- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

MAZA, Rwanda — Sitting on a three-legged stool, Agnes Hirere patiently weaves papyrus and sisal fibers to make a basket with a conical top that has become the symbol of Rwanda. But after hours of weaving intricate patterns in the basket on her lap, the Tutsi woman stands up and says her scars are throbbing — the painful reminder of the 1994 genocide in which she lost a husband and her health.Hutu neighbors attacked her home at the outset of the 100-day slaughter in April of that year, clubbing her husband to death and leaving her unconscious in a pool of blood.Mrs. Hirere, 41, survived because another Hutu neighbor took her in and secretly treated her wounds for four days before pushing her out as the slaughter escalated, claiming the lives of more than a half-million Tutsis and political moderates from the Hutu majority.”I never recovered properly. … I suffer severe pain if I exert myself even today,” Mrs. Hirere said. “And I was not educated enough for a desk job, which limits my options for earning a living to weaving these baskets.”Traditionally, weavers made wall panels for the round, thatched dwellings that dotted the hillsides of Rwanda, as well as traps for hunting, clothing, beds, mats and other household decorations, said Deo Byanafashe, dean of the arts faculty at the National University in Butare.But the fine basketry, originally the province of women in the court of Tutsi kings and great chiefs, has evolved from a status symbol to a means of weaving Tutsi and Hutu families together today.Known as agaseke in Kinyarwanda, the national language, the baskets symbolize reconciliation because they are woven by genocide widows struggling to rebuild lives destroyed by the slaughter orchestrated by the former Hutu government, said Aurea Kayiganwa of the association of genocide widows.For generations, the baskets have been used to hold gifts to newlyweds and new mothers, symbolizing the endurance of family values. Tiny baskets held highly prized salt. Big baskets were for millet and sorghum.They have taken on additional value since the Business Council for Peace, a network of American businesswomen, joined forces with Eziba — an online and catalog retailer of global handicrafts — to give the genocide widows access to the $22 billion market for traditional crafts in the United States.”These baskets have a potential of producing a lot of revenue for the widows,” said Amber Chand, co-founder of North Adams, Mass.-based Eziba and a member of the businesswomen’s network. “The global consumer is not only looking for something to buy but also to connect to an experience.”Eziba sells a 14-inch basket online for $48. Mrs. Kayiganwa says a weaver receives $10 per basket, $2 to $3 more than she would make selling it locally in handicraft shops. Of the remaining $38, $3 goes to the widows association for administrative costs and $35 goes to Eziba. About 150 baskets have been shipped to Eziba, which has placed an order for another 150, Mrs. Kayiganwa said.Selling in such volume in Rwanda would be very difficult because the local market is small, and there are only a handful of tourists visiting the Central African nation of rolling green hills and mist-shrouded volcanic mountains.In traditional Rwanda, a bride-to-be would make two elegant, fine-fiber baskets, giving the first to her groom, “promising to be faithful by saying that no one would open the lid of the basket except him,” said Odette Niyonsaba, who lives in Butare, the cultural capital of Rwanda. “She would give the second one to her mother-in-law two days after the wedding to indicate that the woman is now like her mother.”No one knows when Rwandans began weaving the baskets, but they were familiar fixtures in the courts of Tutsi kings well before the 19th century, said Jean-Jacques Nsanzabaganwa of Rwanda’s National Museum in Butare.The arrival of Christian missionaries from Europe, followed by German and Belgian colonial rule, led to a dramatic decline in traditional art, Mr. Nsanzabaganwa said. Synthetic fibers replaced papyrus reeds, and demand for the baskets dropped as foreign products took their place, he said.Low prices discouraged young people from taking up basket weaving, and a dwindling number of women now possess the skills required to make the baskets.However, Mrs. Chand hopes that as business grows through access to the global market, Rwandans “will be encouraged to continue a tradition that could eventually die.”

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