Who Shapes the Narrative?

A community asserts its power to tell its story.

The dirt road that leads to the village of Kagamo is jolting and narrow, little more than a gash cut into the foothills of northwestern Rwanda’s jagged Virunga volcanoes. As our Land Rover crunches over chunks of soft volcanic rock, my guide tells me about the people who live here. They are desperately poor, he says. Many eat only once every two days. They have no land. Most of the children will never go to school.

I nod. I am listening, but I am not really listening. I already know all this, I think impatiently as I watch the clouds drag themselves across the volcanoes like ripped cotton balls. Those cotton ball clouds will make for a good description in my story, I decide, scribbling myself a note.

“Life is very hard here,” he continues. “These people have nothing.”

I murmur an assent, but my mind is elsewhere. I am not here to write the story he is unspooling—which sounds like yet another tale of a poor, dark continent and its poor, dark people. I’m determined not to be that kind of foreign correspondent in Africa, and anyway, I’ve already spun my editors at home a very different idea—a dramatic tale of cultural resilience and a people rising from the ashes of an unkind history.

Those people are the Twa, Rwanda’s indigenous ethnic minority, who until recently lived nomadic lives as hunter-gatherers in the country’s thick forests. And the village we are headed to is ground zero in the tale of their dispossession—a squatter community carved out after the government evicted them from a nearby national park to make way for its conservation projects three decades ago.

Weeks earlier, a friend had put me in touch with this brooding young activist, my guide, who runs a small NGO in Kigali advocating for the rights of the Twa, a group alternately ignored and exploited by successive generations of Rwandan leadership. Via a patchy Skype connection, I explained that I wanted to write about how, amid this repression, the Twa had managed to keep alive so many of their distinctive traditions. “Come,” he said. “I’ll show you around. It sounds like a great story.”

But now, listening to his monologue about Twa dispossession, I wonder if we were imagining the same story at all.

Eventually, my guide murmurs something to the driver in Kinyarwanda, and the Land Rover disgorges us in front of an unassuming mud hut. Rain is beginning to fall in hard pellets, and a man standing in the doorway quickly ushers us inside. There, in the pungent darkness, a naked baby with a distended belly sits playing with the ashes of an old cook fire. The man who’d let us in explains that they spend most of their days exactly as we are now—waiting.

“But then sometimes tourists come to see us, and we dance for them until they give us tips,” he says, laughing a throaty, guttural laugh. I feel a quiet horror creeping in—this is exactly the vision of Africa, drab and disempowered, that I’d been so desperate to avoid.

I look over at the activist, who to my surprise is nodding approvingly. “You see how it is here?” he asks me rhetorically. “You must write for your friends at home that life is very hard. Tell them they must send money.”

Suddenly, I understand. In the eyes of my guide, this had always been the article I was here to write, a tragic tale of victimhood that would spur the world to action. That story—the very one I’d been scoffing at as disempowering and demeaning—was to him the most powerful he had, because it was the one that would open hearts and pocketbooks and, therefore, opportunity. My imagined tale of resilience on the margins might be more interesting to me, but he saw it for its practical value—nothing.

By the time we drove away from Kagamo that afternoon, I’d realized my mistake. Armed with my own twitchy sense of injustice about Africa’s portrayal on the global stage, I had decided I already knew how this community would want to be seen to the outside world. But they had other ideas. I thought the power to shape the narrative rested on my shoulders. They knew it had never belonged to anyone but them.

As the Land Rover bounced toward Kigali, I watched the clouds slink over the mountains in the rearview mirror. But they didn’t look like cotton balls anymore. They were only clouds.

Brown ’11 is a freelance reporter based in Johannesburg, where she covers southern Africa for The Christian Science Monitor and other publications. She traveled to Rwanda on a fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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