As you may know, I’ve been spending a lot of my free time visiting one of the basket-making associations in my village named Covamu. When I first arrived in December, I stopped by their workshop one afternoon to check out their work. Their baskets are beautiful and come in a variety of styles and colors. One of the women, Donatha, was very friendly and invited me to come visit her at home. Having always liked the sweetgrass baskets that are made on the South Carolina coast, I was interested in learning how to weave baskets during my time here in Rwanda. After a couple of visits to Donatha’s family, I got up the courage to ask her to give me lessons.
I started going to her house on the weekends, and Donatha and I would sit side-by-side on a mat in her yard, where she would patiently explain the technique. At first it was pretty frustrating; Donatha made it look so easy yet I had difficulty getting the hang of it. First my stitches were too large, then they were too small! After many pricks to my fingertips with the sharp needle, my hands were very sore!
Overtime, I’ve improved a lot! I still struggle when adding more fibers, my stitches aren’t the most consistent, but it’s a work in progress. My first assignment was to make a trivet. I’ve since started working on a miniature traditional Rwandan basket.
I’m really glad I’ve picked this up as a hobby. Not only is it a great way to relax, but it has also helped a lot with my community integration. All the members of the association stop to give me hugs when they pass me on the streets, they’ll accompany me home and generally look out for me, and they make for good conversation partners to practice my Kinyarwanda.
Covamu is an association made up of about 80 women, most of whom are subsistence farmers. The association was first created after the genocide as a way for the women to earn more money and reconstruct their lives after the war. They sometimes go to craft shows in Kigali, but mostly they sell baskets out of their workshop to visitors passing through the area.
Covamu makes many baskets in countless styles, patterns, and colors. First, they make sisal bowls and agaseke, a traditional style of basket in Rwanda. Sisal is a large, spiky plant that is processed and pounded to make long, white fibers called umugwegwe in Kinyarwanda. Covamu also makes baskets made of sweetgrass, shaped into bowls, vases, baskets, platters, and trivets. They also use banana leaves to make floor mats, bulletin boards, and handbags.
The association asked me to help them find a market in America so that they can increase their business and better support their families. At first, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of finding a way to help them. Fortunately, a great opportunity fell into my lap!
One day I was walking through my village when a touristy jeep pulled over to talk to me. I was greeted by a young woman, Laura, who is working in Kenya to start a business named Amsha, selling jewelry and handcrafts from Africa in the USA. She had heard from a friend about Covamu’s work and wanted to stop by for a visit. Unfortunately, the association wasn’t working that day, so she was disappointed to have missed them. I got her phone number and email and agreed to work with her to arrange another visit.
This began a string of emails back and forth, sharing pictures, answering questions, and swapping notes. After several weeks of discussing Laura’s ideas with Covamu, I think we’ve finally settled on an initial order to baskets to test out in Laura’s shop.
Right now, Amsha works mostly with artisans in Kenya to make rings, bracelets, and earrings, but the goal is to slowly add other products like baskets. If you want to see Amsha’s current offerings, check out the pictures on its Facebook page!
I am very grateful for Laura’s enthusiasm and commitment to helping artisans earn a decent wage. I am also hopeful that her work with Covamu will prove to be an influential and long-term partnership for these women, whom I have grown so fond of!