Given the scale of trauma caused by the genocide, Rwanda has indicated that however thin the hope of a community can be, a hero always emerges. Although no one can dare claim that it is now a perfect state, and that no more work is needed, Rwanda has risen from the ashes as a model of truth and reconciliation. – Wole Soyinka
Where were you in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide and do you remember what you thought about it? I clearly remember where I was at that time. I was a student completing the last year of college at the University of Wisconsin. The world was my oyster. Nothing could stop me. Of course I’d heard the news of Rwanda and the mass killings but at twenty-two years old, I could hardly relate. It felt surreal and far, far away from the carefree lifestyle I had as a student in Madison, Wisconsin.
It wasn’t until years later when I began to follow my passion for international affairs and travel that I watched the tragic 2004 film Hotel Rwanda and read the 2009 novel by Gaile Parkin “Baking Cakes in Kigali” that I began to truly contemplate the sheer tragedy and horror of what surpassed in Rwanda. Even today, it is hard to believe that in just three months, nearly a million people, 20% of Rwanda’s population, was massacred when tribal hatred between the Hutus and Tutsis turned into ethnic slaughter. It was unimaginable. Neighbor killed neighbor in one of the worst genocides in human history.
Like in most cases with war and tragedy, women and children were the most severely impacted by the genocide. After the violence ended, many Rwandan women found themselves thrust into the unfamiliar role of being sole breadwinners for their families since their husbands, fathers and sons had been killed. Others saw their husbands jailed for committing unspeakable atrocities. If women were going to survive, it was up to them to take action and do whatever they could to improve their lives for their children.
After the genocide, Rwanda was looking for ways to move forward and many women embraced opportunities that would help them heal. It was around this time that an American woman named Willa Shalit, a social entrepreneur, artist and activist, visited Rwanda and vowed to make a difference to help the Rwandan women. She noticed that weaving beautiful baskets has been a part of Rwanda’s culture for centuries and that perhaps this tradition could become a way forward towards peace and reconciliation.
In 2005 Shalit showed the baskets to executives at Macy’s (one of America’s largest retailers) who committed to sell the baskets through a program called Rwanda Path to Peace. Like her counterpart Macy’s Heart of Haiti (which I had the honor of seeing for myself last February), Rwanda Path to Peace is a trade not aid program that is not a charity but a business initiative. Women from both sides of the ethnic divide have come together to weave baskets,creating an industry supporting thousands of Rwandan women and their families. It has had a huge impact on the community lifting the women and their families out of poverty and giving them sustainable hope for the future.