After about a week in the capital city of Kigali we headed southwest to the university town of Butare. Butare’s main street bustles with activity as motorcycle taxis, matatus, and bicycles rumble by.
Maneuvering through pedestrian and wheel traffic past the ever-popular Matar Supermarket (a go-to place for fresh popcorn, Nutella, flashlights, and avocados) we arrived at COPABU (Coopérative des Producteurs Artisanaux de Butare), which specializes in wood carvings while also offering a nice array of handbags, baskets, wallets, and other decorative art. The shop is crammed with merchandise and is no place for the clumsy. Visitors must demonstrate grace and agility to avoid bumping into plentifully laden shelves.
Much of the craftwork is destined for tourist consumption and represents iconic imagery of Rwanda like baskets with elegantly pointed tops, gorillas, and mothers with children. Local Rwandans also shop here for home decorations like wall hangings made of dyed millet, beans and shells.
We had the fortune of meeting COPABU’s current president Annonciata Nyiramisago. She guided the group to a nearby sustainable tree farm where the cooperative harvests the wood that artisans transform into sculptures and other products.
Catherine Reiland is the assistant director of the African Studies Program.