"The women would say 'What do people think about when they see my basket? Do they think about me,'" Connie Stevinson said as she stood in front of baskets of every color, size and pattern made by women in Rwanda.
Stevinson was exposed to the basket weaving culture in Rwanda in November 2009, after her daughter returned from a trip there.
"She fell in love with the country so much that she came back and said that she was going to move there," Stevinson said.
Stevinson, who was already supporting other Rwandan charities, wanted to find a way to help. When she walked into a room full of women sitting on a concrete floor, weaving baskets by hand, she knew she had found that way.
"They talk and exchange stories and sing," she said. "It's a really warm and engaging process."
Stevinson became a part of that process by starting the non-profit organization Trading 4 Treasures in January. She joined with two Rwandan women who were seeking to sell the baskets made by the group of weavers. Those women are the aunts of 32-year-old Faith Mbabazi, who recently visited the Trading 4 Treasures booth at Southwest Plaza.
"One of the most important activities that contributed to reconciliation and the healing process is the basket weaving," she said, speaking of the 1994 genocides in which more than 800,000 people were killed, many of them belonging to the minority and once-dominant Tutsi ethnic group and murdered by the opposing majority Hutu ethnic group.
"Seventy percent of the population that was left after the war and genocide was women; many of them widows. They lost their husbands. Either their husbands were killed or their husbands were killers," Mbabazi said.
Women who were previously told that they "belong in the kitchen," Mbabazi said, had to suddenly become the heads of households. So they tried to make a living doing one thing they knew best: weaving baskets. Taking at least four days to make one basket, the women (once of opposing ethnic groups) began to bond.
"We have moved beyond the division of who is one ethnic group and who is another," Mbabazi said. "What we want to see is to hold each other's hand and comfort ourselves in that pain and move beyond that."
Today, baskets by both Hutu and Tutsi women are sold side-by-side through organizations like Trading 4 Treasures, which operates under the principals of fair trade.
"Fair trade means you're very transparent with the people you're buying from. Everyone knows what everyone else is keeping. You're responsible for educating your supplier. If they're not pricing things right, you can't take advantage of that," Stevinson said.
One hundred percent of the profits go back to the women in Rwanda who make an average of $3 day. That amount is three times the wage of the average worker in Rwanda.
"When you put money in the hands of a woman, it trickles down. You put money in the hands of the community and the country," Mbabazi said, adding that each woman is given health insurance and makes enough money to buy their own homes and pay their children's school tuition.
"Women have a voice today... Rwanda is the only country in the world that has a majority of women in parliament," she said.
Supporters of organizations like Trading 4 Treasures argue that part of the reason for that prosperity is because of the fact that so many people in Colorado and beyond have purchased the women's baskets, which sometimes come with a small piece of paper bearing the weaver's signature.
"It brings tears to my eyes," Mbabazi said. "[These women] have been hurt so much. They can't understand how someone who doesn't know them loves them and can care enough to do more."
Baskets, jewelry, ornaments and cards made by women from Rwanda can be purchased online or at Trading 4 Treasures booths at both locations of A Dicken's Store in Southwest Plaza Mall and at A Dicken's Store in Aspen Grove Shopping Center. To learn more about Trading 4 Treasures, visit: www.trading4treasures.org.
(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)