I don’t like answering the question, “Are you married?” Just in general. But it’s even more complicated when the people asking are Rwandan women ten years younger than me who are all married. What do I say to explain that this has been mostly a choice not a circumstance? And why do I care to explain that so much? I can’t be sure, but from their glances at my bare left hand, I gather that some of them think that something must be wrong with me. Some, however, I feel admire me – like how could I have warded off suitors and the pressures from family and society for so long?
For 31 years long to be precise.
Serafin laughed when I told the group my age. The translator mentioned Serafin was also 31 years old, as Serafin animatedly pointed out her 3 kids to me. As my brain started back-calculating her age of marriage, I noticed her confidence in asking the translator personal questions about me. It felt a little bold, and I liked that about her. I was ready to ask her personal questions too - but first I thought I’d ask about the basket she was weaving.
A few months ago, I visited rural villages in Rwanda through a Benefit Corporation called All Across Africa (AAA), which sells handcrafted African goods in America. I visited because I simply wanted to learn something about the world and myself, as most travel makes you do.
Turns out the week I visited AAA was one of the most inopportune of the year.
A large important retailer with 1500+ stores across the US had ordered 1 million baskets from AAA but then pulled out of the agreement. Production was halted. 300,000 handcrafted baskets sat in the warehouse collecting dust, while the AAA team in California tried to renegotiate the agreement.
I walked across the production line, watching how specialized tags were attached, and the baskets were packed for shipping, which never happened.
Curious to go back a step in the basket-making process, I walked outside where I saw small groups of women sitting and weaving. Only about 30 women were gathered, so I wondered how baskets at the scale of 300,000 were being made. When I inquired about this disparity, I was told by the branch manager that several hundred women had been temporarily suspended from work since the major retailer’s order had been stopped. Work was not needed, so many women did not have jobs that week.
Of those weaving, many were surprised about this cancellation of the “big order.” Knowing that I lived in America, they asked me, “What do people think of our work when they see our products in the stores?”
I answered with my version of the truth. That some people like me found handwoven baskets and similar decor to be expensive objects that often required more caretaking than cheaper alternatives like plastic. I told them that I often felt I could not afford these products. The women were surprised and somewhat downcast. Many had thought the baskets they were making were the cheapest products and that people like me would not have budget issues. Heartbrokenly one woman whispered, “I wish we had more orders.” All of them nodded. I wondered why these retailer “orders” were so important to the women. So I started to ask more about their personal lives.
Every woman had a different story. Some women were over 60 years old and experts at weaving baskets, while others were in their early teens, grateful to be able to train in the art. Serafin’s story particularly captivated me.
My profession being in technology, I first asked my translator to ask the women if any of them had a computer. I could tell from his reaction that this was a terrible question. He suggested I instead ask how many of them had education past primary school. Only a few raised their hands; when the question was extended to secondary school, all except one of these hands went down. Serafin was the only person who had attended a bit of college. She had seen computers in books but never used one before.
I asked Serafin why she dropped out of college and came to AAA, and she said it was because she became pregnant during her schooling. Her family supported her a bit after her boyfriend left, but raising the child was a lot of time and effort, and she needed money to support her child. She felt she didn’t have a choice. This job allowed her to make about $3 a day, an income that allowed her to cover child education fees, insurance, food, and housing. $3 a day actually made her the primary earner in the family.
The rest of the women nodded in agreement with Serafin of how good the money was. The branch manager told me that when AAA sold a basket to a retailer for $4, which would end up in stores in America for about $10, the women made approximately $3 per basket. This $3 in comparison to the $0.40 per day that a farmer made, or nothing in the case of many individuals unable to find work, was a 750% increase.
Many women recounted how this shift allowed them to negotiate family decisions about where money is allotted, namely more towards their children. Some mentioned that the domestic abuse they faced decreased, and a few recounted how men who previously saw basket weaving as a low “woman’s job” started to ask if they could help with the weaving to earn income as well. Other men became involved with the dyeing of plant material, which the baskets were made out of.
Additionally, many women who had been weaving for several years used their savings to purchase other investments, like cattle or pigs, entering “the capital side of the market” where their money worked for them. They could grow their earnings much faster through passive investments, than through just their labor.
After these insights, I reflected silently for a few moments. I knew money changed relationship dynamics from my personal experiences, but the impact here was more profound than I had imagined. For what I considered a small amount of money, $3 a day, a woman who was denied schooling, much nutrition, and choice of when to marry, gained respect from her family, peers, and husband. She had funds to start a side business and create favorable outcomes for her children, all of which helped break the cycle of poverty for her own daughters, who attended school longer.
In my silence, the tables turned. The women began asking me questions. No matter which group I spoke with, the first question was always “are you married?” To which I hoped my answer of “single as a Pringle” was strategically communicated by my translator. The women wondered why, to which I truthfully answered, “it’s hard finding someone great!” They all laughed in agreement and chimed in that this was a universal problem. Some recounted their own tragic or funny dating experiences usually with prospects they met through friends, and I told them a few of the dating apps stories I usually tell my girlfriends back home.
They wanted to know if I wanted to have children, given that they thought 31 was a bit late to start. Serafin kindly reminded me that she had 3 children by now. I mentioned that starting to have children in one’s 30s wasn’t as uncommon in the US, and that I was very grateful that women often have options in the U.S. to have more control over their futures and to give their careers and passions more of a chance like men do. The concept of egg-freezing technology incredulously amazed many women, and I welcomed their questions. Bless my religious male translator who tried to translate all my feminist preachings. My translator mentioned he left out some details, like anything about abortion since it was illegal and he didn’t think the women needed to hear about that, reminding me of the power of knowledge and its unequal distribution in communities. I later wondered if I could respectfully self-translate for the curious women, but Google Translate did not carry the local language. I walked away realizing Serafin and the other women also wouldn’t be using a computer later to look up more of their curiosities the way I usually did.
As I was leaving, the women insisted that I accept a gift they made for me, a beautiful basket that now hangs on my wall in my small Philadelphia studio. When I asked what they wanted people in America to know about them, they said, “we can do anything, we just need more orders.”
I hadn’t realized that my relatively small purchase of approximately $10 in the US could affect a person so far away so tangibly. At the same time, I knew I could not sustainably keep purchasing $10 baskets to help as many women as I would have liked to.
When I returned, I found out the AAA team successfully renegotiated the retailer agreement and hundreds of women came back to making 700,000 baskets. That number simultaneously felt both small and large, given the scale of unemployed women yet to be reached, but the massive impact it was already having in women’s lives.
In the week after I returned from Rwanda, I felt like I had won a lottery ticket being born in America. It wasn’t a new feeling, given I had visited many developing countries before. But I was even more starkly aware of the fact that my parents came to the U.S. on a lot of luck and persistence, and I am reaping the benefits of a village of people’s hard work to make my life have more choice. It’s uncomfortable that this opportunity was largely unearned by me. And I’m still figuring out what the best way to give back is.
The gender equality battles I generally fight in my daily life are different than the ones in Rwanda. The rage I release usually centers around pay gaps closer to $100k vs. $130k, not $1 vs. $3. I have often mentored women to negotiate their starting tech salaries, supported women as they worked to be promoted, or helped others manage their personal finance.
However, I do believe that women everywhere are linked in our attempt to achieve gender equality. As women’s right activist Gloria Steinem states, “We’ll never solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinity of wealth.” In other words, gender equality will not be a reality until imbalances in wealth distribution are addressed, i.e. until women have as much opportunity to make money as men do, no matter the part of the world.
I’m now realizing that in some ways, when I purchase goods from orgs like AAA, (something I wouldn’t have done before this trip), I am buying another woman’s lottery ticket. I’m investing in a woman’s earning power, respect and confidence, and her resulting life choices. I’m making a tiny fracture in the glass ceiling.
And when I’m in an engineering meeting at a tech company with a group of 9 men, I know I’m appreciative of all the women who have made cracks in that ceiling before me.
Today, whenever I walk into my apartment after a long day of work, I see on the wall an incredibly intricate and beautiful handwoven piece, and I am reminded that I am not alone. That women everywhere are fighting with me, and that I’m investing in other women the way other women, somewhere, are investing in me.
It takes a village, murakoze,
Thank you to the All Across Africa team and my translators for this incredible learning experience. Wall baskets and decor can be purchased at www.kazigoods.com
Niki Agrawal is a recent MBA graduate from Wharton and a technology enthusiast. Ironically, she can often be found on a technology break, hiking in a random patch of greenery. She also posts about her travel experiences on Insta @goodbad_ux. Feel free to slide into her DMs, she likes meeting new people and learning about their unique worlds.