Describe Rwanda in a word: complex.
Describe Kigali in a word: growing.
How can you truly describe a city? Can you find the most accurate of words, people, places, images, smells, food, and sounds?
The sweet burning of corn kernels over fire infuse your lungs while smog of over-sized buses and sounds of street sellers desperately shouting your name so they can sell you on over-grown, far too smelly shirt surround you. Lord knows where the shirt came from.
How then can you tell a story?
I prefer words most often, but with our words, we need visuals. Words bring to life; photographs bring color, possibility, and recognition.
In efforts to push the boundaries of adventure, I decided to seek something different to do last week.
Kigali has a plethora of delicious restaurants these days (Indian, Asian, Mexican….you name it, it’s likely here), and there are even more sporting events to attend, and art galleries to peruse. I desired something gritty. Something a bit more, in the thick of things.
I have lived in-and-out of this lovely country since late 2011 and in that time, had never had the opportunity to photograph and see Kigali intimately. It has felt rushed here sometimes, and usually inappropriate to whip out my Canon and say hey! I’m taking a photo! And so, despite that duration of time, I had never been able to take my time, to really see what Kigali is – underneath the nice scrub n’clean that you see from miles away. It’s a clean city – nobody would deny that- and it’s changed a lot. Therein lies a story to be told. Change.
I have known about Vayando for a while now but had never participated in any of the experiences or activities offered. Started by a couple of old Peace Corps Volunteers (go figure), Vayando seeks to “put micro-entrepreneurs on the tourism map” by matching interested travelers with up and coming local businessmen and women. Want to try basket weaving? There’s a place for you. Maybe night fishing is your thing? That’s available as well. Once a traveler is booked and has their experience, the entrepreneur is compensated, marketed, and continues to receive a steady stream of revenue, highlighting their ingenuity, ideas, and skills. It’s a different kind of tourism, and it’s a heck of a kind of awesome.
Wanting to practice more with my beloved Canon I nearly jumped at the opportunity to do street photography with Yakubu.
I booked almost immediately, grabbed a friend, and prepared for a day around the town.
It was better than I even expected. We went on the tops of buildings, in streets that I had not ever walked, and in corners of the city that I didn’t even know existed. We got to see varying attitudes of photography in Rwanda – why people get so nervous with cameras around – and how Yakubu himself, a freelancer, negotiates with community members to ensure them that he is telling a story – not doing anything else. I asked him how he found “just the right photo” and he emphasized that especially with people, it’s about them. You may be clicking the button, but it’s art when an image tells a story of who someone is without saying anything at all.
I loved that he said that, and I loved that I had the chance to receive advice, angles, and tips from someone so well versed in the photography world. It excited me even more that he’s Rwandan; growing on the international scene of photography talent; paving a way for future photographers to come from the country too. I got to spend three hours with Yakubu, traveling by foot around town, learning, watching, observing, and clicking away. If you find yourself in Rwanda, check this out. You won’t be disappointed. Especially if you so happen to love telling stories. It’s just another way of sharing with the world what God has made so beautiful – life.
All the complicated details
Of the attiring and the desalting are completed
A liquid moon
Moves gently among
The long branches
Thus having prepared their buds
Against a sure winter
The wise trees
Stand sleeping in the cold.
William Carlos Williams, “Winter Trees”
William Carlos Williams became my favorite poet when I read arguably his most famous poem, The Red Wheelbarrow. It goes like this:
So much depends
A red wheel
Glazed with rain
I could tell you that I fell in love with his limerick abilities by the brilliant use of a poetic device known as “enjambment”. That would be terribly like an English major. Though it is true; I quite liked the first time I read this poem, back in college.
It was short.
Yet, the depth is undeniable. Even when the English majors and their long-winded explanations irritated the heck out of me, I began to appreciate what poetry said about the world, about things, about love, and about us. The Red Wheelbarrow says a lot – and with so little – and so “WCW” as we referred to him, became the poet that I latched onto in my term papers and poetry analysis. I managed a solid “B” for the course, which I was proud of. I hadn’t taken a poetry course previously and I certainly developed an enthusiasm for the topic as the weeks progressed in the semester.
The “Winter Trees” poem came to me when I was wrapped in my down comforter, grasping my warmed coffee mug, watching the snowy landscape outside our living room window on Christmas morning. The winter trees came alive in the way he describes them as standing “sleeping in the cold.” Williams touches on the silencing of the complicated and allowing something to exist exactly as it is. That, my friends, is why I love trees in the first place.
With a Colorado childhood, it’s not surprising that I spent a lot of time around them.
Deep groves would line the paths that Grandma, Lance, and I would walk to feed the ducks on Wednesdays just before dusk.
I would run into trees when the soccer ball went out of bounds at the park on Saturday game days. Those fields were bull-dozed and now host a mega-super mall on the corners of Arapahoe & Parker.
On camping trips, we’d build little forts in between mountaintops of Aspens. We have pictures to prove it.
Like best friends, snow always snuck in between the spaces of the pine trees outside my elementary school; that fresh smell of snow on pine always brings me back to our majestic mountain range, the Rockies.
Even as I got older and extended my stomping grounds beyond my home, the particular beauty of trees became more obvious.
Palm trees would stick out like razor thin spears as we’d drive down California highways for field hockey tournaments.
Oaks – in sizes I had never seen before – graced the streets of New Orleans and it was nothing short of heavenly.
As I migrated to warmer places full of sunshine, something about the sun & the trees together began to captivate me.
I started taking photographs. Of trees. Of trees and sun. Of me and the trees. Of the sky and the trees.
You get the idea.
Years later this became the result:
Yes. This is my massive “travel tree map.” It includes photographs as recent as earlier this fall and also from nearly 10 years ago. Trees shown on the map come from Vietnam, England, France, Ghana, Togo, Rwanda, Belgium, Costa Rica, Mexico, Tanzania, and Benin. Many of the 50 states are also included too. I took these photos, entranced by the trees, and also knowing I wanted to eventually create something that captured what makes trees so fascinating to me.
And here’s exactly what it is:
Trees are master storytellers. Sunsets pass, people change, societies cease to exist, and generations come and go.
Yet, with you, you have trees.
Trees begin with something as small as a seed and yet can grow in various lengths, shapes, sizes, and depth.
Trees often come together and as a grouping, their presence seems all the more powerful.
Trees are honest. Sometimes oddly-shaped; sometimes barren with no leaves; sometimes old with worn bark.
I like trees because they are just about the most natural thing that I can think of or relate to in the world.
God gives the world so much innate beauty and I firmly believe that trees are a part of that.
Photographing trees has allowed me to understand that our time here, in this earth, is so SO limited. It’s a “blip on the radar”.
Trees have forced me to slow down, to fathom this, and to contemplate what it actually means to live a meaningful, full, honest life. I’m not tree hugger – well, maybe I am – but I have embraced and accepted these things:
Meaningful doesn’t mean a life of good works only because society says “aha, that has meaning.”
Full doesn’t mean planning every single moment so you can feel useful or productive in our society.
Honest doesn’t mean standing on a soapbox, telling the world how to live or projecting an image that you think is honest, but really isn’t at all.
I’ve struggled in some of these areas and trees remind me that I don’t have to. Because ultimately:
My best writing has typically come under, literally, extended limbs and branches.
Peace has forced its way through in times of anxiety when I’ve found myself seeking a quiet grove.
And in the creation of this tree project of mine, I have realized that I’m fortunate in seeing the amount of the trees that I have. Because the sheer number of trees also indicates places, people, and cultures that I have grown to either be curious about, to be unsure about, to completely disregard, or to embrace entirely. When I see that map, that’s what I see.
I see my story, written on walls with photographs of trunks, branches, and limbs. Usually green.
It’s not a story always easily explainable. There are parts that hurt to share. There are parts that bring sincere joy. Yet, for good, or for bad, it’s the story.
Like Williams notes, the “complicated details” fall away and you are left with an image of strength.
Yes, trees give us oxygen, give us wood, essentially, give us life.
For me, they also give strength, standing firm even when rocked, bent, or broken. Some of these trees stand in places destroyed by illness, war, storm, or re-development. Whatever the reason, they come back. They are planted again.
So maybe you need something to help tell your story. If it means you have to make a huge wall of tree photos? Do it. Though it’s kind of weird.
If it means writing poetry, singing a song, calling a friend, preaching at church, making scrapbooks, holding close to family heirlooms…whatever it might be, do it.
Because all of our stories can hurt, can redeem, and can bring about a more honest, real world.
That’s what I hope my tree wall does. Shares a story that hopefully ignites other stories to be told.
That’s why I love trees.
This Sunday, I decided after church and mass (because today I did both) that I would walk around Denver for a bit and reacquaint myself with the Capitol Hill area. I went to mass at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, mosied around the Denver Public library, walked the art district, and hung out with squirrels in the park. It was a great day.