A Moment in Rwanda

by JAKE NORTON

March 2023
Real, Not AI: A few moments along the road in rural Rulindo District, Rwanda, spending time with a jerry can repairman and the people he serves daily.

Note: The post below is one of an occasional, ongoing series I'm sharing of moments, places, images and words that are real stories, real images, real people and places and experiences. I started this in reaction to the proliferation of AI-generated content that while impressive is, in the end, devoid of story, of emotion and experience that form the basis of creative work. To read my thoughts on generative AI, see the first post in this series here.


We could smell his work before we could see it. An acrid aroma, not necessarily bad, but definitely not pleasant, a sharp scent that pierced the air and clung to the nostrils. 

Young boys haul jerry cans of water in wheelbarrows through the rural streets of Rulindo District, Rwanda.

It got stronger as we rumbled along the red dirt roads of rural Rwanda, passing villagers with jerry cans - jerry cans on heads, on bikes, on backs - all seemingly headed in the same direction. 

Cresting a small hill, we saw the destination, and the source of the smell. Sitting comfortably in the shade of a tree, a man sat, surrounded by villagers and jerry cans, a small fire at his feet and the acrid smell - stronger now - wafting all around. 

Kabanda Epimaque repairs damaged jerry cans for villagers on the side of the road in Rulindo, Rwanda. In Rwanda, jerry cans are used multiple times per day by families to haul water from village taps and communal water sources to their homes. Kabanda charges between 30 and 200 Rwandan francs (roughly $0.05 to $0.35), depending upon the size of the hole, per repair.

My friend and guide, Christian Muhawenimana, and I hopped out of our vehicle and over to see what was going on. We soon learned the man under the tree, Kabanda Epimaque, was a repairman of a vital sort: he fixed jerry cans. 

Habanabakize, assisted by friend Jean de Dieu, pushes a bicycle loaded with 60 gallons of water in jerry cans through the rural streets of Rulindo, Rwanda.

Here in Rulindo District, water is rarely accessible close to people’s homes. Generally, there is a communal tap, maybe several, in a village, and to get water - for drinking, for washing, for cooking and cleaning and everything - villagers must walk and carry it home. Sometimes it’s a short walk, sometimes it’s miles; sometimes it’s men doing the carrying, but more often it’s women and children. And, always the water is carried in a jerry can

But, jerry cans take a beating, and inevitably spring leaks. Enter Kabanda. 

Sitting under his shade tree, piles of battered jerry cans around him, he worked non-stop. First, a can would be presented to him, its known defects pointed out, and him often noting additional ones ripe for repair. Price haggling came next, the ritualistic back-and-forth endemic to any marketplace. Once cost was settled, Kabanda set to work. 

Using a large panga (machete), he’d delicately cut out damaged, bent, broken bits of plastic and remnants of prior repairs. Next, a chunk of orange stock plastic was placed into the fire at his feet, softening and smoking and releasing the acrid stink. As it warmed, Kabanda would further prep the repair, roughing the existent plastic with a file for solid adherence. Using a giant, blunt knife, he’d next smear the molten repair plastic across the damaged area, filling and smoothing, adding more as needed, before finally using a think burlap to press it smoothly and firmly into place while cooling. 

Finished, the good-as-new jerry can was handed back to its owner, money exchanged, and in seconds Kabanda was onto the next repair, a satisfied villager off to fill their jug and head home. 

Christian and I sat for a spell, watching the flurry of activity, speaking with locals, laughing and sharing and learning with new friends under the baking Rwandan sun before eventually taking our leave and heading onward to Burega Village.

Kabanda Epimaque repairs damaged jerry cans for villagers on the side of the road in Rulindo, Rwanda. In Rwanda, jerry cans are used multiple times per day by families to haul water from village taps and communal water sources to their homes. Kabanda charges between 30 and 200 Rwandan francs (roughly $0.05 to $0.35), depending upon the size of the hole, per repair.

4 comments on “A Moment in Rwanda”

    1. Thanks Elisa, and same - I'd love to get back there, and Uganda as well, someday! Hope you and Jon are well, and would be great to see you again one of these days!

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