The children roam everywhere at Noel Orphanage, Rwanda’s largest institution for orphaned kids. They wander the grounds outside the main dormitories, opening random doors and kicking around broken toys on the ground. They run to strangers for hugs, tugging at hands and refusing to let go no matter what the staff say. They play and run around the ubiquitous laundry hanging from washlines and drying on grass.
I was at Noel to photograph for Hope and Homes for Children, a British charity partnered with the Rwandan government to close orphanages. Their goal is to reunite children with any living family members (aunts, cousins, etc.) or put kids in foster homes. It’s a delicate task and one that’s part of a worldwide trend of closing orphanages, as The Economist reported in August 2013. According to their story:
In order to close institutions governments must bolster the alternatives. Small homes housing around 12 children are better than huge ones, at least for those with no living relatives or very severe disabilities. Long-term carers work in those places, not a large staff on shifts. Mother-and-baby groups and day centres for struggling parents reduce the likelihood that youngsters will need government protection. When it is unavoidable, foster and adoptive care are the healthiest ways to supply it.
But that requires authorities to vet prospective parents, and to check up on them. This is difficult where social-care systems are poor. In countries such as the Czech Republic social workers are valued mainly for handing out benefit payments, rather than as mentors and monitors, says Ms Mulheir. Teachers and nurses who work in institutions sometimes resist reform.
During my visit to Noel, we started in the infant room, where the youngest baby was just a couple days old. Next we stepped into the courtyard and walked to a small room, where about 20 toddlers live, some of them still learning to walk and most still learning to talk. As soon as the little ones saw me, all of them started crawling and stumbling my way, crying out “Mama! Mama! Mama!” I just about lost it. Later, someone from Hope and Homes told me the children are taught to call all women “Mama” and all men “Daddy” or “Dada.” I’m still not clear why.
The main challenge on this shoot was not showing identifiable faces of any children in the orphanages. I’ve had a lot of experience with not showing faces such as filming an undocumented immigrant in the United States and photographing North Korean refugees in South Korea. But kids are more wiggly, and there were so many of them, and a lot of them wanted to play, and who can resist playing even a little bit with a playful kid? The best part of this shoot was photographing children who have been reunited with their families or put in what appear to be loving foster homes. The children seemed genuinely happy and truly loved by their families. I hope this will be the case for all kids being moved out of closed orphanages.
I recently had a chance to watch Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s only all-female drumming group, perform at an artist’s showcase in Kigali. What energy and power. The women had the audience clapping and screaming for more. As well as being drummers, Ingoma Nshya members run an ice cream shop called Inzozi Nziza in the south of Rwanda. The shop and the drummers are the subject of a new documentary film called Sweet Dreams, which is screening all over the United States. Be sure to see the film if it’s in your area.
Over 1,000 attendees and pretty high energy marked the first day of the Transform Africa 2013 summit on Monday, Oct. 28. That afternoon there was an interesting panel discussion about using technology to eradicate poverty in Africa and create wealth, not just alleviate poverty. Jean Philbert Nsengimana (above, far left), Rwanda’s minister of youth, information, communications and technology, makes a point during the discussion.
I was at the conference with Africa Digital Media Academy, where I’ve been volunteer mentoring for the past several months. A small group of ADMA students is livestreaming Transform Africa under the guidance of Alex Lindsay, ADMA’s founder, and Ryan Yewell, one of ADMA’s instructors. They’re working all hours of the day (arrived at 5:30 a.m. on the conference’s second day) and doing a great job.
The second day of the conference, Tuesday, was the day featuring seven African heads of state. The picture above is from several minutes before all the presidents arrived. Security agents marched in and looked all around the stage before taking their positions.
There’s a special kind of terrible lighting found in conference centers around the world. It’s not their fault. It’s hard to light a space for a thousand people, all of whom will be sitting, maybe taking notes, and likely looking at huge screens on one side of the room. But the Serena Hotel ballroom is an especially challenging light situation because of all the mixed lighting: 1) a couple gigantic window-doors were open the first two days; 2) the carpet is yelllow (which means light reflects off it yellow); 3) the huge screens are often turquoise – the conference theme color – which cast a turquoise glow on everything); 4) and the overhead fluorescent lights give off a reddish tint.
From left to right: President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan; President Ali Bongo Ondimba of the Republic of Gabon; President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (notice his trademark hat just peaking out from under his seat); President Paul Kagame of Rwanda; and President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso. In all there were seven heads of state at Transform Africa. The picture below shows the other two not fully seen above: President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya (second from the far right) and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of the Republic of Mali (far right).
I love a good press scrum.
I was excited when The Chronicle of Higher Education photo editor Erica Lusk contacted me about documenting a day in the life of Kepler Kigali, one of Rwanda’s newest universities. Kigali’s a small town, so I already knew about Kepler, and their model intrigued me. Kepler uses massive open online courses (MOOCs) in conjunction with in-person teaching so students can earn an associate degree through Southern New Hampshire University. All the students are from disadvantaged backgrounds (they’re genocide orphans, come from very poor families, etc.) and for now, the university is free to its students.
I was sent to photograph during student orientation week. When I was an undergrad, I remember orientation covering topics like responsible drinking, how to register for classes, and where to access psychological services. At Kepler, the day’s orientation included a presentation on self-confidence and personal responsibility.
After the morning’s lectures, all 50 students broke for lunch. Everyone carried their plastic chairs from the lecture room to a tent outside, where they sat and enjoyed a hot lunch and drinks provided by Kepler Kigali.
The skies were clear and beautiful when lunch started. But this being rainy season, a tremendous storm poured down after about 30 minutes. I really felt like the tent might blow away. All the women scattered back into the orientation building as soon as signs of a storm appeared. Most of the men stayed under the tent until they absolutely had to leave. I stayed with them – good pictures, right? – and hoped they would go inside soon.
Back inside, one young woman laughed at another who had left a banana on a seat for her friend. Even though the students had just met a few days earlier, they all seemed like fast friends, all happiness and excitement. I talked with several students who were beyond thrilled to be going to college – they hadn’t thought it would really be possible for them due to the financial burden. One of the Kepler administrators I spoke with said it will cost about $1,000 per yer to educate each student.
During an orientation workshop earlier in the week, students wrote down the names of their male and female role models. Among the most popular? Nelson Mandela and Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda.
The actual classroom space was still under construction when I visited, so I spent some time documenting the progress. In the picture above, a welder constructs a table. All furniture for Kepler Kigali is custom-made because it’s about the same price or slightly less expensive than importing it.
Kepler Kigali is the brainchild of Generation Rwanda, a nonprofit that has been offering university scholarships to underprivileged Rwandan students since 2004. A Generation Rwanda graduate made and gave this token of thanks to the program’s staff. He graduated from a Rwandan university in 2012 with a civil engineering degree.
Such dramatic weather shifts in short timespans during the rainy season. I love it.
All photographs © Laura Elizabeth Pohl. No use without permission.
When you’re just outside Musanze town, the signs to Musanze Cave seem clear: “xx KM MUSANZE CAVE” and an arrow pointing to the right. Don’t turn right. Keep driving. Don’t let the descending distances on multiple, consecutive signs lure you into turning, not until you get to a sign that simply says “MUSANZE CAVE” and an arrow pointing to the right. Those previous signs? The arrows should point straight ahead. Yes, it’s a little confusing, but worth it.
Not that the road leading to Musanze Cave inspires confidence you’re heading to one of Rwanda’s newest tourism sites. There’s a dirt and rock path, and then a soccer pitch with concrete school buildings and a light forest around the perimeter. The day Mr. P and I visited with our friends J and J, we couldn’t see an obvious path to drive on, or a cave entrance. Kids were playing soccer, so Mr. P maneuvered to the far side of the pitch. That’s where we saw the entrance: about 3m of white ticker tape strung between two wooden posts amongst scraggly bushes and uneven ground. A sign laid out caving rules, including “Any caving activity must be guided.” We wondered where we’d find a guide. We needn’t have worried, not when there might be money involved.
After we parked between some trees, a man in a blue jump suit appeared. He didn’t speak English well and he didn’t look like a guide to me. He certainly didn’t have any official identification. But he safely led us through the caves for an hour and made a handsome profit – 5,000 francs for each of us, a total of about $30. Was this a fair price? Should we have been charged at all? And was this man a guide or an entrepreneurial local who knew his way around the cave? No idea.
There are actually two caves, and both were pitch black and completely dry. We all used flashlights and iPhone apps to see around us. The Rwandan government has done a pretty good job clearing walking paths, but I still felt around with my feet to ensure I wasn’t about to tumble over a wall. We saw some breathless sights, including a portion of collapsed roof overgrown with vines reaching toward the sky (see picture below). We also saw one little bat. And some kind of animal teeth. At least we hope it was animal teeth; apparently there was a massacre here during the 1994 genocide, though I could find only one source that said this.
Overall, the lack of artificial lighting made it hard to discern the shape and depth of the caves and their wonders. And since we didn’t speak the same language as our guide, we couldn’t learn much about what little we could see. Still, I enjoyed exploring in the dark and having the caves to ourselves for one hour.