The Digital Journalist
I Love My Boots
June 2004

by Damaso Reyes

I love my boots. It might seem odd to have such affection for shoes, especially for an adult male, but I have owned these boots for five and a half years and they have rarely left my feet. I bought them in preparation for my first trip to Rwanda, and from the moment I put them on they fit like a glove. Since that fall day in 1998 my hiking books have been with me to Rwanda, Iraq, Indonesia and guided me through the rubble of the World Trade Center. I have resoled them six or seven times at least and unlike far too many people in my life, these boots have never failed me.

I thought it would be fitting that I retire these boots after my second trip to Rwanda in 2004, things coming full circle and all. It was near the end of my trip that Jimmie, the friend and writer with whom I was traveling, and I visited Volet: Enfants de la rue, a center for street children on the edge of Kigali run by the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda. The center gives children, many of whom had been orphaned by the 1994 genocide, not only a place to come but somewhere to learn a trade and even attend school. They told us that many of the kids in the area spent time at the dump, locally known as the dust bin, where they search for things to sell, charcoal for cooking fires and something to eat. The center was purposefully placed near the dust bin in an attempt to get kids to come in. After a short ride in a 4x4 Jimmie and I found ourselves there, searching for kids to speak to and photograph.

If you've never been to a dump, I would suggest that there are far better places to spend your time, like anywhere else. Far more disturbing than anything you are likely to find in the first world, this dump was work and playground for the children who call it home. The smell wasn't so bad, at least when the wind blew the right way, and the dump overlooked the rolling hills outside of Kigali. There we spoke to several children, including one small girl named Chantal, far too tiny for her twelve years, who was supporting her mother and siblings by collecting charcoal and food at the dust bin. Jimmie stayed on the edges as I sank my boots into the ground which was little more than a sponge of garbage in various states of decomposition. Liquefied refuse spilled over the edges of my boots, instantly coating them.


Photo by Damaso Reyes
As I approached the young girl looked at me with an expression that I can only imagine said "Why would anyone come here if they didn't have to?" As it so happened, that was exactly what I was thinking. She moved around trying to get rid of me, but after five or ten minutes accepted that I was going to do what I was going to do and went about her business, picking at the garbage, looking for food and fuel. The squadrons of flies that I disturbed with each footstep didn't seem to bother her in the least and after about fifteen minutes I retreated to the edges of the dust bin, having endured just about as much as I could.

It was later that day, on the way to the UNICEF offices in Kigali for a meeting, that I noticed it: I stank. It wasn't just an offensive odor, my boots, and as it turned out the lower half of my pants, had been permeated with the smell of sadness, an odor that can't be described and definitely not forgotten. Unfortunately Kigali seemed to have a dearth of fire hydrants or hoses that day so it wasn't until later that evening when Jimmie and I returned to the house that we were staying at that I could remedy the situation. I asked the women of the house for some water and soap, and after they duly produced it, I sat on the back stoop and washed my boots. Fifteen minutes later the smell was gone and I put them out to dry.

As I went to sleep I thought about my boots and how easy it had been to get them clean again. But what about the children and adults who live at the dust bin, how would they get their boots clean? The answer of course is simple: many of them don't wear boots, or shoes for that matter, so it is not an issue. The smell I found so offensive was simply part of the scenery, like the hills in the distance. What I had been so eager to wash off these children live with day in and day out.

How often do we wash off the dirt of the world, the unpleasant smell of the society that, if we didn't create we certainly have contributed to? How many times do we shuck off the unpleasantness, shrug and tell ourselves "oh that's a shame," before moving on to a nice dinner, a warm home or loving family? Most of us know that places like the dust bin exist, that little girls like Chantal go there every day looking for food and fuel. And most of us wake up, get in our cars or onto a subway or bus and live our lives as if they didn't exist, just as I will do today. Now I wish I hadn't washed those boots, at least then from time to time I might better remember that there are little girls in the world looking for charcoal.

© Damaso Reyes

Damaso Reyes has been a photographer and writer for over seven years. He began his career as a stringer for the New York Amsterdam News where he served as Southeast Asia Bureau Chief.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Damaso attended The Department of Photography at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. His work has appeared The United Nations Development Programme, The Associated Press,, The Source, New York Magazine, Time Asia, The Far Eastern Economic Review and The Jakarta Post.
Previous assignments and projects have taken him to Indonesia, Rwanda, Iraq, Jordan and throughout the United States.