine children, and she made us sit around her baskets, and we all learnt weaving. But we didn’t know then that weaving would turn out to be our treasure later on; in any case, we didn’t have suitcases, shelves or anything; everything was stocked in our baskets,” says a candid Janet. But thanks to Gahaya Links, now, Rwandan women weave natural fibres and grasses into quaint hand-made baskets and other objects in traditional Rwandan patterns for more reasons than just storage. And the Agaseke, one of Rwanda’s most ancient basket types, has come to be known as the ‘Peace Basket’ the world over.
As she grew up, Janet was one of the few Rwandan women who was able to return to her native country and make a good career. She and her sister had set up a hotel in Kigali, and Janet came across a ceaseless stream of women and children descending on the hotel, to beg for food. “Some among them were too proud to beg and offered me their handwoven baskets in return for food,” Janet shares. This eventually gave the idea for Gahaya Links, which she set up with sister Joy. “I wanted to see how far Rwanda’s traditional woven handicrafts could go; if it could lift women from economic and social despair,” she remarks. But not every Rwandan woman could weave, Janet realised. With that began Gahaya Link’s first training session in Gitarama, a remote village, where about 20 women were taught to weave, while others were taught new design techniques.
Then, it was time to face the challenge of marketing the baskets.
Marketing Gahaya Links (named after Janet and Joy’s grandfather) began modestly — at yard sales, flea markets and trade shows in the US but something about the handwoven baskets struck a chord, and they became very popular. Now the weaves from Gahaya extend from baskets to home décor and jewelry, and sit proudly on the display racks of exclusive boutiques in New York and Hollywood, as also in stores like Macy’s, Kate Spade, Anthropologie and Same Sky, and has global icons among its patrons. The baskets were also put on a special display at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC in 2005.
Be it Rwanda’s traditional hut-shaped utility baskets that look quaint in a western setting, or fashion accessories that are in sync with western sensibilities, these weaves are beautiful works of art. Though people don’t realise it, any handicraft is actually unique, unlike machine-made objects. “Somewhere, a craftswoman sits weaving in strands in her own unique manner, with her individual set of thoughts running through her mind at that moment, weaving fibres of a particular lustre and weight. An exact replica is not likely to be made again. It is probably unique, and definitely rare.
‘Handmade’ adds value to the made object, because it has been touched by the crafter’s persona. ‘Handmade’ also expresses who we are,” feels Janet.
Knots of solidarity
The co-operative nature of Gahaya Links has also enabled war-torn Rwandan women to come together and find strength in friendship. An idea that is carried forward in the Gifted Hands Innovation Center that Janet later established, where women get to interact, exchange stories, make friends and find peace.
“Handmade is both my dream and my life, and I have seen that life can be changed by something as simple as handmade craft,” Janet enthuses. “Rwanda is a small country spread across 23,000 square miles, and has no natural resources, except us, its people,” she says in her characteristic manner that combines pride with modesty. Janet was awarded the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable end of Hunger in 2008. In her second visit to India, to be part of Kaivalam, the first ever world craft summit at Chennai, organised by the World Craft Council, Janet cuts an imposing figure in her traditional Rwandan outfit. She is easily the most popular person in the summit, and is besieged by people wanting to talk to her personally. There is even a young woman who asks, “Can I hug you? You are amazing.”
“I just remember that without help from others, I would not have made it out of the refugee camp,” is how Janet responds to such admiration. Janet had secured a church scholarship which allowed her to get an education, unlike many others at her refugee camp. But inspirational, she definitely is. From a tiny experiment in a refugee camp, Gahaya Links has grown to employ 4,500 weavers and artisans in 52 co-operatives and associations across Rwanda. And here, empowerment is not just about weaving as a money-spinning craft. Of course, women at Gahaya earn 10 to 40 dollars a day; they have health insurance and savings bank accounts; they get health education; and they manage to send their children to school. Crucially, they now have economic independence, which has ushered in self-respect, as also respect from the patriarchal Rwandan society.
“Men who used to beat their wives and look down on women now come to me and say, ‘Madam, can you buy this from us’. Some day, I want weavers to earn as much as software programmers. Why not?” she finishes, when she senses incredulity in the air.