Beauty In Karagwe: Perched On The Edge of The World

“A beautiful view does not fill your stomach” – Peter Moore in Swahili for the Broken-Hearted

I could fill ten blog posts with what I’ve seen in the past three days. Not to mention that the two previous weeks still have blog-able events pending.

During In Country Training, we had a presentation in which someone said “there is no doubt that this picture shows abject poverty”. All I recall is that it was a mud house. I remember thinking, how does one make that statement from looking at a picture? I feel the same way about the images of World Vision children – protruding bellies and flies in their eyes*. I’ve been to some very poor communities in West Africa and having spent time with the families, in the farms, in the kitchens, lounging in the hot afternoon during Ramadan, dancing with my girls and roaming the village, I would not call it abject poverty, although it almost certainly was. When traveling in Mali, we passed through village after village that I swear were being kept poor just so the tourists would have something to look at. On a boat trip up the Niger River, I just stopped getting out at villages. I couldn’t stomach being the rich white girl with the camera for one more second. But would I ever have noticed, if I had not forced myself to face up to it? Probably not. And for some reason it feels different when you’ve taken the time to learn the language and behave respectfully in the culture. Is it? I don’t know.

I have some deep-seated aversion to calling attention to people’s misfortune, it’s the Single Story of Africa, and the world deserves to know more. So when I was asked to take a picture of some elderly people living in a house made of corn husks this weekend, I initially refused. I did, in the end, mostly because we were on a Monitoring and Evaluation trip and one must document to see change. But why the hesitation? Is it just too hard to see? Am I creating my own single story by refusing to cater to the one that already exists? Or am I being respectful, as I would like to think?

This may seem like a picture of despair, but it really shows hope: the shack next to her used to house all five members of the family plus a battered woman who hid there with her two children when her husband was abusive. SAWAKA donated the sheeting for the roof on the house in the background, and with much persuading (they were not enthused), the community helped build the walls. Now the family has a more permanent structure and were also given a goat, which looks shiny, healthy and gave birth a few months ago.

Even if I had tried to hide from abject poverty this weekend, I would not have been able to. We were traveling in Karagwe, a district North-East of Muleba (where I am) on the Rwandan and Ugandan borders, the uppermost corner of Tanzania. It’s beautiful, breathtakingly so. We were working mostly with an NGO called SAWAKA, who have a contingent of very capable, English-speaking staff, and nice office facilities. In fact, Karagwe town surprised me. It’s bigger and more developed than Kamachumu. However once you move outside the town, which I’m sure few do, you find a different story.

The red circle is our base, Kyanga. The green are project sites that we visited.

Up in the hills, roads made slick by the rain (a month and a half early, I might add), we visited families and groups supported by SAWAKA and VSO’s gender fund. There were projects ranging from tailoring to selling fish to cultivating pineapples to raising chickens. We met people; widows, divorcees, volunteers; providing for their communities, their extended families, for people living with HIV, for orphans, for battered women, for girls forced out of school by “poor moral character”, i.e., pregnancy. Most of all these people are struggling to send children to school; school fees are a constant problem. But other things are a problem too: blankets, roofs, walls, food, sleeping space….

These two lovelies (I’m not talking about myself) have a beautiful home, and the Mama leads their women’s group deftly. What is not apparent is that her husband left her and her daughter (on the left) got pregnant and now will likely never be allowed back to school although she qualified for secondary. She is participating in the income generation projects and learning a lot about business, though! She also has a brilliant role model in her mother. 

On Saturday we stopped on the way home to visit a man living in a beautiful compound. The first thing I noticed was Noam Chomsky on the sizable bookshelf, then the flatscreen and the white reclining couches. He’s a retired diplomat who has lived all over the world but chose to retire to Karagwe, his home. Exclaiming over the magnificent scenery, I was brought up short when he said that scenery doesn’t matter when you’re poor, that lack of infrastructure requires these people to haul water and produce up and down those sheer, picturesque hills, that even if power lines were to mar the vistas, the villagers wouldn’t be able to afford electricity. Reading my book that same night I came across the quote I opened with.

I don’t like writing these things any more than I liked seeing them. I don’t feel holier-than-thou with solutions and reasons and having been the person taking that picture of poverty. But I guess it’s part of the story too. It’s just as real as dancing and clapping and laughing and skinny cows and banana disease and drunk driving and crappy roads and entrepreneurial women making wine and donuts and loving parents and people who do talk to their children, every day, and girls who climb onto your lap and speak fluent Swahili at the age of 4, and dishevelled clothing and dropping out of school and rape and the difficult coffee markets and strong women mentoring their communities and orphans growing their own food and husband-wife teams and social isolation and the divide between rich and poor. It’s all real, so real most of us close our hearts to it, so the real challenge is to face it head on, I guess, and don’t block it out. But not to revel in poverty like we’ve been anointed to save the world. It’s a fine line. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s invisible, and who can contend with that?


*Ironically enough I am now working somewhat closely with World Vision, and just the other day got to hear about the developing-country side of the child-sponsorship funding mechanism. I hope to visit a Canadian-sponsored Area Development Program within the next few weeks.