While visiting Nkombo Island, I had an opportunity to interact with members of a cooperative known as Agaseke k’Amahoro. I showed up when my hosts were working around the clock to ensure their latest order is delivered in time.
The cooperative had a few days to ship a big consignment to Hands Producing Hope, a fair trade and eco-friendly fashion brand established to empower women in Rwanda and Costa Rica.
The atrocities of 1994 restructured Rwanda’s gender ratio drastically. The aftermath of the Genocide against the Tutsi and the ensuing exodus begot a depleted nation in which women formed about 70% of the population. Consequently, many women across the country found themselves shouldering the responsibility of providing for their families.
Thrust into an unfamiliar territory, many rural women didn’t fare well in the competitive job market due to limited formal education or lack thereof. Fortunately, the post-liberation enabling environment helps women to break the long-standing barrier formed by generations of marginalization.
Weaving baskets has been part of the Rwandan culture for centuries. For most middle-aged Rwandans, these baskets rekindle memories of their grandmothers. Traditionally, a basket is a precious item and an envelop of gifts from the heart. Furthermore, artistically woven baskets are used to decorate homes and venues of different functions.
In the past, food was stored in a pyramid-capped basket known as agaseke. Today, this artefact is accorded the recognition it deserves. A head-turning agaseke is mounted on top of the new headquarters of Gasabo District, the nation’s birthplace. Way before the building was constructed, the basket was placed in the middle of Rwanda’s coat of arms.
Agaseke symbolizes peace. It is also a key weapon in the war against poverty, particularly among women residing in rural areas. However, weaving baskets goes beyond putting food on the table and sending kids to school. It brings together Rwandans from three formerly divided ethnic groups. The practice fosters unity and reconciliation. The role played by artisans in weaving a divided nation into a unified one is undeniable.
Globally, a made in Rwanda traditional basket has become a sough-after product. Basket weaving is carried out in different parts of the world but an authentic agaseke from Rwanda usually stands out from the crowd.
To keep up with the ever-evolving market trends, weavers update their skills through regular training. Materials used are sisal fibre, banana leaves, raffia and sweetgrass. Apart from baskets, artisans produce earrings, necklaces, wrist bands and bangles.
Mukamusoni Odette, a widow plying her craft under the umbrella of Agaseke k’Amahoro, owes everything she has to the basket that restored her lost hope. "I was once reduced to a beggar but this product has transformed my life." She says proudly. Odette and her colleagues are working hard and God is blessing the work of their gifted hands.
The author is an adventurer on a mission to discover what Rwanda has to offer. Follow his awe-inspiring journey on this blog and ikazerwandatours.com