We drove past shanties, tin tacked to plastic tacked to bits of plywood. These shanties had dirt floors, and children in underwear with pot bellies, and those with no underwear and ripped shirts, and everyone outside sitting and sweeping the dirt with grass brooms or selling piles of potatoes and plantains.
And the women, they were dressed to the nines.
They wore long skirts and beautiful bold print dresses and necklaces and their hair was done up, and all around them, extreme poverty. It was like finding an original Monet on a wall full of graffiti--it didn't belong, and yet, it's all art.
It's all beauty, and this is their home. This is where their babies were born, where they make their bed--a blanket on the dirt floor--where they brush away stray clots of dirt because, as the mayor of Rwanda says to his people--you may be poor, but that doesn't mean you have to be dirty. And this, why Kigali, Rwanda is one of the cleanest cities in Africa. Their mayor believes in giving his people dignity.
There's also dignity in wearing a beautiful skirt amidst the slums.
In rising from the dirt to do your hair in the cracked plate of glass that hangs on your tin wall. In putting dangly earrings in your lobes and pulling on a bright yellow shirt because you may not be able to control your surroundings, but you can still be elegant.
And that's what these African women taught me--that my circumstance does not determine my soul. That how I lift my head and dress my body and do my hair is up to me, and not up to the world. We can change our surroundings by dressing in bright colors. We can bring light to a dark place by how we walk into it.
We may not have much, but we have our spirits--so let's let them shine.
On one of my last days in Rwanda I spoke with widows of the genocide--women who'd lost husbands and children, who'd been raped and pillaged, and they stood their in their dresses and skirts with their hair done, their faces lined with the hardness of the years but their hands open, and the first thing they said before sharing their stories was, Praise God--He is so good to me.
Faith, like beauty, is a choice. We can choose to put on the yellow shirt, or the black one. We can choose to not get changed at all--to walk around in our pajamas all day, with our hair undone, because we feel sad so getting changed won't make a difference.
But our circumstances do not define us--rather, our attitude does. And how we rise to greet the day is up to us.
We can choose to make a difference in the dullness of our surroundings. We can choose to put on lipstick even if we're not leaving the house. We can choose to dance with our children in the middle of the living room, to hug them instead of scold them, to put on a skirt to go to the store, to sing instead of cry, to let the person behind us go in front of us, to greet our husbands at the door with our hair done up.
There's an old saying, "Beauty is as beauty does"--and I saw beauty doing big things in the slums of Africa.
She wore a dress, and it changed my life.
Emily Wierenga is wife to a math-teacher husband; mother and foster mother to four boys; an artist, columnist and the author of Chasing Silhouettes: How to help a Loved One Battling an Eating Disorder, Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty and Life After Pregnancy and A Promise in Pieces (Spring 2014). For more info, please visit www.emilywierenga.com. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.