Rukiya and Brigitte in the Treme;
Photo: Katherine Wolkoff
With the sort of drive that could move the equator, the sisters started a small venture they called Gahaya Links and built it into a weaving cooperative of nearly 4,000 women, most of them living in tiny villages, many of them Hutus and Tutsis working side by side. Today the company sells its products to Macy's and Starbucks (in partnership with Fair Winds Trading, which helps develop markets for the world's poorest artisans). It is the kind of business Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, believes is essential for his country's future. He sees enterprise as the key to moving beyond the need for foreign aid—and knows full well just how enterprising Rwandan women can be. Fifty-six percent of Rwanda's parliament and 37 percent of its cabinet are women—"and not just as figureheads, but making decisions," he says. "Women have proved that they are just as capable as men, and in many cases, they are doing much better."
At the gallery, surrounded by boldly colorful paintings, Janet helps the New Orleans women strategize on how to get their 8,ooo bracelets finished on time. Of the five designs, they decide to focus on the red-and-black one first, and start diving into the bowls of coral. As everyone strings and beads, pushing the squeezable loop of their needles through the small holes, Janet describes her favorite comfort food: matoke, a mashed plantain dish. Which leads to Rukiya Brown's secret banana pudding recipe—which leads to everyone passing around a bag of Hershey's Kisses.
As the women work, passersby in business suits peer in and ask what's going on.
In April 1994, 15-year-old Brigitte Nyampinga huddled in a church along with thousands of other terrified Tutsis, waiting to die.
When a neighbor arrived at the church saying that Brigitte's father and older brother had been killed, she told herself it wasn't true, trying to buy a little credit until her heart could afford to pay. But what happened afterward was something she could never have prepared for.
On April 15, the church flew apart in an explosion of grenades and gunfire. When the killing stopped, Brigitte's mother, two sisters, and two brothers lay strewn among the pews and Bibles, somewhere in the human discard. "I couldn't really have any feeling," she says. "I was almost dead."
At the Red Cross Hospital—where one of the attackers took her, promising to kill her later—she lay in bed with a machete wound to the shoulder. Hutu militia came and murdered patients randomly. Even worse, for Brigitte, were their menacing threats of rape. A machete was one thing, but the idea of a Hutu driving his hate into her like a stake in the ground, boring through the only thing she had left, her dignity—that was unbearable.
A Hutu woman on staff took a kind eye to Brigitte, and convinced two watchmen to lock her in a storage room so she'd be safe. But the first night, the men let themselves in with clear intentions. Ndabyanze—I refuse—she kept telling them. They beat her with machetes, then took her by the legs. "To me," she says, "that was the end of my world."
The Hutu woman, seeing her mistake, arranged an escape over the hospital's barbed wire fence. But outside, there was no safe place for a Tutsi girl. After a few days, Brigitte found a prayer meeting. It was there that a neighbor who had participated in the attack on the church spotted her. He forced her home with him, into his bed, and kept her as a sex slave. Within weeks she was pregnant. She was alive, but what did that mean, she asked herself, if you went to church only to be murdered, or to the hospital just to get raped?
We Hear You!