Rwanda’s iconic agaseke sisal baskets

Friday May 31 2013

By Silvia Rugina

Agaseke, is a beautiful Rwandan handcrafted basket that has been a part of the country’s culture for centuries. The baskets are woven from natural raw materials like sisal fibres, sweet grass, banana leaves and raffia.

Rwandan women are taught how to weave the baskets from their mothers and grandmothers, carrying on a tradition that has been passed down from one generation to another.

However, the price of sisal has increased, forcing weavers to find alternative material to make their baskets. The women have resorted to using recyclable plastic bags to make colourful agaseke baskets that have a shiny finish compared with those woven out of sisal.

Sisal shortage

Mukamwiza Colette, 33, is a weaver with a local association in Kicukiro district. She complains about the shortage of sisal in the country, and says the group is looking for a place where they can cultivate sisal for their weaving.

The sisal fibres come from the leaves of the sisal plant and are sold in local markets. Harvesting has to be done with a lot care to ensure the woven baskets have a good finish.

Original agaseke baskets have only two colours — white and black.

The baskets are symbolic gifts in Rwandan marriages. For many years, a bride’s family would present agaseke baskets to the groom. The lid of the agaseke basket symbolised that the girl was untouched and was giving herself to her husband for the first time.

The groom’s family would also present the bride with an agaseke basket to symbolise that she would now keep her husband’s family’s secrets. The basket would be kept in her room.

The baskets are also used to store grains and fruits, and as decorative pieces for the home.

US retail outlet Macy’s, one of the world’s largest department store chains, has featured the traditional basket on its shelves. Other retailers are also paying attention, and today, the agaseke is one of Rwanda’s most iconic cultural exports.

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