Ode To The One That Got Away

CHUK Hospital Ward

Sometimes, photography is a bit like I imagine fishing: it’s the shot you didn’t get or couldn’t take for whatever reason that sticks with you more than the ones that successfully clicked. Part disappointment, part the thought of what could have been.

Earlier this week I was working on a story at the referral hospital here in Kigali (yes, the same one where Lisa currently works – it’s a small world). A group of amazing volunteers from the local non-profit group Solid Africa are trying to address the chronic need to properly feed patients in the wards who are too poor to buy food at the hospita and lack the traditional support network of family because they have come to the central hospital from halfway across Rwanda.

Along with a local journalist, I joined the Solid Africa team as they prepared to carry out their regular Monday food distribution. While we waited for the truck with the prepared food to arrive, they took us on a tour of the wards to meet some of their beneficiaries. Along the way, our gracious hosts explained that the hospital did not allow photos to be taken in the wards that singled out individual patients, even if patients gave individual consent. Moreover, they pointed out, patients themselves were usually very hesitant to have their picture taken, in part because of the perceived stigma of being a patient.

Fair enough, but those limitations did leave me largely unable to visually document Solid Africa’s good work with a compelling personal angle – and that had been the whole point of the visit. I did get vaguely relevant overview shots of the gloomy crowds milling about the wards, and later on some decent shots of the food distribution taking place.

But at one point we were visiting the pediatric cancer ward – about as depressing and heart-wrenching a place as you can find. And there was this amazing little guy in a yellow t-shirt, maybe eight or 10 years old, skinny as a rail, pushing around a wheel chair in the middle of the courtyard for kicks, and sporting the sweetest smile. The Solid Africa team explained that he’d been at the hospital for quite some time, and was suffering from an intestinal tumor of some sort. That sounded pretty ominous, and quite apart from wanting to go over and hug the hell out of the little guy I also really wanted to get a picture of him with his wheel chair and his vivacious grin. It struck me as the perfect illustration of the defiant nature of a kid in dire straits, his will to live and his determination to have a bit of fun, no matter what kind of crappy curve ball the fates had thrown him.

He was fascinated by me and my camera; we’d made eye contact and he hadn’t shied away, so I’m pretty sure he would have been fine with me taking the picture. But I couldn’t. It was, after all, explicitly verboten, and besides, there was an army of very skeptical grandmothers and surly parents lingering on the periphery muttering something about “muzungu,” quite clearly not ready to let me get away with a candid snapshot or two.

So I had to resign myself to just admiring the little guy and let him go about his business. All the same, he stuck in my mind for the rest of the day, and now I’m compelled to find out more about him – hoping against hope to learn that he’s on the mend and will be dismissed soon.