Working with the Weavers:
February 2020. We have been meeting with the weavers every day now and created a bond of trust and understanding. It has been 2 years since we last met and they welcomed and included me as if I had never been away. They are lovely women, ranging in ages from mid twenties to mid sixties. Each has her own story of hardship and memories of the genocide. Today, being part of the COVAGA ( Cooperative des Vannieres de Gashora, Weaver’s Coop of Gashora ) has allowed them to achieve a better standard of living. They can now afford health insurance, send their children to school, and eat more regularly. They are self governed and their President is an intelligent woman with vision and good leadership skills. I love our meetings. It is a colourful affair at the COVAGA center. Everyone is dressed in the traditional, colourful kitenge fabrics. Some are sewn into fashionable western style, long dresses, or the fabric is just skillfully wrapped around the waist and worn with a t-shirt or a blouse.
The floor is covered with papyrus fibre and seagrass, piles of dyed sisal bundles are heaped here and there. There is happy chatter and laughing going on. Young children play quietly on the floor, babies are sleeping on mats in the cool corners, or snooze on their mother’s back, tightly wrapped up with printed cloth.
The center is a large, stone building, with big windows on all sides and two oversized metal french doors. So it is very bright, while cool and airy. My favourite young weaver called Filette, sits beside her beautiful mom, Vestine. She is eight years old and is already very good at her craft. She is a gentle girl. Still a little shy around this "Muzungu", foreigner. She is a serious little girl and loves to learn new things. She is quick to catch on and watches everything carefully. She carries her baby sister on her back after school, to give her mother a break and a chance to work. She is weaving a small, multi coloured basket from raffia and I tell her how much I like the colours. I ask her mom if I could purchase it when it is finished. This will be Filette’s first sale ever, she is so happy. And so am I, as this little basket is my most prized possession. It now lives on my night table, where is makes me smile every time I look at it.
Vestine, is a young women in her mid twenties. She is sweet and generous in all ways. Not only does she have the most radiant smile, but her heart is big and she embraces life with all its challenges. Vestine is the head weaver and incredibly talented. She does the dying of all the sisal fibres for all the weavers of the COVAGA, and just recently has started to train 20 young single moms in this traditional art of basketry. Since we started working with them in 2018, the weavers have noticeably improved the quality of their baskets and added many new designs and more contemporary patterns. The work now lies in the creation of new colour combinations suitable for the western market. Dying sisal fibre is like magic. And after spending many hot and smoky days cooking the fibres, I gained an understanding of the whole process. The fibres are literally cooked in a large cauldron over a fire, which vestine watches carefully. The temperature of the fire makes all the difference in this seemingly magical process. It is absolutely amazing how the water changes colour, and often flips completely into a different colour all together and defies my understanding of creating lighter tones of a given colour just by diluting the water…..not though…….black flips into copper, turquoise into yellow, brown becomes orange by adding grey powder, and later we get this fabulous peach tone. Vestine has trained at a school in Kigali and is a master dyer. Any chemist would be amazed by her knowledge of the chemical reactions that take place with small additions of colours , hot or cold water. No scales, no thermometer…….
Everybody was so excited about the stunning new colour palettes of: "stormy skies", all blue and grey tones; "African earth", rusts, deep burgundies, browns and blacks; "ocean blues", turquoises and deep greens; "chocolate ", yes , dark, white and milk; and last but not least “sunshine", all kinds of golds and yellows.
With the help of Salaama, a beautiful young muslim woman, my wonderful friend and translator, we organize all the new orders. Salaama does an excellent job at sharing the workload out evenly and encouraging the women as they are nervous about the new patterns and colours. She knows the women well, knows their personal situation and who can handle what job. She is caring and loving and has a smile and a hug for everyone. But she also knows how to be firm and get the job done! On top of all that she teaches preschool in the mornings and is one of the house mothers at the JHA home. To add more work to her plate she also tries to take on the job of being my mother…..Salaama has taken on this role of running the business side of the basket operation and makes sure our orders are done to the highest standard and shipped on time. She has discovered her interest in business and soon will start her studies at the Mount Kenya University in Kigali, while continuing to be our liaison officer.