Jun 30

 

black_blog Debra Black, 2007

I woke this morning to the sounds of roosters crowing and the golden sunlight of Rwanda streaming into my bedroom. After two days of travel I have arrived in Kigali and settled into the house that I am sharing with some other journalists from the Rwanda Initiative in the neighborhood known as Kimihurura.

As I type this I look out over a terrace and a beautiful garden and an incredible view of the city, which is built into the hills. Morning traffic has just started and the occasional horn blasts and nearby birds sing like an early morning serenade. It is quite the contrast from London, England where I stopped over on my journey in order to visit family. The red-dirt roads and the green countryside of Kigali look like an impressionist painting far from the roar and hustle of London’s west-end or the cement-baked summer streets of Toronto.

Yesterday, I arrived mid-afternoon after spending the day in London where I visited with my cousin and her husband. Once upon a time we had lived together, sharing a flat for a very brief time in north London. It was wonderful to see her again and catch up. We hadn’t seen each other for about nine years and traded stories about our children and siblings. After getting a good night’s sleep I went off to see the Tate Modern, which had an incredible Salvador Dali exhibition as well as a special show by a Brazilian artist, Helio Oiticica. The Tate was also featuring a small exhibit by a Congolese artist Cheri Samba, one of a group of modern painters to come out of the worn-torn nation. He has gained quite an international following. One of the pictures of a child soldier, in green khaki, with a gun surrounded by bright-coloured flowers just blew me away.

After spending five hours at the Tate Modern – an amazing structure in and of itself on the banks of the Thames, I went back to Heathrow and checked in for my flight to Rwanda. I met some really interesting people on the plane – a Scottish girl Rose Foley who is in Rwanda working for a British based organization called VSO. She’s working at the Ministry of Education, trying to help set up a program to empower young women here.

On the plane between Addis Ababa and Kigali, I also met Rangira Bea Gallimore, a very interesting Rwandan American woman who is a linguistics professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her first name means “Be Famous” in Kinyarwandan. Her family was here during the genocide and was affected by it, she said. But she didn’t say in what way and just left it at that. She spoke passionately about the situation for women survivors of the genocide, many of whom have HIV/AIDS. Her husband is working in Africa at the international Genocide Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania.

She is doing research into women who survived the genocide and has set up a foundation – Step Up American Association for Rwandan Women — to help them. She has been working with some survivors in Butare, Rwanda and speaks passionately about their fight for survival. She said she would take me down to speak to them. She also suggested I speak to her husband who handles media and information at the international genocide tribunal. She told me he is very critical of both the local and international press when it comes to the tribunal. It will be interesting to speak to both of them.

As the plane flew into Kigali I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of the landscape. The countryside is stunning and I couldn’t help but think of the stark contrast of life before, during and after the genocide. It is a wonder to me that a country so beautiful had to endure such tragedy and remains so lush and verdant.

Today was a very hectic day. In the morning I spoke to Leon, a Rwandan working with the Rwandan Initiative. He explained to me that even though tomorrow is officially Rwanda’s Independence Day celebrations now take place on July 4th – the end of the genocide. It’s a national holiday. So I hope to attend the ceremonies, which I believe are to be held in Kigali’s stadium. Then I went off to the crafts market with one of the interns from the Rwanda Initiative and into town to meet the Rose Foley, the Scottish woman I’d met on the plane, to buy fabric and have a coffee. It was so much fun. She took us to the commercial district of Kigali into a small arcade where there were stalls full of the most beautiful batiked cotton fabric I have ever seen. The bolts of cloth were piled high from the ceiling to the floor and others were displayed on hooks on the walls. Material was everywhere. The stall looked like it had been wallpapered in rainbow coloured cloth. It resembled the tailor’s shop I visited in Varanasi, India where you sat and had tea and picked from thousands of bolts of cloth and then were measured for clothes. Twenty-four hours later they would be finished and ready for pick up or delivery. Here there were so many fabulous patterns and colours on display it was hard to choose. Rose also introduced us to a tailor – Andre – who promises he can make fabulous dresses and skirts. I promised to return later in the week for a fashion consultation. He was very sweet. As were all the Rwandans I have met over the past two days – especially the children.

The streets are busy and dusty – very little of the city is paved. Everywhere are hand-painted billboards warning of malaria and reminding people to use bed nets and other billboards warn residents about HIV/AIDS. Women walk the dusty roads with woven baskets full of oranges and bananas balanced delicately on their heads. Often their babies are strapped to their backs. Children in dusty shorts and tops precariously carry fresh water in plastic buckets home. And everywhere you go people want to sell you things from a pair of nicely pressed pants to a wooden carved giraffe. But it’s not like in other developing countries such as India where street vendors are oppressive and aggressive. Here it is softer – once told no the vendors usually fade back into the city’s backdrop.

Rwandans rely on their cell phones extensively and so you find this odd phenomenon of young boys selling phone cards all over the streets of downtown Kigali. The cards are used to allow a certain number of minutes of phone calls. And they do a thriving business, but these young men also carry portable phones that people use to place long distance calls. They are like a human phone box.

But what strikes me as really sharp contrast from other countries such as Canada or England is that when you walk around the city or drive anywhere you suddenly notice that everyone is really young and I mean really young – there are very few middle aged or elderly people around because of the genocide. I am a kind of demographic oddity here. In fact, some people I have spoken to refer to life as before the genocide and after the genocide as a way of explaining their city and country. It makes sense when you think about the definitive nature of the genocide.

As I write this I am listening to a chorus of singers somewhere nearby, singing an African tune. It is very soothing. Tonight there is a party to go to and many of the staff from the New Times, TV Rwanda and other media outlets will be there so I will be able to meet some of the staff from the New Times before I start work on Monday.

The city is now dark — it is about dinnertime and across the way in the hills that I can see out of my bedroom window some house lights are twinkling. My first full day in Africa – it has been wonderful. The house where I am staying is beautiful with a terrace overlooking a garden and a magnificent view of the city – houses are literally dug into the many hills that make up Kigali. I feel content here as I look out my window, at peace.


Jun 26

 

black_blog Debra Black, 2007

“I had a farm in Africa…” Isak Dinesen

By the time you read this I will be on a flight to London and on to Kigali, Rwanda via Addis Ababa. I have to pinch myself. I can’t believe I am finally going after weeks of preparation, juggling my reporting job at the Toronto Star and household and family responsibilities as well as preparing for my month-long stay as a media trainer or reporter/coach at the Kigali New Times, an English language daily, part of the Rwanda Initiative. Now, finally, I am on my way.

Being a reporter I’m never truly happy about taking on a job, big or small, until I feel prepared and well briefed. In the past month I have met with Stephen Lewis, the former UN Special Envoy on HIV/ AIDS and a coauthor of a UN report on the genocide, along with a number of other academics and researchers who have spent time in Rwanda.

The picture they paint is of a country slowly but successfully rebuilding itself. No small task given between 800,000 and 1 million people were killed in the spring of 1994 as the world looked away. There are no appropriate words to describe the genocide – the mass extermination of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days. It is beyond comprehension – even for someone who grew up in the shadow of another genocide – the Holocaust where six million Jews were killed.

Being Jewish, I understand only too well the bred in the bone kind of fear that comes from being the victim of racism and hate. It has a lasting impact on one’s world, one’s personality, one’s very being. So I feel a kind of kinship to Rwandans.

My fascination with Africa began many years ago – but I felt compelled to know more before I left for Rwanda. For a geopolitical view of the continent I read The Fate of Africa, a history of African independence by Martin Meredith.

I have also been reading everything I could get my hands on about Rwanda that fateful spring. With each page I turned of Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With the Devil and Linda Melvern’s A People Betrayed: The role of the West in Rwanda’s genocide, I was gripped with sadness and disbelief.

Both books are an insightful look at what went wrong, but also a sad illustration of how geopolitics can trump humanity. They have made a deep impression on me. But perhaps it is one image from Dallaire’s award-winning book that for me best speaks to the absolute horror of the genocide.

He describes eloquently his shock and horror as he crosses a bridge resting on hundreds of mutilated, dead, bloated bodies that were floating in a river. The idea of such an ignoble and unmarked death for so many – and so many killed by a hate that is simply unimaginable — haunts me even now as I make my way to Rwanda.

A passage about the Western media’s culpability from Melvern’s book also provides food for thought for me as a journalist. Melvern wrote: “In a harsh rebuke to the media after the genocide was over an international inquiry concluded that, although the coverage had been handicapped by danger on the ground, the press, in characterizing the genocide as tribal anarchy, was fundamentally irresponsible. The media’s failure to report that genocide was taking place, and thereby generate public pressure for something to be done to stop it, contributed to international indifference and inaction, and possibly to the crime itself.”

It is a stunning indictment of the profession I cherish. But it is also an alarm bell, warning us that perhaps now – more than ever before – journalists must be strong enough and brave enough to speak out and write about what they see without fear of the repercussions and be doggedly determined to report what they believe to be the truth.
I have also been reading once more about the craft of writing and reporting, finding inspiration in The Elements of Journalism – What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. The book, recommended to me by a colleague and friend in the Star newsroom, is a helpful and thoughtful look at journalism, its roots and its future.

“Journalism is storytelling with a purpose,” the authors write. “That purpose is to provide people with information they need to understand the world. The first challenge is finding the information that people need to live their lives. The second is to make it meaningful, relevant and engaging.”

I found this passage particularly compelling – a reminder of why I am still in the business after almost 30 years, including stints as a television and radio reporter, wire reporter, magazine writer and newspaper reporter. I hope that it will be equally inspiring to the reporters and editors at the New Times.

I first heard about the Rwanda Initiative while I was covering the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Conference, organized by the Stephen Lewis Foundation in Toronto last August. It was a kickoff conference to the World AIDS Conference which I also helped cover as part of a team of reporters from the Star.

Many of the participants at the Stephen Lewis Foundation conference were grandmothers from Africa – women whose children had died from AIDS. They were left with a painful legacy – to bring up their grandchildren.

The Rwandan women at the conference had a joy I had rarely seen – especially given the depth of the tragedy they had already experienced. Many of their fellow countrywomen had been raped during the genocide and had contacted HIV/AIDS.

I remember vividly two statuesque Rwanda women overwhelmed at the conference – dancing to a live performance by Angelique Kidjo, the internationally acclaimed Benin singer. They clapped, they laughed, their bodies swayed. And when Kidjo, who is tiny, was finished singing, they jumped up and hugged her enthusiastically. They scooped her up in their arms and danced her around the room. The image was so compelling a picture of it ran in the next day’s Toronto Star.

Their sheer joy was infectious. Later, I interviewed Angelique Kidjo and after the formal part of the interview, I chatted with her about a recent trip I had taken to India and my dream of one day going to Africa. She turned to me, smiled and said somewhat mystically and prophetically: “You must go to Africa.” (And so Angelique, I want you to know that I’m on my way.)

It was while I was in a media pen waiting for the final recommendations of the Grandmothers Conference that I met a CP reporter who was going that September to Rwanda to work as an intern, part of the Rwanda Initiative.
A former colleague of mine from the Star Allan Thompson, now a professor of journalism at Carleton University, had started the program. I called and spoke to Allan about the Rwanda Initiative and volunteered immediately.

And so now I find myself on my way to Rwanda – happy to be able to share my skills and expertise in writing and reporting. I hope over the next month to be able to help out in a small way with writing and interviewing. I’m also hoping that I can do a joint project on HIV /AIDS with the reporters and editors at the Kigali New Times. It may be too grand an idea – but I hope to use it as a teaching vehicle.

In the little spare time I will have while I’m there I hope to read a few more books on Rwanda and Africa, including The Media and The Rwandan Genocide, a series of essays edited by Allan Thompson and Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. As well I’m bringing a number of books to leave in the Kigali newsroom as resource material.

I arrive in Kigali on June 29 and will be there to celebrate Rwanda’s Independence Day, which just happens to appropriately fall on Canada Day. I start work at the paper on July 2 – my son’s 17th birthday. And on July 4 Rwanda will celebrate Liberation Day – the day the Rwandan Patriotic Front won control of Kigali and the end of the genocide.

The next day, July 5, is my birthday. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than in Africa – sharing my love of journalism with the reporters and editors at the Kigali New Times, experiencing Rwanda and fulfilling a life-long dream of living in Africa if only for a little while.


Jun 18

 
  

ali_blog Melodie Cardin

Please, please, please, don’t buy that goat.  These are my thoughts as I sit crammed into a minibus meant for 15 with 20 other people - 21 if you count the baby screaming its head off on its sleeping mother’s lap in the backseat - because the man behind me, who has been digging his elbows into my back during the entire trip, is bargaining for an entire dead, skinned goat.  The man on the road is holding it up by what I presume to be its ankle bones and the thing still has a tail.

“Deux mille cinq cent,” he shouts to me, and through my revulsion at the idea of that thing coming on our already musky-smelling bus I can’t help but notice that 5 bucks is a pretty cheap starting price for an entire goat.  (Minus the head, fortunately.)

Fortunately, the bus got back on its way without the goat, and we got off to Nyungwe for a trek through the rainforest without a hitch – until we got to the lodge.

Cynthia had asked at the ORPTN offices before we got there about the cost, and had been told 30$US to enter the park. I don’t know if it was a breakdown in communication or a serious case of the infamous “muzungu price,” but the man at reception refused to let us in for less than 50$US – and when we asked if we could make up the difference in Rwandan francs, he allowed it only at an exchange rate of 577 to the dollar, when the going rate is closer to 540. 

It was all worth it when we saw the beauty of the forest – although the steep uphill on the return nearly killed me and took quite a bit out of all of us.  Today, everything hurts – muscles I didn’t know I had are hurting – but I have seen a bit more of Rwanda and after all these weekend excursions I am feeling like I am getting the most out of my Rwandan experience.  We didn’t see any monkeys in the forest, but we saw tons of them on the road – driving too fast to get a picture but I’ve got a mental one that is priceless.

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Jun 7

 

ali_blog Melodie Cardin

I am starting to feel homesick for little things. In particular, bathrooms at home. This blog could really not be complete without a little mention of bathrooms here. This will be a bit graphic, but let’s just say that hole-in-the-ground facilities in many areas, not to mention dubious hygiene, have cause me to perfect the squat, and I have pretty good aim for a girl.

Which is more than I can say for some people at Radio Rwanda, who have no aim whatsoever judging from the pee on the seat, on the floor… and so on. I know I don’t leave the house without a wad of toilet paper or packet of tissue in my purse. Also hand sanitizer, which is something I never use in Canada but couldn’t do without here.

Things I have learned in bathrooms here: it’s easier in a skirt, notebook paper is not better than nothing, and newspaper is but doesn’t flush. Okay, graphic part over.

It’s not only bathrooms that take adjusting to, obviously. My work is mostly good now that I am figuring out the flow of it. I was working three evenings, two days a week but I found that schedule didn’t work well. It was too many evenings, and I prefer the work I do during the day because I get out in the field. So I had my schedule changed to two evenings, three days and I think that will work out better – but it is more work and another early morning and I am more tired than I was before. I am also starting to get used to what I am expected to do, and so can take some initiative. I’ve gone out on a couple of assignments on my own now (easy but I seem to have to convince them that I’m capable using baby steps.)

I went to a function that the President spoke at – but it was pretty anticlimactic to be honest, the most interesting thing about it was the big show everyone puts on when he’s around. Tight security, standing ovations when he enters the room, etc., and the second he leaves the building all the security falls apart. It’s weird coming from Canada, where we have cartoons making fun of our PM in the paper, and then being here and seeing the red carpet treatment. I agreed with the things he said though. He talked about the environment and climate change and talked about how many of the environment problems in Africa are because of the excesses of the developed countries, all of which was powerful to hear here.

For the most part, however, work is really good and I get along really well with most people there and enjoy their company. Several of them have been good about helping me to learn some phrases in Kinyarwanda, which is hard for me to learn but I’m trying. After only a month here, I feel like Kigali is small – I know lots of people and everyone knows everyone in this town. I’m really enjoying it too – I’ve always been the kind of person who takes pleasure in the little things and here those things are: moto rides; the little craft boutiques on every corner; passionfruit juice and fruit salad; driving through the countryside on the weekends; the smiles and giggles of the kids on the road. These are things I will remember – the things I didn’t know to expect.

Another crazy thing about being here is the women who will come up and touch my hair in amazement. These are women who are tall, thin, drop dead gorgeous and will come up and be amazed at my hair – but I understand because African women spend a lot of time and money on their hair. One girl calls me Salma Hayek because of my hair – which I don’t really get, I don’t see the resemblance, but I’m not going to fight it.