With baskets, Seattle nonprofit helps Rwandans weave a new future
Greg and Tracy Stone sell hope by the basketful.
In 2004, the couple returned from a church mission trip to Rwanda to mark the 10-year anniversary of the end of the genocide.
The celebration was bittersweet. After witnessing Rwanda’s poverty they were determined to do something about it. In 2004 they founded Rwanda Partners Basket Company, a nonprofit that buys baskets woven by Rwandan women and sells them online and now, at a brick-and-mortar shop at 130 Elliot Avenue West.
Greg Stone said they hoped to provide alternatives to agriculture.
It’s an agricultural society but there’s a limit to how much land can be farmed, Stone said. “It seemed the options were so limited, so opening markets for them in the U.S. was a natural response.”
More than moving merchandise, the Stones set out to improve the lives of Rwandans, who are still recovering from civil war and genocide. The company provides high quality materials to weavers so their wares can compete in the global market.
The baskets have hit the big time. They are being featured at select Costco stores around the country in a “road show,” and were featured in the
Sept. 2011 issue of the discount chain’s magazine.
The colorful, woven wares are not the typical warehouse store product. Rwanda Partners pays weavers roughly eight times what they would receive for the baskets at a Rwandan market.
The fair-trade certified company provides training from master weavers, has provided for emergency needs for weavers’ families, and has opened basket markets in Rwanda.
Many of the weavers are widows or wives of either genocide victims or of perpetrators.
To address their resulting emotional and psychological needs, Rwanda Partners also offer Healing and Reconciliation Workshops, including trauma counseling and life skills training. Over the last eight years, the project has grown exponentially.
“We started with just a handful of weavers, and now we have almost 3,000 weavers providing a living wage for their families, and it just trickles down even into their communities,” Stone said. “It has an impact that reaches well beyond just their own homes.”
In its store and online, the company touts the impacts Rwanda Partners’ products have on the lives of their creators.
Each basket includes the story of the weaver who made it. Customers can donate in a number of different categories, such as healthcare, education, and livestock.
According to her profile on company’s web site, 62-year-old Rosalie Nyiramanyenz lost her husband and three sons to the 1994 genocide.
She has four surviving children and seven grandchildren, and she takes care of an orphan girl that she found on the street. While she owns land, she had not been able to farm it until she began to receive income from the basket program. She has now been able to hire someone to help farm her land and is able to provide clothing for herself and for the young orphan she cares for. Her long-term goal is to make enough money to repair her house, which has a leaky roof that keeps her up on rainy nights.
Another online profile chronicles Marie Chantal Uwayezu, a 25-year-old single woman who lives with her widowed mother. They lost four family members in the genocide, and currently care for two orphans, one of which is Marie’s nephew. While they have a small plot of land and some livestock, it still isn’t enough to provide for their family. The income from the baskets Marie weaves makes it possible for her to purchase clothing and pay school fees for the orphans. She plans on continuing to sell baskets in order to pay for the orphans’ schooling and to purchase more livestock for her family.
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