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Photo Friday: Children of Rwanda, Part III

This is the final installment of a three-part series documenting the faces of Rwandan children, following Part I here and Part II here.

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateSomeone—from Rwanda it should be noted—commented on my last Photo Friday: “May I just ask, why is it always kids from the village, and the poorest? What about the middle class? I am just mentioning this because it feels like, we, Africans, are always portrayed as poor, not clean, torn clothes, etc. Is there any particular reason for that? I am not saying do not take pictures of them, but why single out just one type?”

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateI found this claim odd for many reasons. First, we covered a good portion of Rwanda during my week there: the main city, Kigali, many towns scattered along the main highway, and tiny villages tucked away from all signs of big city life. It is a rather small country, after all. I took pictures of every child who would let me. Likewise, I’ve posted an array of these children over the past few weeks from a myriad of homes and backgrounds.

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateSecond, I don’t think I’ve ever called them poor, called them dirty, referred to them as anything but beautiful. Which is what they are. Torn clothes, bare feet, mud streaking their faces, it matters not. These children have found happiness in life’s simple joys; they don’t need video games or television or toys to be content. The way their faces light up just to see a bunch of foreigners pass their way, eager to give us a high five, a wave and a big ol’ grin, says it all to me. They’ve reached a level of fulfillment, have gained a sense of imagination and creativity, you so rarely see in American children today.

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateMany of them seemed to be more than well off to me: U.S. sports jerseys clothing them, mock Crocs on their feet. If they’re dirty, it’s from being children, from playing outside in the mud, from splashing around in the lake, from helping out in the fields. They seemed to have enough to eat and loving parents to tuck them in each night. Of course, as in any country, there are always the exceptions. I think I captured both sides.

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateAt the same time, I can only take photographs of those who want to be photographed. I am not a professional photographer, not even close; I am a journalist who takes photos for a hobby and, occasionally, to accompany her stories in print. One of the biggest obstacles I’ve encountered over the years of shuttering (for fun) across the globe is getting over my shyness of sticking a camera in someone’s face without permission. I still feel weird about it.

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateAnd I will continue to put my Canon away the second the subject flinches or expresses some sign of discomfort. I am in their land, their domain. Who am I, a seemingly entitled Westerner, to barge in with my fancy equipment, start snapping shots left and right, and disrupting the easy flow of a town? Nobody, is the answer. I am no one special, no one deserving of the love and smiles offered up to a complete stranger without hesitation by so many people from this warm, welcoming country.

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateSo, all the photos you see here are of locals who either agreed to be photographed or, even better, asked me if I would take their picture. They were not chosen by race, by age, by class or by looks. They were willing subjects, eager to give me a glimpse into their lives, lives of which are so foreign and incomprehensible to me, and while I still don’t claim to know much, this I know: I am grateful for their trust, eternally grateful for them letting me in, if only for one fleeting moment.

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateI stand by what I’ve shot, by what I’ve posted, by the few words I’ve written to accompany each picture. This is what I saw. This is my Rwanda. And this is not the end; there’s so much more left to tell.

Rwanda children | Camels & ChocolateLast photo taken by the incredibly talented Peter Stuckings.

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Comments ( 28 )

  1. Love those adorable little swimmers.

    Keep documenting what you see!

  2. Love your blog, love your pictures! Awesome post!

  3. These beautiful happy children look anything but poor to me. Their smiles tell of riches in ways most Americans wouldn’t understand. I love how you captured them at play and looking very natural instead of the poses. Besides, who wants to look at the city scenes when every city in the world looks so much alike? You’re photos are improving and soon you will call yourself a pro.
    BTW, how do people balance those baskets (plus I saw women carrying rubbermaid tubs) on their heads? I could never even manage to balance a book.
    Great post!

  4. I have loved seeing your Rwanda. Those kids are adorable, look happy & I feel like you’ve caught a picture of who they are. I love it.

  5. Oh wow, those eyes on the little boy in blue? So piercing, mesmerizing; I find it hard to look away.

  6. Hello,

    Thank you for responding to the comment I posted. I guess I shouldn’t have assumed right away that the comment they would arise would be the typical ‘poor African children’! Also, I never meant to say you singled out particular children, at least not intentionally. It’s quite nice to read that from your view point they are not dirty or poor, but embracing the little joy(s) they get from life.
    I do understand that it is quite challenging to get people to agree to have their picture taken, and therefore one is grateful for the ones that do agree!

    I do apologize if my comment felt unfair, it wasn’t the intention! I haven’t seen the other pictures you said you have posted, maybe that’s probably what i should have done first, instead of jumping on the few that I saw.

    If I can explain my comment, I will put it this way: The danger of a single-story. The prejudice we sometimes experience as Rwandans, and ultimately Africans, is that people summarize us through these kind of pictures-even if the intention behind them is far from it! I guess we would also like to have pictures of our country with all the positive progress we have made! Because at the end of the day, we feel like the negative aspects we do have overshadow the rest.

    I understand I shouldn’t expect it from everyone, but my question was not meant to judge your work but rather to ask which process is used to select the pictures.

    Again, my apologies if my comment offended you, it wasn’t my intention. Thank you for sharing your opinion.

  7. “These children have found happiness in life’s simple joys; they don’t need video games or television or toys to be content. The way their faces light up just to see a bunch of foreigners pass their way, eager to give us a high five, a wave and a big ol’ grin, says it all to me. They’ve reached a level of fulfillment, have gained a sense of imagination and creativity, you so rarely see in American children today.”

    When I have children… this is what I want for them. Perfectly worded.

  8. Adorable children and beautifully shot! I especially love the photo of the boy in the blue shirt with the hood. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Hello,
    I would also like to add to the comments made about the ‘single story’ in showing images of Africa. While I enjoyed looking at their smiles and joyful expressions I have to agree with the comments N.U. made about the impressions left on us, Rwandans, when we see that the majority (if not all) pictures of our people seem to always be focusing on only one part of the country’s population.
    You say that you never called these children “poor” or “dirty” and in fact you did not. However, for someone of African origin, when I look at these pictures I do see poverty and the struggle to better living conditions in the rural areas.
    I also have a hard time understanding your point of view when you say that it is from “being children” that they are looking the way they do. I strongly disagree with that point: one can tell from the oversize/torn clothes and overall appearances that they do live in poorer areas in which families have limited resources!
    Those images are real and very much present in several areas around the country but I do believe that it is very important in this day and age to break this cycle of the single representation of our people. Yes, some do live in rural areas, others come from lower-income areas, but that’s not all of Rwanda!
    Also, I am quite interested in knowing what you meant when you say that you “captured both sides”. From the pictures put under “Children of Rwanda”, I sincerely fail to see the diversity in the children depicted. Where are the children in their school uniforms on their way to school? what about the ones taking part in cultural events (singing, dancing,..)?…
    From your comments, I get the sense that your picture selection is a reflection of how you bonded with the people you met. However, many years of seeing the same images over and over again when it came to Africans prompted me to send this message to tell you that even if you meant no harm in posting these pictures, you seem to have taken the same route that most westerners follow when they share their vision of Africa.

  10. I think before you pat yourself in the back for your enlightened ability to look at these children as “beautiful” and “happy” you should ask yourself why those words are supposed to be compliments to these children. I don’t see you or any other so called well-intentioned journalist traveling across the USA or Europe, taking pictures of low income children just to prove that they too can smile, play or be happy. Most importantly, the question that should be asked is so what if YOU think they are beautiful and happy? What does your posting of their pictures (I am sure without the informed consent of their parents)add to their lives? Probably not much(unless you count the sight of a muzungu with a camera as life changing). Let me add that I find it offensive that you seem to expect to be congratulated for daring to look past the realities of economic poverty by referring to their lack of access to the most basic needs (i.e. health care or water) as them simply playing in the dirt. Worse, you went as far as believing (and making many of your readers naively agree) that if only you could bring a box of pens, somehow their lives would be better. Surely, we are not expecting you to solve our problems but are simply expressing our frustrations with the perpetuation of a narrative of Africa that caters to the rampant and now very fashionable self aggrandizing desire to “save us” (i.e.bringing pens, cameras or whatever you feel will fulfill the need to “help”). So yes, we hope and expect that you do take the time to share an image of our people and our nations that does not relegate us to passive objects of compassion or pity. This is not just about the image of Africans and Rwandans, it’s about the need for you to respect our dignity and your responsibility to share a complete image of our country-or at the very least acknowledge your narrow perspective.

  11. I appreciate the artistic qualities of these photos– they are clearly made by one with a passion for photography, and they are beautiful images. However, like SU and SN above, I am deeply troubled by photos like these because they entrench unfair stereotypes on both sides. For those Batwa kids (the term pygmy’ is no longer used) the muzungu is a sort of Father Christmas/walking money tree who shows up for two seconds, smiles benignly on the poor kids, and hands out freebies. Although this may offer momentary gratification for visiting Westerners, it makes it extremely difficult for those who are actually trying to work and live in Africa- always being expected to conform to a million little stereotypes established and entrenched by well-meaning tourists. On the other hand, many Westerners come to Africa looking for the stereotypical images of “happiness in the depths of poverty”, and when they find a kid with a swollen belly, huge smile, and the requisite flies, bingo! Their work is done, and their pictures reinforce that stereotype, perpetuating the cycle all over again. My belief is that one of the most important things cameras can do is to break stereotypes, challenging ourselves and others by sharing the diversity of humanity. What about Rwanda’s universities, its proud majority-women Parliament (the first in the world), its new fibre-optic cable or its Blackberry toting fashionistas? What about its regular Joes who get up every morning, get the kids off to school in their spotless uniforms, and drive to work in an office somewhere? They are all part of the story too- and while it’s impossible to fit all those images into a short visit, it’s worth trying to think, when you point your camera next time, of taking a picture that might surprise people and help them re-evaluate their thoughts on Africa. You clearly have a passion for photography, and you are lucky enough to be travelling the world– so please, use this to try and break the stereotypes rather than reinforcing them! Think of the Africans who travel to the West and people ask them if they’ve ever worn shoes before, ever seen a car before, ever watched TV… as you’ll appreciate, this is shameful ignorance, and talents like yours can help us all get over it. Lastly, a word about the pens– please do not send pens from overseas! For every well-meaning tourist who wants to hand out pens, there is an African guy with a little shop down the road who is selling pens, and he would probably love to have your business. Also, the money you’d pay for postage to send pens from the US or elsewhere would probably pay one of those kids’ school fees for at least a term, if not a year. If buying pens is what you want to do, then maybe consider supplying them to a school rather than just handing them out on the street (or better still, *asking* the school what they need). Handing out freebies to kids on the street works against fundamental principles of development.

  12. Girl, this was a fantastic post! One of your best, seriously. Every single photo is a work of art. I think my fave on this post is the 2 children in the water. CONGRATS!!!

  13. I love how animated the kids in the pictures are. But here’s my question: is there a reason most of the kids are bald, or close to it? Is that just the fashion, or is there a cultural reason? Certainly easier to maintain, I imagine.

  14. As an African, this blog is frustrating. This is exactly the reason why Westerners always ask us “do you have animals in your backyard?”. We turn around shake our heads, and blame them for their ignorance yet it is people like you, talented, capable with enough resources to change the stereotype and how we are depicted in the media who keep this stereotypical image of poor Africa vibrant. You proclaim yourself a journalist- then strive to bring balance, depth and perspective with your work.

    “Many of them seemed to be more than well off to me: U.S. sports jerseys clothing them, mock Crocs on their feet.”- I fail to see how this can be a genuine statement coming from someone who is well traveled? And honestly find it very difficult to believe that you mean it- I mean if all you can afford is a pair of 5th generation hand me down crocs that are not good enough to end up in the salvation army, then I guess…

    I am not attacking you or implying that you had ill intentions while posting this blog, however just rendering you aware of (as NU, SU & SN mentionned) the danger of telling a single story.

    So next time Ms. Journalist realise the impact your words and images have on a continent and its outlook.

  15. K, these photos are beautiful. As someone who has traveled through rural parts of several south African nations, these are nostalgic for me. I worked in an orphanage in Zimbabwe for a while before starting college and I carry with me those memories in everything I do. Thanks for sharing!

    I know that you didn’t intend sharing your photos to be representative of Africa or Rwanda as a whole, and I know that you’ll weather this criticism with grace.

    Cheers!

  16. Wow, there are quite a few defensive comments from people in Rwanda or Africa more generally. I really don’t think it’s warranted.

    Most of the criticism is intended to be constructive. It is certainly true that many people in the West have a narrow, one-story view of how people live in sub-Saharan Africa. I understand the frustration better off Africans feel when people make assumptions or ask ignorant questions (but you know, ignorance is universal and not limited to the developing world – as an Australian, I’ve been asked if I ride a kangaroo to school/work more times than I care to count!). It’s worth having this conversation.

    On the other hand, some of the criticism is not constructive and actually kind of ugly. I find SN’s whole comment very offensive. You don’t want Kristin or other Westerners to make assumptions about Rwanda or Africa? Then don’t make assumptions about Kristin’s intentions or psychology. Your comments that imply she is somehow “patting herself on the back” for her “enlightened attitude” are sarcastic and offensive and deserve to be ignored. So I’m going to focus on the other, more constructive criticism.

    Kristin has not gone out of her way to find poor children. I believe her photographs reflect the reality of life in rural Rwanda and that she has simply taken photographs of what she saw as she travelled around. I haven’t been to Rwanda but I have been to neighbouring Uganda and my photographs from travels through coffee farming country are pretty similar. The children were excited to see me and delighted in having their photograph taken. It’s impossible not to respond warmly to such enthusiasm. I always showed them my images and they enjoyed it very much. Taking a photograph may not leave anything of lasting value to the children (though I’ve tried to do that in other ways) but why deny them something that gives them pleasure just because I enjoy it too?

    At the end of the day, I think it comes back to the fact that not every story can be all stories and not every photograph is all photographs. Kristin did not go to Rwanda to produce a photo essay that represents the diversity of entire country. That would be an ambitious undertaking and one I’d love to see – it would be wonderful to see the women MPs and the university and so on. But Kristin was simply taking photographs that represented what she saw as she travelled throughout the country for other reasons. She has no responsibility to do a photo portrait of the whole country or to think about whether it represents all walks of life within a country. Her only responsibility is to honestly reflect her own experiences, which is what she has done.

    Also, it’s not true that people don’t take photographs of children, from different social and economic circumstances, playing and being happy in the US. They do all the time and these photographs are also beautiful.

  17. SU I see diversity in this post: http://camelsandchocolate.com/2010/03/photo-friday-children-of-rwanda-part-i/
    Many of the children in these pictures are wearing clean clothes and have their hair neatly done.

    Also, this shows a taste of adult life:
    http://camelsandchocolate.com/2010/03/someones-popular-in-rwanda/

    But I refer back to my previous comment – not every post can be all posts. I think Kristin was saying that photos are representative of what she saw and that there was diversity within the photos (which I agree with), not that she is claiming these images as representative of the entire country.

  18. Also, let’s be realistic here. The per capita income in Rwanda is $370 a year. Given that commenters here have referred to the existence of a middle and upper class in Rwanda, it’s fair to assume that there is income inequality and that many people/families earn less than this per capita average. So to suggest that Rwanda is not a poor country is, quite simply, denying reality. If a small fraction of the population is well off and the vast majority of people are not, then is it really showing “balance, depth and perspective” to show photographs of poor people and wealthy people in equal numbers? I think not!

    I think the real problem here is that many better off Rwandans and Africans feel ashamed of the real poverty that does exist in their country and continent. Maybe they feel invisible. But poverty is nothing to be ashamed of and maybe that invisibility to the outside world is the price of their privilege.

    It can affect a country and continent’s outlook to be portrayed in a negative light. But acknowledging the reality of poverty in Africa should not be considered shameful or negative. The real problem is how to encourage people to take pride and a realistic outlook, rather than to discourage visitors from taking photos of the village children that make up a huge swathe of the population. Why should the poor village children become invisible, just so their richer city-dwelling cousins can feel better about themselves?

  19. I never thought a beautiful post of yours would become controversial or would attract ‘angry’ comments. This is a very beautiful post about the children of Rwanda – and says a lot about the difference against the children we see around us.

    They’re living a simple life, yet happy. That, in my opinion everyone should be, children or not, in Rwanda or not.

  20. @Grace I partly agree though I think I’m most struck by the similarity of children everywhere, rather than their differences.

  21. You took the words right out of my keyboard Caitlin. I agree with every single point you make. Since when has it become a traveler’s responsibility to FULLY document a country? That is what books are for and if these ostentatious comment[er]s really want to help change the perception of their country, they damn well could do better than writing comments in a photo essay.

    Get out of your Land Rover and get your hands dirty if you feel the lament that strong. DO something about it. Near as I can tell, Western countries are on the vanguard of that effort. How about you?

    Also? These pictures -regardless of the social stratification of the subjects- are truly remarkable. They humanize the world like only children can do.

  22. Thank you Caitlin, and SVV for reminding us, being Rwandans, or Africans, that well, only we can do it, only we can tell the story, the whole story! We are not ashamed of these pictures or kids, we fully embrace that is part of our country, again we are just saying, please don’t summarize us, or at least acknowledge that you’re doing so!
    We just hoped for some humility to consider where our comments were coming from!
    In the meantime, keep well!

  23. @N.U. I’m glad you’re not ashamed. It looks like you have a beautiful country!

    Travellers will take photos of what they see. Foregin photojournalists trying to do a photo portrait of the entire country may take a different approach. Rwandans themselves will have another perspective. All are valid. The only type of travel photography I dislike is the glossy, travel brochure kind where everything is always perfect but it’s all a complete fantasy.

  24. I see there have been some less than friendly comments here (whether they were intended to be unfriendly or not, I do not know), but I wanted to add my two cents.

    Kristin, what you do on this-here site is invaluable. Most of us who read your blog, I imagine, are sitting on our couch, or in a cubicle, or if we’re lucky, in a coffee shop somewhere. Most of us are only wishing we were where you are. When we read your site and see your pictures, we’re taken to another place, even if it’s just for 5 minutes. It’s your immaculate content, both in words and pictures, that keep us coming back.

    And now that I’ve gone all soft, let me say this: Eff the haters!

  25. As someone who spends a lot of time conflicted about the state of “postcolonial” nations/peoples, your trip to Rwanda and the comments that have followed have been a rather interesting experience. I enjoyed your response to the NU’s comment from part II. I appreciate your response quite a bit because I think you’re doing something that’s extremely important in telling stories: you’re positioning or locating yourself and talking about your experience without suggesting it as a substitute or a definitive experience. My hesitation in all this arose with your comments about the children seeming satisfied in their lives. I wasn’t there so I can’t say whether they were or not nor do I doubt your ability to gauge satisfaction. I guess the questions i would ask there is why do they seem satisfied, why don’t American kids embody that imaginative spirit that you saw in these Rwandan children, would these Rwandan children adopt the American attitude if their lifestyles changed to match American lifestyles? I think you’re tackling an issue of epic proportions by even engaging in this form of representation and that’s extremely admirable. You might’ve read this piece on Matador already but I think it’s a good one for all of us to keep in mind as we create/consume these types of narratives: http://www.bravenewtraveler.com/2008/05/21/why-we-still-need-to-write-about-african-poverty/

    On a somewhat related note, I completely empathize with the shyness of photographing people. My academic work only adds to this but there are grave questions of comfort and relationship (both for the photographer and the person photographed) that occur in the flash of a second in taking a photograph. So many questions of appropriation arise. Whether or not one is actually thinking of that, I do think some of the discomfort stems from that.

    I look forward to following your work.

  26. What a cool article. You’re amazing. This article alone makes me want to follow your blog.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Camels & Chocolates has some drool-worthy photos from Rwanda.  It’s a great photo essay on the people, especially the children, that she encountered on the trip. [...]

  2. [...] said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you’re traveling to East Africa, don’t pass up the [...]

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