Jan 31


bird_blog Roger Bird, 2006

Something of a breakthrough this week in the journalism ethics course I’m teaching with Prof. Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi. It’s been our first “group presentations.” Some readers know that in Carleton’s School of Journalism version of the course, students do such presentations in the form of skits, complete with props, costumes, funny hats and sophomoric humour.

Prof. Bosco advised against this approach. We decided instead to hold a panel discussion: students in teams of four confront a previously unseen ethical dilemma, have 20 minutes to discuss it, and then sit down in front of the class in our empty TV studio cavern and provide their take on the dilemme du jour.

Monday was a strain. Students struggled to make clear their intricate, reasoned thoughts on what to do about the charity board that begs a reporter to hush up the news of the alcoholic employee who embezzled millions of Rwandan francs for his private benefit. These students struggled because they were operating in their third language, English. This despite assurances beforehand to our teaching team that the university was indeed trilingual — Kinyarwandan, French and English. No, the university is working towards being trilingual, and these students have the hard task of understanding English-speaking instructors and expressing themselves as well in English. Worse, they didn’t “get” the panel discussion format, an alien import. The panelists were stilted, the students in front of them addressed their questions and comments not to the panel but to the professors, despite our efforts to avoid eye contact, to remain impassive and the like.

But we soldiered on through three cases anyway, with never a doubt about the worthwhileness of the ideas behind the halting words and broken social scene.

Then came Tuesday. Same group. Tougher dilemme du jour: the financial reporter who writes a stock column which makes readers rich while he struggles to make ends meet. His daughter needs expensive dental work. Should he break his paper’s iron rule against him buying or selling stock? Through a deal with a couple of friends? Just this once? Maybe?

We hand out the assignment to all (a few moments later we’ll pick the presenting group). Everyone reading intently. Then someone puts up his hand and asks, more or less, “Could you please give an very simple explanation of what this means?” Bird and Rushingabigwi probe a bit and discover that nobody in the room knows the square root of squat about stock markets, les bourses du monde. Six minutes of explanation by Rushingabigwi in Kinyarwandan. Presenting group steps outside (fresh air!) to consult.

Then their presentation. Animated. Heavy accents. Clear. Good reasoning behind the ethical choices. Then the assembled room. Students leaning forward toward the panel, ignoring the professors (!) hands in the air, pleading to be heard. Raucous but orderly discussion, huge though largely one-sided debate. They would fire that reporter if he even thought about trading stock.

Someone made the point that the underlying lesson about journalism was you’re always learning something new in this trade. These Rwandan students learned several new things over two short days. And they made at least one prof feel less like he was presenting a cardboard replica of a course instead of the real thing.

Tomorrow is Heroes Day in Rwanda, a national holiday to honour all the nation’s heroes. We (the team has been joined by the CBC’s Sylvia Thomson and is minus Allan Thompson off in Nairobi talking to journalists) get a day off and will likely join the crowd tomorrow at the soccer stadium to see what it’s all about.

The Roger and Ann Bird part of the team are still slowly adding birds. On Sunday we met our first bee eaters, the European (in its migratory winter home) and the Cinnamon-chested, with their dazzling arrow-shaped flight configuration, intense turquoise, chestnut, yellow and white paint jobs, and social habits. Today in a walk to the campus there was a felled tree with dark maroon wood at the roadside. It was about half a metre through the middle at ground level. As a confessed tree obsessive, I counted the rings and there were only about 30 of them. In eastern Canada, a hardwood tree that thick would be a 50- to 70-year tree. This one had grown to its thickness since about 1975. That’s what life without winter will do for you.

Jan 31


thompson_blog Allan Thompson

Had to head up to Kigali today to catch a flight to Nairobi, in Kenya. Some time ago I agreed to take part in a couple of media training workshops being organized by the Canadian High Commission. The flight to Nairobi leaves this afternoon, the workshop is tomorrow and I’ll return to Rwanda on Feb. 2, just in time to wrap up with my students, finish some banking and then prepare to head for home on Feb. 3.

During the two-hour drive from Butare to Kigali, I am struck by how I no longer notice the panoply of life along the roadsides here. It is becoming routine. So I decide to take some notes. Everywhere, people are on the move, many of them sweating and straining under heavy loads at the roadside, or working in gangs in the fields. In Butare, there are motorcycle taxis everywhere. Out in the countryside, you are just as likely to see a bicycle taxi. We drive past a woman in an elegant blue dress, sitting side saddle on the back of a touring bike.

Further along, there is another bike piled high with a load of lumber. The boards, nearly three metres in length, are stacked 10 or 12 high. How can that guy paddle that load up the hill? In the fields, women with babies strapped to their backs wield hoes and other farm tools in the fluffy red soil that reminds me of a well-worked seed bed on the farm. At virtually no time during the two-hour drive from Butare to Kigali is there ever a point where there is not a pedestrian in sight, or someone out working in the fields. In this densely populated country, there always seem to be people going about their business. On the right, a barefoot man dressed in a ragged blue blazer — he looks to be in his 50s — is pulling weeds from around the graves at a genocide memorial site, then tossing the clumps over the fence. In most places, the roadsides are lined with small houses, one or two-room affairs, some with red tiles for a roof, others with corrugated tin.

There’s one man walking with two canes. He has a leg missing from the knee down. One of the vans that ferries people from Butare to Kigali is pulled over at the roadside because of a flat tire and has disgorged its squashed passengers onto the shoulder.

Along the way, many trees have been spray-painted with red Xs. Work crews will later come and chop them down and do up the wood. At one point, two men work an old-fashioned cross-cut saw, one man standing on top of a large timber, his body glistening, thrusting and pulling the saw up and down to make thick boards. Every now and then there is a large billboard at the side of the road, advertising for the few enterprises or causes that can afford it: the National University of Rwanda, the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, the MTN mobile phone company which now assures its customers they will pay per second for cell phone calls.

There is a little boy running by the side of the road, in bare feet of course, using a stick to push a tire rim along as a toy. Buses and transport trucks belch out black clouds of exhaust fumes. Suddenly two motorcycles with blaring sirens and flashing blue lights drive straight towards us, the drivers using aggressive hand signals to tell us to clear the road for a motorcade. Some senior government official roars past in a blue sedan. Perhaps it is the prime minister, who comes from the Gikongoro region.

In front of one mud-brick house which is covered with flaking clay stucco, a man sits working at an ancient Singer sewing machine. Freshly washed clothes hang on a bush to dry. A bike laden with three burlap sacks jammed full of something is parked at the side of the road.

The driver is nearby in the ditch, taking a pee. By now we are descending into Kigali, crossing the causeway across a swampy area that gives way to the capital city around the next curve.

A drive in the country.

Jan 30


thompson_blog Allan Thompson

I have been up and down the road from Butare to Kigali so many times during this visit that I now know most of the landmarks. And I have also picked up on some of the intricate rules of the road in Rwanda.

The main highways in this country are well paved and maintained. But the tortuous path they wind through hills and valleys and around steep curves clinging to hillsides can make for some pretty heart-stopping driving. Rwandans have long since learned to adapt with a number of signals drivers use to help each other out. If you are following behind a truck and need to pass on a blind curve — of which there are many — watch what the vehicle ahead does with its signal lights.

If it is okay to pass, the driver will turn on his right flasher. If he can see a vehicle coming in the distance, he will flick on the left signal to warn that it is not okay to overtake. Oncoming vehicles use a code familiar to Canadian drivers to signal when there are police on the road ahead – flashing headlights. To reinforce the point, the driver of the oncoming vehicle might make a hand single — jabbing the index finger toward the ground — to indicate it would be best to slow down. Now and then, an oncoming car careening around a curve will put on a left signal light. This means ‘move over and give me a bit more room.’ The driver of the other vehicle responds in kind, to indicate that the message was received.

And along the way, the most clear-cut signal of all is the ubiquitous presence of Rwandan police in crisp navy uniforms and helpful fluorescent green jackets. There are cops standing at the roadside every few kilometers along the major highways, waving cars over if they have the impression the driver was going too fast, or driving carelessly. These traffic officers will readily hand out tickets for speeding – with no radar gun to assist them — or even for swerving into the opposite lane or failing to carry the right documents. And they do not take bribes.

Jan 25


thompson_blog Allan Thompson

My colleague Roger Bird and I (Roger and Me?) today made our weekly trek to Kigali to conduct a media training session with working journalists. In addition to our journalism teaching partnership with the National University of Rwanda, we have taken up a request from government officials here in Rwanda to offer media training for working journalists.

We chose to begin with The New Times newspaper, Rwanda’s main English-language paper. It is published three times a week and is just about to launch a Sunday edition. The paper is a crisp tabloid which seems to carry a lot of pictures of President Paul Kagame on its front page along with a good cross section of other news. It is light on features and heavy on official government news and wordy, opinionated commentaries by its stable of columnists. Roger and I met last week with the newspaper’s managing director, Edward Rwema and agreed that to take advantage of Roger’s expertise as an editor, we would begin with weekly training sessions with some of the newspaper’s editors and copy editors before moving on to work with some of its reporters. Edward said the newspaper’s main problem is the fact that most of its reporters lack any formal media training and many of its editors were hired for their language abilities more so than their journalistic background. The reality is that journalism is not a very well-paid profession in Rwanda; the media sector was devastated by the genocide when many journalists were either implicated in the killing campaign, killed or driven into exile. And since then, as such watchdogs as Reporters Without Borders will attest, the media climate in this country has been far from ideal. No wonder that veteran journalists are few and far between.

Today was our first formal session with the New Times, a getting-to-know-you held in a meeting room at the swish Novotel across the street from the newspaper’s cramped office and newsroom. By a happy coincidence, today’s issue of the newspaper carried a short story about Carleton’s new journalism teaching partnership with the National University of Rwanda.

Assembled around the table were 11 of the newspaper’s senior editors. Roger and I introduced ourselves and our project, then worked our way around the room to find out more about our colleagues. The paper’s newly-appointed managing editor said he had worked as a freelancer for the Monitor in Uganda. He graduated from the Mass Communication program at Makerere University in Kampala in 2002. The New Times society editor (akin to the Life and Entertainment editor in a North American newsroom) is a former secondary school teacher who taught geography and English and did some freelancing for newspapers in Uganda before joining the New Times. The news editor graduated from the National University of Rwanda’s journalism program in 2001 and worked on a student publication in Butare before joining the New Times. The business editor was a philosophy lecturer in Nairobi. The new Sunday editor introduced himself as a published poet who joined the paper in 2002. The production editor heads a team of four who produce the paper using PageMaker and PhotoShop. The sub-editor of the fledgling Sunday edition spent some time living in Canada and worked for a while with the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. The only woman in the room, an associate editor and proofreader, said she was a literature major in university who had also worked on her school magazine. The deputy Sunday editor said he did media training in Egypt and Tanzania before joining the paper. The Editor completed a journalism diploma in 1994, worked in Uganda as a stringer for television networks then joined the New Times in 1998 as a proofreader. In 2001 he did some further media training in the U.S., briefly ran his own newspaper and then returned to the fold at the New Times in 2004.

For the rest of the morning we discussed the newspaper’s copy flow, the hierarchy among editors and most important, the relationship between editors and reporters. Jaws dropped around the table when I reported that at my former employer, The Toronto Star, a lot of the copy produced by reporters is routinely spiked or tossed back as being unworthy of publication. At the New Times, virtually every story gets published and often after hours of massaging by overworked editors who are dealing with copy from junior reporters who often have a tenuous grasp of journalism and difficulty writing in English. Workload is a major issue and that translates into published copy that is not properly sourced or lacks context. The senior editors can only manage weekly meetings — nothing like the twice daily news meetings convened at The Star. The editorial team here is aware of the shortcomings of their operation but also justifiably proud that they produce a decent product in such trying circumstances. After a long and productive session we agreed on a schedule for weekly training sessions — back in the newsroom.

Jan 24


thompson_blog Allan Thompson

Today my students and I escaped the stuffy computer lab where we have been conducting our print reporting classes and went on a field trip. To be honest, we spent the first two hours of our field trip standing on a curb in front of the university, waiting for our van to show up. Apparently, someone had failed to fill out the appropriate form in triplicate the night before, so it took a bit of arranging to get our transport in place. But eventually a sparkling white van arrived and off we went. Our destination was a little village called Maraba, about 20 minutes outside Butare.

Our mission was to conduct interviews and gather information for a series of stories my students will prepare on an innovative coffee growers cooperative that has been established in Maraba. Canadians who associate Rwanda only with genocide might be surprised to learn that this country produces some of the best coffee in the world, notably the specialty Arabica coffee produced by the Maraba Coffee Cooperative (Abahuzamugambi b’Ikawa ya Maraba). The coffee cooperative is working closely with the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL), a USAID-funded project led by Michigan State University. The goal of the project is to help Rwanda to rebuild from the impact of war and genocide by generating income through developing its agricultural products and new markets. Before the genocide, when world coffee prices were higher, coffee was Rwanda’s main cash crop. But a crash in prices and the devastation caused by the genocide was a body blow to this important industry. The Maraba cooperative, formed in 2001, is one of many revitalizing the coffee growing industry — particularly the premium specialty brands. You will read more about this topic later on the RwandaInitiative.ca website because my students will be publishing their work here.

In Maraba, the students interviewed staff members of the cooperative, coffee farmers young and old, experts who work at the washing station for coffee beans and finally, the “cuppers’’ who taste-test the local coffee to compare it with leading world brands. Everyone had been assigned a story and with virtually no coaching from me, the students simply fanned out across the village, interviewing everyone in sight. In between, we found time to have lunch together on the front porch of a sparse roadside restaurant. The owner, a hefty woman in a bright print dress, plunked down a case of beer and a case of pop, then disappeared to supervise making our lunch — goat shish kabobs. As the supervisor for the outing, I decreed that since most of our work was done, it would be okay to have a beer or two with lunch. We are journalists after all. At the boulangerie next door, one of the bakers carried large trays of uncooked buns out to a roadside wood oven – from the outside the oven looked like a clay hut. Moments later we got to sample the piping hot buns while we waited for the kabobs. When the meat finally arrived, my students gave me a lesson in how to grip a piece of meat with my teeth and pull it off in one swoop. I liked the chunks of meat but wasn’t as keen on the second round of skewers, which I learned were some kind of goat innards. One mouthful of goat intestine (zingalo in Kinyarwanda) was enough for me. After lunch, we had a “cupping’’ session at the coffee cooperative with two women who have become world-renowned experts in taste-testing coffee. They showed us their technique of first sniffing the ground coffee beans, then taking a whiff of coffee with hot water added before carefully tasting — or rather slurping — small mouthfuls of fresh hot coffee from a spoon. They would swirl and chew the coffee, then spit it into a glass, just like wine-tasting sommeliers. We all took turns doing the same.

By now it was nearly the end of the afternoon and time to head back to Butare. And the meek, timid students I first met just a couple of weeks ago had now been transformed. Or maybe they were just being themselves and I hadn’t had a chance to notice before. They sang all the way back to town. I mean they really sang. The class clown, Egide, was leading the chorus, improvising a new lyric to describe everyone in the vehicle while everyone else clapped their hands. There was even a chorus for our driver who was slapping his hands against the steering wheel. The only student who didn’t join in at first was Edouard — a bit older, a bit more reserved. That is until the group began singing a famous military marching song, familiar to Edouard from his days in the RPF. Now he too was belting out the tune as our van careened down highway. Amid all the laughter and song, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the seeming disconnect between this overflowing joy and love of life and Rwanda’s international reputation for stoicism, tragedy and sadness. Yet another lesson learned by the teacher.

Jan 23


bird_blog Roger Bird, 2006

Election day in Canada was the first opportunity for students in “Ethics and the Responsibilities of the Media” to present their own ideas instead of just listening to me and Prof. Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi lecture to them about the uncertainties of ethics in our trade.

We set up our data projector, destroying only one power bar in the process as it succumbed in a shower of sparks to 230-volt input. Sigh. Bosco and I used the projector to flash puzzling English terms onto our “screen,” the blank white reverse side of Bosco’s map of Africa draped over our three-legged green chalkboard. I was briefly entangled in the black-white metaphor that map created in my mind, then did a short lecture on the pitfalls of enforcing ethical behaviour among journalists. Conclusion: only education of journalists, and of the public by journalists, could encourage, though not enforce, ethics.

So it was the students’ turn to give it a try. Sam Mandela considered the reporter whose paper’s policy was to inform sources if they were being taped on the phone. Etienne Ntawigira had to figure out what to do about the reporter who showed up on a day off among demonstrators in front of an abortion clinic, and Gilbert Ndikubwayezu looked at the case of the reporter, flying off on holidays, sitting by chance behind a cabinet minister and hearing all kinds of things he shouldn’t have heard.

To give you some idea of what they were up against. We sat in a circle formed by a miscellaneous chair collection in a cavernous room intended some day to be filled with TV equipment. The only available light came through the windows (I was shown the hidden light switch later). The class meets five days a week for three weeks and then it’s all over. There’s no dress rehearsal. For virtually all of the students in the room, English is a distant third language, behind Kinyarwandan and French. I can only guess at their family histories, since almost everyone here grew up in a world shattered by the genocide. These young people are (consequently?) more mature than most of the second-year students I taught at Carleton. They are intensely aware of the political and social implications of journalistic activities and decisions. As well, they had an amazing ability to construct a rational argument for an ethical decision. I was impressed.

Later, as Bosco and I discussed grades, it dawned on me that university grades in Canada are so inflated as to be almost meaningless. Here, the grade scale is zero to 20. A really impressive-phone-your-mom grade is 15. You pass with a 12. Canadian graduate admission committees please note.

On the home front, this birdwatching professor is picking away at the elusive prey in the trees via Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe. Today with no argument from the other birder in the family, we chalked up a pair of white-headed black chats in the garden. Sunday’s visit to the campus arboretum (also a forestry research station) turned up a spectacular African pitta (golden tummy shading into crimson, vivid black-and-white striped head) according to me, a point of view under dispute.

The election will be decided as we sleep, and we’ll miss the rolling TV coverage from coast to coast to coast. We’ll pray that the campus Internet connections are up in the morning, or that Allan’s short-wave can find RCI in the clear.

Jan 22


thompson_blog Allan Thompson

On every trip to Rwanda, I try to visit one of the memorials to the 1994 genocide. Today I went to Murambi, about 45 minutes away from Butare, just on the edge of the town of Gikongoro.

The road from Butare to Gikongoro passes through beautiful landscapes, sweeping, terraced hills and lush green valleys. As usual, the roadside was dotted with pedestrians, some in their Sunday best, others straining to push bicycles laden with impossibly heavy loads. The first time I visited Gikongoro was as a reporter for The Toronto Star, in 1998, when I was in Rwanda writing a series of feature stories. For one of those features I interviewed a 15-year-old girl named Alphonsine Mukeshimana, an orphan of the genocide who had long since abandoned her dream of becoming a school teacher because she was now in charge of a child-headed household, caring for her four younger brothers. “I’m a widow, I’m a sister, I’m a mother, I’m everything,’’ she told me then.

On this quiet Sunday afternoon, I decided to visit the memorial to those, like Alphonsine’s parents, who perished in 1994. At the first crossroad in Gikongoro there is a signpost marking the way to Murambi. A rutted, dirt road leads to the former technical school complex which has been converted into a shrine. This memorial, funded and established by the Aegis Trust in Britain (www.aegistrust.org) includes a Genocide Prevention Centre in the main building. Behind, a dirt path leads to a series of long, low buildings that look as if they may have been intended as dormitories or classrooms for students.

Aegis estimates that some 40,000 to 50,000 perished here on April 21, 1994 after taking refuge in the unfinished school complex. Beside the main building are large graves, sealed in concrete, containing the remains of most of those who were killed here.

I traveled to the memorial with Ann Bird, the wife of my colleague and fellow visiting lecturer Roger Bird. When we arrived, the main building was locked and deserted. But not long after our arrival, three vehicles pulled up the drive and a man emerged with a set of keys. He looked anxious and smelled of alcohol. He told us later that he lost 10 members of his family here and as one of the survivors, he now maintains the memorial. He beckoned Ann and I to follow him down the path. He said to please hurry because he had others who were coming to see the memorial. When we reached one of the long buildings, he hurried ahead, unlocking and opening a series of doors into the dormitory rooms.

Neither Ann nor I were prepared for what was inside those rooms. “You can look at the dead bodies now,’’ our guide said. “We have 24 rooms here, for some of the 50,000 people who were buried in mass graves. We moved some of them here, after covering them with lime.’’

Inside each of the small rooms, partially mummified bodies have been laid out on wooden pallets, which are raised about a foot off the concrete floor. About 800 bodies have been preserved this way in the entire complex. Ann went into one of the rooms first and recoiled. The smell was overpowering. All these years later, the partially preserved bodies continue to decay. There were 40 or more in each room — not quite skeletons, still wrapped in leathery flesh, hardened and white from the lime. Some still had wisps of hair. Most were contorted one way or another, some with wide grimaces in the open spaces where their mouths used to be, or hands clawing heavenward. One room seemed to be dedicated to children, the wooden platforms covered with tiny, misshapen figures. I could only stand and stare, before moving slowly from one room to the next, finally taking some pictures. No one should ever forget the existence of these lost souls.

I found myself looking for the longest time at two figures. They seemed to be a couple. He had both arms above his head, one hand clenched into a fist, with just the index finger raised. The smaller figure next to him still had a tuft of fine, curly black hair attached to its fractured skull. Suddenly, I heard my own voice: “Who are you?’’ I asked. As if in reply, there was a loud clap of thunder, followed by a torrent of rain that drenched the red earth outside.

Jan 19


bird_blog Roger Bird, 2006

Jan. 18 was a trip to Kigali to meet local journalists. We set up regular Wednesday newsroom stints at The New Times, working alongside the staff. More below, but the trip itself is worth some attention.

An almost full “Volcano” bus picked us up at the corner of our road and the main highway at 6:10 a.m. and we squeezed into the back seat, Allan with his laptop, me with a backpack carrying stuff intended to impress our hosts — my Canadian Geographic/CIDA world map, a copy of Diplomat magazine with Dallaire on the cover. This was A two-hour ride north up a road with an almost constant stream of Rwandans on either side going to work, stepping aside as we hurtled past.

Local work: common forms. Mothers, assisted by one child, hoeing a field or a banana orchard. Skinny young guys (no fat people in Rwanda that I have seen) pushing bicycles loaded with immense sacks of produce (or furniture, huge jerry cans of water or anything else you can think of) up hills. There is no flatland between Butare and Kigali. Every square centimetre of land appears to be cultivated, no forest remaining. The steep hills are terraced to support crops. Everyone appears to be working frantically. I have no idea where the cliché of the “lazy African” came from.

We left the bus on a crowded, rutted, side street in Kigali. Plenty of taxis on offer, but we sought a restaurant. Turned out to be a tea house, and in our ignorance we ordered coffee, which eventually arrived thanks to the resourceful server: two cups, a saucer of Nescafe instant, and a tankard of boiling water. I ended up with an omelet though everyone else was enjoying large bowls containing a soup broth and a boiled joint of lamb or pork, hard to tell. As I paid the server he said, “Merci Poppa,” solidly establishing my age and rank.

A combination of Allan’s longstanding knowledge of Kigali and the taxi driver’s resourcefulness got us to the basement quarters (formerly a nightclub) of The New Times, Rwanda’s only English-language paper. We were welcomed by managing director (the boss, editor-in-chief/publisher) Edward Rwema, news editor Victor Mugarura, and administrative officer Iyamuremye Justus. We met many of the staff. The paper has risen from an original circulation of 800 to today’s 5,000. It publishes Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and is launching a Sunday edition Jan. 28.

Rwema’s views: journalism not regarded as a serious profession here. Low pay, government pressure combined with better-paying jobs in the ministries as information officers. The Times now offering better pay and some medical coverage. Still, only about 10 per cent of staff meet professional standards. Editors hired for their English-language skills, but lack journalism knowledge. As an example, yesterday’s story on President Kagame lashing out at his critics during a meeting of religious leaders, saying, no, he never sought – as his critics say – the presidency. Lots of quotes from Kagame. But no quotes from his political opponents.

That night, driving back from Kigali (in a friend’s truck loaded with Kigali-purchased household gear) we heard the same story on the BBC’s Kinyarwandan radio newscast. We asked our friend to translate, since several of the clips were from a Kagame opponent, the missing element from the New Times story. We have to find out whether this kind of reporting (let’s hear from both sides) is confined to foreign reporters and bureaux or whether local reporters can do the same thing.

New Times staff invited Allan and me to work with their editors in their newsroom every Wednesday, as they edit stories. Staff have had a bellyful of journalism “workshops” where they sit in a seminar room away from the paper and listen to some foreign expert talk to them about how to do journalism. Instead, we’ll just slide in beside their screens and, when appropriate, help out with suggested journalistic interventions, back-and-forths with the reporters, and the like. Later we’ll work with the reporters themselves.

Jan 19


thompson_blog Allan Thompson

After a quick return trip to Kigali yesterday to arrange media training workshops at the New Times newspaper, I flopped into bed last night without preparing my lecture notes for this morning’s class.

As penance, I was up at 5.30 this morning, banging out some notes and a lesson plan. My colleague Roger Bird and I usually share a taxi to the university each morning at about 8 a.m. for classes that begin at 8:30. But this morning, I had to head in at about 7 a.m. to get on the internet so I could gather up some more material for my class and check my email messages. I decided to walk out to the main road and flag down a taxi.

In the dim morning light I headed down the red dirt road that leads from our house to the highway, past the Eglise Ste Therese where I could hear the choir singing and finally, out onto the road that forms the main street of Butare. Even at 7 a.m., the roadside was teeming with people. The reality is that the most residents of Butare and the surrounding area have no access to a vehicle and walk many kilometers every day to go about their business. For that reason, I felt stupid standing there waiting for a taxi and instead, merged into the seemingly endless stream of pedestrians. I passed men who were exchanging chickens at the roadside, others pushing bicycles piled high with plastic water containers, sticks or sacks of potatoes. (The other day I saw someone ride by with a couch strapped to the back of his bicycle).

Eventually, I realized that it was going to take me an hour to walk to the office and decided to try to find some kind of transport. Just then, one of Butare’s ubiquitous motorcycle taxis pulled up beside me. “Taxi?” asked the driver, who was wearing a sort of blue apron, indicating his was a commercial vehicle. “Oui,’’ I replied, with some trepidation. He handed me a helmet, which was two sizes too small. So he pulled off his own helmet and we plunked it on my head. With my computer bag slung over my shoulder, I hung on for dear life. It’s not that there is all that much traffic in Butare. But the motorized vehicles are in constant competition with seemingly suicidal pedestrians. At first, I thought I would have to simply close my eyes and hope for the best. But by the time we passed through the middle of town, past the Ibis Hotel and restaurant, I was already contemplating getting a motorcycle myself. My driver deposited me at the front steps of the imposing central building of the university, an art deco structure with peeling white paint. I paid 350 Rwandan francs (about 75 cents), then bounded up the steps to my office, another Rwandan experience under my belt.

Jan 17


bird_blog Roger Bird, 2006

Hello Max, this blog is a belated account of my first journalism ethics class taught jointly Jan. 17 with my colleague Professor Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi. We worked together frantically Jan. 16 to “Rwandize” the material I had brought from Carleton and we walked into our classroom together at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 17 to meet 18 students. The School of Journalism here has only nine full-time (desperately overworked) faculty: all the students knew him, none knew me, so he did the intro.

Our classroom was a cavernous room intended as a TV studio, but still awaiting the arrival of longed-for but expensive equipment. Two windows let in the only available light. Students were seated in a collection of miscellaneous chairs, some with writing arms, some without. The rest of the furniture was two wobbly triangular-shaped tables and a portable blackboard. I launched into “why we care about ethics in journalism,” reading in the dim light my notes laid out on one of the tables. Awkward but doable. At about minute No. 3, someone appeared at the rear entrance. It was Allan Thompson packing a brand new, sturdy lectern on his equally sturdy back. He had liberated it from the campus woodworking shop which produces desks, lecterns, tables, cupboards, you name it. His arrival generated much mirth. He took pictures for the website while I proceeded.

The students: attentive, keen, intelligent. Five women and 13 men, the reverse of Carleton’s normal ratio. Those who were shy outnumbered those willing to offer comment or ask questions. We had four or five talkers in our group of 18, in this instance about the same as at Carleton. Max, you’d fit right in with these people.

Content: “freebies” generated much interest. Is it OK to take gifts from sources or organizations? In Canadian journalism we say, “Of course not.” Well, said my students, if you have to cover, say, the opening of a new tea plantation, the only way to get there is in a vehicle provided by the company running the plantation. And the company will likely provide lunch too, as the reporter is often too poor to buy it. Otherwise no story. Conclusion: your ethics are heavily affected by where you stand on the Earth.

The students and Prof. Rushingabigwi were to meet Jan. 18 while Allan and I were in Kigali meeting the staff of The New Times, the English-language newspaper. Bosco’s mission was to Rwandize my remarks and ideas.

« Previous Entries