The day before I arrived in Rwanda Teagan the Getaway photographer was involved in an accident. She was on the back of a moto – one of the squillion small motorcycles that operate as taxis through the hills and streets of Kigali – when the moto drove into the side of a vehicle running a stop street. The moto stopped abruptly but Teagan didn’t. She flew through the air and landed head first on the tarmac. Fortunately Teagan is 24 years old, an age when human beings are made of elastic, chewing gum and good ideas, so the only damage was to the lens of her camera.
While I went into sweaty old-person anxieties at the mere thought of being all alone in a foreign country with concussion and a cracked skull, Teagan was fretting about more important things. Without a wide lens, she explained, she wouldn’t be able to take sufficiently atmospheric pictures of the gorillas.
‘Forget the gorillas,’ I said. ‘Sit down and have a nice cup of tea.’
She didn’t want tea. She wanted a replacement lens, and a replacement lens was not to be had in the camera shops of Kigali.
‘You should just be grateful for your health,’ I admonished her from my rocking chair, but she was making calls and sending emails. Nothing worked.
As a last resort she posted on social media that a visiting South African photographer was looking to borrow a lens in Kigali for a trip to the Virunga mountains. The youth of today are weirdly naive, I thought from my lounger in the shade. Who in the world would go out of their way to lend an expensive and hard-to-find piece of camera equipment to a total stranger from another country? By the next morning she had one.
When we returned from the mountains, she had an arrangement to return the lens to her mysterious benefactor. I had to meet this guy. He came past our hotel and we bought him a beer to say thank you. We sat out on the terrace in the dusk as a tropical rainstorm loomed and lurched towards us with lightning flashes and rolls of dark thunder.
He was a young guy, not wealthy, a struggling freelance photographer who dreamt of one day exhibiting in a Kigali gallery. He had saved for several years to buy his lenses, shooting weddings and birthday parties. Traditional weddings are best, he told us, because they happen over two days so you can double your fee. I asked him what made him lend Teagan the lens, and he just shrugged as though he didn’t understand the question. A connection of his on Facebook had shared Teagan’s post, and he’d seen it and thought, ‘I have a wide lens.’ It was as simple as that.
I searched him for signs of religious mania or loopy altruism to explain such an instinct to random kindness, but he just seemed a normal guy. He’d started learning about photography in his orphanage, he said. When he was a young boy, both his parents had been killed in the Rwandan genocide. They’d died at the hands of people who had been their friends and neighbours. A lot of those people still walk around Rwanda today: he sees them on the streets sometimes. He sometimes has to deal with them.
We stared at him, silent, and then the storm broke over our heads and we scrambled for shelter. The black sky strobed with lightning. We pressed together in the doorway and he said, ‘You have to trust people in this world. Otherwise nothing good can ever happen.’
Getaway, December 2015