Two years ago, humanitarian photographer Esther Havens met a young boy named Jean Bosco as a charity: water well was being drilled in his village. Since then, she’s photographed hundreds of people around the world for charity: water. She recently revisited that first village and met up with Jean Bosco again. Here is her story.
All I could hear was my heart thumping.
I walked a familiar dusty road with a camera in my right hand, a stack of photos in my left. I was on a mission to find Jean Bosco.
My world first collided with his two years ago when I traveled to Rwanda with an organization called Wishing Well Africa. We spent three days in his village, Murinja. Each morning, we followed people as they collected drinking water from small, murky ponds and watched them fill their Jerry Cans from the same place where animals sloshed and women washed their laundry. People here spent hours walking for water that made their kids sick. Their kids constantly complained of stomach aches.
I remember the first time I saw Jean Bosco; I took a photo of him immediately. He was a bashful boy but his face resembled maturity beyond his years. He showed me his home. He walked me along the path he used every day to collect pond water.
Like Jean Bosco, I never knew you could drill a hole into the ground and drinkable water would come spewing out.
I wondered if he’d ever know how many people would recognize his face. Without a clue, this one boy had helped bring clean water to villages all over the world by inspiring others to help.
But I saw this first-hand. The day we arrived in Murinja luckily corresponded with the day a charity: water well was drilled. Jean Bosco and I stood side by side and watched as the drilling rig bore into the earth, finding water 70 feet below. We rejoiced together when clean water gushed out of a new well that was a short walk from his home. We knew then that life for him and his neighbors would never be the same.
I left Murinja unsure if I’d ever see him again. But I couldn’t forget Jean Bosco. I shared his story with charity: water, and they shared his story with the world. Before I knew it, he was famous. His face debuted at the charity: water Saks Fifth Avenue gala and showed up at other fundraising events and exhibitions in NYC. I got calls and emails from people so moved by his story that they sponsored wells, started their own fundraising campaigns or in one instance, named a pet after him (the African Grey Parrot at Sea World is lovingly named “Jean Bosco”).
Jean Bosco’s story offered a sobering look at life for millions of kids in the developing world. But to many, he became a symbol of hope and inspiration. Villages like his don’t have to keep drinking brown pond water. All they need is a little help.
In April 2010, charity: water asked me to return to Rwanda. Anticipation mounted as I took off for Murinja Village with water program director Becky Straw and multimedia producer Mo Scarpelli on a crisp Saturday morning. We passed the murky pond where the community once collected water and children fell in step behind us near the freshwater well. I pulled out a couple of photos from years before and asked if anyone recognized Jean Bosco. They giggled at the sight of their friend -– yes! He was nearby! They could show me.
I heard the familiar seesaw-like sound from the well; kids were pumping away, filling their Jerry cans, and I even recognized a few. I asked if they remembered their well’s drilling or if remembered me. “Last time, my hair was white, like Santa Claus,” I explained. A few laughed and said something in Kinyarwandan. “They say you are the same,” our translator told us. “But your hair was like an old man before, so you are younger now.”
“Jean Bosco!” A chorus of excitement rang out as a slight, graceful boy stepped up a small hill where I stood.
I was taken aback -– Jean Bosco looked the same! He was a little taller but his face was indistinguishable. Becky and Mo recognized him from the six-foot tall photo that hung in the charity: water office, a world away.
I handed him printed photos of himself. The corners of his mouth lifted slightly. He hesitated. Then a smile broke out on his face. He reached over — and hugged me. I was flattered and surprised. He remembered me! And he knew why the charity: water well was important to his community.
“We used to get sick,” he told us as his younger brother held tight to his side. “We don’t get sick now.”
“Our stomach pains are gone,” other children chimed in. I scanned the small crowd forming around us and recognized a young woman.
“Clarisse!” She smiled back up at me, bent slightly forward with a new baby on her back. She told us she watched the drilling two years ago while pregnant with her first child. “I knew the water would be safe for my baby,” she told us. “I was relieved.”
We asked her if the new well affected her in other ways.
“Before, I could not get clean,” she told us. “Now, I am shining. I am clean!”
Just two years of clean water transformed this village -– and I got to see it with my own eyes. As I stood with Jean Bosco again near his well before saying goodbye, I wondered if he’d ever know how many people would recognize his face. Without a clue, this one boy had helped bring clean water to villages all over the world by inspiring others to help.
This is why I tell stories, this is why I get close to the people I photograph and this is why I share their heart. Jean Bosco doesn’t yet fully understand the impact of his story. But I’ll keep telling it forever.