Find: Summer Purse Carries a Future

Rwanda purses.jpgNothing says warm weather like a straw bag. The purses pictured here have beautiful patterns and texture that complement summer linens and strappy shoes, but also look great with your sharpest suit or your best denim.

There’s a whole story behind these particular purses, though. Each one is handcrafted by an artist in Rwanda using banana leaves and traditional weaving techniques. Banana trees are so abundant in Rwanda (think of Alabama kudzu but with the benefit of a fruit) that they do not require the artisans to own or cultivate land and are completely sustainable.

It all started when Alabamian Anne McCain, regional manager with Food for the Hungry, visited Rwanda and was struck by the quality of the villagers’ work. Most of them were widows and orphans, victims of the 1994 genocide. She reasoned that, if only they had an outlet to market their products, they could work their way from poverty into a promising future.

She spoke with her sister, Birmingham attorney Jenny McCain, and together they decided to form Gitarama, an enterprise that exists to export these purses and provide a wage for the workers while profits are returned to their community.

The McCain sisters provided feedback and direction to villagers such as which patterns and sizes had the most commercial appeal, then arranged to place the purses for sale in Birmingham (at Etc. in Mountain Brook*) as well as Austin, Anne’s home base now.

The purses come in six distinct patterns that are native to the region, each varying slightly based on the weaver. They are completely hand made and lined with a tiger-print silk/rayon fabric and coordinating dust bag. But when you buy one of these, you’re not just tossing around a cute purse. You’re carrying a product that gives an opportunity to some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

*Etc. at 2421 Montevallo Road in Mountain Brook will host a trunk show on Tuesday, April 13th from 5 to 8 p.m. Stop by to see the purses for yourself and meet Jenny, who can share first hand how the villagers use their earnings to improve their lives and the education prospects for their community.