Words by Darshel Diaz
In April 1994, the population of Rwanda stood at 7 million. But in just over 100 days, this number would decrease rapidly in what is considered the fastest killing spree the world has ever seen.
The Rwandan Genocide was sparked over the deaths of the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira (both Hutus), and over 30 years of tension between the Hutus and the Tutsi peoples. During the colonial era, the Hutus, while the majority, were long oppressed by German and Belgian powers. Leading up to and following Rwanda's independence in 1962 was a string of murders committed against Tutsi people, while many others fled the country.
Following the murder of Habyarimana and Ntarymira, the world witnessed the mass slaughter of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu civilians by Hutu extremists. According to the UN, 150,000-250,000 women were raped in the three-month period. These atrocities were committed by the militia and armed forces, but also by civilians against other civilians. For the last 25 years, Rwandans have worked towards healing, both themselves and their country.
Pascasie Mukamuligo, a local Rwandan artisan, lost more than 13 of her family members during the genocide, and despite this devastating tragedy she has chosen to rise above and stand for peace. As the president of the Agaseke K’Amahoro Association (Peace Basket Weaving Cooperative), she leads a collective of both Hutu and Tutsi. They come together once a week to weave traditional grass baskets, and to discuss family, health, and reconciliation. “We must continue to work for wholeness. We must continue to pray for peace,” Mukamuligo said.
Grass and bamboo baskets are often used to hold gifts, especially for wedding ceremonies. The baskets are then displayed in the home or used to contain dry goods. For many, basket weaving is not only a way to maintain tradition and connect with neighbours, but also a valuable, income-generating skill. But people in the craft business are struggling; as the majority of their business comes from locals, most artisans only earn enough to cover the cost of materials.
In 2008, the Muhanga-based NGO Azizi Life was founded as a way to empower local artisans by connecting them with international customers. “It was more of a hobby than an actual sustainable business… we buy their products at a sensible price, then they have a disposable income to spend on other services,” said co-founder Tom MacGregor.
Azizi Life is currently partnered with over 30 independent cooperative groups, consisting of more than 450 artisans. They use locally sourced natural materials, such as sisal, banana leaf, and forest grasses, to create their products.
With the income they are generating from sales, the artisans can afford medical insurance, school materials for their kids, and better farming equipment and livestock. With this, families are able to build better homes for themselves, and more women are gaining financial independence.
In addition to artisan programs, such as beekeeping project with partner company Beeutiful Creations, Azizi Life also operates an adult literacy program. So far, 240 community members have signed up for classes beginning this year. “There was a grandmother in her 70s, who attended the program, she wanted to learn how to read and write because she thought it would give her more independence and control over her life,” said MacGregor.
Within rural areas of Rwanda, the cooperative groups have established a sense of community. “It is not just men and women sitting down and weaving baskets, they are able to share their lives and support each other.”