my repressed artist’s eye, taking photos without a camera, trying to capture in words what my out-of-practice hand cannot draw…

images from the road

i’m barrelling down the highway east out of kigali, jammed tight between the wall of the taxi-bus and the hips of a plump woman in full african splendor – hand-sewn skirt and matching puffed-sleeve top in bright orange, her hair braided snugly to her head. my head droops and nods and bangs against the rattling window. as we round a curve, shadows bend to stripe the pavement, thrown from the west by trees and pedestrians. my hip crunches against the wall of the bus. i shift my shoulders. my neighbor makes a tsk tsk sound through her teeth. the bus swings wildly to the left, shadows bend again, sardine-can passengers grumble. i stare longingly up at musha moutnain and the steel roofs of apagie school glinting in the sun above the road. 10 minutes longer. i close my eyes.

sounds: the hum of rubber tires on pavement, the din of reggae on the radio, the rush of hot air past an open window, the murmur of voices chatting three rows back. the bang of knuckles against the ceiling. a shout from the driver- ‘arasigara?’ (=someone getting off?) ‘mmmm’ (=uh huh). squeeling brakes, sliding door, grumbling passengers, and i’m off, out, free. the long ride home.

two weeks later, two weeks before, last year, today. the bus rushes past open fields of sugar and sorghum, past green hills patchworked by plots of banana and coffee plantations, through a tunnel of dancing eucalyptus trees. at the narrow shoulder stretches a column of people. men walking. men on bicycles with all manner of stuff strapped to the back (water jugs, 50kg bags of potatoes, goats, people, steel roofing, chairs, you name it). women with wide woven baskets of fruit balanced on their heads. children in primary school uniforms running playfully, dangerously close to traffic.

beyond the crowded shoulder runs a 3-foot deep ditch for water drain-off during heavy rains. the foreign firms (chinese? german?) who built the road weren’t kidding around. considering all the litter that rwandans throw out bus windows (plastic bags, cookie wrappers, water bottles), it’s a wonder this ditch is always clean. but one friend pointed out that kids like to make toys from the empty bottles, so maybe the trash gets reused, or maybe just carried away by the rain.

beyond the run-off ditch lies a new trench meant to bury the fiber-optics cable that will soon wire the country. heaps of freshly-dug red earth swallow the workers digging it. mile after mile, we pass them, thousands of them, barechested, swinging pickaxes, to the waist in dirt, men, women, not a back-hoe or tractor in sight. a human machine.

further on, past the pedestrians, the run-off ditch, and the cable-trench, way out into the extensive fields of the maraba coffee cooperative, i sometimes get a glimpse of farmers in blue uniforms. like their colleagues in the trench, they work in droves, in lines, organized to the point of beauty. 200 men with 200 hoes lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to clear a field, moving across it like an elaborate 200m-wide machine. behind them, i watch three maybe four hundred others march single-file across the plantation carrying bundles of grass on their heads like ants. it’s minutes before we pass them all. scenes from a bus window.

images from zanzibar

the sky opens and the rain pelts down, pock-marking the sand and sending pink tourists scurrying to the comfort of awning-ed terraces of sheek restaurants with brightly-colored fancy-named mixed-drinks. from my vantage point submerged in emerald waters, cold rain pouring over my head and dripping off my eyelashes, i see the rain bounce up off the ocean surface. water is everywhere. cold and grey from above, warm and blue below. the bouncing raindrops create the semblance of fog, through which a boat appears, a small wooden contraption, normally salt-stained and sun-bleached, today a deep brown color from the rain soaking it and its passenger through and through. the man is standing in the boat, rain coursing in rivers over broad black shoulders. he is propelling the boat through the fog with a long mangrove pole. i imagine i am in a misty medeival scene from king arthur, instead of the mystifying isle of zanzibar. submerged on the seductive swahili coast.

at low tide the waters recede beyond view, leaving mucky marsh full of seaweed, seashells, sea urchins. brave zanzibari fisherman plod out gingerly, their feet sinking to the knee in peanut-butter-consistency soggy sand, out to waiting nets. the horizon is dotted with their tiny silhouettes in the distance. as the tide begins to rise they wade back to solid ground. i watch six women, covered head-to-toe in colorful fabric kanga wraps, make their way through waist-deep turquoise waters, their skirts trailing behind them. the tide is coming in and it’s started to rain. suddenly one woman claps her hands and shouts and the others quickly close their line into a circle, splashing and laughing and tightening the circle. they have scared a passing school of fish into the net held by two of them. all six peer into the net to admire their catch, dump it into a red bag, then fan out again and continue to wade along the shore, rain-soaked and water-logged but chattering and smiling anyway. the leader spots another school of fish, claps, shouts. the line closes. there is more splashing and laughter. fishing in the rain.

images from the heart of africa

white floury footprints leading through red dusty dirt out of and away from a little mud-brick corrugated steel-roofed house thoroughly caked through-and-through in white flour. this is where folks in musha take their maize to be ground into flour for making ugali. it looks as though a white dust bomb has landed and detonated leaving powdery ash to settle over every possible surface, even the noses ears shoulders eyelashes of the two gangly boys who laze in the doorway, watching me watching them on my walk to the bus. the flour mill.

sun going down to silhouette six hovering bundles of sticks suspended over spindly legs stopped dead in their tracks in the middle of this road-less-travelled. if i duck to munchkin-height i can catch beneath stick hats: eyes bulging jaws dropped heads turning to follow my progress in turn causing branch bunches to rotate like dominoes, like the wave at a baseball game, like a row of men ogling a beautiful woman swing her hips as she passes. these are local kids carrying firewood home on their heads, in descending order of height, oldest to youngest. a walk in the woods.

three enormous trucks, the kind usually packed to bursting with green bananas, barrel down a kigali highway spewing dust and black billows in their wake and causing this unsuspecting mazungu to sputter through the cloud. army-issue green with canvas flaps flapping in the wind, they proceed caravan-style through the neighborhood pulling glances from passers-by because: their cargo is not bananas, but children. boys. perhaps ten or twelve years old. at least a hundred in each truck. all dressed in the tell-tale ripped and dirty garb of street kids, packed in standing up with some hanging off the sides. my friend, where are you going today?

crisp brisk morning air on musha mountain. two women stand chatting in the road, shaking hands and patting shoulders and making mmm sounds for assent. one is younger. a small sleeping child is strapped in cloth at her back, its bite-size feet poking out at her hips, a giant plastic yellow umbrella carried as parasol to keep away the sun. her hair is braided and piled up, her clothes are handmade in brilliant colors in the rwandan style: a bustled straight skirt, matching blouse with short puffed sleeves, 1980s meets turn of the century. she is radiant with youth motherhood wealth happiness.
the elder is in her sixties, a rare sight in these parts, wears a bright printed wrap tied at the waist, another thrown around her shoulders, one binding her hair. on her feet are neon orange foam flip flops, in her right hand a walking stick which she jabs playfully at her listener for emphasis. the left hand sits comfortably in the small of her back, pushes gently to aid the stick in holding her upright. her face (ah to have a face like that!) is creased and crinkled with time. wars march down her cheeks, joy and suffering compete for the corners of her mouth, her eyes are deep wells. a laugh like paper breaks the tension, sending wrinkles rippling upwards and out. she folds her lips together. nods a goodbye. good morning, sister.


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