Rukiya met Stella at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 2002. "She had a booth and was selling her dolls, and I was just awed by them," Stella says. (She has since given Rukiya two gallery shows, and Rukiya still can't believe it. "I had no idea I was an artist.")

Stella met Janet the morning of the welcome party. Within minutes, they'd sized each other up with a flash of kindred-spirit recognition. Aside from having defied expectations professionally, they're both proud of the children they've raised. (Stella reeled off the occupations of her four—corporate attorney, foreign-service generalist in the state department, pediatric dentist, Wall Street bond trader—and Janet quickly countered: eldest daughter going into her second year at the Harvard Kennedy School, first-born son a music DJ at a radio station, the younger three at home, excelling or else.) The two women also share an unquestioned commitment to helping their sisters—the Rukiyas and Brigittes of the world.

Janet met Brigitte last year in Kinyinya, a community built by the Rwandan government for the most severely psychologically traumatized genocide victims. Janet had gone there to volunteer and found Brigitte and her three children—all the result of rape—listlessly making do in a mud-brick shelter. Janet has big dreams for Brigitte. She taught her to weave baskets and disks for O Bracelets. But migraines and depression—which have plagued Brigitte since the genocide—sometimes make it hard for her to work. As a result, two to three days a week, she and her children still go without food.

At O bracelet central, there have been a series of problems: First the stretchy cord was too thick to thread through the holes in some of the beads. Then the sumptuous red of the coral turned out to travel—onto one's wrist! (Fair Winds Trading goes off to find different cord, and then replacement beads—no-bleed red glass.) And finally, what kind of knot is best to secure the beaded bands? (An overhand knot is the strongest but, because of the bead placement, not feasible. It will have to be a half-hitch. Make that three half-hitches.)

One day, to give everyone a break from beading, Rukiya invites Janet and Brigitte to please come over to her place if they'd like to see more dolls. A few days later, seven or eight of the New Orleans women escort their Rwandan guests to Rukiya's apartment in a clapboard house with peeling pink paint, a 20-minute walk from the gallery. Rukiya doesn't have a doorbell, so the women holler for her, then settle on the stoop, swapping stories and telling jokes.

Rukiya comes to the door, ushers Brigitte and Janet in, and leads them through the cramped apartment. Dolls are everywhere—standing on shelves, ledges, and windowsills, propped in corners, hanging from the wall. The latest figures are made in honor of the women of Congo, who are being gruesomely raped in a drawn-out ethnic war that originally spilled over from the Rwandan genocide.

Photo: Dean Ericson


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