I was in Rwanda last April with friends Larry and Jerri – we spent 10 days there and it was, in a word, magical. Traveling with them was easy and we all got along quite well. Toward the end of the trip, we found ourselves at the remarkable Nyungwe Forest Lodge for three nights and two days. Arriving at the lodge is as if finding an unexpectedly lush oasis in the desert. The architecture, design and finishes are far beyond anything we anticipated given Rwanda’s recent history and – to this day – struggles with poverty, refugees and the like.
The three of us checked in amidst some confusion amongst the staff who insisted I must be someone named Morris B – even as they stared at my passport. Morris B turned out to be Barry Morris – an Australian ex-Royal Marine with a broken clavicle and a will to not let that get in his way, combined with a tolerance for pain that I both admired and admonished at the same time.
The first morning at the lodge, we were up at 4:30AM for the drive to the dawn trek to see the chimpanzees. The trek was filled with fire ants and Barrie’s cries of clavicle pain induced by a slippery and root-filled trail followed by his insistence, “I’m okay, don’t stop, carry on,” and then finally punctuated by seeing a handful of chimpanzees in the far distance and with the sun rising directly behind them. Translation: no decent chimpanzee photographs.
Given the option to repeat the 4:30AM wake up and return to the trail of the fire ants or do something else the next day, the three of us opted for plan b. We would tour a local tea factory after breakfast and play the rest of the day by ear.
Barrie, the last I heard, stayed fairly well self-medicated for the day. I can’t say as I blame him. He’s one determined man. I heard he went on to trek with the gorillas later in the week – perhaps even more demanding trekking albeit without the 4:30AM start time. A remarkable man, that Morris B.
The tea factory tour was insightful. The tea they produced there looks nothing like any tea I’ve had before. It starts off as leaves, but after going through a range of machines that we watched in action, it ends up as small black dots of, well, tea. It tasted amazing, I’ll say that for the tea. Even my British wife loves it. And so today we’re buying the same Rwandan tea the only way we found possible – through a Chinese importer on Amazon. Globalization is amazing.
After a week that included a library dedication, two gorilla treks, a chimp trek, a tea factory tour and much more – we finally had an unscheduled afternoon. And, for the first time in more than a week, Larry, Jerri and I decided to part company, if only for a few hours.
I had heard that we could get a tour of the local villages and I was determined to go. Larry and Jerri were up for a break from their traveling companion if not a bit of relaxing at the Lodge. And so I headed into town where our driver brought me to a small office. In that office was an older man with a ready smile and bit of English. Just as quickly, our driver was gone and I was working through what the next three hours would look like – and how much it would cost me.
There is a brief and fleeting moment in which I accepted that I just put my safety in the hands of a stranger. It’s a safe bet that the camera equipment on my back was worth more than this man’s life savings. That’s not right nor fair, and it’s nothing to be proud of. It just is. And, I’ll be honest, there’s a nano-second where I’m painfully aware of that, that I recognize the injustice of it, and also my vulnerability should my guide decide he’s had enough.
My guide, Danny, sized me up and saw what was to him an average tourist, probably not up for much more than a cursory walk about. An hour into our village walk, he started to look at me a bit differently. For starters, it began to rain. Afternoon, African downpour rain. I pulled out my rain jacket, slipped on my baseball cap, put the built-in rain cover over my camera bag and kept on walking. It was a bit dicey in spots, and while I’m no mountain man, whatever I did, I was able to convince my guide that I was not his average afternoon fare.
Before the rain began, we happened upon a fisherman plying his trade in a pond. We stopped and with Danny’s help, I asked the fisherman several questions. What fish does he catch? How large are they? Were do the fish come from (it’s a pond)? How does he catch the fish? What do the fish eat? And so on. Danny had a huge smile on his face.
As we proceeded through three different villages, I asked Danny to introduce me to people and, where possible, to see if I could enter people’s homes. I wanted to see how people lived. I wanted to ask questions. Where it made sense and felt comfortable, I wanted to capture images.
Between my footwork on the slippery and, in spots, steep paths and my insistence on meeting people, in asking questions and seeing how the locals lived, Danny warmed up to me. He began pulling at different plants and teaching me their various medicinal purposes. Danny transformed into a fountain of information and folklore. He clearly was enjoying taking me around.
In the third hour of our 2-hour tour, we entered the village seen in the image above. We spoke with the man in the background for 5-10 minutes and I took a couple of pictures of him and Danny together. Everyone is friendly enough – but there’s also a distinct lack of what in the West we would consider posing for pictures. Which, to be fair, is perfectly fine by me. The ubiquitous smile is typically not what I’m after when looking around for a story to tell with my camera.
I captured this moment just as we left the village. There is a lot wrapped up in here. The adult with the young child in the background looking on at me. The slightly older child in the foreground. The scene suggesting a life completely different than our own, perhaps beyond our comprehension, and yet a scene completely at peace with itself.
For me, the story is clear. And, I see that story wrapped in an engaging composition. The boy’s head in the foreground sticks up perfectly into a space made by the outlines of the buildings behind him. He looks into the camera and grabs my attention and pulls my view up and behind him where I then notice his father and brother standing at ease, but also staring directly at us. All of this is perfectly framed by palm fronds and a wooden fence on the right and mud-built homes on the left.
There is depth and complexity in the composition and, when combined with the story, makes for a marvelous and moving image.
I had an incredible 10 days in Rwanda – thanks to Larry and Jerri for inviting me and including me. That took some courage and was, for certain, a leap of faith. This particular image, this afternoon, was but one of a series of remarkable moments and I’m pleased to be able to share it with you.