Surfacing Time (Rwanda)
Participatory Photography with a Historically Marginalized Community
This project used participatory photography to surface and share stories about long histories of discrimination experienced by a historically marginalized community in North West Rwanda.
Today Rwanda is home to 25-30,000 historically marginalized people (HMP) formerly known as Batwa. Often to be found living in the forest, and frequently described as indigenous to the Great Lakes, they have faced discrimination in Rwanda since pre-colonial times. Over the past century, with the establishment of national parks, these people have been evicted from their traditional lands and have experienced ongoing levels of socio-economic and cultural hardship, social discrimination and political marginalisation. These experiences of structural and social violence are overlaid with the effects of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, during which 30% of the Batwa population were also killed.
Over the last two decades the government has taken significant steps to reduce inequalities and promote social cohesion. However, public attitudes are slow to change and discrimination endures. One of the challenges for historically marginalized communities is thinking about how to form a new sense of identity away from the forest in a way that preserves their history and culture while also partaking in Rwanda’s new nation-building project.
Our project hoped to surface the complexity and emotional impact of long histories of discrimination whilst also supporting HMP community advocacy for changes in public perception and further development of government policy. Bringing together two partners, advocacy group AIMPO and the Kigali Center for Photography, we co-designed a photography workshop and exhibition with a remote rural community in the village of Nyabageni.
This project had three key aims.
To use photography to surface and challenge longstanding discrimination
We hoped to draw on the potential perspective sharing power of photography to call into question enduring discriminatory public attitudes. We hoped this might change perceptions amongst participants and visitors engaging with the project. We also hoped it would enable partners to work with policy makers to facilitate lasting change.
To build equitable community-led relationships
Rights for Time engaged with a rural HMP community through collaboration with a Batwa-led NGO (AIMPO). The project grew out of AIMPO’s own identification of a lack of visual resources exploring HMP experiences. By working with AIMPO, we hoped to develop relationships that were equitable as possible, given the team identities.
To build capacity through three-way knowledge exchange
Our project was built around a three-way partnership between AIMPO, the Kigali Center for Photography and the Rights for Time network. Team members had diverging specialist skills in advocacy, community development, photography, arts-based interventions and research. We hoped to learn from each other and build long-lasting relationships to facilitate connections between advocacy NGOs, arts organisations and universities.
Richard Ntakirutimana is the Executive Director of AIMPO (Project Partner) and holds a Master of Law degree in Human Rights and Democratization (Pretoria) and a postgraduate diploma in Human Rights and Development (Antwerp). Supported by the Aegis Trust’s Research Hub he has published research and policy briefings about Historically Marginalised People. AIMPO is a community-centered grassroots organization in Rwanda that seeks to protect and promote the rights, welfare and development of the Indigenous Batwa.
Jacques Nkinzingabo is a Rwandan artist, educator and founder of the Kigali Center for Photography (Project Partner) and the Kigali Photo Fest. Mentored by the late Nigerian curator Olabisi Silva, Nkinzingabo is committed to building social cohesion and has years of experience drawing on arts approaches to work with Rwandan communities, both urban and rural. Kigali Center for Photography provides the only dedicated photography exhibition space in Kigali and is a meeting place for education and networking amongst Rwandan and visiting photographers.
Renée Akitelek Mboya (Co-convenor & curator) is a writer, curator and filmmaker currently working between Kigali and Nairobi. Her custom is one that relies on biography and storytelling as a form of research and production. She is fascinated by archives and racist genealogies of image production and display. Her 2021 film A Glossary of Words My Mother Never Taught Me repurposes colonial film to explore unspoken histories and the violence of narratives about the past.
Zoe Norridge (Co-I) is a Reader (Associate Professor) in African and Comparative Literature and Visual Cultures at King’s College London. She researches cultural responses to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and the roles of photography and literature in Rwanda today. Recent work includes BBC Radio 4 documentary Rwanda’s Returnees and translation of Rwandan survivor Yolande Mukagasana’s testimony Not My Time to Die.
This project has been composed of three phases.
Project partners met in Rwanda in November 2019 to visit Nyabageni village to discuss whether the community were interested in participating in visual storytelling, establish their most pressing needs and listen to the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. Partners also discussed how we wanted to work together and began planning logistics.
In Spring 2020 the project was put on hold because of COVID and the withdrawal of funding from the UK Government. It resumed when the funding was reconfirmed and COVID restrictions were relaxed.
Workshop and exhibitions
In May 2022 we delivered a 4-day workshop with 12 participants from Nyabageni, aged between 17 and 27, with an even mix of genders (6 women and 6 men). Most of the participants had participated in the needs identification process, all had ideas for stories they wanted to tell.
Photographers worked with digital cameras to develop sets of images about their experiences of the past and present and hopes for the future. Training and review sessions took place in the Northern Creative Corner Gallery in Musanze, with assistance from gallery co-founder Jean Luc Habimana. Image-making sessions with participants and facilitators took place in the village.
Images selected by participants, Jacques Nkinzingabo and Renée Akitelek Mboya were then curated by Mboya for an exhibition entitled “Sweet Like Honey” at the gallery. This exhibition was attended by participants, their guests and representatives from the village, including musicians and local leaders. We also invited leaders, cultural gatekeepers, tourism sector employers and journalists from Musanze and the surrounding area. Nkinzingabo printed images from the exhibition on banners and displayed them in the village itself so that those unable to travel could see how they were being depicted.
A further exhibition, organised by Jacques Nkinzingabo, took place at the Kigali Center for Photography to coincide with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali in June 2022.
Dissemination and further funding
Project partners are now working with the images produced during the workshop to ensure they reach the widest possible audiences.
We have also been writing up our experiences for publication, both to share knowledge we built together and to analyse the ways in which this historically marginalized community presented their conceptions of the past, present and future through visual imagery.
AIMPO have secured further funding, through a competitive network funding call, to develop their work with the arts and humanitarian intervention. Their new project focuses on music and copyright.
We are seeking further funds to purchase more digital cameras to leave in the village and to establish mechanisms for the photographer-participants to download and share their work locally, nationally and internationally.
Photographs by Artists from Nyabageni
- The historically marginalized community in Nyabageni includes many creatively talented members who are keen to engage with new media and artistic processes to tell their stories.
- Nyabageni artists used photography to reflect on the past, portray themselves inhabiting new roles in the present, and articulate visions for social change in the future.
- However, they are consistently held back by lack of infrastructure, very limited access to resources, and short-term interventions without long-term structural change.
- All partners reported changes to their own attitudes, knowledge, skills and ways of working
- We found that conducting engaged work with a remote community was logistically extremely challenging within current UK university funding structures.
- There is huge potential to advocate for inclusion of HMP artists and voices in new national narratives in Rwanda.
- While academic research and artistic projects might initiate, challenge and expand temporary spaces for change, lasting change is being led by local communities and government.