I arrived in Rwanda in July of 2009, having been invited to work with a group of ten genocide survivors in Musanze, in the northwestern part of the country not far from the Congo. Rwanda is physically one of the most beautiful places I have traveled to, yet one of such great sadness that at times it could be overwhelming. I went there to teach these women how to identify, gather, and use their native plants to make colorant, ply their yarns, and weave. When I was setting out on this trip the idea was that I would go to Musanze and what I taught the women would help them to create a marketable product. By the time I left the idea of production was no longer important to me.
Why do I say that?
The women I worked with are sponsored by a ministry in the United States, and sustained through a bakery where they make fried bread (similar to a doughnut) that’s sold to local residents and roadside kiosks. Many of these women are HIV positive--both Tutsi and Hutu--and most of them are illiterate. They have suffered unspeakable torture and loss. Some were older and weaker, and I was not sure how much longer they would live.
The ministry supplied the women with several sheep and they learned to spin the fleece into yarn using drop spindles. These ten women found so much joy in the process of spinning, weaving and dyeing, that they discovered solace and respite from their physical ailments and their troubles in these simple tasks. From their newfound craft and work, I felt they didn’t need the pressure of deadlines and the tedium of making products for sale.
The women learned to spin a single yarn, and with the help of Everiste, a local shepherd, together, we taught them how to do the Andean Plying bracelet – a simple and efficient way to create a two-ply yarn.
We all gathered local plants - yellow cosmos, sorghum leaves and eucalyptus. I brought dyes with me that can be found in Africa, like logwood and madder root. We had a varied selection of colors to work with--brilliant orange, citrus yellow, gold, purple and a deep orange.
It was clear from the start that Everiste would be the dyer, the women would gather of the plant material and they would be spinners. One of the women mentioned that her grandmother uses a green leaf to make a tea that will relieve stomach distress – the color of the tea is red. I asked if she would gather some of the leaves. Sure enough the leaves produced a red color, we dropped in yarn that had been mordanted with Potassium Aluminum Sulfate (alum) and the yarn became a light mauve color, we added the juice of fresh lemons and the yarn turned a lovely red! When asked the name of the plant – no one knew the name only where to find it and how to make the tea.
I brought a rigid heddle loom to Musanze and all were eager to learn to weave. Of all the women in the group, I thought one, Saveline, whose hands and feet were crippled, would need extra help from us, but instead something very special happened. Before becoming a part of the group, Saveline had been in a deep coma and thought to be dead. She had been placed alive in a small coffin for several days, but someone heard her moans and she was rescued just as she was about to be buried alive. Now part of the group, Saveline, in her own manner, was able to do all the steps of warping the loom without assistance, but when it came time to weaving, I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to grasp the heddle with her hands. What occurred was not only was she able to hold the heddle, but she began to uncurl her fingers a tiny bit at a time, and she didn’t even realize that was happening until I pointed it out.
That was the turn-around moment for me. What was important was the calming effect of working with fibers and yarns, and the joy of making beautiful color can bring. I can still hear the women laughing and see their smiles as they learned each step of the process--the stronger helping the weaker.
I may have been there to teach them, but they taught me so much more! The smiles on their faces and the laughter of those days will be forever etched in my memory. I left Rwanda with a happy heart.
Linda LaBelle is a weaver, dyer and fiber-expert and the owner of the Yarn Tree a specialty shop committed to providing its customers with an impressive variety of high-quality yarns and fibers. For more information, please www.theyarntree.com.