Feb 26


bird_blog Roger Bird, 2006

I’m writing this on a beautiful sunny morning here in Butare after a rainy, cold night. The rainy cold night followed the last reporting class taught by Sue Montgomery and me. I really felt for our mandatory house guard, Joseph, good father of four children, good stepfather of two more, orphaned when their parents were murdered in 1994. Rain or not, cold or heat, Joseph stays outside in a miserable hut every night.

Sue and Sylvia Thomson went to Kigali Friday afternoon for a concert and to attend some journalism awards, organized in part by the director of the School of Journalism here. Tomorrow they are off by bus way up north to see the mountain gorillas and will return Monday. Today I’m grading and will attempt to do some of the edits that are piling up in my e-mail from Diplomat and other magazines back home.

We have 23 (out of 25) completed student questionnaires in hand from second-year ethics and second-year reporting. Sylvia has distributed questionnaires to her TV students and to the fourth-year class taught by Allan. We will bring them all home next week.

On the souvenir front, we are promised delivery of two posters touting the awesome Maraba Rwandan coffee. The posters are slightly naughty, drawing attention to a lovely Rwandan miss, and when first published they attracted the wrath of local puritans. It reminded me of Mencken, “a puritan is someone who suspects that somewhere, somebody is having a good time.”

Our reporting field trip Thursday went to the Hall of the Rwandan Kings at Nyanga, and to the Gikongoro area to check out rumours of famine. A young man named Leopold of the World Food Program briefed the students for the latter. It was a classic PR “briefing” in which the speaker told the students All About Everything with regard to WFP and nothing about local conditions. That was until the students and Sue (her team did food; mine did the Kings) dug into him until finally he used the F word and acknowledged that despite government denials it was a “famine.”

Then the students fanned out into the Karambi market to talk to the locals, while Sue took endless pictures of children and gathered a crowd which verged on the dangerous at times, simply because of the crush of hungry people.

None of the students had ever been to either site, and they were incredibly pumped all day long. We got back at 4:30 p.m. We fed the whole crew plus bus driver plus Leopold at the Dallas Restaurant (a scene in itself) in Gikongoro for about 18,000 francs, or $35 Cdn. It was my best day here, with the teaching finally starting to bite. They described farmed out soil conditions, hungry people, women starting to cry as they explained they couldn’t feed their kids. Sounded like journalism to me.

It is starting to sink in for the students that we are leaving and there were many inquiries whether we could stay in touch by e-mail, whether we could help with future stories and the like. We could indeed. I can only hope that this country will open some avenues so they can all use their education to good effect. They are a wonderful bunch with the exception of two who care only about their (admittedly ravishing) appearance. I’m going to miss them.

Feb 7


bird_blog Roger Bird, 2006

We just had a long weekend, Monday being a day off to allow people to vote for local officials right across the country. So the four Canadians hired a vehicle and set off on a 2½ hour trip to Lake Kivu, a huge body of water between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Our destination was Kibuye, one of several towns on the eastern (i.e., Rwandan) shore and Hotel Centre Béthanie, run by the Presbyterian church. Other hotels in town have been more or less appropriated for NGO headquarters, and almost all visitors at Béthanie were Europeans attending NGO workshops in its conference centre. Workshops are everywhere and always, and if poverty, ignorance and hunger can be quelled by them, Rwanda is on the road to a bright future.

Lake Kivu fishermen at Kibuye, Rwanda.

Hunger. Driving through the achingly beautiful hills between Butare and Kibuye, a stark Malthusian equation began revealing itself. A word of explanation. In 2004 I edited a world map for Canadian Geographic. Part of its content was UN development data, plugged in on the CIDA side of the map (the Canadian Geographic side had Canada’s presence in the world in matters scientific and cultural). I shepherded the UN numbers into their proper places without really taking account of them. Here’s a couple for Rwanda: area, 26,338 square kilometres; population, 8,387,000. Around me on the trip was a four part equation between forests (disappearing), erosion (severe), agriculture (intense) and population (growing). People marry young and love large families. For example, our class representative is one of 11 children in his family. More people means fewer trees, more agriculture and erosion, less land available for more people. Equals less food.

But we are rich. Food in Kibuye was good, though, notably, the fish were tiny, caught by men paddling immense wooden, flat-bottomed boats linked together by booms made of tree trunks. They sing as they paddle through the night and land their catch of slightly-larger-than-sunfish tilapia from an overfished lake the next morning. We met a crew on a shoreline walk the next morning. Bunch of cheerful show-offs. “Take our pictures!” was the message of their gestures and a few words of French. Anyone with their physique who didn’t show off would be in need of emotional counselling. On our return trip to Butare, there were long lines of Sunday best-dressed people walking home through the heat, having voted by lining up behind the candidate of their choice at the appointed polling places. Candidates were not allowed to peek at the line behind them. Soldiers enforced the rule. I suspect the turnout was way ahead of the numbers during a municipal election in Canada. That has to be good news.

Tuesday was the day Sue Montgomery of the Montreal Gazette met her first class of second-year reporting students. She took one look at the dark, computer-deprived room assigned to her and marched her students outdoors for a lesson in the arboretum. I offered my assigned computer-equipped classroom so the students could write up their mutual interviews, but when we got there it had been hijacked by another teacher and his group (a frequent occurrence, according to a U.S. education prof who has been here for years). Since I was too Canadian to protest vigorously, Sue’s group will do their writing tomorrow, if the current plan holds. You never know.

One ornithological note. In Kibuye, I heard a robin singing. Honest. Looked up, and silhouetted against the lake was a robin-shaped bird with a red breast. It flirted its tail like a robin. “Looks like a robin, sounds like a robin, acts like a robin …” It was Pogonocichla stellata, a white-starred robin, found in most of Rwanda, as well as parts of Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Definitely had a Canadian accent.

Feb 3


thompson_blog Allan Thompson

This is my final blog entry from Rwanda: a chronicle of the long goodbye that has been the last couple of days. I knew I would be sad leaving Rwanda and I suppose exhaustion can make you even more emotional.

The other night I went out for a farewell dinner with my Canadian colleagues, Sylvia Thomson, Roger Bird and his wife Ann. (Sue Montgomery is to arrive today just after my departure). We were also joined by Alice Musabende, a journalism student and development worker who has been acting as the local fixer for our project. (We call Alice the African Queen). We had agreed to meet at the restaurant at the Credo Hotel, which boasts the only swimming pool in Butare. Next visit I will have to find time for a swim. I was the first to arrive and in the dark of early evening, I stood by the fence at the back of the hotel property, looking out over the deep gorge that separates the two high points in town. Atop the hill on the right is the National University of Rwanda. Across the valley, Butare’s Roman Catholic Cathedral commands the other hilltop. The air was full of two sounds, the call to prayer emanating from a mosque just down the way and the blare of the latest Radio Rwanda news bulletin, piped from a loud speaker by the restaurant bar. The others arrived just as I was getting nostalgic.

Over dinner, we shared a toast to the successful launch of our journalism teaching partnership, keeping our fingers crossed I will be able to secure funding to carry on with this project in the months to come. Then a cloudburst of much-needed rain sent us scurrying for cover. You know you have begun to settle down in a place when you are glad to see rain because you know the local farmers desperately need the precipitation.

The last couple of days before my departure have been a mad scramble. I had to make a quick side trip to Nairobi to fulfill a commitment to help with media training sessions organized by the Canadian High Commission. I got back to Rwanda yesterday afternoon and after the familiar two-hour drive from Kigali to Butare, stopped at home long enough to wash my face then went straight to my classroom in the little computer lab where my students were waiting for our last encounter. They were busily working on their final assignment for me, a piece of opinion writing. We didn’t have a lecture today. This was just about saying goodbye and it was much, much more difficult than I had anticipated. They gave me a present, a simple woodcarving and a tray with Rwanda written on it. But it was the card that just about did me in. After reading their handwritten messages I was quite simply at a loss for words and afraid that if I tried to say much, things would end in an embarrassing show of emotion. It touched me so deeply to read messages from students who lost their siblings or their parents in the genocide and wrote that they now regarded me as a brother. So instead of the kind of graceful speech Africans are accustomed to on such occasions, I simply thanked them for our time together and said goodbye. I went around the room to give every student a hug, caressing three times in the Rwandan way. And with the men, each embrace ended with us briefly touching our foreheads together, another traditional greeting. To be honest, by the end of it, I just had to gather up my things and leave. The sadness I felt when taking my leave was compounded by another factor. One of the students told me the class will be getting a bit of a holiday now. There is no one available to teach their next course, so they will simply have to wait until a teacher can be found.

In our short time together, we formed a kind of bond. And for all that there is good reason to doubt the future of journalism in Rwanda, the time I spent with these nine young people gave me some hope that their country will one day have a new generation of journalists.

The last word has to be a message to my students. Diane, Solange, Nicolas, Prosper, Egide, Charles, Sixbert, Edouard, Leon:

I am just about to leave your beautiful country for the long trip back to Canada. I wanted to say goodbye properly before my departure. My apologies, but during our class yesterday I simply couldn’t find the words to say goodbye. I know that here in Africa, people are accustomed to long, graceful speeches and kind words. But after reading the messages in the card you presented me with, I found myself speechless and quite frankly, I was afraid I would become too emotional if I went on any further, so I just had to leave.

Let me thank you for a wonderful time together. I learned a lot about your country, about each of you as individuals and about your generation. For that reason, I leave Rwanda hopeful that journalism has a better future in this country because of people like you. Do your best.

Thank you for the good times we had outside of the classroom and for making me feel so welcome. In a short time together, I have grown very fond of you and I will miss your company. I particularly enjoyed our trip to Maraba together. I know this may sound strange to you, but it was such a pleasure for me to be surrounded by so much joy, and enthusiasm and love of life. The world needs to learn more about the Rwandan spirit. Because of you, I am taking a bit of that Rwandan spirit away with me.

A la prochaine,

Feb 1


thompson_blog Allan Thompson

Today was taken up with media training workshops organized by the Canadian High Commission for editors and journalists here. I also managed to fit in a quick side trip to the Makina Baptist School in the sprawling Kibera slum.

The public school in Ottawa that my son Laith attends, Devonshire Community Public School, is twinned with Makina Baptist and I made it my mission to visit the school while in Africa. Nairobi seems like a sprawling mega-city compared to Kigali and makes Butare look like a crossroads. When I arrived last night, it took the better part of 45 minutes to get downtown from the airport in stop and go traffic. The workshops today were held at the Panafric Hotel.

In the morning, I joined Canadian High Commissioner Jim Wall and Rosemary Okello, head of the Woman and Child Feature Service, in a workshop with newspaper editors about the role of the media in a multiethnic society like Kenya. The afternoon was taken up with a roundtable involving Kenyan correspondents who had come in from across the countryside. This evening I had a chance to get together with two recent Carleton grads — Tia Goldenberg and Ben Singer — who have been in Nairobi for the last few months working as interns with the Nation group of newspapers. The internship program for Carleton grads was organized by the Aga Khan Foundation, which owns the Nation media group.