Just to get by...
I am a student of images. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, and even architecture help me find my place in this world and allow me to further revel in its beauty, share in its anguish, and find peace in the silence that is offered.
It was the artistic mediums of film and photography that drew me to Rwanda, first in 2005 and then eight years later when deciding on a thesis topic for graduate school.
Yet it was not image after image that horrifically displayed the senseless death of almost one million people over the course of the genocide, although I often found myself cast under the spell of death's destruction, it was the fact that no matter how many images of death I looked at, somewhere in the recesses of the frame life was still present, carrying on and picking up its shattered pieces along the way.
As Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Carol Guzy states, “With pictures you can weep for Rwanda and rage at the injustice everywhere but we can also celebrate the daily life around us- its mystery and magic- its poetry and wonder.”
Sometimes in Rwanda this is no easy feat for present in this country is a poverty of unfathomable depth and I have yet to come across a photograph that prepares you for the three dimensional reality of the life that you encounter in a world beyond your own and for the past few weeks I have found myself lost in the confusion of this life because after all this time we still do not know why we are born into the circumstances that we are. We cannot say with certainty why there are those who have and those who have not. We do not know who makes the decision between who wins and who loses or who flourishes and who falters for we all experience all of life's contradictions in one way or another over the course of our brief sojourn on this earth.
Rwanda is no exception although its story may be unique. As of 2013, Rwanda is ranked 164 on a list of 183, which is a step about Nepal and a step below Tanzania. 55% of its population, rougly 6.6 million people live below poverty line. With statistics such as these it is easy to only see poverty in Rwanda.
In a world where running water is a privilege and electricity is not always guaranteed distractions are few and people occupy themselves with life's simplicities: trips to the market, visits with friends, and the whispering of prayers that will hopefully be answered.
In Rwanda poverty is seen everywhere, all at once and where it is most apparent are in the clothes worn by men and women, young and old. There are clothes that have been passed down through more than one generation. There are coats and jackets that speak of seasons that do no exist in this climate. There are the t-shirts that were previously worn by other people in other countries that live other lives. Looking out across this human landscape of Rwanda is like gazing upon an entire army in search of salvation.
Oftentimes I marvel at the innovation of children whose toys will never find their way to the shelves of Toys 'R Us.
Some transform cracked containers that can no longer hold milk, oil or water into trucks, using the caps as wheels.
Others fly kites crafted from discarded plastic and shafts of young bamboo.
And still there are the children who play in the gutters along the road, sometimes without shoes and almost always without parental supervision.
And then there are the children who run down the rocky paths of their village chasing tires that no longer serve their purposes on bikes.
When all else fails these children draw lines in the dirt and dust on the ground outside of their homes and play hopscotch without any numbers, but then again who is counting?
The art historian in me wonders if this had been another time and another place and had a great artist happen by one of these many children playing in the dirt would he have recognized their potential for greatness or would he have walked by, as I have done, dismissing their creativity merely as games children play?
Confronted by this poverty it seems as if each moment contradicts the next and I cannot help but get caught between desperation and exaltation, contemptment and contentment, frustration and redemption. I fear that I have begun to suffer from the emotional bends due to this constant plunging and resurfacing of these contradictory emotions. One this is for certain...Rwanda will make you humble and it will bring to brilliant and devastating light all of the things that you are and all of the things that you are not.
This poverty is enough to make you question the things that you can do without. It is enough to force you to make promises with yourself to never again take for granted the vast freedoms afforded by time. And it is enough to make me wonder what it is that gives these people strength when mine has so obviously escaped me for it is a resiliency bordering on the miraculous and it is a resiliency that I witness bwimuzi, bwimuzi (everyday, everyday).
Despite the poverty apparent in Rwanda, the people of Rwanda smile. Not all the time, for good days are not always promised, but enough to soften even the most hardened of hearts and remind us that not all of life is suffering and richness can be found by means other than money. (Besides, who I am to judge the happiness of others when I am still in pursuit of my own)
This month I have discovered that these smiles, these fleeting moments of joy are often the most profound for they are formed from the same folds of life which also hold its sorrows and the memories created from these smiles are the things that you can take with you when it seems as if there is nothing else.
But alas, these moments and their memories are only fleeting and before long I am once again overcome by an impenetrable sadness.
It is a void that cannot be filled, or so it seems, until I come across one of the many churches along the road to Gashangiro where choirs gather both within and without their sacred walls. Here the faithful of Rwanda sing accompanied by an electronic keyboard brought out for this occasion, they sing to the beating of drums, and they sing without music reminding whosoever passes by that there is still joy, there is still peace, and there is still hope.