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The Human wheelbarrow

The day Ndutiye will never forget is the day he helplessly witnessed the brutal death of his mother. Try as he does, the memory will not go away.

On the third Monday of April 1994, nearly two weeks after President Habyarimana's airplane was shot out of the sky over Kigali, killing everybody on board, trouble began in Jamba, Ndutiye's village. "My father and many of our neighbors were called to the primary school for a meeting," the eighteen-year-old young man clearly remembers. "We thought nothing of it at first. That evening, when he did not return home, we knew he was never coming back. Nobody that went there during those days ever came back."

His father and hundreds of others presumed dead; at the hands of exactly whom he does not care to know, Ndutiye, his mother and five siblings woke early the following morning and immediately decamped their home. Without discussion, the terrified seven ran into the hills of Kagamba sector, twenty kilometers south of Byumba in Rwanda's northeast.

Hunted like prized animals for weeks, the family constantly moved while drinking little and eating less. On the verge of starvation, Ndutiye's mother led her weary family to a sorghum field over looking their village. Her plan was at first light to dash home, within sight from where they were hiding, collect whatever food she could find and dash back to her hungry children.

As the eldest child, Ndutiye pleaded with his mother to not endanger her life. She tried to reason with him. If the children were not soon fed they were certain to die. "She was convinced the risk was worth taking," Ndutiye accepts. It was not.

Ndutiye and his five brothers and sisters watched nervously as their mother ran down through the sorghum field and safely reached the house. Minutes later, her arms full, she stepped into the rays of the bright morning sun and was instantly attacked. As Ndutiye looked on in a state of shock, armed men cut down his mother. "What could I have done?" he asks. "I was 12 years old."

The children eventually returned home yet refused to sleep in the house. Accustomed to surviving in the bush, they did not feel safe inside any building. "We were young, scared and very confused," Ndutiye shares. "Then one day it hit me, the family was now my responsibility. If we were to continue with life, I had to provide for my brothers and sisters and this meant finding a job."

Ideally, Ndutiye wanted to stay in Jamba to be close to his family, but there was no work. He secured a job as a farm laborer, with the promise of Frw150.00 (about Nz$1.00) a day, and relocated 60 kilometers away from his siblings. Although earning a good salary, Ndutiye could not afford transport to visit his brothers and sisters on the weekends. All the money he saved he entrusted with friends to deliver weekly to his sister. They kindly helped. Falling sick with malaria, only two months after leaving Jamba, Ndutiye was no longer able to work and had to return home.

Ndutiye was not the only one to suffer during the three months he lay ill in bed. With no income for food or medicine, the entire family went hungry. "When Ndutiye gets sick we experience more difficult times than usual," Mukanyirigira, the family's eldest girl, admits. "Days pass without our having anything to cook. Praying for him to get better is the best we can do."

The malnutrition he and his siblings were enduring prompted Ndutiye to entertain a job offer. Still weak and far from recovered, he crawled out of bed and, again, moved away from his family to work as a farm laborer, in Kigali. His volunteering to haul fertilizer, in addition to cultivating cassava and sweet potatoes, earned him an extra and much needed Frw50.00 a day.

Ndutiye's first paycheck sent home from Kigali to his sister never arrived. The man he thought he could trust to deliver what he had earned, as transport from Kigali to Jamba was too expensive, spent all the money on beer and food. Every week after that, Ndutiye journeyed home to ensure the money arrived safely. "I lived like this for one year," Ndutiye faintly smiles, shaking his head. "I missed my brothers and sisters, too much. There was no way for me to learn how they were doing or for them to know if I fell sick." He again returned home.

Determined to both earn money and stay with his family, Ndutiye came up with the idea of renting himself as a human wheelbarrow. From the village of Burimbi, located in the center of Kagamba sector, there are two ways to reach the mountaintop village of Jamba. Most people ply the long, rutted and winding dirt road. Hauling 100-kilogram sacks of potatoes, bananas, bundles of firewood or even a bicycle, the road is too steep to ride, can consume the better part of a day. Or, you can hire Ndutiye and take the short cut. A short cut like no other.

Every morning, on market days in particular, Ndutiye hustles to Burimbi. Waiting for customers, he stands tall and proud at the foot of a narrow path leading through a banana plantation and up a mountain. "People who can't manage to carry what they need to get to the top are those I target," he discloses. "Persuading them that the road is a waste of time, I load their belongings on my head or back and start climbing the short cut."

The seven-hundred meter short cut is straight up and not for the faint at heart. When business is brisk, he'll hike up and down the mountain three or four times a day. There are many days, however, when customers are scarce. Ndutiye, who can not weigh more than 50 kilograms, will carry anything. "The rich, I'll charge Frw100.00 per trip," he laughs. "My friends get away with paying me no more than Frw70.00."

Unfortunately, this creative way of earning a living is too unpredictable. When there are no customers the family does not eat. Against his will, and that of his siblings, Ndutiye is contemplating a return to Kigali, as a steady income is necessary. "Ndutiye is now our father and we want him to stay at home with us," Mukanyirigira reveals. "I understand he has to work, but everyday he is away from us is a day we need him more."

Captions: Ndutiye (far left in back row) with his family Ndutiye transporting a bicycle Ndutiye giving fatherly advice to Ngirabakunzi, his 14 year-old brother.