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|With Each Stitch, Hope
Cari Clement ’71 helps women rebuild lives with her knitting machines
SMILE AFTER SMILE BEAMS OUT from photos taken by Cari Clement during her five trips to Rwanda. In the pictures, women like Jeannette and Esperance proudly show off scarves, hats, and ponchos they have created with knitting machines and training provided through Clement’s nonprofit Fiber and Craft Entrepreneurial Development Center (FACED). Their faces tell the happier story of today, not the heartbreak of the past.
||In the wake of genocide in Rwanda, Cari Clement ’71 helps women rebuild lives with her knitting machines. Photo by Ben Barnhart.
Esperance was 15 when all of her relatives, save one, were murdered during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She escaped into the forest, where she lived alone for weeks, emerging only at night to find food. Jeanette was raped by 60 soldiers in front of her family. She is haunted not only by the memory, but also by the fact that she is HIV-positive.
Rwanda is full of similar stories following a brutal civil war that culminated in the slaughter of an estimated 800,000—largely men and boys—and left the country traumatized and countless thousands widowed and orphaned. Over the last few years, the small, densely populated nation has taken significant steps forward, although challenges to revitalizing the economy and establishing a stable political system remain considerable.
“When you think of Rwanda, all most people think about is genocide. This is so different. From the widows, you see only smiles,” Clement explains. “It’s so tangible. You have a ball of yarn. Then you have a sweater. You take the sweater to market and you sell it…when people have the opportunity to earn a living for their family, there are fewer reasons to pick up machetes.”
In a country where 90 percent of the population struggles to survive on subsistence farming, the simple, hand-operated machines enable women to earn up to double the average national wage. Over the last two and a half years, Clement has worked with about 400 women in Rwanda. A new $99,000 grant will expand her organization’s reach to at least another 1,000.
Knitting has been part of Clement’s life almost as long as she can remember. “My mother was an avid knitter and I was a bit of a challenge, so she taught me how to knit to keep me busy,” she says with a grin. Her passion for knitting led to studies in textiles, clothing, and the environmental arts at UMass Amherst, then to a career in knitting and fashion, including marketing a pioneering, affordable knitting machine.
“I have always known that making beautiful things lifts the spirit and offers hope. In Rwanda, I really saw it happen,” Clement reflected recently in her Montpelier, Vermont, office. From here she manages both her job as director of fashion and design for Caron International (the company to which she ultimately sold the knitting machine business) and her volunteer work. Surrounded by stacks of pattern books, seamstress mannequins, and bundles of yarn with names like “glimmer” and “pizzazz”, she sports hip glasses and lots of chunky jewelry—seemingly more fashion designer than do-gooder—but it’s clear where her heart lies.
After achieving success with her business, Clement approached a number of international aid organizations offering to donate 60 knitting machines and assistance to set up a women’s economic collective anywhere in the world. “My mom was involved with so many causes while we were growing up. She worked for the United Nations in its formative stage,” Clement explains. “I grew up knowing that you need to do something for people. It becomes part of you.”
The United States Association for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (USA for UNHCR) responded quickly, and in July 2003 Clement traveled to Africa for the first time to train Congolese and Burundian refugees in Rwanda who had fled from ethnic conflicts in their homelands. The impact of the project immediately caught the attention of Rwandan and U.S. officials. A framed certificate of special thanks from USA for UNHCR hangs on Clement’s office door.
“The program has given a real vitality to the otherwise grim existence most refugees and many Rwandans experience due to extreme poverty,” wrote Senator Patrick Leahy, ranking member on the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, in a letter of support. Tim Rieser, Leahy’s foreign policy aide, visited one of the refugee camps. “I didn’t even know what a knitting machine was, but when you see it, it’s a simple and inexpensive way for people with no other way to earn money to help themselves,” he said recently over the phone. “Cari is a good example of what one person with a simple idea and determination can accomplish. It’s one thing to have an idea, but another to make it a reality halfway around the world.”
Leahy’s office helped Clement negotiate the bureaucracy involved in landing a $99,000 grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that will focus on Rwandan genocide survivors and enable Clement to equip and train 16 self-sustaining knitting cooperatives across the country. “This is an exciting grassroots project that will have immediate impact on the lives of the women,” wrote Christophe Tocco, a program officer with USAID, in an e-mail from Rwanda.
Clement will continue to travel to Rwanda twice a year and, while home, to actively cultivate partnerships in support of FACED’s work. On her most recent trip, she took members of a high-powered New York-based nonprofit called Business Council for Peace who will help with business and market development. She arranged for refugee-knitted scarves to be included in last year’s Grammy Awards gift bags, and she is working on a book of stories and patterns to benefit the project. Clement recently met with the editor of Vogue Knitting to discuss potential eco-tourism knitting tours and has hosted (in Vermont) both the Rwandan ambassador and one of the country’s most famous singers. “If I had a regular job, I’d be bored,” she says.
Despite her contributions, Clement is quick to deflect credit. “The women did it themselves,” she says. “They’re wearing out the machines. They’re wearing ridges in places I never knew could have ridges…they’re determined.” Between her first two visits, for example, Clement recounts that she did not know how much the machines had been used, but was “greeted with an amazing spectacle: The walls of the center were virtually lined with exceptionally well-knitted sweaters of all sizes and shapes.” The women had pooled their resources to send their best knitter to the Rwandan capital for training. Another group secured an order for 400 sweaters from a local school. “They didn’t know how to knit a round-neck sweater,” she smiles, “but that didn’t stop them from selling them into the school.” The refugees who knitted the Grammy scarves used some of the proceeds to pave the dirt floor of their women’s center to keep the yarn clean. “That’s really remarkable since it’s a refugee camp,” notes Clement. Pointing to a photo of a group wearing huge smiles under top-knotted hats, she recalls, “We showed them how to make hats, and we came back and everybody had one on.”
It is these happy memories that bring tears to Clement’s eyes. “I don’t cry at the genocide memorials where you see skulls and all of these coffins,” she says. “I cry when I see the women being successful.”
For more information:
Fiber and Craft Entrepreneurial Development Center, 802-229-9991; www.fiberandcraft.org.
To buy garments knitted through the project, visit Economic Development Imports at
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