Photo: Katherine Wolkoff
The next year, she opened the Stella Jones Gallery. When Katrina destroyed her home—a stately white-brick, five-bedroom that's still gaping and gutted—the gallery survived. In New Orleans, it is the place to buy African-American art. And after the Rwandans show up, it is the place to bead.
When Janet Nkubana arrives in New Orleans, she has part one of the bracelet project with her: 1,000 patterned disks made of tightly coiled sisal wound with rayon thread (Rwandan silk was deemed too fragile for daily wear). The other 7,000—the women intend to make 8,000 O Bracelets—are headed this way, too, soon to be shipped from Rwanda. The disks are traditionally used there as tops to milk jugs—milk being a cherished part of the Rwandan diet. When Janet was a girl, she says, her mother used to send her off on a day's walk to find cattle farmers who'd let her fetch water or clean up cow dung—whatever work they needed—in exchange for a jug of milk. The jugs were made of dried gourds; if dropped, they broke. "Sometimes on the way back, you'd stumble," she says. "And then you'd just sit down in the middle of the road and cry because the milk was spilled." She laughs. "Yes, we had that saying, too."
Janet, a Rwandan, grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda—was actually born on the way to the camp in 1963 as her parents fled their country during a wave of ethnic violence against the Tutsi minority. The contrast between her life now, at 45, and her "humble beginnings" (which she refers to as fondly as if they were beloved pets) never fails to inspire her. What the family of 12 had to eat—which wasn't enough—they shared from a single saucepan. The only privacy in their drafty hut was afforded by her mother's dress, which she would unwrap from her body at night and hang as a curtain to separate herself and her husband from the ten children. But when Janet was 13, she got on a bus in her first pair of shoes and headed, courtesy of a scholarship, to one of Uganda's best boarding schools. And although the "rich men's children" teased her there, she was a quick study to a better life.
In 1994, when she heard about the genocide going on in Rwanda—100 days during which the country's Hutu ethnic majority killed nearly a million people, mostly Tutsis—Janet was 30, working in a restaurant in Kampala, and raising four children. She'd been through Idi Amin's brutality and now found herself struggling in her marriage. Not only could her husband be violent, but he was also having an affair with the babysitter. "When I found out, I was hot beyond talking," she says. She packed her bags to go "home"—back to Rwanda, the homeland she'd never seen. She was tired of being a refugee.
Soon she was living in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, which the genocide had turned into a city of desperation; the killing was over, but you could still trip over a skull or a body on the street. Janet got a job managing a rundown hotel, and began scrounging food for the hungry women who constantly came asking for help. "It was so hard to see these women begging, to see them suffer with no dignity," she says. "But then, instead of empty hands, they started coming with baskets they had woven." To encourage them, Janet opened a little shop in the hotel to sell their goods. Her older sister, Joy Ndungutse, quickly saw the potential and said, "Come, let's run a business."