I remember my first visit to Rwanda. My flight descending through the mid-morning clouds and seeing the country for the first time. Vivid vegetal greens against deep reds of the earth made a strong impression. Those greens and reds are still the memory that comes most readily to mind. It is an accurate memory of Rwanda for the most part (aside from the dry season when a good portion of the green turns brown for a few months).
That was 2014. I was photographing for a Perth fundraising charity, Classroom of Hope, exploring a new partnership with AEE Rwanda (a Rwandan NGO). In one short week we covered much of the country. Visiting potential sites for building schools and learning about the country, its problems, and its needs. We drove a lot of rough dirt roads on our way to visit remote villages.
These dirt roads are busy routes for people walking to and from fields or school, and for bicycles carrying impossible loads (more on that another time). We drove past and met many people. I remember their clothes. It is a simplified signifier for so much of what I saw that was complex, different, and shocking to me. Their clothes were likely acquired many times second-hand, the colour long gone and now simply that of fabric washed in muddy water, stained with the red soil. I remember a man walking, hoe on shoulder, in shreds of a t-shirt; a few scraps of blackened fabric clinging to the shoulders and hems. I remember children and men in pants so full of holes that they resorted to wearing two or even three pairs to have adequate coverage of cloth. I remember women in faded and torn wraps and threadbare shirts. In my mind’s eye, I remember seeing this kilometre after kilometre, village after village.
This memory of Rwanda is a deep imprint of the extremes of poverty I witnessed, and the power of these scenes pushed aside numerous far less confronting memories.
However present these scenes might be to my mind, they are not a fair picture of Rwanda’s people. Not in the way that first memory of greens and reds is a fair picture of the land.
In the years since, I have worked alongside AEE Rwanda with the Foxglove Project. I’ve lived in Rwanda for months at a time, travelled to every corner of the country, made Rwandese friends, and visited many more remote villages (some several times over the years). Happily, I now have many more varied memories to compete with that first impression. A broader and more nuanced understanding.
I now note that even with a small income, many Rwandese are sharp dressers. They have a lot to choose from. Container loads of used clothing flow into Rwanda. They are sorted by quality and auctioned to the highest bidder to be eventually sold through markets, street-side stalls, and wandering street sellers. I have often marvelled at men and women – sometimes in those self-same remote villages – dressed in business suits and polished shoes, remaining spotless while effortlessly picking their way across muddy fields and tracks. For my part, I instantly attract red dust and mud just stepping out of the vehicle.
The traffic in cities tells me about the breadth of Rwandan life. Walking around Kigali requires crossing roads at some point. The skills of picking a gap between velo-taxis (bicycles) moving slowly forward while moto-taxis (motorcycles) weave in and out of traffic and roaring huffing trucks stream dust across the roadway. And there is a good share of high-end Mercedes and Prado-type vehicles. The whole spectrum, mixed together on the city streets.
In a few weeks I will return to Rwanda, back among its beautiful greens and reds. I will return to villages I have visited before to record the continuing stories of women changing their lives in self-help groups. I will visit new villages and towns, speak with women starting a journey of change, or others well down that path. These stories continue to enrich my understanding of Rwanda. Even more so, as they are being told by people associated with my first memories: dire poverty and seeming hopelessness.
It is these stories that keep me coming back. They show me that poverty in countries like Rwanda is not hopeless. That people do not need to be without hope. I don’t always remember how lucky I am to witness this part of Rwandan life and provide a channel for these stories to be told in other parts of the world.
And if my luck holds, when I fly back in to Rwanda, I will arrive during the day and see again the greens and reds through my plane window.