Women affected by the genocide in Rwanda began to weave in vibrant colours and designs. The process not only washed away bitterness and anger, but also resulted in products sold in stores like Macy’s.

It has been a giant leap from conflict to peace, from local craft to high fashion. Gahaya Links, an organisation that has empowered the underprivileged women of Rwanda, through their traditional skill of basket weaving, has its products sold at Macy’s, Same Sky, Kate Spade and Anthropologie of New York. The baskets in vibrant colours and designs, and the jewellery made through the same technique of weaving, are sought after items at these high-end stores. And the women who make them are those who were left widowed and helpless after the genocide in the African nation two decades ago.

The baskets have gained the name “peace baskets” as they have brought together women whose husbands were killed and the women whose husbands were imprisoned during the wars between tribes. The process of working together has forged links between the two groups. Remarkably, bitterness and anger were washed away in the cathartic experience; it brought peace and forgiveness to the traumatised women.

Gahaya Link’s success shows how crafts can evolve, and adapt to changing times if marketed skilfully. Forever seeking fresh platforms for her craft is Janet Nkubana, co-founder and president of Gahaya Links. The articulate and dynamic Janet was in Chennai recently to participate in Kaivalam, the world craft summit organised by the World Crafts Council. Clad in her native African dress made up of silky material, bought during her last visit to Delhi, Janet points to her woven hoop earrings and ring, an advertisement for Gahaya’s craft. The brilliant colours and patterns of the baskets draw admirers constantly to her stall. The weaving of the traditional hut-shaped baskets with lids is so exquisite that to see them is to want to possess them.

“We started the initiative with 27 women after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994,” Janet says in an exclusive interview. She was taught the art of basket weaving by her mother at a refugee camp in Uganda when her family fled Rwanda during the genocide

“I also studied art in high school,” says Janet. On their return to Rwanda she and her sister came in contact with these women who had been rendered homeless. They decided to help them by assembling them into a group. “We wanted to use the skills of these women to create jobs for them and make them economically independent.” Traditionally baskets are made by women in Rwanda to carry food and as wedding and christening gifts. The skill of weaving is passed on from mother to daughter.

“After 2003 we started thinking out of the box,” says Janet. “We began a process of modernising without giving up traditional skills. We wanted to make products to suit markets – items of home décor and utility. Traditional items were therefore given value additions,” she explains. “For instance, a small loop at the back of a basket lets you hang it on the wall.”

“My sister and I saw what China was selling and we looked at what the world was attracted to. We started our own trends and never gave up.” When Janet displayed the products at an exhibition in New York, Macy’s wanted to buy them.

Touching lives and emotions

“After that we diversified. We turned to jewellery. When we designed earrings, we studied what is available in metal and then made our own using materials that conformed to international standards – not grass but rayon or silk threads. When they saw the trendy colours, people were attracted to them. We sourced materials from ot her countries but used our own techniques. I tried to create designs which are unique. I bought glass beads from Agra when I came to Delhi some months ago; I designed crochet bracelets and we sold them to Same Sky in New York.” Products were kept exclusive to a particular shop.

“We saw to it that there was no conflict of interest with our buyers. If another store wants to buy what we make for Macy’s, we say “no”. Most of the stores in the U.S. don’t want to lose the brand, for they look on it as corporate social responsibility. And people love to wear them – if it is hand-made you experience real life and hold it in your hand. Handmade tells us who we are, where we came from – it touches our lives and our emotions.”

Today, more than 4,500 women are helped by Gahaya Links in Rwanda. “Every time we create a product, we create jobs,” says Janet. “And when the money goes to the woman, it helps the entire family.”

And do the women gain respect? “Oh gosh! So much.They are valued more in their community. The men now chip in to cook and take care of the children”, says Janet , co-laureate of Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger awarded by the Hunger Project.

“Our work brings many celebrities to us. Oprah Winfrey featured us in Fortune magazine. Actor Ben Affleck came to Rwanda to look at what we are doing. Art has brought many people to talk to us,” beams Janet. After all, Gahaya Links is special. It is all about “weaving lasting peace.”

Keywords: basket weaving