Rwanda: The Pediatrics Ward

Walking into the pediatrics ward at a rural district hospital supported by Inshuti Mu Buzima (Partners In Health), I felt uneasy, self-conscious - I didn't know how to be, what to say, what to do. I was fixated on the language barriers, on my lack of knowledge about cultural or social cues. I held back, watching my sister Hannah walk around the room, saying hello to the children and shaking the hands of the parents who stay at the hospital - day and night - with their kids.  

As my eyes skittered around the room, I realized I was looking for some sign from the people there - mostly from the parents - that it was okay that I was there, that I was doing or saying the right things, being the right way. Seeking some sort of permission from parents who were attending to their sick children was understandable, but I knew what I really wanted was for them to comfort me, to take away my uneasiness 

Hannah, on the other hand, was greeting everyone with warmth. If she had any self-consciousness, she set it aside, knowing that what was important in that moment was not her own sense of emotional comfort. Instead, she seemed secure in the knowledge that what anyone - sick or well, Rwandan or American,  young or old - wants is someone to take an interest in them, to look them in the eyes, and engage with them. It was one of the many lessons I learned from my little sister in that small village. 

Here in the US, we're inundated with pictures - of each other, of ourselves, of what we ate and where we've been. On our mantles, in our wallets, on our facebook pages. We love documenting our lives so much that we've put cameras into our cell phones so that we're never without the ability to capture a moment. There are whole sections of stores - whole stores, even - devoted to scrapbooking and websites created for the sole purpose of sharing our images with each other. 

And it's glorious. As an amateur photographer, I love it. I love carrying my camera around with me. I love posting my photos and seeing what people have to say. I love the brief glimpses into other people's lives. 

But all this photography is more than just fun. It's also evidence of an unspoken belief by all of us that what we're doing, who we are, what we're wearing today is worthy of documentation. It's worthy of remembering. It's worthy of sharing with the world. People care (or should care) about who we are and what's happening in our lives. We take it as a given.

In Rwinkwavu at the pediatrics ward, the air changed when my mom and sister took out their cameras. I hadn't brought mine because we thought my big Nikon might be disconcerting. Perhaps it would've been, but I could feel the excitement rise when the children and their parents saw the little cameras. Some ran right over and asked for their pictures to be taken. Others hung back shyly but stared under lowered eyelids hoping that one of us would notice them. 

One boy could not raise himself from his bed but whispered to his mother, who called us over so that we would take his picture. 

After each shot, we turned the camera around so that they could see their own images reflected back. Sometimes they looked uncomfortable when the camera was on them, unsure of what to do. But once we turned it around, they smiled and pointed to the screen. Children giggled and poked at each other. And then they crowded into clumps and asked for more and more. 

Every picture we took was a statement. 

Your life is important enough to be documented. 

You, in this moment, are worthy of remembering.

Your face is so precious that I want to bring an image of it home with me and share it.

There are albums and albums of images of me at my mother's house - thirty-one years of documenting and remembering and honoring my life. I am so glad for them and for the ability to keep capturing moments.

One of the greatest gifts I've ever received was the opportunity to experience these children's and parents' joy when someone showed that same interest in honoring their lives for just a few brief moments.

David, in the yellow shirt above, is in India getting a special heart surgery. Please keep him and his family in your thoughts. 

Everyone wants to be seen, documented, remembered, honored. 

There are stories being lived everywhere.


As for the pillowcases that all you wonderful folks made, they were gorgeous. We distributed about thirty of them at this ward. More were sent to children and families in a hospital in Kirehe, Rwanda. The families loved them. Many of the babies there are so tiny that the parents used the pillowcases as blankets to cover them. The older children were so happy to have received something special just for them. 

And they were all delighted to share their new treasures with the camera.