The traditional Rwandan basket is iconic. Popularly known as agaseke, this product is a symbol of peace, love and prosperity. It is also a key weapon in the war against poverty, particularly among women living in rural areas.
Weaving baskets goes beyond putting food on the table and sending kids to school. The art brings together Rwandans from three formerly divided ethnic groups, hence fostering unity and reconciliation. The role of artisans in weaving a divided nation into a unified one is undeniable.
Globally, a made-in-Rwanda traditional basket has become a sought after product. Basket weaving is carried out in different parts of the world, but an authentic agaseke from Rwanda stands out from the crowd.
While visiting Nkombo Island, I had an opportunity to interact with a group of women who weave baskets for a living. I showed up when my hosts were working around the clock to ensure their latest order is delivered in time. They had a few days to ship 5,000 baskets to Hands Producing Hope, a fair trade and eco-friendly fashion brand established to empower women in Rwanda and Costa Rica.
Spurred by the growing popularity of agaseke, many other social enterprises are getting busier. In partnership with Fair Winds Trading Inc. and Macy’s, Gahaya Links exports baskets from a network of 4,000 weavers organized in fifty-two cooperatives. Women across the country are weaving their way out of poverty.
Agaseke is attracting tourists too. Ashley from the USA visited rural Rwanda in pursuit of a weaving experience. While in the land of 1,000 hills, she was taught how to harvest raw materials, process fibers, effect the coloring schemes and produce baskets. "It is heart-warming to know that my presence helped to empower these amazing women, who inturn, inspired me to lead a more fulfilling life. Through working with them, I developed a new skill and learned to appreciate simple things in life." She said. Many other tourists are creating their own souvenirs through hands-on experiences.
To keep up with the ever evolving market trends, weavers update their skills through regular training. Materials used are sisal fiber, banana leaves, raffia and sweet grass, among others. Apart from baskets, artisans produce an assortment of items including earrings, necklaces, wristbands and bangles.
Muteteri Grace, a beneficiary of training programs offered by the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center, credits agaseke for her current financial freedom. She is a member of a cooperative known as Dukunde Umurimo and a trainer of aspiring artisans, including her own daughter. "The art of weaving was conveyed to us by our mothers. It is our responsibility to relay it to our daughters." She says.
Mukamusoni Odette, a widow plying her craft under the umbrella of a cooperative known as Agaseke k’Amahoro, owes everything she has to the basket that has proven to be a game changer. "I was once reduced to a beggar, but agaseke has restored my dignity." She says proudly.
Weaving baskets has been part of the Rwandan culture for centuries. Traditionally, agaseke is a container of important items and an envelope of gifts from the heart. In addition, artistically woven baskets are used to decorate homes and venues of different functions.
It is encouraging to see Rwandans preserving this precious artifact. Today, agaseke is accorded the recognition it deserves. A head-turning basket is mounted on top of the headquarters of Gasabo District, the nation’s birthplace. Way before the new building was constructed, agaseke was placed in the middle of Rwanda’s coat of arms. It has been a while since I went cashless. The last time I touched money, I saw this symbolic basket on a Rwf 5,000 bill.