Rwanda - Facing the Virus

Potamienne sings softly as she plays with her youngest son and sorts beans for the night's meal in her yard. As you photograph her in the late afternoon light, you knock against something behind you and nearly fall. She pays no attention and you don't mention it, but later you learn that it is her husband's grave. The man who gave her AIDS.

It is one of those small things that tell you about Rwanda, a small, beautiful and fertile land that has had more than its fair share of trauma in its brief history.

The Rwandese, packed tightly into their borders, have learned the real meaning of forgiveness and acceptance.

“How can I be angry?” Potamienne later tells you. She obviously still loves him and, in any case, her priority now is too clothe and feed her children while she still can. She also has the local AIDS Association, of which she is the secretary, to think about…

My work here was an attempt to look at the steps taken in a province near the Rwandan/Burundian border by the Rwandan Health authorities and Concern, to test and educate those people at risk from the virus. Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, the virus is stealing a generation. Life expectancy here, despite the virus is only around 43 years and, although the country has made incredible strides since the carnage, more than 5% of the population have HIV/AIDS. During the civil war, rape was used as an instrument of terror and now many are living with the consequences. Lack of education, poverty and isolation have fuelled the spread of the disease.

There are many small, quiet stories here - people walking for hours to come and be tested, just to know. Others learning to live with the disease. A man caring for his wife in her last days. A farmer, positive but with faith, praying with his family in the early morning before working his fields. Small stories, beautiful stories.

The Rwandese have faith above all else, which is why they say:

“imana yirirwa ahandi igataha i Rwanda” (“God stays in other locations then comes to spend the night in Rwanda”)

© Stuart Freedman

 Sources: WHO/UNAIDS epidemiological fact sheets on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2004 Update