Aug 31
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

I’ve been teaching for two weeks now, and by the end of next week, the course I’m teaching, basic news writing for first years, will be over. I can hardly believe it.

The teaching timetable here is not only last-minute — you often don’t know until Friday afternoon, sometimes even Monday morning, what your schedule will look like for the next week – but three or four weeks of intensive classes, and the course is done. Before I know it, I’ll be moving on to second year Journalism Ethics with a whole new crew. Meanwhile, I feel like I’m just really getting to know this one.

They’re a varied bunch. Many have grown up or lived in different countries, their families at one point driven from Rwanda during the genocide and years of ethnic conflict leading up to it. Nearly all have been affected in some way by the countrywide killing spree. Some even cited the genocide and the media’s role in it (fanning the flames of hate internally) as a reason for going into journalism. They want to be watchdogs, they say — prevent anything like that from ever happening again. Several want to stay in Rwanda, others hope to become international correspondents. A few are already working in journalism, mostly for Radio Salus, the fast-growing and very popular student radio station here (the “impediment” one student cited as a reason for not coming to class one day, it turns out, was a show he had to do).

Several admitted the first day they don’t want to be journalists at all. One chose to study it because the school doesn’t have an arts program, so she chose the next best – most creative — thing on offer. Another wants to be a soldier, another a musician. And a fourth went into journalism because his father always wanted to be one, so he’s living the dream for him.

All of them are really starting to grow on me. And slowly, they’re opening up to me.

At first, they were really shy. Getting them to answer a question or participate in a simple show of hands was like pulling teeth. Knowing Kinyarwanda was a first language for most of them, I asked on the first day of class how many students spoke English as a second language. One or two hands went up, timidly. How about French? I asked. Same response. The numbers certainly didn’t add up. There are 24 students in my class.

Fast forward to this week, when I asked the same question again to a few students gathered outside before class. This time, I got my answer. Two students, they told me, could manage well in English. The rest, French.

I’d already been speaking French in class, but needless to say, I’ve stepped it up since then. It’s not always pretty – eight years working in the U.S. takes its toll on one’s French vocabulary – but it’s been good practice for me, and helpful and sometimes entertaining for them. (“Guys, anyone know how to say ‘mudslide’ en francais?”) When I asked whether they wanted the option to write their final assignment – an original news story – in French, their eyes lit up.

I’ve even busted out some of my crusty Kinyarwanda on them. “Mumveh” (listen) and “Memcekeke” (don’t ask me how it’s spelled but it means “be quiet”) are some of my favourite new words, and my use of them invariably invites a twitter of laughter, but seems to get their attention. They also shut each other up quite nicely, I’ve found. One of them tells the others to shush, and they do. Students who do that at home, meanwhile, are labeled keeners.

There’s still a language barrier, but it’s getting better. And there’s still some shyness on the part of students, especially the women, but it’s waning.

In the beginning, they almost always nodded when I asked if they got what I was saying, and then turned in assignments that make it abundantly clear that many didn’t. But more and more, they’re speaking up when they don’t understand something. And more and more, they’re actually picking up what I’m teaching them.

After one lesson on writing story leads, during which I had emphasized the importance of writing in the active tense wherever possible, one student approached me holding a handout I’d given the class. He pointed to one example of a lead I’d written and asked: “Isn’t this in the passive tense? Shouldn’t it be active?”

Hmmm. Why yes, yes it should, I said.

He smiled. Nothing like busting the prof.

I smiled, too. Never felt so good to get showed up.

Not all moments are like that, though.

After hammering home that it’s a journalistic no-no and can lead to a failing grade, a couple of students have continued to make up quotes and information during class exercises. And trying to get them to write a story that puts the news first has been, well, trying. It doesn’t help that this is the end of their first year (the academic year ends in October) and they’re just now learning the basics of news writing. At least they’re learning it in their first year at all, I guess. My colleagues who are teaching second and third year courses are still hammering the same basics home to their classes.

Meanwhile, when it comes to other things, namely coming up with story ideas, the students almost universally shine. They have GREAT story ideas. Far better than I remember having in journalism school, and far better than you’d find in a lot of newsrooms. One student is doing his final story about what it’s like to be single on a campus where being part of a couple is, apparently, a social imperative. I’ll give you a hint: it’s much like being unmarried at 33. You’re a freak.

A lot of the ideas they’ve floated in class have given me much better insight into their lives. For example, university students each get paid 25,000 Rwandan francs (about $50 USD) a month by the government, a big incentive to stay in school. Without it, many of them wouldn’t be able to carry on their studies — that or they’d miss more classes than they already do to go to work. I also learned that overcrowding on campus is a big problem, as evidenced by the fact that they sleep two to a single bed in the dorms.

It’s clear that some of the students really want to do well, and get ahead. One pulled me aside one day and pointed to a story posted on a school bulletin board. It was an article written by a second-year student that had been published in the New Times, the English language daily in Kigali. Could I help him, he wondered, get a story published like that? Maybe, he ventured, I could even lend him a digital camera so he could have a picture with it?

I told him and the rest of the class that if they came up with a really strong story idea and wanted to get it published, I’d work with them to try to get it in a local paper.

At least one student, though, is thinking a little bigger. As we walked through campus the other day, he asked whether I might be able to help him get a story in a big American paper. Did I think, he ventured, that my editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer might be interested?

I didn’t say no. What I did say was that maybe we should concentrate on coming up with a good local story idea and nailing a lead first.

Our class discussion a few days later probably just fueled the fascination with American journalism. We were talking about journalism ethics, and I was going over some basic principles. North American principles, that is. One of those principles being that reporters shouldn’t take money or gifts from the people they’re covering so as to avoid even an appearance that they are beholden to anyone. Here in Rwanda, meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for journalists to be provided transportation to cover events by the people hosting said events. And they are given money to cover press conferences.

That got us into a discussion about how much journalists in Rwanda make, and my students were agog when they asked me – and I told them – how it compared to the U.S. I told them that reporters in North America can get paid anywhere between $17,000 a year (entry level at a small paper) to $100,000-plus a year (senior reporters at large newspapers). The $17,000 figure alone made eyes pop. That’s roughly 8.5 million francs. Starting journalists in Rwanda can make as little as 300,000 Rwf a year, they said. (Having said that, students who work at Radio Salus get 45,000 Rwf a month … almost double that)

During the same ethics discussion, we talked about journalists avoiding writing stories to which they have a personal connection. One student asked what a reporter should do if he couldn’t avoid having to interview a friend or family member. He cited a recent radio show on which one of the panel guests was the moderator’s brother. What should the moderator do? the student asked. Well, I said, he could, at the very least, reveal the relationship to his audience. Or he could step aside as moderator for one day and get someone else to fill in.

Option C, of course, is “none of the above.”

Which is apparently what the moderator did.

Another reminder that the journalism here and the journalism I’m here to teach are still worlds apart.


Aug 28
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

Where to start? Sometimes things happen so slowly here and others, so much seems to happen at once. It’s been just five days since I’ve last written and I could write a novel.

We went to Kigali again this weekend, on our way to National Volcano Park to see the mountain gorillas. Jill and Melissa had already been to the genocide memorial museum at Gisozi in Kigali, but I hadn’t, so ventured off on my own to find it. It was too far to walk, so I decided on a moto, which I’ve taken several times before to get around. No problem, I thought. It never occurred to me that the other times I’ve jumped on the back of a bike, it was either in Butare, where it’s mostly flat, or for just a short ride in Kigali, where it becomes more apparent why they call this country the land of a thousand hills. This time, I had to go pretty far. And let me tell you, it was a pretty freaky experience. I’m not a wuss by any stretch. I’ve bungee-jumped, after all. But when those bikes go flying down those hills, you just hold on tight and pray. And if you’re me, you close your eyes, too. That way, you don’t see it when your driver decides that it would be a good time to pass the truck in front of you when another big truck is coming in the opposite direction. While barreling down aforementioned hill. Even the helmet they give you (yes, Mom, I was wearing a helmet) isn’t much comfort in times like that.

I survived to take two more moto trips that day, and consider myself a veritable pro now. I even kept my eyes open the last time (well, maybe there were a few winces here and there….)

The rollercoaster ended at Gisozi. There, I was in for a completely different ride. The museum, a modern white building perched on one of those thousand hills, officially opened in 2004 and documents the horrors of the genocide that took place here 13 years ago. I’ve done a lot of research on the subject, but it apparently hadn’t hardened me for this. It was still tough to read about the hundreds of thousands of Tutsis who were macheted, burned and shot to death just because of who they were, and the moderate Hutus who were similarly killed because they wouldn’t go along with the genocidaires’ plans. About neighbours who turned on each other and parents who were forced to kill their own children. About the tens of thousands who ran to churches, tricked into believing they would be safe there. How could they know that many church officials were complicit and would offer them up, en masse, to the Hutu-led Interahamwe?

Behind glass windows were hundreds of smashed skulls and bones – the remains of the victims. Nearby, there were some of the clothes they were wearing when they were exhumed from mass graves. Among the still blood-stained garments: an Ottawa t-shirt with a heart in the “O” and a Cornell University sweatshirt.

I managed to keep it together until the end. The children did me in. The museum had a room devoted to the ones killed during the genocide. There was a picture of each, usually smiling. Then below:

Mami Mpinganzima
Age 12
Favourite food: chips with mayo.
Last words: “Mum, where can I run to?”
Shot dead.

Bernardin Kambanda
Age 17
Favourite sport: football
Clever at School
Killed by machete at Nyamata Church

David Mugiraneza
Age 10
Wanted to be a doctor
Last words: “UNAMIR will come for us.”
Tortured to death.

Ariane Umotoni
Age 4
Loved cake and milk, singing and dancing
Stabbed in her eyes and head.

Aurore Kirezi
Age 2
Loved to play hide and seek with her big brother
Burnt alive at the Gikondo Chapel.

Fillette Uwase
Age 2
Favourite Toy: her doll.
Smashed against a wall.

Try keeping it together after that.

The fear/exhilaration I felt on the moto ride home was actually welcome. It’s hard to cry, it turns out, when your heart is going a thousand beats a minute.

On Sunday, it was yet another adventure. Time to see the gorillas. It’s been on the top of my list of things to do while in Rwanda — something those who had done it before me said could not be missed. An experience of a lifetime, they called it.

Melissa wasn’t so sure. The cost was pretty steep — $500 USD (locals get a much cheaper rate). And there was no guarantee of seeing a gorilla, though we’d been told that not having a sighting was rare. Jill and I convinced Melissa that it was worth it and hoped we were right.

Oh, we were.

But I won’t lie: there were some downsides to the experience, including the 3:30 a.m. wake up.

The park is a good 2.5 hour drive from Kigali, and we had to be there by 7 a.m., so we were up well before the sun. Not exactly Moroz primetime, but I managed. The driver we’d hired for the day, Alphonse, picked us up at 4 a.m. and we were on our way. I figured the roads would be empty at that hour, and they were, for the most part. But the sides of the roads! As we wound our way up toward the mountains, a steady stream of people were making their way toward Kigali, carrying large loads of bananas, potatoes, and wood on their heads. They’re headed for the market in Kigali, Alphonse informed us, and many start walking at 1 a.m. If they get to town ahead of schedule, they stop and rest at the city limits and wait until it’s time for the market to open.

And I thought 3:30 was bad.

A few hours of unbelievably bumpy roads later, we arrived at the park, and gathered with the rest of the tourists in the shadow of the volcanoes that gave the park its name. Alphonse pulled some strings and made sure we got in the group headed to see the Susa group — the second largest group of mountain gorillas in the world, with 37 gorillas, and the one studied by Dian Fossey. We’d all read that the hike up to see the Susa group was pretty harsh, but worth it. So we were happy to learn that we would be among the eight (max) the park allows to see each group at a time. Our guide, Diogene, confirmed that we and the five other Americans in our group had made the right decision. “We’re going to visit the Susa group,” he said, greeting us. “The best group.”

It may be the best group, but the guidebook was right when it said getting to it was exactly a cakewalk. We had to drive another hour along the bumpiest road I may ever have experienced. With Alphonse’s mixed tapes blaring in the background (think Kung Fu Fighting and Wham), we literally and figuratively rocked our way through small farming communities. It was almost as if all the local kids got ready for the muzungus who came through every day to see the gorillas. They literally lined the roadway, waving and shouting, some giving thumbs up signs, others asking for money or empty plastic bottles (to refill themselves).

>From where we parked, in the middle of farmland, it would take two hours to get to the gorillas, Diogene (“D”) said. Three rifle-toting soldiers would accompany us – one ahead and two behind. Asked, as we made our way up to the edge of the bamboo forest, what exactly the soldiers were there for, D said “protection from buffalo.”

Um, anything else? I ventured.

Well, he said pointing to the mountain top, after that, it’s Congo. And some people there don’t like Rwanda.

Good to know. Always good to know when you’re THIS CLOSE to rebel territory.

D, in fact, was full of comforting news. As we made our way through the towering bamboo (I’ll never look at the puny stuff they sell at Ikea the same), D used his machete to cut down stalks then planted them across certain paths. Asked what he was doing, he said some guides didn’t know the territory too well and he wanted to make sure they didn’t go the wrong way.

Super.

I had to ask: have any guides ever been lost?

Oh, yes, D said. And some park employees have died of starvation and thirst. And oh, did he mention that a few tourists have fallen, too? Those are in addition to the ones who can’t quite cut the hike and have to be carried back down by trackers.

Ahem.

Meanwhile, we were climbing a fairly steep incline through thick bamboo and stinging nettles, often forced to crouch low to ease ourselves and our backpacks (why did I have to bring a backpack?) under fallen stalks. Sweaty business, indeed.

On one of our breaks, D busted out with another gem. When we get to the gorillas, he said, just beware that the bulls charge.

“But don’t panic,” he added nonchalantly. “If you run, you’ll give them confidence to run after you.”

If it happens, D said, he’ll take care of it, tell us what to do.

Right. Great.

(Another subject D brought up during a break: Rwandan sexual customs. The best part — other than the fact that our gorilla guide was explaining human sexual rituals to us — was that he spoke in French and made Melissa translate all the details for the rest of the group.)

After about an hour of climbing, D got a radio dispatch from the trackers ahead of us. The gorillas were moving down the mountain. They were just outside the first bamboo forest, the one we’re in right now.

Gorilla turds started appearing in our path — then on the bottom of my foot. Proof that we were getting close.

We emerged into a clearing and there stood three men, including Antoine, the tracker who had been radioing D with the 411 on the gorillas’ whereabouts. We were super close now. Time to drop our bags, taking just what we needed from them: passport, wallet, camera, and in my case, notebook. Time for action.

We walked into a small grove of trees and all of a sudden, there he was. Kurira. The big cahuna. The leader of the pack. A giant silverback who was, at that moment, lounging in the shade, his chin resting on his hand (paw?) as if in deep thought. So human looking. Once I got over the shock of being THIS CLOSE to a mountain gorilla, I was able to focus on my surroundings. And when I did, there were gorillas everywhere. One small guy was playing in a tree, until he came crashing down with the branch he broke. Near Kurira, Ruvumu sat with her baby. More lounged and played off to the side. We were literally surrounded.

Get closer, urged Antoine. Closer? I thought. Are you kidding me? Apparently not. He grabbed my camera and nudged me toward Kurira. Face me, Antoine said. He wanted to get a pic of me with the silverback.

At this point, I was just a few feet away from this hulking animal, my back toward him, posing for a picture. Slightly absurd in retrospect. I never even got the photo. That’s because this is the point at which our friend Kurira decided to do a bit of charging. In my direction. I heard a great rustle of leaves, and what I find out later was chest beating, and all of a sudden Antoine was pulling me away and D was making his gorilla whisperer noises, which aren’t much of a whisper at all, but rather a throaty, prehistoric-sounding yell:

“Maaaa-mu! Ye-aeeee. Maaaaa-am!””

Don’t panic, I reminded myself. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.

Yeah, right. You try not panicking when a furry ton of bricks is coming at you.

At least I didn’t run. I let Antoine pull me to safety. And lived to tell the tale.

It turned out Kurira was more interested in sun and celery than he was in me. He led the group out to a sloped clearing, where they fanned out and started snacking, sunning, frolicking and nursing in the long grass. They remained pretty much oblivious to us the whole time, just occasionally turning to give us a curious look. We got used to them quickly, too. Antoine and D continued to push me toward them to take pictures (they seemed to take a liking to me for some reason) and by the end of our time, I didn’t even wince when there was a surge of testosterone and one of them charged or got into a scuffle with another male gorilla.

The gorillas are clearly accustomed to humans (and having them within just a few feet) and it really makes you wonder about how healthy this is for the animals. It certainly is healthy for the Rwandan government… last year, more than 12,700 people came through the park, most of those to see the gorillas (you can also see monkeys, or visit Dian Fossey’s grave for $50) and most of those non-residents who pay big money to see said gorillas.

What the park does do to attempt to protect the gorillas from us is to limit each group’s time with them to an hour. And our hour was soon up.

“It’s time to leave the gorillas,” D announced. “Leave them to make babies and their natural habitat.”

The trackers would stay behind, he said, watch over the gorillas (and more specifically, watch out for poachers) until 6 p.m., when the gorillas would make their nests and retire for the day.

For the rest of us humans, the adventure was over.

It was an expensive one, to be sure. $8.30 a minute, to be exact — $2.08 a minute, if you include all the hiking.

But it was worth it.

It was an experience of a lifetime, after all.

Even Melissa, the skeptic, agreed.


Aug 26

 

jill_blog Jill Bennett

Those are the words of advice from Dee (which is short for his much longer Rwandan name) as we set out to see the mountain gorillas.

The words are not as comforting as Dee seems to think they are as we look at each other with slightly worried looks on our faces. I glance around the group trying to gauge the athletic ability of the people I am with. I think I can outrun at least two of them. I tighten my shoelaces feeling a little bit better.

The day starts at 4am in Kigali where we are picked up by our driver, Alphonse, in his 4×4 truck. We set out along the dark city streets and head for the Virunga National Park, home to five volcanoes and the gorillas.

We try to sleep. Melissa is in the front seat with the broken air conditioner slowly forming icicles on her calves. Jennifer and I are in the back with the seats reclined. I try to wedge myself against the door but the roads are so filled with potholes it is impossible to stay in one place. Out the window, in the early morning darkness there are streams of people walking along the street with sacks of grains, large piles of firewood, and hundreds of green bananas balanced on their heads. Alphonse tells us they start walking around 1am every morning to make it to town by around 6am.

Just before 7am we arrive at the base camp where we choose the gorilla family we want to visit. There are dozens of people, who have paid 500 US dollars each for a gorilla permit. Alphonse gets us a spot to see the Susa group. It’s the most challenging hike but the reward is time spent with the gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey, a family with four silverback males.

We drive for another hour and twenty minutes to the start of the hike along a “road” that makes it clear why Alphonse needs a 4×4.

“I wonder how many shock absorbers these trucks go through?” asks Melissa.

“Just one pair,” I answer while hanging on to the door handle. “The ones that are still in the truck.”

On the hike we are joined by guards armed with machine guns. When Dee is asked why he tells us there is a problem with poachers and in the past some tourists were killed. He says this as if he is telling us what he had for breakfast.

And we start the hike. At first we are moving so fast I begin to wonder if I missed the part where we were told we were all competing on The Amazing Race “Virunga Park” version. Apparently we are not; we just need to hurry.

The hike is an amazing walk through a bamboo forest with sunlight filtering in through the stalks that seem to reach the sun itself. We stop to take pictures and I check on the state of the group. I am still confident I could outrun at least two of them if need be.

Then the real hiking begins. Dee seems to know where the path is although I have no idea how. He is careful not to destroy the forest as he walks with the ease of an Olympic sprinter on a warm up lap around the track. The rest of us get caught up in branches, stung constantly by nettles, and lose our footing as we try to limbo under fallen bamboo shoots.

We are told it will take about two hours to reach our cousins. But the guides ahead radio to Dee telling him the gorillas are closer today. We soon see the evidence on the path, and careful not to step in it, start to realize just how close we are.

We stop and leave our knapsacks and walking sticks in a small clearing. We are allowed to take cameras only when we go in. We are told it’s okay to make eye contact but not to point. And once again we are reminded, if they charge, don’t panic.

We walk a few more feet and there they are. The first one I see is the alpha male silverback resting with his head forward cupped in his incredibly human hand. He looks at us and I wonder if he can sense how frightened and mesmerized I am all at once. He looks mildly interested in us, but more annoyed that we have crashed his afternoon nap. There is a commotion a few feet away as a much younger gorilla falls out of a tree and into the group.

Dee decides this is a good time for Jennifer to stand near the silverback to have a photo. He gets up and all four hundred plus pounds of him lumbers towards her as the rest of us stare. I can hear the words ‘don’t panic’ in my mind but I have forgotten what they mean. I prepare to record Jennifer’s last words so I can be sure to convey them to her parents when they ask. But then the silverback simply walks away.

We follow the group into a clearing. Aside from the constant clicking of cameras I can hear little else from the human group. From the gorillas I hear the hollow popping as the silverback pounds his chest. The grass moves as other gorillas tumble over each other, as if playing out a scene for the humans. And there is a munching sound as the others pick wild celery and crunch away at their snack, completely uninterested in us.

A mother gorilla nurses her baby just a couple of metres from where I am standing. The similarity to human beings is amazing especially in the hands and feet. But while this should be an incredibly solid point in the argument for evolution, I can’t help but wonder what greater being is responsible for creating such a beautiful and perfect creature.

Dee tells us we can only spend an hour with our cousins. If we stay longer they will start to go crazy. I completely understand as it’s the same in my family when relatives unexpectedly stop by.

And then, as if they too know the hour is up, the gorillas disappear. All that is left of our encounter is a patch of matted vegetation and hundreds of digital photos. For a moment I wonder if I imagined the entire thing.

We hike back to the truck where Alphonse is waiting for us and I can’t help but feel that I have seen something so many people never will. While Rwanda depends on the tourism money generated by these amazing creatures, I wonder how long we will be allowed to venture into our cousin’s homes. Tourists are told to stay away if they have a cold or the flu or any illness because the gorillas have no immunity to human disease but I wonder how often they are put at risk because of us.

There are only 700 gorillas left in the world and about 380 of them live in the Virunga Park. They are threatened by poachers in Rwanda, the Congo and Uganda. Already this year seven gorillas have been killed. The forest is being cleared for charcoal production which is also putting them at risk.

The armed guards stay with them all day until they go to bed for the night. It’s little comfort as we drive back down the mountain saying good bye to these amazing primates, hoping they will be here for generations to come.


Aug 25

 

jill_blog Jill Bennett

“Muzungu!!!” “Muzungu!”

The word is constantly thrown at me as I walk the 45 minutes each way to and from the University campus. It means “white person” and even though there are many “muzungu” people in Butare, there is always someone on the street who feels the need to remind me of the obvious; I am not from here. I blend in here about as well as a flamingo at a duck convention.

At first I would wave back to the children screeching at me thinking it was cute. But as more and more people greeted me based on the colour of my skin I started to get annoyed. I realize there are different ways of doing things in different countries and I now know there are huge differences between Vancouver and Butare, but still, I would never yell a word at someone based on his or her race, so why is it okay for people to look at me and scream, “Whitey!”?

People here say other things too, after the word Muzungu, but they speak in Kinyarwanda and while I am just guessing, based on the facial expressions while they are speaking, I can only imagine they aren’t complimenting me on my choice of clothing.

During the days after I first arrived here I found myself feeling intimidated while I walked down the street.

People stare. And while I thought I might be imagining it, many of the stares felt slightly hostile and unwelcoming to say the least. I don’t blame them though. White people haven’t exactly treated people here very well during the last several decades. The country was under colonial rule and it was Germany that first started splitting the people in Rwanda into classes. It was further divided into ethnic groups of Hutu and Tutsi under Belgium’s rule all before it gained independence in 1962. And during the years leading up to the 1994 genocide, France helped those who planned and carried out the killing. The rest of the western world, including Canada, turned a blind eye while as many as one million people were raped, tortured, and slaughtered. The Catholic Church was also a key player, running schools and further separating the classes, favouring one over the other. Even today, the Catholic Church is paying the defence bills of at least one of the men accused of incredible atrocities during the genocide.

Walking along the street in Butare, I found myself thinking if I was Rwandan I would probably have a hostile look or two saved up for a muzungu. How could you not? I know that sounds like a ridiculous argument and if that is truly how the world works then, based on history alone, there would be very few people who didn’t despise each other today. But still, the genocide took place only thirteen years ago. There are fresh reminders of it everywhere here.

I am here to teach Radio and Television Presentation at the University. But at times I can’t help but feel like I am trespassing. I know there is a need for lecturers in the department and I know I have knowledge that is helping my students.

But I wonder how people can truly welcome someone who is from a country that knew about the genocide while it was happening but did nothing to stop it.

Yesterday, I received an impromptu lesson on forgiveness from some of my students. I am paraphrasing here. But this is the conversation I had with three students who took me on a campus tour. We were in one of the dorm rooms, where they sleep two people to a single bed. It would be unheard of at a Canadian University but it’s completely normal here. The tiny room is decorated with pictures of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Jesus, side by side taped to the walls.

They saw me looking at the pictures with what I can only imagine was a facial expression of slight disbelief and humour.

“They are the two men we look up to the most,” said one student.

“You put your president and Jesus on the same level?” I asked, finding it impossible not to laugh as I imagined someone making the same point while looking at a campaign poster of Stephen Harper next to a photocopy of Jesus.

“No, not the same level, but Kagame has done great things for our country. And Jesus, well Jesus is Jesus.”

I couldn’t help but notice the pictures of Paul Kagame were black and white copies from when he was a soldier with the RPF. The reporter in me wanted to question this. But the smile on my student’s face made me reconsider the harsh tone ready to come out. Instead I asked, “So why is Paul Kagame so great?”

“He can do no wrong. He’s a celebrity.”

Without any segue the conversation shifted to talk about the genocide. The students started talking about how the country has changed since 1994.

“Many of us were only nine years old when the genocide happened. We go to school with students whose parents might have raped or killed by the parents of the student sitting next to them. We have to know it’s not our fault. We didn’t do anything wrong. Now we have to move on together and live together and not blame. We have to make sure it never happens again.”

I was amazed by this and somewhat sceptical. “But how can you possibly forget and then study next to someone whose family killed your family?”

“It’s not about forgetting. It’s about not blaming. The people who did it (the genocide) are on trial. They are being dealt with. We are at school now. We are moving on.”

I stood there still amazed and still slightly sceptical.

But looking at my class it appears they are doing just that. There are things people are not allowed to talk about openly here. Ethnicity is one of them. But it’s still easy to simply look at people and to know exactly where the lines were drawn during the genocide. But it’s also easy to see where the lines have been erased as the students walk together, sit together, and laugh and learn together, and sleep two to a single bed together as one giant family.

And it’s watching that ease and that forgiveness that makes me feel welcome here and make me feel like I am part of something amazing. If they can forgive each other and move on then surely they can welcome me here to help teach them and learn from them.

Walking home along the main road I was once again peppered by people yelling “muzungu”as they saw me. Yes, I thought to myself, I am one big muzungu, all the way from Canada and a little bit lost. Thank you for having me.


Aug 23
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

Will wonders never cease?

It’s stopped raining. In fact, it’s been brilliantly sunny every day. I’ve learned my students’ names by heart already. And they’re all coming to class! Not only did 18 of 24 show up for our first day Monday … they voluntarily stayed late. During the class, I had them introduce themselves and share something interesting or unusual about themselves that no one would know about them in preparation for writing mini profiles of each other. At the end, I told them they could go a bit early, thinking that, like most university students, they’d jump at the chance. But they lingered in their seats, all of them. Something was going on that I wasn’t party to. Jean Damascene, aka “Philos,” the class president, finally fills me in. What about you? We want to know more about you, too.

You want to interview me? I say. They all nod. Well, I think, who am I to quash such journalistic enterprise?

I figured they’d want to know more about my journalism career, maybe my childhood. Oh, no. They get right down to the nitty gritty:

How old are you?
33
Are you married?
No.
A fiancé?
No.
(Unspoken question: What’s wrong with you?)
What one girl in the front row blurts out instead, in a slightly astonished voice: Why?

Being this old and unmarried as a woman is pretty unheard of here (the word “spinster” has been used), so I explained that it’s a little more commonplace where I come from, before turning it into an upbeat lesson on how not to inject your personal bias or opinion into an interview. Lesson one complete.

The next day, more students came — and showed up early. As I made my way to class, I got a text message — the preferred way of communicating here — from Philos saying “Miss, where are you? We’re waiting for you.”

(Other text messages include ones like this one received the other day: “Miss, I can’t come to class today due to an impedement. Thank you for your good comprehension.”)

I’ve taught every day this week, 8 to noon, and we’ve crammed a whole lot in: What is news? Where to find story ideas. How to find a focus. Write a lead. Structure a basic news story.

English is a second or third language for many of the students, so making sure they get the point of each lesson has been a struggle. I’ve been using my French a lot and more than a few wild hand gestures. I’m sure they must think I’m slightly crazy sometimes, come to think of it. But hey, they’re still coming to class. We hit an all-time attendance high today, in fact: 22 out of 24. Well, until seven disappeared after the break.

Guess you can’t win ‘em all …

Meanwhile, I got roped into buying my first “ancient” artifacts. This guy Joseph and his buddy approached me on my first day here and asked whether I knew “Sherry” (everyone here knows Shelley, the Rwanda Initiative’s on-the-ground coordinator, and everyone here pronounces r’s as l’s and vice versa) before asking what day he could come over to the house to show me his wares. I didn’t want to commit to anything and so I said I was new here, didn’t know my schedule, etc … I thought I had successfully ducked him until Monday after school, when a guy sidled up beside me on the street and said “‘remember me?”

Did I? I thought, then ventured: “Joseph?”

He nodded. Remember, he said, when you said we would arrange a time for me to drop by? There was no getting rid of him this time, so I agreed to check out his stuff by the side of the road. There was nothing I wanted, but he was insistent, so I picked out the smallest (and presumably cheapest) pieces he had — two small candlesticks (antique, from Congo, he asserted) — and asked how much. 40,000 francs (80 bucks), he said. Now I don’ know much about ancient Congolese art, but I know enough to know that these little bits of je ne sais quoi were maybe Congolese, but definitely not ancient. I offered 10,000, and after arguing a bit, he took it. And probably laughed inwardly at what a sucker I was.

There was more suckering to come. After getting absorbed into a hand-holding chain of small children (the one on the end thought it would be great fun to grab the muzungu’s hand and if the hoots of laughter were any indication, his friends apparently agreed), I finally made my way home, eager to eat lunch. But a man stood between me and my food. He was standing outside the house waiting to tell me he had the small masks I’d wanted him to bring. I was confused.

Who said I wanted any masks?

This had to be Joseph’s friend, I figured, before telling him I didn’t want any more stuff; I just bought some stuff from Joseph.

To which he responds:

I’m Joseph.

To which I respond: Did you change your shirt?

To which he responds: No.

I was so tired and frustrated and confused by that point that I paid 5,000 francs to make it all stop. i.e., I bought a mask.

I think I probably got ripped off. I asked Jean, the cook/housekeeper at the house, because he’s a local and would know. He swears I got an okay deal. I kind of I think he’s just trying to male me feel better.

All I know for sure is that someone is getting candlesticks and a mask for Christmas.


Aug 19
jen_blog Jennifer Moroz

It’s supposed to be dry season here but I’m beginning to have some serious doubts.

It’s my fifth day in Rwanda and so far, it’s rained every day. Hard.

Yet the Rwandans I’ve pressed on the issue insist the wet season doesn’t start until mid-September. “It’s dry season,” one promised as we stood under an awning waiting out the downpour the other day. “This is a surprise to us.”

The place has been full of surprises so far. For one, it’s not always so hot here. It can be, but it can also get downright chilly at night and on more than one occasion, I’ve wished I’d packed a little differently.

Something else I didn’t expect: Tthere’s Diet Coke in Butare! For those of you who know me, or even have just a passing knowledge of my daily habits, you’ll know this is huge. I’m a certifiable addict. Upon flying into in Kigali Wednesday, I was told to stock up there because I wouldn’t get it anywhere else. Then just the other day, I ran into my fellow Rwanda Initiave-er and housemate Melissa coming out of Matar, the local supermarket in Butare, with a big grin on her face. “They have Diet Coke!” The guys who own the place are Lebanese and apparently import the stuff from UAE, which is why it costs an arm and a leg. 800 Rwandan francs. A little more than $1.50 a can. You can get a goat brochette meal for that here. My addiction is taking a bit of a hit as a result. Probably a good thing, but it sure is nice to know a can of pure joy is just around the corner if I’m ever in a pinch.

My joy over access to Diet Coke aside, I am – I promise – really trying to learn local custom and to settle into life here. That includes getting used to regularly being called “muzungu” – white pserson. I’ll admit it’s a bit weird, coming from a culture where singling people out based on their race is sensitive stuff. Here, ‘muzungu’ is thrown about with ease. It’s the first word I learned in Kinyarwanda. Others I’ve been practicing madly – mwaramutse (good morning) and mwiriwe (good afternoon and good evening). Sometimes, I get a ‘bonjour’ or ‘bonsoir’ on the street from people – often small kids — who know probably as many words in French as I do in Kinyarwanda. It’s kind of sweet – except when it’s followed by “Donne moi de l’argent.” I’m the one in their country and they’re going out of their way to greet me in my language. Which isn’t really my language at all, but I daresay it’s been fun really using my French for the first time in years. While a lot of people here don’t speak it, a lot do, which makes getting around a lot easier because I’ve found few people who speak English.

Having said that, I’m set on learning as much Kinyarwanda as I can while here because in a lot of cases, the French just doesn’t cut it. Case in point: My first day in Butare, I decided to go for a run to get my bearings. It’s really not all that hard in Butare, which is a small city, with one main road. So the run started off well. I didn’t even have a pack of children chasing after me as I’d been warned might happen, though I did get more than a few amused looks. Running for sport here doesn’t appear to be all that common, especially when the runner (okay, jogger) is a white woman.

Anyway, all was fine until the end of my run, when I turned off the main road into Taba, the suburb where we’re staying, and hit the maze of red dirt roads that at the time still looked the same. Needless to say, I got lost. In an area of about a half square mile. And it turns out it’s really hard to tell someone “I’m lost” when all you know how to say in their language is “good day.”

I had a similar incident today in Kigali. I made the two-hour trip there on the “Volcano Express” with Jill and Melissa to explore a bit over the weekend and ended up splitting up with them this afternoon to scout out some sources for a possible story. On my way back to catch the bus back to Butare, I decided to take a ‘moto’ – motorbike cab — and couldn’t explain to my driver where I wanted to go. I went through all my options. Mumuji? (downtown?) Volcano? Various hand gestures, pointing to a map. A crowd started forming around us on and about 20 curious onlookers had gathered before one arrived who, thank heavens, spoke French and saved the day. If taking pictures here weren’t such a sensitive thing (ask Jill and Melissa about their efforts to take a shot of prisoners in a field), I would have been tempted to capture it on film. I spent much of the two-hour bus trip back to Butare getting a tutorial in Kinyarwanda from Lambert, a kindly (and very patient) man who works at a local monastery and had squeezed in to the folding aisle seat next to me. I’ve got to hand it to the Rwandese. They waste no space. They fit more people than you’d think possible into a bus the size of a minivan.

This week, work starts, and it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. I’ll be teaching journalism at the National University of Rwanda here in Butare, a fast 35 minute walk along the main road from our house. I’ve been preparing for my first course – Introduction to Reporting and Writing for first year students – which I’ll be teaching intensively over the next three weeks, followed by journalism ethics. So far, I have discovered there often isn’t enough paper to make photocopies for handouts, so had to buy some to copy my course outline for the class. I don’t even know how many students will be in class tomorrow morning. I’m told it can be difficult getting them to show up, and so I am hoping that by making attendance and participation a significant part of their final grade, I can create some sort of incentive. More to come on how well that works …


Aug 14

 

thompson_blog1 Andrea Thompson, 2007

It’s not the reception I had hoped for. The Africa of my dreams; the one that beckoned me with warm black arms and happy smiles, pulling me close and welcoming me to this incredible land.

Here people shake my hand cooly, offering me the obligatory “you are welcome” when we first meet, or stare at my white skin as we pass on the street. Except for the staring it’s exactly how we treat strangers back home really, and it was naïve of me to expect things here to be any different.

Without my usual arsenal of bad jokes and silly stories I’m at a loss when meeting new people here in Rwanda. All the smiling in the world doesn’t explain who I am and what I’m doing here.

It’s true that a great many people speak French, others English, but in their homes, before going to school, almost all speak Kinyarwandan. Back home there were neither classes in it offered, nor dictionaries to buy so I arrived here tongue-tied, unable to communicate with a majority of the very people I had come to meet. Quickly I set to the work of learning.

Good Canadian that I am the first word I grasped was the one used to say both “excuse me” and “ I’m sorry.” Next, came “thank you” followed by “hello” “how are you?” “I’m fine” and “And you?”

I’ll admit that’s all I’ve got so far. But it has pleasantly surprised me how much that small effort has turned this intimidating place into a far friendlier one.

When I see those curious stares on the street I can call out “hello!” and am greeted with the same, followed always by laughter for both my efforts and no doubt my accent. When little children rush up to me to touch my skin and ask how I am, I too can say “how are you?” and listen to their giggling response. Getting off buses I can pay the young collector and say thank you, bumping into people in the crowded streets I can pardon myself for my missteps.

It occurs to me that there’s another important phrase I ought to learn in Kinyanrwandan, though the impression I get from the laughter and smiles that always follow my “thank yous” and “how are yous” is that, to the people here, it’s understood. They know that what I also mean to say is: “I’m trying.”


Aug 10

 

thompson_blog1 Andrea Thompson, 2007

Sam, Valentin, and I set off for a shoot near Butare this morning with Rich behind the wheel.

The three were set to arrive at the house at 7:30am and me, being my disorganized self, was barely dressed and ready when they arrived.

No time for breakfast I’d told myself, though by the time we’d reached the outskirts of Kigali I’d already begun to regret skipping the most important meal of the day.

I needn’t have worried. When we arrived in the historic city of Nyanza, and I later learned Sam’s hometown, we stopped at a dairy called The Milk House.

The smell of grilled meat hit me like a wall as we walked in and before I’d even managed to find a seat a brochette was thrust into my hand. I ate a few pieces, realized it was beef liver and traded for goat.

A waitress asked akonje? ashyshye? (hot or cold? in Kinryarwanda) and I just stared at her confused. The guys repeated her question for me, in French, then English thinking it was the words I didn’t understand. Eventually I got a clue and asked for akonje quite emphatically then watched as she poured Rich a steaming mug of cow juice, definitely ashyshye.

She poured mine next, an enormous serving of fresh (and I’m pretty certain unpasturized but at least cold) milk. It was thick, creamy and surprisingly delicious.

Quickly on the heels of the milk came a plate of hot chapati. Oh chapati, je t’aime.

I devoured two or three pieces of the thin Indian bread before we continued on to Rusatria. There we interviewed a group of medical students who do family planning education in village health centres, our bellies full of what had certainly been a breakfast of champions.

After the shoot we turned back for home, stopping along the way to buy some of the largest avocados I have ever seen. When I asked how much for one I got laughed at (I’m getting used to it). A basket of about 20 went for 500 francs (1 US dollar). Valentin bought a basket for his family and sent me home with two. One for me, the other for Kristen who I told him liked avocados as well.

On our way back through Nyanza we grabbed a few more brochettes and just when I thought our eating adventure had reached it’s end we did something I’d heard about but had yet to experience…

We stopped for corn! At the roadside, about a half hour from home, we slowed down and a group of young men approached the car pushing fire-cooked corn cobs in through the open windows.

A little like corn-on-the-cob back home but with an almost popcorny flavour it was one of the tastiest parts of the day.

As we tossed out our finished cobs, which I hope made some grazing goats very happy, the guys helped to extend my Kinyarwanda vocabulary with a fitting new phrase: Ndahaze! (I’m full!)


Aug 4

 

thompson_blog1 Andrea Thompson, 2007

Here, underneath my mosquito net, in the wee hours of the morning I’ve come to realize something about myself, something I’m not entirely sure I like.

You see it turns out I’m not one those intrepid, independent people who can jet off and leave their life at home behind.

I’ve liked to think I am, but all around me find evidence to the contrary.

Neatly displayed along the floorboard of my bedroom in Kigali you’ll find a line of pictures: me and my friends, my family, my dog.

The time difference means I rarely catch people in the here-and-now but emails from home bring me just as much joy as all the amazing people and places I see in Rwanda everyday.

At first I was disappointed with myself, embarrassed even, as I watched Camille leave on Thursday and felt myself well up with tears. Of course I’ll miss her: my co-producer, my partner in crime, the girl who tells bus drivers who try to overcharge her “do I look rich to you? do I? check my pockets!”

Oh yes, I cried because I knew I’d miss her and that didn’t surprise me. What did was that I envied her too. She was going home.

It’s not that I want to leave yet. If someone tried to put me on an airplane tomorrow they’d have to drag me kicking and screaming. My time in Africa is not over, I haven’t even left Rwanda yet!

But for a day, even an hour, I will admit, I’d like to be back home.

To celebrate Camille’s departure we had drinks, too many of them, at a local watering hole called The Car Wash. The next morning I quickly realized the Ugandan gin had done a serious disservice to my insides. My bragging rights, my never-had-a-hangover claims are dead and gone but what’s weird is that it’s two days later and I’m still not feeling better.

Mary says I should get a blood test for malaria. I will. More than likely it’s still the gin. Which I’ll avoid from now on.

But there’s that part of me, that part I’m not quite sure I like, that can’t shake the feeling that maybe I’m just homesick.


Aug 1

 

black_blog Debra Black, 2007

The one unresolved issue for me as I wrap up my five weeks or so in Rwanda is freedom of the press. According to an international audit of 150 countries Rwanda ranks 140th when it comes to press freedom. Not exactly a sterling statistic. Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO, which was originally founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie in 1941, does the survey. The idea behind the audit is to evaluate good governance and freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

In Canada we take freedom of the press for granted. We take for granted that as reporters we have the right to interview whoever we want. We scoff at the idea of politicians or governments controlling what we write. As long as we print the truth and don’t slander or libel anyone we are able to write just about anything. In close to 30 years of journalism I have never been told I couldn’t write a story or investigate an issue. I have never been afraid to write about a subject or ask a certain question or explore a certain idea.

But here in Rwanda, it is my observation after a little more than a month on the ground that a kind of culture of fear exists around the media. Many of the journalists automatically censor themselves from asking questions or probing certain subjects. They believe their jobs, their careers, their lives may in fact be on the line. And for them the fact they have a job that pays and makes sure they have food in their stomachs is something they want to protect. That is their reality. And those in the so-called independent press struggle with the reality that what they are doing puts them at risk.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not yet part of the social underpinnings of Rwandan society. It is perhaps too close to the Genocide for many to understand the need for a free press. Thirteen years is not very long in a historical sense. Here in Rwanda the press is still viewed by some with fear since it played such a huge role in instigating the slaughter of close to a million people.

Over the past month I have spoken to a number of experts and officials on the topic of press freedom. Many suggest that Rwanda is slowly moving towards a freer press, but that given the role of the media in the Genocide it will take time before Rwandan society and government opens up to the idea of a free and robust media. Some media types even suggest there are no restrictions here and reporters can write about anything as long as they have the facts. I have not seen that to be true.

I don’t agree, however, with those who suggest that a slow evolution is the way to go. I firmly believe that the way to keep another Genocide at bay is to have a free and open press and laws that deal with the publication or utterance of hate and racism. We have such laws in Canada and while they are slow and cumbersome, they do work. And one need only look at post-Nazi Germany to see the laws that were put into place there to prevent another Holocaust as a good example of how such laws can work.

One visiting business type told me he thought that Rwanda would allow more press freedom here when it realizes that its image is being hurt on the international scene and with potential investors. And he may be right. But in the meantime the Rwandan people are losing out – they are entitled to a rigorous and vibrant 5th estate.

Good journalism is hard to practice here in Rwanda. The actual ABCs of how to do a news story or a feature – be it for print, radio and or television – are missing here among many reporters. Some of the reporters have no formal training in journalism whatsoever. They just fell into it. The craft of reporting and writing has a long way to go here. And all the media outlets – including the state run radio and television, the pro-government New Times, the independent media – French, English and Kinyarwandan – could take a lesson or two in everything from the craft to the ethics of journalism.

All the principles we in North American espouse and cherish are often not understood here – balance, objectivity, attribution, documentation. Many media outlets think nothing of printing innuendo and rumor without substantiating anything and the papers are filled with wild opinion pieces that are based on nothing but air. Others print letters to the editor which are nothing more than fabrication, justifying their conduct by saying they don’t get many letters to the editor.

Journalists themselves accept free meals, free hotel accommodation in exchange for restaurant reviews or travel pieces. They routinely ask for transportation money to attend press conferences. Some of the so-called independent press has gone even further. The head of an American NGO told me while I was interviewing him that one of the independent papers tried to extort money from him and suggested a bad story about the NGO would go away if the NGO bought a special section or supplement with the newspaper. Some foreign government officials have also said they have literally been given carte blanche by some of the media and told to write whatever they want for publication themselves.

Then there is the question of presidential or government interference. To this I can only speak from personal experience. While I was doing media training at the New Times an editor was sacked because he had approved publication of a picture of President Kagame that was deemed to be unflattering. The rest of the staff was told in no uncertain terms that this was not to be done again. They were also told to avoid criticizing the government, the presidency and the law. They only needed to be told once for the message to sink in. As I leave it is still unclear to me whose decision it was to fire the editor – whether it came from the newspaper’s board, an aide of the president or the president himself. But editors at the New Times still assure me that they too would like to have a free and robust press –one without interference where they are left alone to do their job. They however assert that it can’t happen overnight. That freedom will come bit by bit along with increased credibility. And so their struggle continues.

The journalism world here is almost like the world of espionage during the Cold War – with some journalists working at the independent publications as spies while others who have been fired from the New Times for writing something critical are suddenly rehabilitated and write under a pseudonym. In other instances some sources have been known to provide tips for the independent media, which turn out to be false and are designed strictly to ruin their credibility. All the lines are very murky here.

Just a month before I came to Rwanda a new weekly newspaper began publication. It was supposed to give The New Times a run for its money and was apparently very well designed and had some former staff of the New Times at its helm. It ceased publication after one issue — closed by the government. The move was seen as highly suspect.

But at his monthly news conference in July President Paul Kagame said he knew nothing about the reasons behind the closing. He called on his information minister to explain. And then the president said that it seemed the newspaper had given some false information and the Ministry of Information was looking at the application and would make a decision shortly about whether the paper would remain closed or re-open. As I leave, no decision has yet been made.

Still Kagame himself has acknowledged publicly that there are problems in the media in Rwanda and he assured the members of the press at this same monthly news conference that he would like to see a better quality, more vigorous press. “I have known for too long about the media and what is lacking and the consequences of that,” he said.

“The disadvantages of that are very clear to me. I don’t know if they are clear to you people in the media. If somebody says there is something lacking, people take offense. There is a lot lacking…we’re still building capacity.”

Kagame told the members of the press that they should bring a plan for media development to the government and the minister of information would look at it. “The ball is in your court,” he told members of the assembled media.

Whether Kagame actually means that he would like to see a more open and vibrant press remains to be seen. In the meantime the journalists I have met here – at all the media outlets – both state run and independent – struggle on, some desperate for information on how to craft a news story; how to do interviews, how to determine fact from innuendo. Others are less open to new ideas and new ways of writing a story. But all are hindered by language problems, lack of skills and expertise and lack of basic equipment. So many of them need extensive training. But my hat goes off to all of them for just hanging in long enough and caring enough to try to make a difference.