Sunday, 29 July 2012

Brief Pause Before the Final Sprint

This is Mama Jalic. She lives in a house made of earth and sticks in a slum in the middle of the largest city in Rwanda. She has six children and her husband is no longer alive. She does odd jobs such as construction work and house cleaning, but she rarely has enough to feed her family. Sometimes she receives sacks of rice, beans or kawunga (maize meal) from members of her community who know her and her situation.

This is Jalic. The above described poverty drove him to the streets to beg at a very young age. Like countless other children of the streets, his childhood was filled with abuse, hunger, crime, prison, etc. Luckily, however, he eventually found himself at Les Enfants de Dieu. Now he is going to school and turning his life around. He is one of my favorite boys at the centre, because he is incredibly intelligent, sees straight through any bullshit and is a hilarious troublemaker. Hanging out with him is like hanging out with someone my own age or older. In robbing children of a childhood, street life also ages them well beyond their years.

Jalic and his mother have both been interviewed and filmed by myself and Willy Mutabazi for our upcoming documentary about the street children situation in Rwanda. This story is one of thousands just like it. Many people assume that Les Enfants de Dieu is an orphanage, but in fact it is not. Most of the boys do have families, but these families may not be able to support them due to poverty combined with way too many children. The purpose of this film will be to hopefully educate the poor in Rwanda about this situation, so that they would consider not having so many children, as well as to raise awareness in the West. Once finished, Willy will be traveling around Rwanda screening the film on his laptop in various villages.

Dorota and I both feel that overpopulation is the single biggest problem facing humanity today. Almost every other problem you could possibly think of is merely a symptom of it. My friend Dr. Barry J. Gibb (also about to embark on a filming trip in Africa for the Wellcome Trust) recently filmed a short interview with Sir David Attenborough (Yes, I was green with envy) in which this great man sums up the situation brilliantly (as only he could). The interview is embedded below, and I assure you that the experiences we have had here in Rwanda over the past three and a half months have only reinforced Attenborough's key points time and time again.

The financial gap between the average Western citizen and the average Third World citizen is huge. We all know that, but we cannot REALLY know that until we see it, smell it, feel it , taste it and live with it. The most painful part of that experience is realizing that people on both sides of this economic divide are essentially exactly the same. What darkens this reality even more is the fact that things are only going to get much worse, and on a far grander scale than humanity has ever experienced. The population is out of control, the resources are dwindling and Mother Nature is stretched thinner than the remaining scraps of ice in the Arctic. So why try? Why bring your own bag to the shop, when millions of others take home a dozen plastic carrier bags every day only to immediately throw them in the garbage afterwards? Why give a street child hope when a wealthy individual personally hoards more resources in a week than that child will see in their entire lifetime? To tell you the truth, Dorota and I have struggled quite a bit with these kinds of questions.

Thankfully, the answer is simple – life. All we really have is how we feel inside and how we make others feel. As we posted last week, Willy and Didier just returned from London. They absolutely loved it. After Willy listed all the amazing things he saw, tasted and experienced, he said, "…but I wouldn't want to live there. Nobody says hello or talks to each other."

Recently, I have been practicing dance with two guys in nearby Kimisagara neighborhood. Their story is quite incredible in itself, but I am leaving that for when I finish a short film about them, hopefully for next week. Anyway, Kimisigara is a slum just next door to the factory grounds where we live. If your bicycle is stolen in Kigali, this is where you can find it. Many months ago, when I first came to Africa with Pervez, this was a place I would not have dreamed of going to alone. My mind was fully Western and paranoid. Now, I walk fearlessly through the winding mazes of steep, hillside mudhut-lined passages. Children, some completely naked, dart out from dark corners to greet me, shouting, "Mizungu! Mizungu!" Old women wave hello as they hang their laundry. Men play on pool tables set into cavern-like dwellings carved into the hillside. Every nook and cranny is filled with life, and each family's living area seems to overlap with the next. Running water is a luxury. Some footpaths literally end in someone's living room. One day I got lost and found myself in a family's private yard. They wouldn't let me leave, not because they wanted to call the police, but because they insisted on inviting me in for a chat. Unfortunately, bringing a camera out in this intimate environment understandably changes the friendly atmosphere and makes me feel a bit exploitive, so I haven't taken many pictures of the area. Kids, however, always love to ham it up for the camera, especially if they just lost their first set of teeth, so I don't hesitate to take their photos when they ask.

We are now in our last three weeks of this adventure. Many projects are coming to a close, so we will be extremely busy up until the minute we step onto the plane and say goodbye to this amazing place that will be a part of us for the rest of our lives. The 42 metal lockers with locks, that so many of you helped make a reality with your donations, have all been built. We pick them up and deliver them to the centre tomorrow! This sub-plot should make up a large part of next week's post.

Another major project, and success story, is the library. Started by the wonderful volunteers before us, Elena and Ally, this space has become THE creative haven for the boys. When we first arrived, a boy named Moses (below) barely said hello to us. Last week he read outloud with Dorota in the library for three hours straight. We are in contact with the next volunteer, so hopefully this project will be sustained after our departure without the lock remaining on the door for too long.

I haven't pushed breaking on the boys too much, because I know first hand that it is a personal thing, and not for everyone. A group of boys have taken to it naturally though, as it should be. Sibomana has become a friend and star pupil of mine, and I will dearly miss our practices and English/Kinyarwanda lessons with chalk on the concrete floor. His humble patient approach and eagerness to learn the dance is something I have only figured out myself in my 30s.

Thankfully, the two young Rwandan men from Gisenyi I mentioned earlier, Abdul and Amani (below in that order) will be taking over teaching dance and other sport-like activities to the boys after we leave. We have been bringing them to the centre with us weekly, and the boys already love them. They are professional acrobats, jugglers and breakers, and are desperately trying to learn the dance's foundation from me. The truth, though, is that they are incredibly talented and will figure it out on their own! I will be posting another film showcasing their skills very soon.

The centre employs an accountant, Sangeetha, who we have mentioned before and also happens to be our extremely hospitable neighbor. We have shared many delicious South Indian meals with her family, for which we will be eternally grateful for the rest of our lives! She also shares a love for the boys at the centre and regularly brings her two sons to play with them while she calculates facts and figures in her office. Dorota and I have been very pleased to see children from such different worlds get along so well.

One major project that seemed to come out of nowhere is the Kigali Street Kidz album. It will now include 13 tracks by the boys themselves, and I cannot believe the generosity of my producer friends out there who made all of these rough songs come to life. This project will have its own blog post including producer spotlights, production of 150 CDs with covers at the centre and a performance competition with all the groups. The winner of the contest will have a music video of their song made by me, but we will also include all the other groups in the shoot. This has gotten the boys very excited, and they crowd around me every time I arrive at the centre with a new finished song. Each boy at EDD has a nickname, and it makes me beam with pride that they have given me my own (including a jingle), Bret Reecord.

A special thank you must go out to Neitsab├Ęs Terub (aka A76), for his below cover art design for this album. He really hit the nail on the head in capturing the essence of hip hop spirit from an African perspective. Anyone familiar with original hip hop flyer designs by artists like Phase II will surely love this. Without getting too wishy washy about it, hip hop is an example of life and creativity in the face of a shitty environment, and it is that kind of inventiveness, sharing, friendship, peace, love and unity that makes life worth living even if the walls are crumbling all around us.


  1. You guys have such a way with words. I always nod in agreement while I read your blog. I cannot believe you are preparing to leave already! I wish you all the best in your last days in Rwanda! I am continually in awe of all your have done.



    1. Elena - thank you for always reading and supporting. None of this would have happened had we not been primed so magnificently by you! Thank you for your patience with us "older folk" and preparing us for this adventure. My heart is breaking already at the thought of leaving! There is so much to do. These boys will forever hold a place in our hearts and minds as they do in yours.

  2. I second everything Elena said. I am so impressed at the work you have accomplished. Those boys will remember their time with you for the rest of their lives because you gave them a light they would have never had. Perhaps sometime in the future we can plan a shorter trip to visit with everyone. You are incredible!!!

    Love, Ally

    1. Thank you, Ally. We have tried to continue the good work started by Elena and yourself and many others before you. As you know, things are not always easy and black and white, but hopefully in the end what we have done will be a long-lasting positive contribution to their lives (I am risking sounding a bit pompous here!). I think your idea is brilliant! The boys would just flip if we all turned up at the same time. AND look on the bright side - house rental would be cheaper! Definitely something to keep in mind for the future. EDD volunteer reunion! Love back at ya! B+D