Thursday, February 10, 2011

Africa’s Farewell

The bittersweet day of our departure had finally arrived. As I finished up culling the nearly 5000 images I had taken this trip and sorting them to various individuals who had helped make the trip incredible, the day flew by. The team took one last trip across town to visit a co-op run by genocide survivors and widows who were creating some amazing quilts and home products. “Sewing Peace in Rwanda” was the slogan. Beautiful tapestries, aprons and quilts. We picked up a few last minute gifts for those loved ones in the States and headed over to the African Bagel Company for lunch. ABC had become a staple of our stay in Rwanda. Partly because we were living with Robin, who runs the ministry and has become known as the “Bagel Lady” but mostly because the bagels are amazing.

As we got back to the house we were quickly reminded that we were still in Africa. With images to cull, laptops and cell phones to charge, Skype calls and emails home to loved ones and showers to take we discovered the power was out. The African experience is so rich with these adventures. Just when you become complacent and the routine of internet and warm showers settles in, they are gone. Africa has a way demonstrating its progress, but isn’t afraid to show its but its roots as well.

After a few hours the power was restored and all the necessities of international travel were completed but that simple event seemed to stick with me. That’s what I love about Rwanda. The nation is in this very sweet state in transition. The vacuum caused by the genocide which ripped the country apart and finally gained international attention has quietly been filled with peace, reconciliation and forward progress. One refreshing aspect about the progress in particular is as nation they have not filled the void with Western corporations and American fast food. I’m sure the influence and financial investment from the international community is prevalent but my point is that its not slapping you in the face on every Starbucks occupied corner. No big box super stores, no empty calorie fast food, no ATM’s. As a community they are shifting toward Western philosophies as the banking goes on-line (amidst the power being off-line), cell phone use is rampant (although no voicemail), and even the kids in remote villages seem to know a couple English phrases (although it always seems to be “good morning” no matter what time of day it is).
As an outsider its both encouraging and refreshing to see this progress and growth, but in some its cause for concern. The nations forward movement seems to mirrors the growth of the US back when communities relied on each other for food, when as a nation we actually were industrious and produced rather than imported, and when the people were in touch with their civic leaders and respected their politician. Yes, the development of Rwanda is exciting to see and a privilege to be a small part of. I only hope they are able to retain their zeal for life, national pride and African culture as the investment of the West moves in and seeks to consume as it has in so many corners of the world. For now, Rwanda is on the move and I look forward to returning to the people, the culture and the images I have fallen in love with. Until next time, Africa.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

We have the water, well…?

This afternoon I participated in one of my favorite activities here in Rwanda – traveling outside of capital of Kigali into the villages. After so many images of genocide in the morning at the Kigali Memorial Center it was refreshing to experience life in the majestic hills and see the impact of clean water.

We headed out with Phillip, Living Water International’s (LWI)#2 in Rwanda, to participate in a health and hygiene training the remote village where we saw the first water flow last week. Living Waters has committed to provide these trainings at the local community level for each well they drill.

The trip started like most African experiences…we were late and driving on a rough road in the middle of nowhere. After many kilometers bouncing around in the LWI’s four wheel drive, we came upon a large gathering on the side of a hill.  “We’re here” said Philip. There were no buildings, no seats, no classroom of any kind. Sitting peacefully on a shaded sloping hill were 50 or so villagers. At the “front of the class” was a  small table and four chairs, for who I was not sure. The setting was stunning. A true sense of community. There was no indication of how long they had been there, no frowns that perhaps we were late. I had to ask the village governor why here? Why not 300 ft down the road? The location appeared to be random. After the translation, he just laughed and kind of shrugged his shoulders. Apparently this was between a couple villages so it seemed to work out. Function over form…seems to be the African way.

I was totally unprepared for what health and hygiene training was. You see, digging a well is only half the mission of Living Waters. Their approach is a holistic education on sanitation and hygiene as it applies to clean water. They also incorporate a message of Gods love to the villages. As Phillip stood in front of the crowd, I was amazed at how attentive they were. As I scanned the audience I would have thought they were watching the latest Hollywood action film. It was clear that Phillip was very good as they engaged, hung on his every word and laughed with him often. No projector, no PowerPoint, no podium, not even any electricity. Phillip had a small bottle of water from the new well, a washing dish and a notebook. That’s it. His only teaching aids were some hilarious, yet informative hand drawn pictures which had no problem crossing any language barrier to reach my American sense of understanding. Don’t wash your hands in dirty water. Don’t pee in near a water supply. Don’t poop where you or your chickens walk. Pretty fundamental concepts to small percentage of us “enlightened” individuals, however to the majority of the world, these are issues. These are the issues that get them sick and these are the issues that cause them to die. That’s why these are the issues that Living Waters is committed to change.

As the training was coming to an end the children started appearing. I’m not sure if school had just been let out or word had finally spread to the far reaching villages that there were some “mazungas” (whites) in the area. Regardless of the cause, the effect was smiling faces and the beauty of the real Africa. As my time in Rwanda is nearing its close, I realize that one the last locations to shoot is one of the first reasons I came – increased awareness for clean water. Judging from the smiles on the kids faces here and at the new well from last week, this a true and just cause. Are you aware?

Kids of Kigali


Genocide is never spontaneous. It is an intentional act of multiple murders, aimed at destroying the presence of the victim group.” Kigali Memorial Center.

Unfortunately to most Westerners Rwanda is most known for the genocide of 1994. Perhaps even more unfortunate is the belief held by that population that these events were some sort of civil war absent of any Western or European influence. I believe this belief allows the world live in some sense of ignorance and therefore the atrocities that occurred here are somehow easier to dismiss.

The first thing to realize is that the concept of genocide to this population is not a new one, nor is it devoid of western influence. It began when the Germans successfully colonize against local resistance in 1895. During WWI the country was occupied by Belgian troops who were mandated to govern Rwanda by the League of Nations in 1923. When the first Europeans set foot in this land they discovered a population associated with eighteen different clans. The categories of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa were merely socio-economic classifications within the clans, which could change with personal circumstances. Under colonial rule, the distinctions were made racial, particularly with the introduction of the identity card in 1932. In creating these distinctions, the colonial power identified anyone with ten cows in 1932 as Tutsi and anyone with less than ten cows a Hutu and this also applied to his descendents. The population had lived in peace for many centuries, but now the divide had begun.

With a shift in the political landscape placing the Hutu in a position of privilege toward the end of the Belgian rule, some 700,000 Tutsis were exiled from the country between 1959-1972 as a result of ethnic cleansing encouraged by the Belgian colonists and implemented by the Hutu. In October of 1990 a group called the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) which was made up of mostly exiled Tutsi invaded Rwanda from Uganda in an effort to reclaim there homeland and force a power-sharing government. The Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) were able to call on international support, in particular France, and the assault was contained. The Rwandan government used the October 1990 invasion as a cover for a massive campaign  to begin the ethnic cleansing of Tutsi.

In order to convince the Hutu majority to turn against there Tutsi neighbors one of the most oppressive and derogatory media propaganda campaigns in history was undertaken. Nearly two dozen newspapers and journals preached hatred toward the Tutsi. These campaigns urged the Hutu to prepare for a pre-emptive attacks because the Tutsi were planning a war that would “leave no survivors”. In 1994 The Independent Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was established by the Hutu controlled government to further fuel this anti-Tutsi hate propaganda and two articles appeared in the paper Kanura predicting that the Rwandan president would die in March 1994.

On April 6, 1994 at 10:23pm President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down while flying into Kigali airport. By 11:15 roadblocks had been established nation-wide and houses were being searched in Kigali for individuals listed on pre-determined death lists. Armed militia had one objective to identify and kill Tutsis.

The number of dead is perhaps not nearly as disturbing as how they were executed. The hatred was so extreme on the part of the Hutu militia that their subjects were first demoralized before being executed. The overwhelming concept was to inflict as much pain on their victims as possible. To accomplish this, machetes, clubs, guns and any other blunt tool was deployed. Pregnant women were first raped, then their children would be murdered in the womb and finally they themselves would be executed. Often times tendons or ligaments would be sliced with machetes so the victims would not attempt to escape as the torture and ultimate death came. Families were forced to watch in torment as each member was brutally and systematically put to death. Because the genocide was ethnic based, the killings did not discriminate based on age. The smallest children were executed in the most horrific ways. It was genocide from the fist day, with no Tutsi overlooked.

In 100 days, more that 1 million people were murdered as the world turned there back. It amazing to think this happened in my generation. 1994 was the same year the US invaded Kuwait. When I think back at the media coverage of the Gulf War its inconceivable that the genocide in Rwanda was occurring without a turning of the camera. The world dismissed the events as a civil war or ethnic strife until it was too late and the 85% of the Tootsie population had been murdered.

Fortunately, mankind has a way of looking back - often times so as not to repeat in the future. In Kigali there is such a place that has turned its focus on the genocide in Rwanda but also highlights the genocide violence around the world. The Kigali Memorial Center, which was inaugurated on April 2004, the 10th anniversary of the genocide, dramatically tells the story of the depravity of man, specifically in Rwanda. It does not seek to be bias or retaliatory, just as the post genocide Rwandan nation itself, but rather it sheds a light on the past to educate, and in some way warn. Over 250,000 victims of genocide are buried at the site. It truly is a place of quite contemplation. The Center provides a visceral experience by not hiding the violence or placating the visitor as to the atrocities. It exists as a permanent memorial to those who fell victim to the genocide and is by far most comprehensive and moving memorial I have ever visited.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kigali, Rwanda

Kigali Playground

This morning as I was sitting in church when my eyes wandered out the door and saw two young boys were playing. There ages appeared to be very similar to my own, 6 and 4 years old. They were climbing some rocks on the side of a hill and hanging off the branches of a small tired tree. With each leap and subsequent swing the limbs would bow and come to their breaking point. The older boy would lead and the younger following right behind. Boys. I have seen this progression thousands of times in my own home. Fixated I thought about what contraptions and manner of adventurer my two were undertaking some 8571 miles away. The older boy left my view for a few moments as the younger took his chance to explore the tree not under the control of his elder. When he returned he had a series of rags or cloth strips tied together.

Again, seeing this first had at home, two possibilities were about to happen. The first, he was going to tie up the younger with lofty stories of adventure or he was going to tie the “rope” on the tree to up the ante on the adrenaline factor from merely hanging. He stood, hands over his head and tied each end of the line to the branch on a tree which allowed it to hang in a u-shape. The next challenge was to climb up, place his feet through the newly fashioned swing and enjoy the ride…assuming it held. I sat in the pew fascinated by these boys being, well…boys. Sure enough, he got his legs through and in one great controlled fall, let himself go and swung out over the rocks some five feet below. The limb struggled to sustain the weight of the boy as he kicked his feet up and enjoyed the ride. It held, but barely. My mind again drifted back to Denver and my boys. I recalled all the times I had walked into our dining room and Cameron, my oldest, had his younger brother Chase hog tied with a dog leash and was trying lift him up via an exposed beam of our home. The African boys were gone by the time I got out of church. Off the next big adventure, no doubt. There are few absolute certainties in this world, but a universal (and apparently international) one is that boys will be boys the world round. 

Random Acts in Kigali

On a motor bike? What could possibly go wrong??

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Through the Eyes of Hope Project

Through the Eyes of Hope Project

On my first trip to the African Bagel Company I noticed several stunning photographic prints hanging on the wall of everyday scenes here in Rwanda. Robin explained that photographs were taken by children and there was a photojournalist, Linda Smith who is living in Kigali who works with disadvantaged kids to tell there stories. Obviously as a photographer, I was hooked - I needed to meet Linda.

Robin invited Linda over for dinner a couple days ago and we began to talk about her journey to Rwanda and the Through the Eyes of Hope Project. The project has two goals – to teach basic photographic principles to extremely disadvantaged children and to educate children who are interested in learning about the children of other cultures. In January 2007, Linda ran a pilot project in Rwanda with eleven orphaned children who ad lost their parents to AIDS. Based on the incredible impact of this first workshop, Linda has continued workshops here in Rwanda as well as the Bronx and Bedford, New York. A key component of the workshops is that each child who enrolls in the program participates in an art exhibition featuring there work. The exhibition serves to affirm the children as creative and intelligent artist. Such an exhibition is scheduled for next month at the African Bagel Company. I asked for the opportunity to experience the program first hand – today was the day.

When I arrived at the schoolhouse library the first thing that stuck me was the sharp contrast of technology to the African backdrop. Linda simply had a MacBook Pro laptop and a projector hooked up, but in the environment it seemed like a supercomputer. The children were gathered around as she taught on the principles of photography – today’s topic was portraits. She toggled through famous portraits one after another, with each explaining the composition as well as the subject. Salvador Dalhli, Albert Einstein, Miles Davis. Just how do you explain Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate with her dress blowing up to African children?

Linda discussed the composition of a portrait, the rule of thirds and using lighting to tell the story. Heavy concepts for the early art student, much less children, African or not. They seemed to soak it all up. Next, the assignment was given. Create your own portrait. Small point and shoot cameras were handed out and the kids, in partnerships because there is not enough cameras to go around, then they hit the streets. Linda, Andre and I tagged along.
For about two hours we roamed the streets and villages of the area surrounding the school. The children shooting the entire way. They would approach people hanging around, which is never a problem in Africa, and ask to make there photograph. I was impressed with care and composition of a number of the students. Every now and then Linda would point out some relevant photographic techniques like the position of the sun and lowering the camera to be at eye level when photographing small children. On and on we walked drawing quite a crowd as we progressed. I asked Linda about the following we were attracting and she said it was larger than normal as three “mazungas” (white people) were traveling in the group, two of which (Andre and I) had very large cameras. We collected our images and returned to the school library where Linda downloaded every camera and the class reviewed each photograph, often commenting on strong images and making recommendation for better composition or lighting. At the end, a short story was read from the Bible which helped the children grasp the concept to love and considering others more important than ourselves. I was impressed the children were as engaged in this aspect of the workshop as seeing some of the most famous portraits in the world.

As I sat and thought about the program, a couple things struck me. The first, as a photographer here in Africa I don’t exactly fit in. Between the white skin and the large Nikon I carry, I draw attention. So more often than not this alters the photograph - A look of mistrust, a pose or even a smile. Its rare to capture the culture and life here in Africa without that filter, and ultimately that is the shot I am always trying to create. Put a small digital camera into a child’s hands and turn them loose and the possibilities are endless. It gives them a voice, or a picture, into their world and has the ability to capture real life, raw and unbiased. Also, allowing the children, especially these children, to take there own photographs and share them in the workshop setting gives them a sense of empowerment that they are creating and contributing. They have an ability – a skill.

As we ended the workshop, Andre and I let them shoot a bit with our cameras. The kids got a trill out of holding the large HD camera on their shoulder. As they looked through my Nikon with telephoto lens there eyes widened – I am sure most had never seen the view through a telephoto before. I could help but think this may be a way to give some of these kids a voice and perhaps even a vocation. Helping them understand they have a story, that they have something to contribute can go a long way in shaping a young mind – especially those orphans or children living with HIV/AIDS. The Through The Eyes of Hope Project truly is about hope – but on this day, the hope was mine - hope for the future of these special kids. 

Through the Eyes of Hope Project

Linda Smith and with the Through The Eyes of Hope Project in Kigali

Daily Routine in Rwanda

The ABC’s of Bagels

If you spend any time in Kigali and mingle with the international community it won't take long for the conversation to turn the African Bagel Company (ABC) or their Saturday morning donut day ABC is part of a ministry called the Women’s Training Center that was started by Robin Smyth. The Smyths, a family of six originally from NH, moved to Kigali five years ago after feeling a call to Rwanda. There passion was assisting the extreme poor and sick with a hand up, not a hand out. Through the years, Robin and her husband Rich have created a variety of avenues to empower Rwandans and give them the skills and education needed to break the cycle of poverty.

The Woman’s Training Centers is a ministry specifically targeted to disciple the widowed, orphaned or HIV positive through financial planning, health and hygiene, and career skills for women. It doesn’t take long in this country to notice an absence of men in the culture. Whether it be from genocide or cultural traditions, they are simply not around or engaged in the family. Leaving tens of thousands of women alone struggling to provide for there children.

The African Bagel Company began when Robin was working with a group of women training them in the area of cooking and nutrition. At an women’s Bible study a few members mentioned their craving bagels as a connection to home. Robin worked with the ladies from the training center and made some bagels for the Bible study. From there, the women began placing orders for bagels throughout the week. It soon spread through the international community here via schools, churches even the US Embassy. Today, Robin works with a dozen or so women supplying bagels to throughout Kigali.

At first glace this may seem merely like a business, finding a niche like bagels in Africa and supplying them to an ex-patriot population, but is so much more than that. ABC is a tremendous holistic model in working to transform the lives of these women. Their day is not about making bagels, in fact bagels are simply to tool to give them a trade, an education and a sense of empowerment. Their days are evenly divided between financial planning, english classes, devotionals on how to live a Godly life, HIV/AIDS education and nutrition and health education for themselves and their families. Even the process of cooking is devoid of modern appliances, which allows these women to perfect a skill set based on traditional practices, that of cooking on charcoal.

Growing on the incredible success of bagels, Robin began teaching the ladies how to make donuts which are only available on Saturdays,  -  first come, first serve. ABC has become the “watering hole” to the international community as one women told me today. A place to gather, network, share in-country experiences and simply enjoy some amazing donuts and coffee.

Each Saturday the numbers seem to grow and the donuts increase. Today was one of the largest numbers to date. In addition to the donuts, Robin has added chips and salsa, pizzas and even home made chocolate chip cookies to the lineup. The most impressive addition to the ABC story has been the work of local artisans. There are baskets for sale crafted by a severely handicapped orphan who is has lost the use of her hands and is unable to walk. The ability to sell her baskets creates an income which supports her family. There are photographs on the walls from a project called Through The Eyes of Hope where local children affected by HIV/AIDS capture their world using digital photography. Not only does ABC offer an venue to expose these artisans talents it creates a revenue stream which radically impacts their lives. 

With the understanding that making an impact in ones life requires more than just charity, the Smyths have taken a practical, on the ground approach to breaking the cycle of poverty and empowering Rwandans through a hand up, not a hand out. It was with this understanding that I enjoyed my three fresh-baked donuts at ABC this morning. After all, who doesn’t want to be part of the solution?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Story of Water

Have you ever really thought about water? As Americans we generally don’t. The next time you are in the store, whether convenience or big box, check out the water isle. I bet your will find spring, glacial, ionized, de-salinated, sparkling, flavored, vitamin and even smart. In Africa they have two kinds, dirty and clean and honestly the latter is very hard to come by in most areas.

Today we hit the road with one of Global Benefits partners, Living Waters International. Their mission is to provide clean water and a sanitation message to those around the world without. Currently, according the Rwanda country director, they are in approximately 25 countries internationally. Our goal was simply to travel to a village outside of Kigali and tell the story of water in a typical Africans life. Our first stop was a water source that you or I would easily dismiss as a mud hole. Very little water movement with a large muddy pool surrounded by cow patties. It lay in a fertile valley between two very steep hillsides. When we approached there was no there but the our Living Waters host said this was spot were many people from the surrounded villages would get water. Without anyone around I though it hard to believe that this was a main water source. Perhaps just a few of the “less fortunate” retrieved their water here. Typical an American view.

Without anyone at the swamp, we decided to take a drive up to the top of the surrounding hill where there was a village. I was picturing a few isolated huts and few people. As we approached an entire town appeared before our SUV and people just seemed to materialize. This is a common occurrence in Africa not matter how remote you think you are. We met a very gracious woman named Jackiline and her four beautiful children. She has lived in this area her entire life. Apparently the childrens father "just left" sometime ago which is a common occurrence in Rwanda. Her well maintained house is comprised of a small yard and a single steer tied up in a small corral in the back. I was interested in her water story. I didn’t want to dramatize the agony of the African people walking miles, uphill both ways, to retrieved water. I wasn’t looking for malnourished kids with fly’s on the faces. Just her story of water.
Mark Warren, founder of Global Benefit with Jackiline and her four children.

Shooting in Rwanda

Jackiline's Walk For Water

Jackiline’s day begins around 6am when she first needs to retrieve water for the day. With four children, three of which are in early grade school, her needs are not unlike most. Prepare a breakfast and clean the kids up for school, perhaps a little cleaning. Her walk for water takes about two hours. She will descend to the water hole we had just come from with a jerry can, the inescapable staple of the African nation, and retrieve water for the morning. Her children, at there young age, are often left in the house and are unable to help simply because of the steep climb back up to the village. When she returns with the water she must prepare a fire to boil the water. She is both aware of the dangers of parasites and other water born bacteria and can pay the high cost of firewood. For so many this is not the case. This morning supply will last just that, the morning. Depending on her daily activities she may need to retrieve another jerry can in the midday, however conservation is generally practiced in order to avoid the climb in the mid day sun. The evening brings another trip to the valley and another two hours is spend providing water for her family.

Jackiline at the water hole.
In order to capture Jackiline’s story on camera we asked if she would not mind accompanying us back down the water hole to retrieve water. We wanted to capture the process of here twice dally journey. We also offered a ride back up the hill for here efforts. When we arrive at the water hole it was populated with jerry cans and individuals retrieving water. This wasn’t just an isolated water source that a few villager relied on. This was the central water supply for the communities on both ridge lines and throughout the valley. Our gracious host waded into the water as we documented the process. Several comments were made by the by stander in kinrwandia which I could only equate to jeers of this lovely woman’s new status of movie star. After she filled her jerry can in the muddy waters, carefully placed plastic over the spout and closed the lid she removed a vibrant scarf she was wearing, rapped in a donut shape and placed it on here head. This served as both cushion and support of the sloshing water as she placed it on her head for transport back up the mountain. Practical. We thanked her for her time as a smile of giddiness came across her face as if to consider how crazy we were to travel from America with all our cameras simply to document such a trivial event as fetching water. You see to her it is trivial. She does not wake in the morning complaining about the 4 to 6 hours she will spend retrieving water for her family that day. She doesn’t grumble as she gathers wood and starts a fire when its 90 degrees out simply to boil her water so her children don’t get sick. To her, its the product but the process that she commented on. She wants clean water for her family. That is the African story of water.

The Watering Hole

So I thought the story ended as she and everyone else who was at the watering hole jumped in the back of the Living Water pickup to catch lift back up to the village. I stayed behind to wait for there return. During my time there I realized the watering hole was truly the central and source of life for these villages. An older man and young boy arrived to wash some clothes and retrieve water (in that order). Two young men, dressed in “city” clothes with bright white tennis shoes and dapper button down shirts stopped by for a drink. One was very careful not to get his shoes muddy as he straddle the waters edge and sipped the brown water. I was shocked when the other one rose, walked not ten feet upstream, unzipped his pants and urinated in the brush at the streams edge. A rugged man pushing a bicycle loaded with bags of something heavy paused on the road by the hole. The young boy ran to him and gave him a small jug of water he bottled in the soapy water of his companions laundry activities. Community.
As we made our way back into Kigali I thought about her story. The acceptance of her water story. Her complaint was not the distance traveled, the unbearable weight on her head as she balanced the jerry can or even process of treating the water upon arrival back at her house. She didn’t want it easier, but she did want it clean. Clean water for the sake of her children’s health. I challenge you to think of Jackiline’s water story the next time your staring at a mountainous wall of bottled water at the supermarket.

A Way of Life

Yes, the man on the right is doing what you think...upstream even.