Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pics of the week: June Wedding

June marks my fourth month in Rwanda and it was filled with a lot of great moments with friends and colleagues. Here are some of my favorite pictures: 

At a wedding with friends

Under the big top

Beautiful wedding dancers 

Happy Birthday Niyah!!

"I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them." - Mark Twain

For anyone that has ever traveled with friends, you can identify with the quote above. The best way to test the depth of your friendships is to travel with your friends. Over the years, I have traveled with a lot of my friends and while there have been some bumps along the way, most of my friendships have endured. One person that has been a constant travel companion is my friend Niyah.

I first met Niyah in 2005 on a missions trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil and since then, she has become one of my favorite travel partners. We have traveled to Cancun, Fiji, the Philippines, Haiti, Hawaii, Rio, and Egypt. The last time I saw Niyah was at the airport in NY on June 30, 2010. She was moving to Sydney, Australia to study Film and Television Production. It was a bittersweet occasion because I didn't know when I would see her again, but I was proud that she was finally pursuing her passion for making documentary films. Films that will shed light on injustice all over the world. June 30th also happens to be Niyah's birthday, and in her honor, I am showcasing some of the vacation and missions trip videos that she has produced over the years. Hopefully these videos inspire you to pursue your passions.

Happy Birthday Niyah!!  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Through the Eyes of Hope (Part 2)

Part 2 of my interview with Linda Smith, a photojournalist based in Rwanda. Linda is the founder of the "Through the Eyes of Hope" (TEOH) Project. 

Linda with the Mayange students
In a tiny, dimly lit room in Mayange, Linda is instructing five students on the “Cards of Hope” postcard project. The students are all boys who have been with the project for the last four years and range in age from 13 to 18 years old. Mayange is located in the district of Bugesera, an area that suffered the most during the Rwandan genocide, 17 years ago. The area with the assistance of the Millennium Villages Project, has been rebuilt in recent years and is now a model for health and community development. Jean, the oldest boy, credits the TEOH Project with helping him gain financial independence. “This helps me to fund my school fees and buy other small things for my family,” he says. When Jean’s father passed away in 2005, he was left to care for his two sisters and brother, while his mother worked to provide for the family. The TEOH project helps him and the other boys to earn a living by selling their photographs within the community.

Jacques, who is sitting next to Jean, wants to be a doctor when he grows up, and in addition to school fees, his earnings from the TEOH project enabled him to buy a goat and two hens for his family. He echoes, “I want to continue studying and this project helps me do that. I want to take more pictures so that we can build a photo studio here in Mayange and maybe even open a computer learning center.” As Linda explains the postcard project to the boys, their eyes light up at the prospect of sending their photos to people around the world. Immediately they start thinking of things to write on the back of the postcards. “Will it make it to New York? I want to go there someday,” says Fils, a shy 16 year old.

With the Mayange boys
The room suddenly fills with loud chatter and a barrage of questions from the boys to Linda. The room, which doubles as an Internet café, is located in the middle of the dusty streets of Mayange’s center. Janvier, the owner of the café, loans the room to the project on Saturdays, in exchange for a small fee. The boys keep their donated cameras throughout the week, which multiplies their opportunities to take pictures and earn money. After a period of sharing and reflecting, the project wraps up for the day and Linda says goodbye to the boys in Mayange. She then prepares to go to the Kagugu School in Kigali, an hour away. 

When she arrives, Prossy Yohana, her assistant, has already started to hand out the cameras to the 13 boys and girls present. As the children leave to take pictures within the community, Linda reminds them that they are low on photo paper so they have to limit themselves to three customers each. Even as the children groan at the thought of losing business because of limited supplies, Kofi, a rambunctious 13 year old, is already negotiating with the other kids for their three-picture allotment. Kofi has been a part of the TEOH Project for the last three years and is arguably the most outspoken and enterprising student in the project. While Linda has her share of problems with working children like Kofi, by combining the photography business with art therapy and counseling sessions, the children have been able to overcome some of the trauma associated with the genocide, including the loss of their parents and other loved ones.

As Linda reflects on the last few years, she notes that her lowest point came two years ago when she lost one of her students to an unknown infection. Emile, an ambitious 15-year-old boy who was one of the first students in the photography project, became sick in late 2009. Although, Linda suspected that Emile was suffering from appendicitis and he was quickly admitted to the hospital, Emile passed away the following morning from stomach complications. Linda was devastated and for a brief moment, she lost hope and considered abandoning the project all together.

Ironically, it was another incident involving one of her other students that convinced Linda not to give up. Odila, a young girl who had been with the project since the beginning, also fell ill. Odlila lost both of her parents to AIDS and she was infected with HIV. Cared for by her sister who could barely make ends meet, Odila was severely malnourished. When it came time for her to be placed on medication (ARVs), her immune system was too weak to support the regimen. Odila spent over a month in the hospital before finally pulling through. Through prayers and other interventions, Odila did not suffer the same fate as Emile and Linda’s hope was restored.

The students are thankful that Linda never gave up. She persevered and now she is seeing the fruits of her labor. “I want to be the President of Rwanda when I grow up,” says Kofi. “Linda has helped me so much by showing me how to take photos and how to relate to other people. Before the project, I couldn’t buy myself anything, now I can buy lotion, clothes and I can be smart.” Valentine, another one of the students at Kagugu, wants to be a doctor when she goes to college in a couple of years. “This project has helped me to take photos and now I can buy books for school and other personal items for my hygiene. I see Linda as my mom, before she came, we were lonely, but she has been comforting us and teaching us.”

More so than photography, perhaps the greatest lesson that Linda is teaching these students is the importance of hope and faith in their future. For many of them, it hasn’t been an easy road but they now realize that they can put the past behind them and dream big. They are the vision for the new Rwanda, and we can see the world through their eyes.

Linda with the students at the Kagugu School

For more information on Linda Smith and the "Through the Eyes of Hope" Project, please visit their website: or

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Through the Eyes of Hope (Part 1)

 The first part of the my interview with Linda Smith and her project, Through the Eyes of Hope. Linda  recently started an initiative called "Cards of Hope" (see right panel) to raise funds for a photo studio in Rwanda. See below to find out how this project started...

“These poignant accounts and many others like them depict a country on a path toward reconciliation. The resounding voices of survivors touch us in ways that no other words could,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the Visions of Rwanda photo project. The project, displayed at the United Nations on the 15th commemoration of the genocide in 2009, the work of a photojournalist named Linda Smith, who first began visiting Rwanda in 2006. As she made subsequent visits to Rwanda, Linda founded the Through the Eyes of Hope Project (TEOH Project), a non-profit with the goal of teaching basic photographic principles to extremely disadvantaged children and educating children who are interested in learning about the children of other cultures.

Linda as a baby with her aunt and brother
Linda was born in Hawaii, the daughter of an air force officer and a stay-at-home mom. The family left Hawaii before Linda’s fourth birthday and settled in a small town in Norwalk, CT right outside of Stamford, Connecticut. Growing up, Linda had a love for photography and majored in Photography at Syracuse University before moving to London to work as a photographer. While apprenticing some of London’s best photographers, Linda obtained her Master’s degree in Media and Communications at Goldsmith, a constituent college of the University of London. Following her three-year stint in London, Linda returned to the U.S., this time settling in New York City where she started her own wedding photography business.

After two years on the wedding circuit, Linda went on a missions trip with a local church to Rwanda in 2006. It was her first trip to Rwanda and she felt strangely drawn to the tiny country in East Africa. She was asked by her church to photograph the entire trip. She made the most of her by photographing several communities and non-profit organizations that she visited. After ten days, she left Rwanda, knowing that she would come back one day. As soon as she returned from her trip, Linda contacted the Rwandan Embassy in Washington D.C. about displaying her photos and when they agreed, Linda organized an exhibit highlighting Rwandan life. At the exhibit, Linda established some contacts that lead her to Rwanda the following year. Linda’s idea was simple, take cameras to Rwanda and teach children how to take photos, so they could tell their stories through pictures. The following year, she organized a month long workshop with genocide orphans and HIV infected children. It was while conducting this workshop that Linda met Prossy Yohana who would eventually become her assistant in the project.

Linda with the first group of children in Mayange.     
The Kagugu School, a primary school in Kigali, sponsored the first workshop, and the children were selected by their peers based on their social needs. The workshop went so well that Linda didn’t want it to end, in fact, with Prossy’s help, the workshop continued on Saturdays while Linda returned to New York. However, Linda found it hard to stay away and returned to Rwanda within three months, at which time she introduced the photography workshop to children within the Millennium Villages Project as well as Partners in Health (PIH). By that time, word had begun to spread about the work that Linda was doing with the children and by the fall of 2007, the United Nations contacted her about working with both genocide victims and perpetrators. The six-week workshop later became the "Visions of Rwanda" exhibit, which was displayed at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in the spring of 2009, before moving to Rwanda in 2010.

When she returned to Rwanda to coordinate the exhibit in the latter part of 2009, Linda was subsequently offered a teaching position at a university in Kigali at the beginning of 2010. She accepted the position and moved to Rwanda full-time in April 2010.When Linda moved to Rwanda, she set her sights on working with the children in Kagugu and Mayange. Beyond just conducting photography workshops, Linda wanted the project to become self-sustainable so she came up with the idea for selling passport pictures, and prints to people in the community. The students would take pictures, sell them for 500 Rwfs (approximately 75 cents) and use the money to support themselves and the project. By giving ten percent of their earnings to the project, the kids buy their own photo paper and other materials, while using the remainder for school fees, food or other necessities.

In the midst of instructing the students and getting the project off the ground, a tragedy happened that would haunt Linda for a long time. She was at a crossroads, and the future of the project began to look uncertain. The bright hope that she had suddenly turned to deep disappointment and anger…

(stay tuned for part 2)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Quote of the week: "We Have Lived."

As a blogger and writer, I spend most of my days thinking about stories and how to make them meaningful for the audience. It's hard sometimes to know what will inspire, motivate and challenge readers to take action and support a particular cause or way of thinking. Coming from a sales background, I am persuasive by nature, but telling a story is more than persuasion or strong arm tactics, it's connecting with readers in a way that touches their hearts. The people that I am writing about whether a nurse, patient, colleague or government official, all have a story that will touch at least one other person. This quote by Natalie Goldberg sums up the purpose of writing: 

"We have lived. Our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history." 
Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones

Another wish list book that I came across today is Tell to Win by Peter Guber. I downloaded the first chapter of the book from his website and I look forward to reading this book in the future. I will post a review when I do. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Access News!

Check out the latest edition of the Access News! This was a definite labor of love, hope you enjoy it!