Land of Honesty and Mystery

Twelve-year-old Sclovia (seen here in a film still) was the other subject of Nabel’s documentary on childhood and innocence. Claudene and Sclovia were neighbors and best friends. Nabel met them during the summer of 2008, when she lived near them and the three would walk home together every day from the village soccer field, where they would go in the afternoon to watch locals practice traditional African drumming and dance.
The neighborhood in Rwinkwavu where Claudene and Sclovia live
The oldest basketball court in Rwanda, from Belgian occupation in Rwinkwavu. The village once contained a Belgian mining company.
An abandoned colonial home in Rwinkwavu, now occupied by squatters
Cassava plants, a major crop grown in eastern Rwanda

Students in Africa

Read about more student projects in Africa in a special online supplement to Harvard Magazine's November-December 2009 cover article

Elisa Nabel ’11 spent the summer of 2008 in Rwanda doing medical research, but what really captured her interest was two young girls. Every day, Nabel would go down to the village soccer field to watch a group practice traditional African drumming and dance, an interest of hers (she is part of a group that performs African drumming at Harvard). Thirteen-year-old Claudene and her friend, 11-year-old Sclovia, lived near where Nabel was staying, so the three would walk home together each evening. As the summer went by, she became increasingly curious about the girls’ stories. “Often when we would split off, Claudene would start crying,” she recalls. The girls knew some English, and Nabel knew some Kinyarwanda, but not enough to communicate complicated emotions. “I didn’t understand, and every time I came with a translator she would shut up.”

Nabel was in Rwinkwavu, the village where Claudene and Sclovia live, working with Megan Murray, a Harvard epidemiologist and professor of medicine who was studying medication regimes in patients infected with both tuberculosis and HIV (the antiretroviral drugs used to stave off AIDS have the unfortunate side effect of canceling out the drugs used to treat TB). She had become interested in this work after enrolling in the freshman seminar “The Impact of Infectious Disease on History and Society” and being matched with Murray as a faculty mentor, and she enjoyed it. But after returning to Harvard, she kept thinking back to the girls’ mysterious stories.

She kept in touch with Claudene and Sclovia through letters delivered by a Rwandan friend. Last winter, enrolled in the first half of a yearlong ethnographic-film course, Nabel came up with the idea of making a film that explores notions of childhood and innocence through the girls’ personal stories.

When she returned to Rwinkwavu in May, Nabel an African studies concentrator and aspiring physician, had funding from the David Roux Global Health Traveling Fellowship for two health-related projects: interviewing traditional healers about their work—material she plans to use in either a junior tutorial or her senior thesis—and collecting data on local definitions of mental illness and mental health for a project led by Theresa Betancourt, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and professor of child health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. She also had Claudene’s and Sclovia’s enthusiastic agreement to participate in the film project.

Filming, however, did not always go smoothly. Sometimes a seemingly innocuous question—e.g., “What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in life?”—would make one of the girls cry. Nabel learned to pay attention to these unspoken lessons about how they felt about their lives. Both were orphans who lived with their grandmothers in households with limited resources, and “I think they realized that their prospects were slim and they didn’t have a very good chance of carrying on to high school,” Nabel says. “I think it gets them down sometimes.”

Although she doesn’t mean for the film to be comparative, she was struck by the difference between childhood in Rwanda and childhood in the United States. Rwandan children “just grow up so quickly,” she says, “and they take on responsibility so fast. Five-year-olds have to walk miles to get firewood or to get water. You have children waking up at five in the morning to do chores, and then they come home from school and do more chores and try to get their homework done before the sun goes down because there’s no electricity.”

Another distinctive quality she noticed in Rwandan children: they are world-wise. The genocide of the 1990s nearly ruined the country, and its inhabitants have settled on candor and open discussion, even if graphic, as a way of guarding against its ever happening again. As a result, says Nabel, even children “know exactly what happened. They know that people were slaughtered with machetes.”

As frankly as Rwandans speak about some matters, stigma still surrounds others. Claudene and Sclovia both told Nabel that their parents had been killed in the genocide, which “doesn’t quite make sense,” she says, “because the genocide was 15 years ago,” and they are now only 14 and 12. Though intrigued, she was mindful of ethical concerns. “I have my own theories about what was going on in their families,” she says. “But I didn’t want to question further, because it might be embarrassing for them.” Out of respect for the girls, she keeps these theories to herself.

Nabel, a native of Washington, D.C., had previously traveled to Africa during a pre-Harvard gap year, working at a hospital in Ghana, doing HIV research in the Gambia, and interning with UN-AIDS in Geneva. But she has enjoyed getting to know Rwinkwavu more intimately, in multiple projects over two years. “I like having a place, as opposed to a method, as my focus,” she says. “It gives more room for interdisciplinary work.”

She is deep into editing her documentary (it screens at Harvard in early December). But even after that’s done, she will stay in touch with Claudene and Sclovia, whose life stories are just beginning.

Read more articles by: Elizabeth Gudrais

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