(From left) Sundara Ziegler and Beatrice Butler sit with The Putney School’s weaving teacher Melissa Johnson in the weaving studio with cloth weaved
(From left) Sundara Ziegler and Beatrice Butler sit with The Putney School's weaving teacher Melissa Johnson in the weaving studio with cloth weaved by their students in Africa. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

PUTNEY -- When former Putney School student Celine Mudahakana first heard about the work that Children Affected by HIV/AIDS, or CHABHA, was doing in Rwanda she wanted help.

Mudahakana, who graduated from The Putney School last year, worked with some of her friends to make weavings in the Putney School studio, which they sold to raise money for CHABHA, an international community-based organization that has an office in Brattleboro.

Mudahakana is from Rwanda and when she traveled there in the summer of 2012 she realized that she wanted to do more. The following year, working with her weaving teacher, Melissa Johnson, and some of her fellow Putney School students, Mudahakana was able to raise enough money to purchase four looms at a discount from Harrisville Designs, a New Hampshire company that sells weaving supplies.

The idea, Mudahakana said, was to teach the people in Kigali, Rwanda, how to weave.

Now the project is being sustained by Johnson and her students as they prepare to make another trip to Africa this summer with another four or five looms.

"While volunteering I met young people who did not have the opportunity to complete secondary school and lacked the skills to support themselves and their households," Mudahakana said about her first trip back to Rwanda. "I knew I wanted to help."

CHABHA was founded in 2003 by southern Vermont resident Susanna Grannis, who wanted to provide support for the children in sub-Saharan Africa whose lives were being affected by HIV/AIDS. Mudahakana was introduced to the people in the Brattleboro office by a Putney School staff member, and in the summer of 2012 she visited and took a series of photographs.

Mudahakana said she wanted to teach people how to weave so they could create fabric to use and sell.

She wanted to raise the money needed to purchase the looms and then teach weaving with her classmates, creating a sustainable school and industry for the families who were trying to combat the effects of HIV/AIDS on their families. In May 2013 Mudahakana, who was the senior student Head of School, convinced her classmates to donate half of the money they raised during the school's annual work day fundraiser to the Rwanda project.

"When Celine came back she was really motivated to help," Johnson said. "She decided it made more sense to teach people there to weave and the rest of the students in my weaving class also wanted to get involved."

"Celine came back very excited to do more and as soon as she told us about her plan we started figuring out how we could help," said Beatrice Butler, a Putney School senior who went to Rwanda last year with the first shipment of looms and materials. "I know through my experience how much I have learned in the studio and it made sense to me to teach more people about that.

Celine Mudahakana displays her Weaving for Peace project.(Submitted Photo)
Celine Mudahakana displays her Weaving for Peace project. (Submitted Photo)
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When the Putney group arrived in Kigali they were shown a new studio that was set up in anticipation of their arrival.

Johnson and her students taught people there how to set up and work the looms. Butler said at Putney School students always thread the looms themselves; a student would never think of working on someone else's piece. But in Kigali, she said, it was natural for the community to work together and without even talking about people worked together, stepping in to set up someone else's loom without even talking about it.

"Instead of one set of hands on the loom there were five," Butler said. "They shared their work in a way you would not see over here."

Johnson said Mudahakana's enthusiasm for the project has created a strong foundation at the school and she said she thinks the connection with CHABHA will continue even though Mudahakana is no longer in Putney.

This summer the group is going to again cram the looms and materials into all of the bags they are allowed to carry with them and then teach a new group of students in Rwanda how to weave.

Sundara Ziegler, also a senior this year at Putney School, was part of the group that went to Rwanda last year to deliver the looms and teach weaving. Ziegler said she and her parents have traveled a lot but this was the first time she felt a part of the community that she was visiting.

"It was really rewarding to be able to teach someone what you know, to do something significant for people," she said. "For a while I was unsure about what I wanted to do in college, but now I know I want be able help people and make a difference."

This month Mudahakana was invited to the Clinton Global Initiative University which was held in Arizona.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.