KAYANZA –  It seemed like such a small thing when it began nearly a year ago here in northern Burundi: Pygmies would share their unique weaving techniques to the ethnic Hutus and Tutsis of the Kayanza province.

But learning to weave carpets, nets, handbags, even tables and chairs…and for free...has earned unexpected waves of good will for for Pygmies from peoples who had historically ignored and even mistreated them.

“We are very happy when we are teaching people from other ethnic groups. We can see the value that we can offer,” declares Rwabaye, one of the Pygmies who helped launch the program after learning the special weaving technique from nuns in Kayanza's parish of Rukago.

Their neighbors also appreciate what the exchange has offered beyond just learning better ways to weave. “Since our childhood, we consider the Pygmies a primitive people," admits Bosco Alias Dondi, a Tutsi. "We were taught that they weren’t worth much for society besides making pots, surely not for teaching us anything."

Another weaving student Jean puts it this way: “Before we came here to learn this technique, we neglected the Pygmies. We didn’t even approach them. Sometimes we would run in to them along the way, but we never imagined that we would one day come to where they live."

Hard economics

The weaving usually happens outside, but when it rains, the Hutus and Tutsis now don't hesitate to enter the homes of the Pygmies, and even sharing a meal and letting their children play together.

The warmer social relations, and the new output of woven products, have also led to newfound trust with local boutiquiers (store owners). “Now I can give credit. I see that they are capable of paying. It is not like before when they could only count on their pottery,” declares a boutiquier from the Gasenyi hill. "It makes no sense to keep seeing them as thieves, as we have always thought. Some have built their homes leaving the straw huts behind where they traditionally lived."

For the Pygmies, something as simple as a new weaving technique has the potential for changing lives. “Since we lack arable land, this job is a good alternative. With this activity, I am easily able to support my family,” says Eric Minani. He earns about $20 a week from weaving, mostly by producing women’s $4 handbags since they are in highest demand. There are also smaller objects that are cheaper and easier to sell: small rugs for cars and seats, while bigger objects are woven on demand, and sold either directly at the market or to store owners.

Still, the economics of such a labor-intensive process are still far from advantageous. “We cannot survive on the low prices that buyers offer us, and we are forced to accept," says one weaver. "We only have them to count on to live, with our lack of land, we have nothing else to turn to.”