KIGALI – Over thirty years ago, a group of Rwandan women formed a handicraft association to make traditional baskets and to generate a little cash income. The group was called dufatanye, a Rwandan word meaning “let’s work together.”
Two decades later Dufatanye, like the rest of Rwanda, was divided by genocide. Some of its members joined the Interahamwe militia and turned against the people they had once worked with. Others in the group became the victims of genocide. Many others fled the country. In a few short months, a group that had existed for over thirty years disintegrated in the midst of ethnic hatred and violence.
A few years after the genocide, the association of genocide widows (AVEGA) decided to resurrect the basket making project. They named the new initiative Agaseke k’amahoro (“the basket of peace”). Pascasie Mukamulingo runs the group. Her husband and children were killed by neighbours during the genocide while she was in Kigali.
“Most of them were people I considered to be friends. I didn’t know they participated in the killing. I thought it had happened elsewhere and not in my village. When I came back from Kigali a big number had fled the village and I started wondering why. The only people I could find were a few Hutu women whose husbands were Tutsis and died in the genocide. They gave me names of those who killed. I couldn’t believe it!”
Mukamulingo felt deeply betrayed by her former friends and neighbours, but ten years later she now works side-by-side with them.
“Late in 1997, many people had returned to their homes. Some were scared to see me because they thought I’d revenge. But when they resettled, some started approaching me and suggested we resume our basket-making activity. It wasn’t easy at the start but now there’s no problem,” she says.
Donatilla Mukagakwaya’s husband is among those who killed Mukamulingo’s relatives. He is currently in prison awaiting trial for genocide. Mukagakwaya was a member of Dufatanye. She says she is pleased at the progress the group has achieved since 1994.
“We used to make these baskets even before the war. After the genocide we decided to resume our work and we’ve made taken some considerable steps forward. We can now afford buying things we need at home and we’re proud of that,” she says.
Although she sympathizes with genocide widows, Donatilla is unhappy that her husband is still in jail.
“I understand widows suffer a lot, but I am not happy carrying hot food on my head, every morning, to the prison,” she complains.
Josepha Nyirantwari lost her husband and three children during the genocide. She says the project has been of great help to her.
“I was feeling lonely and sad until I decided to join the peace basket project. Things are much better. I feel happier now,” she says.
Antoine Ntaganda was one of the members of Dufatanye who had joined in the killings. He was arrested and imprisoned, and from jail he continued to make baskets. Ntaganda is now free and has joined the ‘Peace Basket’ project.
“When I was in prison I was allowed to make baskets. Pascasie used to come and collect them from prison and sell them outside. It helped my family bring me food while in jail,” he says.
It seems that the act of basket-making itself is absorbing, even therapeutic and helps both survivors and genocide perpetrators.
“When someone is busy making his or her basket, nothing else matters,” says Pascasie Mukamuligo.
Moreover being together, although initially difficult, has proved a positive experience for all, as Antoine Ntaganda points out.
“Look around here, there are genocide widows, prisoners’ wives and even those like me who were in prison for genocide crimes. But we’ve managed to come together and I thank the one who got the idea to call it a Peace Basket,” he notes.
Donatilla Mukagakwaya has similar views. “We aren’t responsible for what happened. Our husbands are in jail and we don’t know what might happen tomorrow, so we must unite with our colleagues, to help us deal with family problems,” she says.
Josepha Nyirantwari is a genocide survivor and she hopes that others view their project as a viable way of learning how to live together.
“I took courage from my bad experiences. I said it would be better if I joined with others. I wish other widows would do the same,” Josepha Nyirantwari muses.
In 2002, AVEGA took the baskets to Switzerland and displayed them at the International Women’s Summit.
The basket was very popular at the Summit and won support from the United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM.
UNIFEM offered to export the baskets to America through EZIBA, an American International market that imports and sells women handicraft products from around the world.
One basket costs twelve US dollars, and AVEGA exports over two hundred baskets per months.
That means the association can get over two thousand US dollars per month. Aurea Kayiganwa, is in charge of advocacy, justice and information in AVEGA. She explains the rationale of the project.
“When AVEGA got this idea, financial interest did not matter that much. The main goal was to enable genocide widows to be part of the active world. As you know, there are genocide widows, ex-genocide prisoners and their wives as well; but when you see them working together you can’t believe it! It really gives Rwanda a good image and hope for peace.”
Even so, the money is very useful for all the members. Athanasie Mukankusi is a basket maker.
“I gain a lot from these baskets. I have a small shop and a house which I got from making baskets,” she says.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Internews Justice and Rwanda Project