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Rwanda Basket Sales Help Weavers
Made in Rwanda, the handmade baskets of sisal and sweet grass worked in colorful patterns, catch the eye at once. In northeastern Africa, they are made by natives to hold grain and other foodstuffs. But they are imported to this country as decorative items and gifts.

Riverbank Travel Agency owner Elenore Bedell has some on display and for sale at her store in the O'Brien's Shopping Center and can tell the fascinating story behind them.

Among programs to help the people of Rwanda brutalized and impoverished by the genocide of 1994, a non-profit organization called Rwanda Partners Inc. started a Rwanda Baskets Company (RBC) that employs more than 200 women weavers in making their traditional baskets for sale in the United States.

"The baskets greatly elevate the standard of living for the widows enabling them to earn money for basic food and shelter as well as health care and school fees for their children," according to RBC founder and president Greg Stone. "Since RBC was founded ... the weavers have earned a combined total of more than $68,000, giving them a monthly income of as much as $64 a month in a country where the average monthly wage is less than $20."

The baskets range in price from $17 to $45, Bedell noted, and only about $8 per basket gets back to the weaver, once the company has paid for collection and shipping from Africa and the independent sales consultants in this country have taken their share.

"But if they take their work to market in Rwanda, they will only make about $2 per basket and spend all day on it, traveling and selling when they could be weaving," Bedell added.

She has a special interest in this project. While married to a Del Monte Company pineapple plantation manager, she lived in Mindanao in the Philippines from 1968-1975 and became involved in a similar project to help the local people in that country.

There, her women's club started to improve the native children's nutrition by obtaining and distributing US Department of Agriculture surplus food.

"We started going into the barrios, weighing the children, providing rolled oats and bulgar wheat and powdered milk. My husband had a warehouse to store the stuff," she said.

That led to distributing old clothes to the older folks. Eager to contribute, they in turn bought twine and began weaving it into mats and macramé items that were sold at the golf club with the money going back to the natives.

"The baskets these women (of Rwanda) weave are a work of art and have become a cottage industry much like the one we Del Monte wives established in the Philippines years ago," she said. "I've always believed that charity is enhanced by self-help programs and so I became interested in this one."

Founded in 2007, Rwanda Baskets sells through 95 sales consultants at home parties throughout the United States but Macy's in New York and Chicago are the only store outlets.

Each basket comes with a card giving some information on the lives of the weavers.

"My name is Inena Makamusoni. I am 40 years old and live with my husband and four children in Kigarama village," reads one. "I farm a small plot of land next to my house. I am a member of a Weavers Association. I joined this association to help alleviate my family's poverty. I used to have always to ask others for money for everything - even for soap to wash my family's clothes. I could not afford to send my children to school because I couldn't pay the school fees or buy them uniforms. Now I am a member of the Weavers Association and selling my baskets through Rwanda Basket Company, I can send my children to school and buy them the things they need."

A resident of Escalon, Bedell loves traveling and once planned to be a linguist. She worked for some years as a schoolteacher but has owned Riverbank Travel since 1986.