I never would have predicted that having not previously been to the continent, I’d visit four countries in Africa in just over a year. My first visit ever was part of a rehabilitation team travelling through western Kenya, including a stop in Cape Town; followed by a photography assignment for a group retreat in Morocco 8 months later. Less than half a year after that, I was preparing for a solo departure to Rwanda. As I reflect on these trips, I’m grateful that not only did they expose me to different countries and cultures, but also that they each varied so greatly in purpose.
My trip to Rwanda in March of 2019 meant officially adding a new type of photography experience to my list - documentary - and I was super excited about the opportunity thanks to Photographer’s Without Borders (PWB). Deciding to elevate my photography to a new level a few years ago, I have slowly come to realize that I’ve embarked on a pretty special journey. There is so much to learn in this medium. The people I meet along the way, the places I visit, and the experiences that come along with growing as a photographer are indeed making it very special.
Joining Photographers Without Borders
I became a member with PWB in June 2018 following a portfolio review. PWB is a not-for-profit organization which pairs photographers (and videographers) with NGOs around the world who don’t have the means to create their own imagery. Eyeing their list of projects for a few months, I ended up applying for one that involved working with an NGO that assists women with disabilities through art. I felt it was a good fit given my physiotherapy background as well as my interest in art. PWB set me up with a fundraising page and over 6 months, I reached out to you and others for assistance with this volunteer project.
As it happens, it was soon time to pack my bags and travel to Kigali to document the work of the NGO Talking Through Art (TTA). But not before a few days of nerves when I realized I was flying less than a week after the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max crash. Not normally a nervous flyer, I was definitely a little on edge with each take-off - there were 3 of them that day. Needless to say, I arrived safely and was glad not to have to think about flying for another 2 weeks.
Assisting women living with a disability
Talking Through Art is based in the residential suburb of Gikondo, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. All activities take place in the house that the NGO occupies. From Monday to Friday, women with a disability (and a few men) arrive at their scheduled time, gather their weaving materials, and work on their weaving projects alongside each other. At any given time, they may be starting a basket, finishing a wall decoration, or in the middle of completing a wedding favour. Projects are sometimes completed by more than one person and can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks depending on the complexity and size of the design.
As well as being a working space, TTA headquarters also acts like a gallery and a place to take part in weaving workshops. Visitors stop by from time to time to browse the gallery and purchase souvenirs made by TTA members. Completed projects are also sold in a few different shops in Rwanda as well as internationally.
TTA provides its members with all the raw materials needed for weaving and pays them a monthly wage for their work. A few of the organization’s long-standing members also are also on staff, with roles ranging from helping customers, cooking meals, keeping the grounds clean, amongst others. These women earn an additional income on top of their weaving income.
Documenting the work of NGO Talking Through Art
My role as photographer during these two weeks was to document the story of Talking Through Art and portray how they are assisting the local disabled community. This meant capturing events taking place on site, such as day to day weaving and English lessons, as well as the weekly yoga class, and the behind the scenes maintenance of the property and food preparation. Staying on site meant I could witness how TTA and its members functioned from sunrise to sunset.
Documentary photography often also involves stepping away from the main setting or activity in order to find the bigger picture, or to decipher how one story fits into the bigger story. In order to get a more complete picture of this NGO, I stepped outside its headquarters, visiting an adjacent community (including some time at a Sunday church service), the Kigali Genocide Memorial, and the vibrant and eclectic suburb of Nyamirambo. I also had the chance to explore the local suburb - Gikondo - at sunset as well as while the city was waking up. These were important experiences as they helped me better understand Rwandan history and the way of life in Kigali. A quick weekend away to the Nyungwe Rainforest allowed me to see Rwanda outside of Kigali and take in its rural villages and natural beauty. The land of a thousand hills, indeed.
A day in a rural Rwandan village
One of the most memorable moments during my time in Rwanda with TTA was a visit to the rural community of Rwamagana. This day trip allowed me to get a sense of life in a Rwandan village. I accompanied two TTA staff members and a volunteer for this trip, and we travelled by bicycle, motorbike and on foot within the village. Our purpose was to speak with local women with disabilities to gauge their interest in learning how to weave. TTA already supports a group of female weavers in another village outside Kigali. With the knowledge that many Rwandans living with a disability live in rural areas, this was an attempt to start the process of forming another remote group of women in the hope of helping them earn an income.
We first met with the head woman of the village who was most familiar with who resided in her village. She took us to meet with two women. I documented these interactions between TTA staff and the women in their homes. We learned that it is difficult for these women to get around and that without the assistance of family and neighbours, they struggle with not only having a roof over their heads, but also often with self-care. These day to day struggles were difficult things to hear for each of us. Despite these barriers, both women showed interest in becoming members of TTA and acknowledged that there were other women in the village in similar situations.*
One woman is often placed in the role of manager of a remote weaving group, keeping track of orders and their progress. Finished products are brought to TTA headquarters to be sold on site or overseas, profits from which go back to the women themselves. With this type of setup, TTA reaches women outside of Kigali who are unable to travel to the city, increasing the financial independence of more women.
* Many more women have been recruited since this visit and a local weaving group has been formed.
Takeaways from documenting an NGO
Running an NGO is more than a full-time job - from getting it established to day to day functioning to ensuring growth. It takes a lot of guts, determination and flat-out hard work.
Reflecting on your past experiences can really highlight how far you’ve come and bring meaning to the path you’re on.
Stay in touch with your roots because you never know how helpful they can be.
It takes time, and often failure, to bring together a group of people who share your passion to help others and who are willing to work towards the same goal.
Thank you Talking Through Art and Photographers Without Borders for this opportunity.
Interested in volunteering abroad? Check out this post: