Weaving a Better Life in Rwanda

Basket weaving in Rwanda.
Basket weaving in Rwanda.

In Kigali, Rwanda, the women sing and dance. They're rejoicing in their nation's rebirth: one they've helped bring about.

CBS News' Dave Price reports how women are weaving Rwanda back together, quite literally.

"As the weavers and women of Rwanda, we have taught the country to move beyond hatred," said Dorcille Uwimana. Her husband and father-in-law were killed during the genocide.

But, consider how hard it must be to move beyond one of the most intensive killing campaigns human history. In an ethnic cleansing between April and July of 1994, Hutu citizens and militias killed an estimated 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors and sympathizers. Women were raped, children mutilated, and men massacred.

After the genocide, women outnumbered men 70 percent to 30 percent.

"I see an opportunity to empower the women of Rwanda," said Willa Shalit. Shalit, an accomplished artist and producer, first visited the tiny African Country in 2003. She discovered that Rwanda's widows had a unique skill set - one she believed could be parlayed for profit.

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Shalit thought there was a market for hand-crafted baskets in the United States. And it was either keen business savvy or naivete that brought her to the doorstep of one of the largest retailers in the country: Macy's.

"I was prepared to make a donation," said Terry J. Lundgren, Chairman and CEO of Macy's. "And she said, 'no no. We don't want a donation, we want a business.'"

After the genocide, the women first got together to weave the baskets under a grove of trees. Some of their husbands were murdered. Others were the murderers. But 15 years later, they have led the way in economic recovery and reconciliation.

Price asked, "you're weaving next to the women whose husbands were the perpetrators of some of these crimes?"

Uwimana replied, "we sat together and decided we needed to move on. We realized we cannot always be angry at each other. We have to weave. We have to make our lives better."

And they have. In 2005 - the year the partnership with Macy's began - 1,400 baskets were sold in the U.S. Last year, they sold 40,000 baskets.

"What I earn helps me take myself out of poverty," said one weaver named Justine. "Today I can buy a dress, I can feed my children.

What they earn seems miniscule: between three and four dollars a day. But it's more than double the national average - making the women less dependent on the $150 million of directed air the U.S. provided this year.

"So you put that money in women's hands and they have complete self-determination to change the society, they way they think it should be changed, Shalit said. "Not the way some outsider thinks it should be changed."

600579What's changed is the weavers are now breadwinners, homeowners, investors, and even friends.

Price asked, "Can women in other countries use this business model?"
"If a woman believes in something, they do it," said Joy Ndungutse. "And I see this model can work anywhere. You can transfer it anywhere, but you have to use women."

These women who weave have bridged the divide between tribes, sexes and cultures. They've demonstrated that goodwill, can also be good business.