For the most part, every street boy or former street boy we talk to here has the same basic dream, to become a super star. The pop icon culture in Kigali is overwhelming. Primus, the so-called "true beer of Rwanda", is the main sponsor, and their Guma Guma SuperStar advertisements are painted on the sides of countless homes and businesses. A little research reveals that Primus is actually bottled under the license of Coca Cola, so no surprise there. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On one side, it makes me sad that the massive-corporation, pop music lie has seemingly infiltrated the entire planet. On the other hand, even though it is an impossible dream, it is kind of nice for the boys to even have a dream, not to mention an interest that they all share together. I mean, it led to them organizing themselves into groups, writing their own songs and recording them in our record studio sessions. I can only describe that entire experience as a positive one.
Last week, Willy and I returned to Kimironko market to interview a group of street children who live off of the garbage there. Paul had been there to photograph them before and got some incredible shots, like this one:
They number about 40 in total, including a young husband and wife who have an infant child, born on the street. One member of the group is 27, and he has lived on the streets his entire life. I would have guessed he was in his 40s. The police have been endlessly taking him to prison since he was 10-years-old, so now they all know who he is and have granted him immunity. When we arrived at the market he was the only member of the group we found. He told us that the police had come and arrested everyone, including girls with babies. The horrors they face in prison include rapes, beatings, starvation and the health issues that come from sharing a single room with 100s of others that doubles as a toilet. These dangers are the very reason that most street kids spend their days hiding out. So besides the sewers, where do they hide?
On good days, when children have had enough to eat and still find themselves with some spare change, they head to the film houses. These are essentially speakeasies, but instead of peddling booze, they show illegal copies of action films with Kinyarwanda dubbing. They can probably best be likened to the now-extinct kung fu theaters of American cities int he 1970s and 80s. A pocketful of loose coins can buy you an entire day of back-to-back screenings. Features include Hong Kong cinema along with other varieties of B-movie action films. Here is an example of a day's lineup:
It is amazing that here in Rwanda, I can talk to a street kid about Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao or even Shaw Brothers films. On the day Willy and I found out that all the Kimironko children had been arrested, we decided to check out a film house from the inside. Maybe we would find some kids to talk to there. I won't reveal the exact location of the spot, but the proprietors were shocked that a white person wanted in. We paid the entrance fee of equivalent to about 20 US cents, and passed through this doorway:
Opening the dragon print curtain let in a stream of light, revealing a room crammed wall-to -wall with men and boys sitting on long wooden benches. I felt and smelled a wave of human heat hit my face. The curtain closed behind us, and the room became pitch black. Someone pulled on my arm so I would sit down, and two boys inched apart so I could squeeze in between them.
There was a television in the far corner of the room playing a grainy copy of the 1987 Michelle Yeoh vehicle, "Magnificent Warriors". I was instantly transported to my youth, when I spent way too much of my time tracking down bootleg VHS copies of rare action films. Two seconds in the door, and I understood exactly why street kids loved these places. The Kinyarwanda dubbed dialogue was far from accurate, and one voice did all the characters in the film. He also added his own jokes, and the audience laughed out loud to them, adding their own commentary where they saw fit. Apparently, there is one famous guy in Kigali who dubs ALL the action films.
I smelled food, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see it was coming from boys in the crowd with paper bags. One man made a nodding gesture to one of the boys, and out came a samosa from the bag, which the man paid for. There was a whole underground culture and economic system going on here, and I couldn't help but relate the character, independent spirit and sheer coolness of it to the beginnings of underground hip hop culture in New York in the early 70s.
In regards to hip hop, even after the first time I show breaking moves to street kids here, I already consider them bboys. How can this be? Well, I think you have to look at the term itself to understand my point. Today, it is easy to associate the word bboy with the media term "breakdance", which describes the dynamic spinning and acrobatics performed during organized high-profile battles on stages around the world and television contests such as "So You Think You Can Dance".
The original term comes from a much simpler place. Hip hop pioneer Kool Herc, explains how "break" or "broke" was a street term for a person who reaches their breaking point (as sampled in the below video from the DVD extras of the documentary "The Freshest Kids"). In other words, a person, especially a poor person, can be pushed down so far that they don't care anymore and just snap. This came to describe the way dancers at the first hip hop parties reacted to certain records, or more specifically parts of records. The music and the beat excited them so much, that they just didn't care and reacted openly to it. From this freespirited dance came the form known today as breaking, and the breakers were called break boys or bboys for short. In my opinion, this original "I don't give a f$%k!" attitude and individual character is largely missing from the dance form today (mostly because it is impossible to commercialize), along with the knowledge and experience passed on by earlier practitioners and pioneers of the dance and its surrounding Bronx-based culture. However, this isn't the case for street boys, who are most definitely at their own breaking points, so when I show them movements passed onto me by some of the pioneers, without so much as a second thought, they express their own individual characters through it, not caring what anyone thinks. They are true bboys, by the very definition of the word. Here is a short video to prove my point: