When the ragged children of Kinigi danced, it was a scene of both joy and sadness, those imposters both, two vagabonds who travel this land of a thousand hills, hand in hand and appear when they are least expected.
Continuing the series, Letters from the Heart of Africa
We got to the lower slopes of the Karisimbi volcano and passed huge trees of howling golden monkeys and crossed freshly tilled fields of rich black soil. It was the end of the trek at last, after two days up to its peak at 4,500 metres, through mud and snow, hail, rain, mist and sunshine; we had climbed above the cloud line, crawled below fallen tree trunks, stepped over streams and between vines dripping from ancient trees. We were all exhausted, each of us had headaches from the quickness of the climb but were all stoked as we had just passed a troop of gorillas.
We hurled our rucksacks one by one in to the back of the pick-up truck and Mike revved the engine ready for our one and half hour drive to Rwanda’s capital Kigali.
Just before we could pull off, a scene appeared beyond the tinted windows. Three boys and two girls, one carrying a baby, came out of a simple mud-brick homestead; none was much older than 7, of varying heights, each having the same practical ‘microphone crop’, watching us in their frayed, patchwork cotton clothes.
The tallest, a boy, started clapping and singing, soon the others joined in dancing a higgledy-piggledy dance, arms and legs snaking around, star jumps, and running man, mostly freeform, altogether in an utterly unsynchronised routine of unbridled joy.
Behind them was a backdrop of the mud wall of their home, gleaming phosphorescent pink in the last sunset-rays. In the brickwork were gaps some big enough to crawl through, giving us a glimpse of their home of dark interiors where they spent their cold nights. It must have been miserably cold in there in their threadbare clothing; the village of Kinigi is elevated and discernibly cooler than Kigali.
They sang for us in Kinyarwanda, and step by step came a little closer to us in the car. I could make out their dusty cheeks and feet, the smallest ones with snotty noses, sleep-filled eyes just keeping up with their elders who led with broad toothy smiles.
The singing-a-long continued, clapping shaking their hips; the oldest girl shouted “ichupa” and the others joined in, “Ichupa! Ichupa! Ichupa!” they chanted.
Paula who lived in a small village by Lake Gahini and had a better knowledge of the language than any of us, explained, ‘It means plastic bottles. They want our bottles.’ She stepped out and fished three empty 1.5 litre plastic bottles from our rucksacks and walked over to them and for some moments we stared at them doing a simple transaction.
In those days in Rwanda, children would collect plastic bottles from passing vehicles, sometimes risking life and limb to be the first to get to a discarded bottle, which they could then sell to a local broker. Plastic carrier bags were already banned, smuggling them could even get you a prison term, and today the government is considering a ban on all single-use plastic like straws and disposable cutlery.
There was something else in that moment though, beyond the dance, the joy and the plastic bottles. A deeper lingering sadness, made all the more potent for seeing it in a joyous context from bedraggled, dusty dancing children.
The odds of life are stacked against them, those smiling, dancing children; they may never get the opportunities of life, consigned every day trying to outrun a grinding, generational poverty which seeks to pursue them in an incessant, unrelenting, lifelong chase.
They may not be able to go school, their childhood may be cut short by early responsibility (Rwanda then, in 2008, had 101,000 children who were the heads of their households, one of the highest rates in the world where children bring up children due to the Genocide and HIV.) In those days according to UNICEF one in five Rwandan children did not live to see their fifth birthday.
We stared at them as they danced and sang for us. The small girl in the fraying green t-shirt waving gratefully for the plastic bottles; the little sleeping baby wrapped round her middle, cheek snuggled on her back blissfully unaware of his siblings’ revelry and commotion.
We drove off, I could hear sniffles from the seat behind me, the wave of sadness had engulfed us, a state made worse from an oxygen-starved head, a brain that rattled, temples that ached – I know it can’t be the Larium, for I’m not taking Larium. It was that incident seeing the children in poverty.
That small incident at the end of hike got me thinking. Soon my time in Rwanda would be coming to an end after 7 months working at the Genocide Memorial Centre. Soon I’d be boarding a Kenyan Airlines flight to London and on that flight my only concern would be how to get some sleep in a near-vertical position and if I could balance my head between a cushion and a window and what clothes to wear on the flight. And then I might wake as the flight attendants serve me two plastic meals in eight hours, food I can barely consume, giving me calories I cannot burn, in tin foil cartons that I am loathed to open. I might just turn away the square of chocolate cake or the packet of cashews and as I open the ring pull on the slim can of tomato juice. At 40,000 feet will I recall them dancing, the ragged children of Kinigi outside their crumbling home in the shadow of the volcanoes?
Their concern will still be how to sleep in a house made cold by missing mud-bricks, in their only dishevelled clothes with a growling distended belly (in 2008 nearly half of Rwanda’s children were malnourished).
Maybe I will; I hope I never complain about food in a restaurant again, or that the coffee was too bitter, or the mattress too hard or the central heating a few degrees too low. Maybe those images will come back to me at that point; if they don’t, part of my time here, my African education, will have been to no avail.
I wonder. Only time will tell.
Post-script: since writing this ten years ago, Rwanda has ‘made more improvements in child survival than any other country in the Eastern and Southern African region’ (UNICEF). The government has improved access to health services for the poor with a medical insurance system that covers 90% of the population. There is still a long way to go – 41% of children under 5 in Rwanda’s rural areas suffer from stunted growth brought about from lack of nutrition (UNICEF, 2014-15)