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March 12, 2012

Feel-Good Fashion: Rwanda by Design

deborah lloyd

Lloyd at the fabric market.

Photo Credit: Jacquline Rutagarama

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Although Rwanda has come a long way since the genocide, quality of life for many is still relatively dismal, with 60 percent of the population getting by on the equivalent of 40 cents a day. Still, the women Lloyd meets through WFWI are strikingly resilient. In Fumbwe, a village outside Kigali, Lloyd attends a ceremony for about 500 WFWI graduates. Several approach the microphone to give testimony about how the program has changed their lives. Cecilia, a lanky woman in the traditional ceremonial dress known as mushanana, says that before she joined WFWI, her husband used to ration her meat. "Now I buy my own meat!" she says in her native Kinyarwanda. Her husband doesn't beat her anymore, either, since she told him it's against the law, something else she learned through WFWI. "I know my rights now," she tells the cheering crowd. "The transformation in these women is amazing," Lloyd says.

The following afternoon, at Gahaya Links, a factory cooperative in Kigali, Lloyd watches about 100 WFWI artisans work on the spring 2012 collection. In one room, weavers sit on floor mats making colorful clutches. Nearby, rows of women sit hunched over piles of the multicolored "seed beads" they're using to make vibrant, chunky link necklaces. It takes about two days to complete one necklace, a meticulous process that requires adding beads one by one. When Lloyd asks the women what they want most from her, one replies, "Please keep sending us more orders."

Toward the end of her trip, Lloyd gets to visit the real--not the muzungu--market. Kimironko is a bustling shopping center in Kigali where locals buy and sell everything from housewares and live chickens to what Lloyd has been after all along: colorful local textiles.

Her eyes scan the bolts that reach practically to the ceiling. "Fabric heaven!" Lloyd exclaims. She zooms in on those of the best quality, discarding those that aren't ("That one's polyester, I can just tell," she says, from about 10 feet), and holds up fabric to her body. "That is so Kate Spade!" she says, admiring a zebra pattern.

Victorious, Lloyd leaves with an armful of material and maybe that next big idea for her Rwandan team: sundresses. "They'd be fun, fresh, made with traditional fabrics, and we'll have Women for Women artisans tailor them," Lloyd says. "You just don't want the income to stop for these women."

Help a woman in Rwanda join WFWI for $30 a month at womenforwomen.org.

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