Editor’s note: February 20 is the World Day of Social Justice. In honor of this day, we bring you a portrait of extreme poverty in Rwanda.
His name is Frank. He’s 18 months old and near death.
Frank is severely malnourished, dehydrated, feverish and coughing. We discover later that the cough is most likely due to tonsillitis (a small relief, as pneumonia was first suspected). He lives in Bugusera District, Eastern Province of Rwanda. My co-worker Leigh Wood and I have met Frank and his parents on a trip to document the need for Heifer’s work in this beautiful, hopeful country. This is a slightly different trip for us: we are in areas of Rwanda where Heifer does not currently operate, but hopes to soon. We are here to capture images like Frank’s. And we realize that the few stories we will capture are but the tip of the iceberg.
There is no food in Frank’s house. In fact, there’s hardly anything at all in his house. It’s a mud-and-stick structure about as big as most Americans’ dining rooms. There’s a dirt floor, a low wooden bench and a straw mat for sleeping. The sun shines through the holes in the wall as lizards scamper along the framework. Rwanda is an incredibly green, lush place, and vegetables will grow where they are planted in Frank’s yard. But the land has been handed down and sub-divided to the point where the family’s only plot for growing is about as big as the tiny house itself. He has not eaten today. Yesterday? Maybe, maybe not. His father drinks what little money comes in, and his mother tends their few plants as well as she can.
Frank’s mom gets him the mile or so down the road to the Rango Health Station where he is examined. He receives some juice and antibiotics. When we return to his house to continue filming, the difference is amazing. He has perked up, is talking and even walking some, a tad unsteadily. The village children turn out in scores to watch the muzungus (white people) and their cameras. At one point, Leigh pulls away from us, and I see her wiping her eyes. At that moment, I realize that Frank is almost the exact same age as Leigh’s baby boy at home in the States. A lump forms in my throat as I watch Leigh regain her composure and proceed to gleefully entertain and distract the dozens of children. (She is amazing to watch in this occupation.) I think to myself “the lump in my throat will go away. I know this. The hunger Frank feels will not.”
I’m struck by how little it took to snatch Frank from death’s door. A little nutrition, some medication. And how little it would take to change this family… this village… this district… this country. That’s why Heifer is here. That’s why we’re here, Leigh and I, to give witness to this solvable problem. We have seen scores of families and villages like Frank’s. We talk to the parents, play ball with the kids, entertain them across a language barrier and ultimately realize they’re not that different from us.
Can we make a difference in poverty at this scale? After seeing what so little can do for such dire circumstances as Frank’s, I’m convinced we can. What slight discomfort we might feel allocating the resources to make a difference will go away. But unless we do, the hunger won’t.