Janet Nkubana

(WOMENENEWS)–Macy’s sold out its first several-thousand batch of Rwandan-made “peace” baskets crafted from papyrus and banana leaves over the Christmas shopping season. So in February, the department-store chain released a second batch, coincidng with Black History Month.

Macy’s is selling the baskets in its flagship store on 34th Street in Manhattan and also offering them online. Executives at the store say Black History Month provided an opportunity to market the baskets on the basis of who produced them: female Rwandan weavers, many of whom were widowed by the genocide that ended a decade ago in the East African nation.

“I think we are pioneers as it relates to Rwanda and the baskets,” said Ronnie Taffet, head of marketing for Macy’s, which is owned by Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores. “We agreed to purchase them being aware of Rwanda’s history. But the truth is this was merchandise that worked for us.”

The marketing links in this merchandise go back to women such as Janet Nkubana, who works out of a small, bustling crafts shop in the center of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where mass killings a decade ago left thousands of women widowed.

Nkubana–a single mother who was part of an earlier exodus from Rwanda and left the country before the war began–is not herself a widow. After returning to Kigali she first worked as a hotelier. But then she became fascinated with the traditional baskets. An artist herself, she says she was moved by the beauty of the baskets and felt there might be a way to help the women who were making them.

“Many of our men were killed during the war, and the women were raped, attacked and left to fend for themselves,” she told a visiting Women’s eNews reporter last summer. “Many turned to weaving these baskets as a way to move forward in their lives.”

Traditional Craft Goes to Market

The baskets have long been a traditional craft in Rwanda, mostly made for decoration. But after the war, a few hundred women in the country who lost their husbands to the fighting and needed income began producing them for sale. The women aimed their goods at the local market and thought only of earning a few dollars a month.

But then a few years ago Nkubana, who has relatives in Washington, D.C., got the idea of selling the baskets at local craft fairs in the United States. In 2001 she brought a few hundred baskets to a fair in Washington and sold out within hours.

After a few years of selling out her entire stock at U.S. craft fairs Nkubana began to organize women throughout the country to learn the traditional weaving methods and make more baskets.

Willa Shalit

In 2003, Nkubana met Willa Shalit, a U.S. women’s rights activist who had noticed the baskets and their bold-patterned beauty during visits to the country.

Shalit saw a chance to help the widows who wove the baskets–many of whom suffer from the trauma of war or the effects of HIV-AIDS–and began working her New York connections. In 2004 she presented Macy’s with a proposal to import the baskets for sale in the United States.

Post-Conflict Recovery Model

To her knowledge it was the first time that a major U.S. retailer engaged in a mass campaign to sell crafts made by women in a post-conflict society. Shalit says she would like to pursue similar projects with women in other war-torn countries.

“Putting hard currency into the hands of rural women is a very rare and radical thing,” Shalit said. “The women are handling the money very carefully and using it to build social infrastructure; they pay for food, education, clothing, health insurance and savings.”

Shalit is a Women’s eNews 21 Leader for the 21st Century 2006 and she has asked to share her honor with Macy’s Taffet.

Rwanda earns about $98 million a year on export sales of its coffee and tea. Official export statistics on the baskets are not yet available, but Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is watching them as a potentially significant new export product in a country where post-conflict aid is beginning to flow off to other societies. Rwanda received $425 million in international aid in 2004 down from $660 million in 1994.

“Aid creates dependency, but trade benefits everyone and is more valuable because it comes from what people are able to do using their skills, using their knowledge, using their strength,” Kagame said during a recent U.S. visit.

Over 1,500 Rwandan weavers are now employed making the baskets. Many are widows, but some of them did not lose husbands to the war. Some are raising children alone because they have lost their husbands to HIV-AIDS, which afflicts some 250,000 people in Rwanda, a country with a population of less than 9 million.

The weavers sell the larger, foot-high baskets to Nkubana for about $20 each, and smaller ones for about $5. Since many weavers produce half a dozen of the large baskets a month, that means they can earn $120, better than the average per-capita monthly income under $20. For women the basket income is a dramatic improvement, as many did not make any money before and were relegated to domestic chores while their husbands worked for cash income.

As the supplier, Nkubana marks the baskets up by 35 percent and Shalit, the importer, marks them up again, by about 35 percent, which she says pays for shipping, communications and final tagging of the baskets. Marking the baskets up another 35 percent, Macy’s then doubles the cost of the baskets, selling each of the larger ones for about $75. After paying for marketing and retailing costs, Macy’s makes about $3 per basket, according to Shalit.

Dire Challenges

Although the baskets are a bright spot in Rwanda’s recovery, the country’s women remain in the grip of extreme circumstances. The maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, reports UNICEF. Many women in Rwanda are struggling with AIDS and a life expectancy that in 2003 had fallen to 39 from 45 in 1990.

Many of the female weavers are also being organized into village groups that require them to maintain a collective bank account and contribute at least 40 cents a week through a craft-union system established by Nkubana that allows women to borrow interest-free from the group’s savings.

Women infected with HIV-AIDS are among the weavers who speak most positively about the benefits of their basket business. Now able to maintain a healthy diet, many say they are tolerating their anti-viral medications better and finding themselves feeling stronger. Because they are earning income, they no longer feel stigmatized by their neighbors.

Odette Mukantaganda, a 40-year-old mother of five who has HIV-AIDS and lives in Gitarama province, says weaving baskets has given her a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

“I feel connected again,” Mukantaganda said. “Before, I thought that I was no longer in the land of the living. But now, when I don’t show up to weave someone comes looking for me. I’m making plans for life. I’m going to make sure each one of my children gets an education. I’m growing stronger every day.”

Alexandra Poolos is the former managing editor of Women’s eNews. She traveled to Rwanda to report this story through generosity of The Carnegie Corporation of New York. She is now completing a fellowship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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