The New Times (Kigali)

11 January 2013

Rwanda: Cyahafi Slum - Where the Poor Smile At Poverty

If you don't stay or have a relative residing here count yourself blessed. During the rainy season sewage from higher residential areas ends up here and in the dry season this area is choked with its own garbage.

Welcome to Cyahafi slum. Located just a few kilometers from CBD, Cyahafi in Gitega Sector is the kind of place that makes you ask, "how can next door to spotlessness live so much filth?

As people continue to migrate to towns they end up in slums where they can live a life of a shoe string budget while they work towards their dreams. Residents pay Rwf 20,000 or less for a one-roomed house, a plate of food goes for Rwf500 and a haircut costs 300 to 400 francs. The residents, who have jobs as house-help, roadsweepers, motorcyclists and barbers, have one thing in common- they smile through the biting poverty and mask their pain and sorrow.

Walking around I met a young man wearing a permanent ear-to-ear smile that I suspected was induced by whatever substance he was high on.

He introduced himself as Papi and greeted me like I was an old acquaintance. He asked me if I was looking for a "good time with the ladies' or umuti (marijuana)". When I shook my head, he stepped back like I was a leper! "Who are you? Police or Jehovah's Witness?" he asked in a nervous tone.

"I'm a local tourist; I just want to take look around your area," I repiled. He instantly relaxed and shook my hand again and informed me how I was lucky since he was the right person to show me around.

He became my personal tour-guide across the slum and he was worth every penny. We came across stinking overflowing gutters, sewage and rubbish competing with space with the residents, kids playing in the sewer or restaurant proprietors preparing food right next to filthy water channels.

What really got to me was watching kids, happily playing in dirty sewer waters like they were in swimming pools.

When I started taking photos, I was quickly surrounded by countless happy little faces begging me to take their photos too. It took forever to flee myself from them.

As we walked deeper into the neighborhood I started feeling uneasy. You know the feeling you get when you find yourself in a spot that makes you intuitively button the pocket where you keep your wallet? That's what it was like.

Like deep-water sharks, real goons don't reveal themselves until it is too late. I learnt this the hard way. As I was taking photos I found myself staring into the bloodshot eyes of a huge mean looking bloke!

The ghetto goliath didn't say a word as he towered over me. He simply blocked my path, thrust his spade-like palm at me. I put my hand in the pocket of my shirt and I pulled out all the cash I had on me, two bank notes of one thousand and five thousand francs respectively. Though it was my hard-earned cash, I immediately handed him the five thousand franc note. He obviously didn't think it was enough because he grabbed the last banknote and, only then did he let me pass.

My tour guide didn't even try to intercede. All he did was sheepishly shy away from the situation like a naughty nun caught in a nightclub. After the incident my appetite for going deeper into the dark alleyways waned. Plus, the stench was nauseating.

Saving the energy for jumping trenches on my way back, I told Papi I had seen and smelt more than needed to and it was time he helped me navigate my way back to civilisation.

As I waved bye to the beautiful, happy-go-lucky children, I felt my heart swell with pity; they deserved better! I said a sincere prayer and left feeling like someone had sliced off a piece of my heart. The people I met there will always be in my prayers.

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