A Place of Hope

text: Alexandra Dodd

They say that when a butterfly flaps its wings in one corner of the world, it can cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet. But who would guess that by buying an ultra-chic braided cuff embellished with silver chains at Colette in Paris you could have a direct, positive affect on the lives of a community in Banda, a small village situated on the perimeter of Nyungwe Forest National Park in Rwanda?

It may sounds like a miracle or an urban legend, but it’s simply a fact of life to the people whose lives are part of Kageno, a visionary project that actively transforms the lives of communities suffering from severe poverty. Kageno means a place of hope in a Kenyan dialect, and this is an organization that truly exceeds the promise of its name.

Imagine this… In 2002, a Peace Corps volunteer by the name of Rob Place starts working with a local community organizer on a small and remote island in the Nyanza Province on Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. At the time, Rusinga Island was a desperate place. At the centre of Kenya’s AIDS epidemic, four in ten of the people inhabiting the island where HIV+. And if that isn’t bad enough, driven by extreme poverty, fish-for-sex – the practice of women prostituting themselves to predatory fishermen in exchange for fish – is rampant. It’s a scene you’d like to forget.

Luckily enough, thanks to years of dedicated hard work and grassroots community action on behalf of Kageno, that’s exactly what we can do. By 2010, latrines and water tanks had been constructed, a large-scale reforestation project was underway, a community centre with a nursery school, clinic, computer centre and library had been built and microloan programs had been launched to help community members to start and sustain small enterprises.

Today, economic empowerment activities have drastically prostitution and the spread of HIV. And that’s not even half of it. So successful and sustainable are the interconnected programs at Kolunga Beach, that Kageno’s Kenya programming has been handed over to the community there, while the same model gets pioneered in Rwanda, with plans to replicate the program in other remote villages too.

“But what does that have to do with designer jewelry in a luxury department store in Paris?” you may well ask. That’s where Kageno’s extraordinary craft project enters the picture. “Perhaps the largest effort under our ventures program is a crafts project that creates goods in the Rwandan villages where we work and sells them abroad,” explains Nicole Otero, a member of Kageno’s small but turbo-charged New York-based team. “In doing so, we give villagers an opportunity to earn wages and we also bring awareness to the needs and conditions of their village.”

What Kageno sells are not just any old goods. Through its impressive international network, which is almost 100 percent volunteer based – Kageno sets up collaborations between village co-ops and leading designers who want to make a real difference in the world. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is having a diverse support base,” says Otero. “The Kageno family ranges from fashion designers and models to doctors, graphic designers and architects. What this means for our work is that we have an incredible network of volunteers who can lend their skills and expertise to help the communities we work with.

‘Kageno’s growth has been quite organic,” Otero continues. “Initially it was a close-knit group of friends of our Executive Director, Frank Andolino. Perhaps by virtue of being entrenched in a NYC life, this word-of-mouth, grassroots effort grew and gradually caught the interest of new volunteers, partners, donors and supporters. We really have some amazing people in Kageno who spread the word because of a genuine passion to support our work.”

The results have been both aesthetically and socially awe-inspiring – like the Banda range of woven grass bracelets embellished by the House of Repossi. Designed by Gaia Repossi, artistic director of the esteemed Paris jewelry house, bracelets, cuffs and armbands are braided by a vibrant women’s co-op in Banda, then embellished with silver and gold chains as well as small precious rings.

With a degree in Fine Arts and a masters in Archaeology and Anthropology, Repossi has always been inspired by ethnic silhouettes and tribal adornment coupled with contemporary art. Belgian model and face of Hugo Boss, Anouck Lepère – who has worked with Steven Meisel, Mario Testino and Inez van Lamsweerde – is the muse of this limited edition collection, which has been on sale at Colette in Paris since summer 2011. Lepère is an important ambassador for Kageno, and has helped to create awareness in unique places, like Vogue or on Nowness.com.

Another notable collaboration is Me&Ro’s Unity Bracelet. This covetable creation features gold-streaked rutilated quartz square beads sewn between natural cotton cord and finished with a recycled sterling silver commemorative button. “Me&Ro designer Robin Renzi is a close friend of our Executive Director, but she also has a deep passion for helping others,” explains Otero. What makes these pieces even more beautiful is the thought that all profits go towards building hospitals, orphanages and schools for children in Rwanda and Kenya.

And then there’s the gorgeous collection of earthy and elemental candles made from Rwandan beeswax with a local blacksmith for Donna Karan’s Urban Zen. “This model of philanthropy and commerce creates enormous empowerment not only within the fashion community, but also with our clients, the consumers, by allowing their purchase power to assist others in need,” says the celebrated designer, capturing exactly what makes these kinds of transnational collaborations so genuinely cool.

To learn more about Kageno, please visit: www.kageno.org.