The art of Weaving
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Women Work to Weave a Lasting Peace
Rwanda, a tiny land-locked country in eastern Africa, tragically is best known for the horrific genocide that occurred in 1994. Nearly a million people, or about 10% of Rwanda's population, were killed.
Rwanda is now a country in which women are rising to the forefront of economic, political and social institutions. In the immediate aftermath of the genocide, females represented 70% of Rwanda's population since so many men had been killed. After some time had passed, the women were faced with a decision of either collapsing of inconsolable pain, or moving on together to rebuild their lives.
Because so many men had perished, it was clear that women must play a significant role in Rwanda's rebuilding and democratic transition. Previously excluded from positions of influence, women now participate as elected officials, community leaders, and entrepreneurs.
Today widows come together to make exquisite traditional baskets and create economic opportunities for their families. As they sit and weave, they heal in body, mind, and soul, and position themselves and their families for a more stable future.
These finely crafted, delicate baskets are made from natural fibers and woven using a technique that has been practiced for almost a thousand years. The baskets, with their unique form only made in Rwanda, have served many functions in Rwandese history including holding food, celebrating weddings, and carrying secrets from one woman to another.
The sale of beautiful, handmade goods plays an important role in Rwanda's transition.
The traditional Rwandese basket with its conical top and "zigzag" stripes is the centerpiece of their rebuilding, and a national symbol that adorns the official Rwandese seal.
Sisal is harvested from the long, bayonet-shaped leaves of the sisal plant, a member of the agave family. The leaves are taken from the outer growth so the plant is not harmed, and will continue to produce foliage from its central core. The harvesting is usually done by men who then bring the 3 to 4 foot long leaves to market on the days the women gather to sell their finished baskets. The weavers select their leaves with all the care of a shopper choosing tomatoes-bruised or damaged stalks produce poor quality sisal with discolorations, or that take dye poorly.
Long bunches of sweetgrass (over which the sisal will be sewn) are harvested in the early morning or late evening when it is most pliable. Wiry, tough and sweet-smelling, weavers use the grass because the baskets made from it are clean and long lasting thanks to its own natural preservatives.
Once selected, the sisal leaves are broken open lengthwise and, using an enzyme-filled liquid found in the center of a banana trunk, fine sisal threads are extracted. These threads are continually washed until clean and bright (the whitest sisal threads are achieved using a water/enzyme mix). The sisal is then hung in the shade to slowly dry. Finished sisal strands may then be used in their natural white color or can be dyed in a number of ways, including commercial dyes as well as natural dyes such as henna, tea leaves, and other traditional plant-based pigments.
Coil sewing, the technique used to create the sisal bowls, is an ancient technique of basketry. Up to 3 sisal strands are threaded onto a needle, while a tiny bunch of sweetgrass is wrapped in sisal and coiled tight. The weaver then puts the needle through the edge of the previous coil and pulls each tiny stitch tight. The weaving proceeds in a coiling fashion, with each successive coil from the center increasing the diameter of the bowl. To create intricate pattern, the weaver must frequently change needles, each one threaded with a different color. While placing the stitches carefully and working the patterns properly, the weaver must also pay close and constant attention to the bowl's shape. Amazingly, a 12-inch diameter bowl of this type may amount to several thousand stitches applied over the course of a week. When a length of sisal is used up, a new length is started and the end of the previous is buried under successive stitches to hide it from view. The best bowls are remarkable for the perfect symmetry of their shapes, the sweetness of their curves, and the seeming effortlessness of the whole.
When the bowl has reached its final diameter, the ends of the sweetgrasses are cut in a taper and gradually diminished until the coil ends and the last stitches are placed. Here, the master weaver will show her skill by blending the end in such a way that it is hardly visible. A loop is then sewn onto the back so that it may be hung on a wall. The weaver brings the finished basket to the collection center where it will be carefully inspected for quality and beauty. Lesser quality baskets stay in Rwanda for the local tourist market, only the finest baskets are selected to be part of the Macy's collection.
A HAND UP, NOT A HANDOUT
Far more than charity, the Rwanda Path to Peace project puts income directly into the hands of Rwandan women, empowering them to take control of their own lives. These earnings are used for food, clothing, school supplies, water purification, healthcare and personal savings.
The Path to Peace project employs 2,500 weavers across Rwanda. The weavers belong to smaller weaving groups, organized locally in the many villages that dot the landscape. Amazingly, every group consists of both Hutu and Tutsi weavers, women from both sides of the 1994 conflict. These women sit with each other, talking and laughing, while their children play nearby. By weaving together, they are slowly but surely healing themselves and their society.
For the weavers having an income means planning for the future, and many are eager to provide a better life for their children. In addition, the stability of a reliable income has helped alleviate much of the stress of everyday domestic life-stress that until recently was intensified by poverty. Today, husbands are helping out by tending to the children while their wives weave, harvesting raw materials and transporting finished baskets. By working together, these women and men are forging stronger families built on mutual respect and partnership.
The Path to Peace project has greatly improved conditions for HIV-positive weavers by providing them with real, usable income. This increased income allows them to better meet their nutritional needs, increasing the effectiveness of their medications. No longer stigmatized by the community, they are instead respected for earning an income. They have their pride back, and with it hope for the future.
CHANGING THE LIVES OF CHILDREN
One of the most inspiring aspects of this innovative partnership is the direct, positive impact it has had on thousands of Rwandan children. Income from the baskets provides food, clothing, healthcare, school uniforms, shoes, school supplies and more. The weaver's children now have paper and pencils so they can learn to write, and they are very proud of their parent's ability to provide them with necessities that have become life-changing luxuries.
The income from the Path to Peace project helps the weavers maintain their good health. Entire communities have clean water because families can afford water purification tablets and/or bottled water. Cases of malaria, a deadly disease carried by mosquitoes, have been greatly reduced now that weavers can afford SuperNet mosquito netting that protects them from the infected insects. And perhaps most importantly medical insurance, once a luxury, is now readily available and affordable to protect the weavers and their families.