December 24th, 2009
12:11 PM ET

Gift #1: Holiday gifts from the land of a thousand hills

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/12/24/rwandamacys1.jpg caption="Janet Nkubana, a former refugee from Rwanda, sells baskets for a company she founded that now employs more than three thousand Rwandans."]


Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

I love receiving holiday gifts.

Especially when they’re gifts of knowledge.

I feel like I received at least five gifts of knowledge when I met Janet Nkubana on a recent night.

I hope you’ll let me share them with you one at a time.

Gift #1: A Basket of Security

Janet Nkubana had travelled from her home in the country they call The Land of a Thousand Hills to The Land of a Thousand Malls.

She was here, at Macy’s, to sell her company’s traditional Rwandan baskets.

It’s unusual to have a conversation at a department store that begins with the phrase "When I was growing up in the camp..."

Janet's camp was a refugee camp in Uganda, across a border from her homeland.

In that camp where she grew up "the population was very concentrated. It was easy for a child to get lost."

And so, as Janet describes it, the mothers would do their best to keep their children close to them. One way they did that was to have the children gather nearby grasses that their mothers could use to weave baskets. Not just baskets. Woven mats too. There were no mattresses. So everyone slept on mats.

The mothers were always weaving mats so "the children didn't have a wet sleep."

Weaving was not a solitary act. The women in the camp, says Janet, would weave near each other and talk. Weave and talk.

Despite the shortage of food and lack of creature comforts, the act of mothers sitting together, weaving and talking, made all the difference to those children. "We'd feel comfortable," said Janet. Security in a basket.

In the beginning, when Janet was about 7 years old, she'd gather the grass for the baskets. Then, a little at a time, her mother would have her try her hand at weaving. Over time, she became a master weaver.

Fortunately for Janet, she was still in Uganda in her early 30s when the genocide targeting her fellow Tutsis raced through her homeland. At least 800-thousand people killed in 100 days.

Janet moved to Rwanda after the genocide. She brought her basket weaving skills with her.

She began assembling a team of talented basket weavers. The team kept growing.

Her enterprise, The Gahaya Links Weaving Company, now employs more than three thousand Rwandan women. Her company's baskets are sold at Macy's.

In each of those basket designs, there is a story.

Go here for Gift #2: Quality takes time

Filed under: Africa • Beyond 360 • Michael Schulder • Refugees • Women's Issues
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