Weaving a new future

In the heart of the Rwandan High Commission, Pierre de Villiers discovers a symbol of hope and healing.

On 11 April, Rwandans will gather together for Genocide Memorial Day, an act of remembrance for the nearly one million citizens who were slaughtered in a 100 days of savage bloodletting.

But inside the Rwandan High Commission in London a collection beautifully woven Peace Baskets tells a story of hope for a future as bright as the baskets themselves.

“After the 1994 genocide women constituted the largest portion of the Rwandan population. Most of them, like the rest of the country, were devastated,” explains Rwandan High Commissioner Ernest Rwamucyo. “Dozens of women, especially widows from the genocide, started weaving together in a bid to create opportunities for their families.”

Determined also to heal their communities, women on both sides of the conflict – Hutu and Tutsi – came together to reclaim the centuries-old Rwandan skill of weaving.

“The patterns of these baskets tell ancient stories and now stand as symbols of peace and reconciliation,” says the High Commissioner.

Inspired by the courage of Rwanda’s women, Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) reached out to American philanthropist and entrepreneur, Willa Shalit, to develop an international market for Rwandan basketwork.

Joining with a local Rwandan company founded by sisters Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana – and with the help of a determined Washington-based Rwandan diplomat, Kaliza Karuretwa – they convinced upmarket department store Macy’s to sell the baskets. The Path to Peace collection was launched in 2005 and it wasn’t long before eager shoppers were snapping up these individually handcrafted works of art – including celebrities such as Nicole Kidman and Oprah Winfrey.

Today there are more than 3,000 weavers across Rwanda, organised by local communities that dot the hilly landscape. Sales of the baskets have steadily increased – from $50,000 in 2004 to nearly $2 million – making them one of Rwanda’s top non-agricultural exports.

“Women in Rwanda now play an important role in the economic, political and social institutions where previously they were excluded,” remarks the High Commissioner.

“The baskets have become a source livelihood for thousands of rural women. But above all, weaving together provides women with a platform for healing, reconciliation, bonding and forging peace and unity.”