Mar 31


cowan-t James Cowan, 2008

Earlier this week, my wife and I visited the journalism department’s administrative office. As newcomers to Rwanda and academic life, we frequently pester the administrative staff with questions about scheduling and photocopying and tracking down errant students. The staff tolerates our inquiries with a mixture of befuddlement and patience. As I was leaving the office, the administrative secretary asked me something in French. At first, I did not understand, but she repeated the question and I realized she was inquiring if Mary and I were romantically linked.

 “Oui,” I said proudly. “Mary est mon fils!”

 English subtitle: “Yes! Mary is my son!”

Such is life for a one-language man in a three-language country. Rwanda’s complicated history has rendered it trilingual. Several decades of Belgian colonialism meant Rwandans who actually grew up in Rwanda learned French in school. At the same time, 35 years of war meant many people were raised in Uganda, learning English rather than French. Most everyone speaks Kinyarwanda and it is lingua franca of day-to-day life.

 Sadly, my Kinyarwanda is limited to a few awkward phrases such as “How are you?”, “Let’s go”, and “I want a cold beer.”  I often find myself relying on my deplorable French to communicate. I stumble over tenses, forget to conjugate verbs and occasionally issue strange pronouncements on my familial relationships.

 But what I find remarkable is the great patience with which both my Kinyarwanda and French are treated. Having spent four years in Montreal, I am accustomed to Francophones quickly (and sometimes haughtily) switching to English the moment I butcher my first sentence. But here, people tolerate the errors and nod encouragingly as I stumble forward. There seems to be some recognition that we are both speaking a second language, finding a middle ground so we can understand each other.

While I more or less survive in French, there have been incidents. I was recently approached outside our home by one of the many traveling Congolese art dealers who sell masks and other trinkets to tourists. Not in the mood to shop, I mumbled something in French about how my wife had taken most of our money to Kigali for the day. He nodded and left, while I went to have lunch.

As I ate,  my excuse traveled along a multilingual grapevine. As I returned my dishes to the kitchen, Jean, the Rwanda Initiative’s cook and resident sage, asked if Mary had stolen my money and run off to Kigali. My fib had been repeated by the art dealer to our groundskeeper (in Kinyarwanda), who told it to Jean (still in Kinyarwanda), who then translated back into French to ask me what happened.  I assured him everything was fine, and then went in search of a French-English dictionary to try and discovered how I had misspoke (I remain lost in translation).

Juggling multiple languages does take its toll. Many residents flip between languages constantly, beginning a sentence in Kinyarwanda, throwing in a French word or two and then concluding in English. For example, last week I have caught myself telling a waiter: “Ndashaka Coca, s’il tu plait.”

English translation of Kinyarwanda: “I want a Coke.”

English translation of French: “if you please.”

He turned to the student I was sitting beside and said something in French about how I was trying to be Rwandan.  Then he slapped me on the back, chuckled for a moment, and went to get my Coke.

Mar 24


cowan-t James Cowan, 2008

Back in Canada, finding a professor to interview is a simple task. Schools publish lists of media-friendly experts, phone directories are readily available on the internet and, if a reporter feels particularly lazy, they can contact a university’s communications department and have them track down the instructor.  Such luxuries do not exist in Rwanda.

While I am teaching in Rwanda, I have been doing a little bit of actual journalism as well. For one story, I wanted to interview a particular instructor at the National University of Rwanda. I assumed it would take an afternoon to find the gentleman. Three weeks later, I emerged from the quest successful but humbled.

I started my search on the university’s website. There was a phone list, but it was old and did not include the first names of most professors. I tried a wider internet search, hoping to find his email address attached to an academic paper or other document. This effort also failed.

Next, I decided to locate his office and introduce myself in person. I knew he was a member of the education faculty, so I asked a colleague where that department was located. It turned out that it was not part of the main campus, but someplace downtown. I hiked downtown only to discover that my colleague had sent me to the school of public health. Further inquiries led me to a third campus, where I found the education department tucked on a dirt road behind the law school. Alas, when I arrived I was informed the offices were closed. Could I come back later?

My mission resumed the next day. While I arrived to find the offices, no one had heard of the professor I wanted. However, one secretary thought he had perhaps been promoted. She sent me to an administrative office located across a dusty courtyard. I arrived to find the office empty.

So I tried a new strategy. I went to the journalism department and asked if anyone there knew my target. The administrative assistant sent me to the director, who said he thought my professor now worked in the distance education department. The director sent me to one building, but when I arrived a man standing on the front step redirected me to a different office across the street. But no one in that office had heard of my elusive instructor either. After a brief conference between staff members, they decided he worked in the administrative office that I had visited the day before.

I went back and discovered a young man in a t-shirt hunched at a desk listening to his radio. I explained my situation. While he had not heard of my professor either, it turned out I had stumbled into the office that held the employment records for the entire university. After a brief conversation in muddled English and French, the clerk yanked my subject’s employment record from a filing cabinet. Sadly, it contained no contact information.

I trudged back to town feeling slightly incompetent and ready to renounce my journalism career. As is often the case, it was at this moment that I finally had a bit of good luck. Sitting in my email inbox was a message from a representative of a group in New York City. My professor had done some work with her organization and I had contacted them two weeks earlier for some background information.  The relevant staff person had been away but finally returned and eager to help. Within minutes, I had a cellphone number for my enigmatic educator.

But there was one final complication. After three weeks of searching, I contacted the professor on the eve of a four-month trip to Stockholm. Fortunately, he was willing to squeeze me into his schedule. And so, I conducted the interview the following day seated at our dining room table in the midst of a power failure.  It should eventually make for a good article, although far less dramatic than the search that went into it.

Mar 24


vallis-t Mary Vallis, 2008

Last weekend, we reached the point in our trip when it came time to head north and visit the gorillas. For US$500, Rwanda offers the chance to spend an hour tracking some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas through the jungle. Despite the cost, the trip has become routine for Canadians visiting this country. Everyone insisted we must not miss our chance. They were right.

We scrabbled through the jungle for seven hours, often forging our own paths with the help of machete-wielding guide, and then finally sat in front of a mother gorilla as she nursed her young baby. The baby leaned back and stared intently at us, the oddities who had suddenly appeared in the bamboo forest, chased his mother around for an hour and then disappeared as quickly as we came.

What happened the next day was also an adventure, and a nearly free one at that.

My husband James and I decided to stay overnight in Ruhengeri, a small and prosperous town in the shadow of three volcanoes. We woke up bruised, dirty and battered, but after a leisurely breakfast we were ready to go exploring again, this time in town. We hauled on our backpacks and started walking.

It was not long before we came to a fork in the road and a sign advertising Fecar Inganzo, a federation of local artisans who have banded together to sell their work. Our guidebook raved about the federation’s wares but warned the workshop was a five-minute drive out of town. Yet according to the peeling paint sign we saw at the side of a road, the federation was just a kilometre down the road. We abandoned our original plan and turned left, in search of Rwandan handicrafts to take home for friends and family.

We passed a genocide memorial, a hostel and a few beauty “saloons” blaring hits from the eighties before the town gave way to a narrow road flanked by mud huts and bright yellow shacks selling prepaid phone cards. The farther we walked, the more children peeked their heads out of doorways to stare at us. Despite Ruhengeri’s positioning as a base for gorillas tourism, it seemed not many white travellers ventured down this particular road, if the children’s cries of “A MUZUNGU! A MUZUNGU!” were any indication. After a month and a half in Rwanda, James and I are quite used to being a novelty of sorts, and spend lots of our time politely waving at children or shaking their proffered hands. In Ruhengeri, something different was going on.

The walk certainly stretched longer than the advertised kilometre, and at every cluster of houses we passed, one or two children decided to tag along with us to find out what destination the strange white folk were seeking. A young boy in a loud green and blue set of matching African pants and tunic became our biggest fan, trotting along beside me and smiling up without saying a word. After the first kilometre, he slipped his hand into mine and kept it there as we walked, and walked, and walked.

Every time James and I stopped to confer about whether to keep going, the children closed in around us and listened to us intently, though I assume they only understood one or two of our words. The second or third time, I glanced back at our growing band of followers and counted somewhere between 12 and 16 children. Only one or two of them ever asked for money; most were content to try out their few English phrases on us time and time again (”Hello, how are you? I am fine.”)

After one final strategy session, James and I finally decided to limp as far as one last wooden sign in the distance. If it was not Fecar, we resolved to turn back, deliver our child followers back to their rightful homes and head back into town. Our persistence paid off: We had indeed reached the craft workshop. But it was closed.

The children, however, knew what to do. They pulled us around the side of the building, where we found a man grinding cow horns with a sander, a protective mask over his face. Through a combination broken French and sign language, we learned the gift shop was closed for the day, but he invited us in while he telephoned the man in charge. Alas, the man did not answer his cellphone. Undeterred, the craftsman led us to a set of dusty shelves containing finished products that had not yet been priced or placed on display.

As the children watched from the doorway (or climbed onto the sills of glassless windows for a better view), James selected a wooden box carved in the shape of three volcanoes and a gorilla and paid the price the man appeared to pick at random. The man wiped the cow horn dust off our treasure with a spare rag, placed it in a paper bag and pumped James’s hand up and down. And then we were off again, with our entourage in tow, back down the windy road towards town. The little boy who liked me best smiled and slipped his hand back into mine and off we went, both of us grinning.

Children stretched out about 15 feet behind us. Some ran ahead, pushing old tires down the road with sticks, while one of the older ones offered to carry our bags (for a fee, I’m sure). Most of the children disappeared back towards their homes as we passed by, but my little friend stayed with us - past where we had picked him up, past the hostel and almost all the way into town.

At several points, James and I stopped and firmly waved goodbye, and pointed back in the general direction of the boy’s home. He would smile and hang back, but after we took a few steps, I would find his warm hand again inside mine. I asked him in my best French, “Ou est ta mere? Ou est ta maison?” but he would just smile and keep walking. I started to feel as though we had charmed a stray puppy. What would his mother think?

We stopped one last time and I dug out the phrasebook to find the Kinyarwanda word for “goodbye.” Down the list of pleasantries I went, past “goodbye morning,” past “goodbye afternoon,” past “goodbye evening” and down to murabeho, or “goodbye forever.” I leaned forward, put my hands on my knees and looked my new friend straight in his brown eyes. He grinned. I struggled not to smile. “Murhabeho,” I said firmly. James and I turned and resumed our walk at a brisker pace. We rushed past the genocide memorial before I had the courage to turn around. Message received: our little friend had finally disappeared.

James and I concluded we were nothing more than an interesting diversion for the boy - an interesting break from his usual Saturday routine. We spent Friday tracking gorillas. He spent Saturday tracking us.

Mar 19


vallis-t Mary Vallis, 2008

In the past week, there has been a shift in Butare. The warm equatorial weather has turned cold. The sun obscured by clouds and Jean the cook huddles up to the gas stove at home. I am waking up some days (OK, most days) a tad grumpy. On the road to school, it seems more schoolchildren are mocking me than waving hello.

Once I reach my little concrete classroom, however, everything changes. The faces in front of me are fresh, expectant, smiling. My third-year editing class has ended and I have a new crop of students eager for top marks in Advanced Print Writing.

I have spent the past week learning what they already know. In their four years at the National University of Rwanda, they have absorbed a thing or two about print journalism. They know how to write a lead sentence. When I drew an upside-down triangle on the board, they announced in chorus: “inverted pyramid!” and then rattled off the various components of the basic news story structure. And then I sent them out to write profiles of each other, that age-old journalism class assignment designed to help the teacher get to know the students, as well as assess their writing abilities. Most of the students turned up on deadline and handed in gems.

My students have graciously given me permission to share with you some of the best paragraphs from their 500-word assignments (as long as I promised to fix their spelling errors). I hope that you learn a little about each of them in the process.

Julien on Clementine: “A blue Adidas hat on her head, small headphones inside both ears, she moves as if she were dancing to music. Clementine Barada sometimes claps her hands and sings without opening her mouth. I can guess the song is Last Night I Heard the Screaming by Tracy Chapman. ‘I am her super fan,’ she revealed to me.”

Gilbert told Clementine: “Girls of these days are not easy, they like money instead of the owner of that money. Am I making money for them or for myself? All the time I’m asking it! When they said that they love you, you must discern why because there is always a reason behind.”

Mediatrice on Carine: “The appearance of a simple girl, short hair, long skirts, a Christian pace, with a peaceful and a smiling face. This is Carine Umutoni, a fourth year student in Journalism at the National University of Rwanda. At the university, she is a star, because she is been the first Rwandan lady to present a sports show on radio that was on November, 18th, 2005, when Radio Salus was launched.”

Gilbert on Julien: “He is a Kigali city born man who spends much of his time concentrating on his job, and aims higher to becoming a great video documentary producer whenever his career permits it and as much as his financial means are concerned. By names, he is Julien Mahoro Niyingabira. ‘I love the second part of my names, because that one means peace, and I feel determined to work hard just to bring my maximum contribution to the peace building process,’ he admits, happily thanking his parents to have given him such a beautiful name. In fact he was of some young age when he discovered that he was a peace lover, just by the growing feeling in him to calm misunderstandings which could arise in between his fellows, be it at school or even among his brothers at home.”

Etienne on John Paul: “….After looking after [his] sisters and brothers after their parents were dead during 1994 atrocities, he is now proud of what he did for them as they are all studying at NUR. He likes talking to people, sharing ideas, getting pieces of advice from them and advising them when possible. He likes truth and hates lies, dishonesty, deceit and unserious people.”

Mar 18


cowan-t James Cowan, 2008


For the past few weeks, a cowlick has stood atop my head in staunch defiance of my receding hairline while tufts of hair covered my ears and curled over my collar. Being so hirsute in the Rwandan heat is unpleasant and so, this Saturday, I set off for a haircut.

Finding a barbershop was not a problem. Unlike its spotty electrical grid or its unreliable water supply, Rwanda’s hairstyling infrastructure is top notch. Any community with more than four homes has a “saloon,” the local name for a haircutting establishment, and some towns seem to have more saloons than they do residents. In Huye, there are at least three along the main drag, with names like the Glory Beauty Saloon. All seem to cater to women, but I eventually found a manly place to get shorn: a stall in the market.

Contained within a concrete slab wall, the Huye market is an entrepreneurial shantytown, with rows of vendors selling piles of dried fish and high-heeled shoes and bolts of brightly patterned cloth and rusted hunks of unidentifiable metal. Just inside the front gate - across from the pastel men’s slacks and close to the women running sewing machines in the afternoon sun - is a string of shacks offering hairstyling. All the barbers are men, although there were a few female clients in the chairs. I stood outside trying to determine whether the stalls were separate shops or all part of one operation. A man in the doorway of the shack closest to the gate smiled and motioned me inside.

“Come, come,” he said. They were the last words spoken to me until my cut was complete.

The gentleman (whom I quickly figured out was the owner or manager, based on the fact that he carried the shop’s till in a fanny pack around his waist), pointed me at a wooden kitchen chair close to the door. A silent barber in a lime green shirt wrapped a smock around my neck and began to oil his clippers. There was no discussion of style or length. Within a minute, he was cutting.

The shack, roughly the size of a garden shed, contained about a dozen people, including a vocal barber in a San Jose Sharks jersey who occasionally wandered over to observe my progress. Sitting in the cramped quarters with a corrugated steel roof above my head, I sweated profusely. My barber used a paintbrush (about the right size for finishing trim) to keep the torrents of water away from my eyes. The same brush served to flick away the hair he had removed with the clippers. At times, my sweat flowed in such great volumes that a second man assisted with the wiping. But he quickly became overwhelmed as well and dropped an oil-stained rag on my forehead to staunch the flow.

Meanwhile, my barber worked with trim brush in one hand and clippers in the other. He switched blades several times, but completed the entire haircut without ever resorting to scissors. A crooked mirror hung on the wall in front of me, allowing me to track the progress. Above the mirror there was a small barred window, where passersby occasionally stuck their faces to watch the freakish spectacle of a white guy getting shorn.

While no one spoke to me, it was very clear that everyone in the shed was talking about me. The two Kinyrwanda words I picked out of the conversation again and again were “white person” and “money.” It seemed the crowd thought my barber would be able to send at least one of his kids to college based on the price I would pay for this one haircut.

It took about 35 minutes for the barber to work his way around the sides of my head and then over the top, finishing by working the clippers over each ear with the safety guard removed. After he carefully flicked a few remaining bits of hair from my collar with the trim brush, it was time to pay. The sign on the wall seemed to indicate I owed 300 francs (or roughly sixty cents), but according to my barber, I misunderstood the finer points of Rwandan signage. I owed 3,000 francs, he said. Upon hearing the audacity of his request, the other barbers in the shack - and I wish I was making this up - began to applaud.

What choice did I have? I paid the man his asking price and then, playing to the crowd, tipped him another thousand. In the end, my haircut cost roughly eight dollars — better than Top Cuts but ludicrous by local standards. I had been fleeced, literally and figuratively.

Mar 15


cowan-t James Cowan, 2008

In a better world, I would stride into the classroom each day and unleash a lecture packed with tales of intrigued, sermons on ethical fortitude and easy tips for landing on the front page. Afterwards, I would wait the standing ovation to end and then stroll into town for a bagel, latté and the latest issue of the Atlantic. Or maybe Entertainment Weekly. It depends how cerebral I feel in my daydream.

There are no bagels in Huye and the only readily available publications are day-old copies of the New Times. To be honest, neither of these facts bother me much. However, the gap between my dream journalism class and the classes I found myself teaching lately has worried me. This has nothing to do with the students or myself – we all work hard and get along fine, thanks very much. My problem relates to one of the uncomfortable truths about journalism as a profession: sometimes, it’s pretty darn dull. And unfortunately, my students need to learn about the boring parts too.

The first two units of my course, focusing on newsgathering fundamentals and interview techniques, went remarkably well. Both provided plenty of room for lively discussion and classroom role-playing, along with opportunities to send the class out into the streets of town to practice what I preached. But our third unit concentrated on working with written sources such as press releases and government  reports. When I planned the course, I thought this would be an important topic. Rwanda is jammed full of foreign agencies, charities and government ministries, all of whom love to churn out media releases, annual surveys, audits, newsletters, discussion papers and announcements. What I failed to consider in my course planning is how hard it might be to convince my students of the inherent glory of a freshly printed Auditor General’s report.

The problem, I think, was twofold. Firstly, there is nothing inherently dramatic in a written report. There is nothing I can do to make it visually entertaining for my class, except perhaps setting the document alight and juggling the burning paper. More importantly, finding a story buried in a government report can be difficult even when it is written in your native tongue. But when you’re struggling with something produced in your second or third language, you try parsing a sentence such as:

“The Auditor General of State Finances pointed out that there is a step forward by various institutions in the management and effective utilization of state property because it was found that 81.5% of the institutions were able to prepare a financial statement of 2006, and the books of the accounts of which they were unable to prepare before.”

Despite the Sahara-like dryness of the material, the class and I survived. The topic inspired a number of good discussions, like whether it is acceptable to read a press release on the radio and pretend it’s a story. Or what happens when the person who sent you a press release doesn’t like what you wrote. Or what the difference is between an advertisement and a press release. The fact the class has started to think about these questions makes me think the lessons were worthwhile.

Mar 12


vallis-t Mary Vallis, 2008

I would have posted earlier, except it’s Wednesday and therefore Gacaca day, and you know what that means. Or maybe you don’t.

Every Wednesday in Butare, the whole town shuts down. The restaurants do not open until 3 p.m.; the streets are silent because there are no moto drivers rustling up fares; the metal gates to the Internet cafes are shut and locked with padlocks. Even Matar, the general store, is closed. The only commerce on the main road is a man hawking a bagful of limes from his personal tree and a few mobile phone card vendors, in their ever-bright yellow smocks.

Businesses are closed so that any locals who want to attend Gacaca (pronounced ga-cha-cha) are able. Esteemed community members sit once a week and slowly mete out justice for the Genocide. The war is already 14 years past, but still, some cases are just beginning to be heard. As you drive along Rwanda’s windy highways, you will often see groups of people gathered at the side of the road, sitting on benches on the grass, listening to cases relevant to their communities. Call it roadside justice.

Gacaca was originally used to settle village disputes — so and so stole my goat, I am entitled to that farmland, that type of thing (or such is my basic understanding). But with tens of thousands of prisoners clogging Rwanda’s prisons in the years after the Genocide, the system was adapted to hear lower-level cases.

People seem to take a keen interest in the cases being heard in their midst, and are reportedly invited to participate in the weekly hearings. The building always seems to be packed. I, too, am intrigued. But as an outsider, I am not welcome at the weekly gatherings in Butare. Special permission is required, and is not easy to get. It would be impossible to slip in and take a seat on one of the back benches; as a muzungu (white person), I stand no chance of blending in.

As I walk by the brick building on Wednesdays, I often see clutches of nuns whispering just past the open doors, or people hugging, or Rwandans sittng alone staring off into space, just thinking. I can only wonder what is being said behind those sturdy brick walls.

Mar 7


cowan-t James Cowan, 2008

We cannot spend every night enjoying vegetable brochettes at the restaurant beside our house, or dining on platters of fried tofu at the town’s lone Chinese restaurant, or pretending to be characters in a Graham Greene novel on the patio of the Ibis hotel.

On some evenings in the quiet college town of Huye, where my wife and I have now lived for a month, you need to make your own fun. There are nights when our novels no longer interest us and we have exhausted our supply of New Yorker back issues and we find ourselves wishing we packed a Monopoly board. It was on a night such as this that I discovered the crossword puzzle in the New Times.

The New Times strives to be Rwanda’s newspaper of record, boasting extensive political coverage, a hefty sports section, international wire copy and editorial cartoons that retell the news rather than satirizing it. The crossword, to which I am now addicted, appears on the same page as the listings for the country’s only TV channel and the paper’s movie reviews, which occasionally tackle films that the reviewer freely admits he has not seen.

The crossword poses different challenges than those found at home. It is occasionally cryptic but never intentionally so, with clues that range from depressingly easy:

4 Down: American Broadcasting Corporation (abbr.) (3)

To clues that seem to have been ripped from a chemistry textbook:

20 Down: A dark brown or black bituminous usually odorous viscous liquid obtained by destructive distillation of organic material (as wood, coal or peat) (3).

The answer is “tar,” for those of you playing along at home.

But it is not just the clues that puzzle me; the construction of the crossword itself can be confusing.

As I pondered yesterday’s crossword, the first clue to spark inspiration was this one:

8 Across: A natural luminous body visible in the sky especially at night (4)

“Star,” I wrote confidently, quickly turning my attention to:

8 Down: The house of piglets (3)

Using the “S” from star, the answer seemed to be “sticks” or “straw,” but neither fit in the three spaces provided. While I suspected an error, I continued, inserting the word “sow” in the spot (A liberal interpretation of the clue, but reasonably accurate). Was it right? I try to check by looking at 13 Across, which uses the “W” from sow as its first letter.

Sadly, there is no clue provided for 13 Across. There is no clue for 3 Down either, I soon discover, just four vertical boxes begging for closure. I ignore their pleas and move on:

14 Down: Uttered by the mouth (4)

“Said,” I said. There were even enough spots - perhaps too many. Two separate slots on the board were designated for 14 Down.

It is at this point that I turn to the business section.

While the New Times crossword tests your patience along with you intellect, it also rewards those who tackle it on a regular basis. Indeed, clues are regularly recycled to the point where I am now disappointed if I am not asked to identify “a snake-like fish” or “the night before an important event.” That would be eel and eve, respectively.

The crossword is one of the few sections of the New Times I have not yet discussed with my students, but I may mention it soon. It would provide an excellent lesson in proof reading, if nothing else.

UPDATE: As I stared at my morning coffee this morning, it occured to be that “sty” was likely the correct solution to the piggy problem. This perhaps illustrates another frustration of the New Times crossword — just when you think they’ve made another foolish mistake, it turns they’re not the fools.

Mar 7


vallis-t Mary Vallis, 2008

The other day, as I was writing on the chalkboard, my 10 third-year print editing students dissolved into unstoppable giggles.

That usually means only one thing. Somewhere on the board, I goofed.

I was writing out a mock quotation so we could review how to punctuate and attribute the statement. The students had just completed a quiz, in which they had organized a number of point-form statements, quotations and facts into a comprehensive news story (and it’s worth noting here that they did a great job, having mastered basic news story structure).

The story focused on a draft law currently under consideration by Rwanda’s parliament and involved a quote from a man named Theodore Simburudari. He’s a real person, a man who represents Genocide survivors through an organization called IBUKA. I pulled most of the points for the quiz from a story in the New Times, one of Rwanda’s English newspapers.

In my haste to scrawl the example up on the board and keep the class moving, I renamed him “Mr. Simbuka.” That’s when the snickering started.

“Miss!” giggled Alexandre, one of my most outgoing and playful students. “Simbuka is a real word in Kinyarwanda!”

Oh no, I thought. Please tell me it doesn’t mean “underpants” or “ridiculous.”

I turned to face the class. “What does it mean?” I ventured.

Between fits of giggles, Alexandre finally got it out. “JUMP!” he said.

So I had nicknamed the unsuspecting man “Mr. Jump.”

My students love teaching me Kinyarwanda. I’ve adopted my colleague Rebecca’s strategy of encouraging the students to teach me a new word during every class. Usually, I repeat the word back to them and try to spell it on the board, a simple exercise in which they take great delight (so far, we’ve gone over “I love you,” “baby,” “teacher”and “mud.”). The exercise levels the playing field a little; they take pride in being able to teach me something while I’m teaching them. And the students get no end of amusement out of my awful pronounciation.

By the end of the day, the words usually disappear from my head. Simbuka, however, will stick. As the lesson went on, we added “Mrs. Simbuka”to the example, which gave way to another round of laughter. By the end of the class, the students were able to punctuate the quote correctly (which, after all, was the goal).

Every time I have seen Alexandre roaming around on campus since then, I point to him and yell “SIMBUKA!” He grins, gives me a little hop and continues on his way.

Mar 7


madonik-t Rick Madonik, 2008

Gurgaon (Delhi), India

March 6, 2008

As I sit here, one week and thousands of miles removed, from the highlands of Eastern Africa, I have emptiness in my heart. I’m not quite sure if it’s the people I worked with from Canada, the experience of teaching at a national university, interacting daily with a small group of students or just living in a country with a storied past, that has left me with a feeling of melancholy. Perhaps, it’s the realization of a 4.5-month trip quickly coming to an end.

It doesn’t really matter. What I am sure of is the warm, comforting feelings of my experiences in Rwanda and a wish to one-day, return.

For five weeks I lived, worked and immersed myself in Rwandan life. Several things left deep impressions on me – mostly good and one, unfortunately, not so good.

For the most part, the political turmoil of the region hung in the air. Kenya – regarded as the most stable country and economic engine of East Africa – was tearing herself apart. Rioting and political upheaval over questionable election results left many East Africans with a feeling of despair. Many felt, if Kenya were to fail, it bode poorly for the entire region.

Uganda, for a short while, was listed as “DO NOT TRAVEL” by Canadian Foreign Affairs. Increased violence in Kampala, border incursions by rebels in Congo and the on going troubles in the north (Lord’s Resistance Army) all cited as reasons to avoid Rwanda’s northern neighbor. (The advisory would be downgraded – two steps – while I was in Rwanda.)

Congo (Democratic Republic) and Burundi have long standing security issues. My day-trip into Goma, just across the border town of Gisenyi, was taken only after some critical fact-finding and the hiring of a recommended “fixer.”

Sudan, and the Darfur region, continues to be in the news. At the same time, Sudan’s neighbor, Chad, fell to insurgents.

It seemed as if we were in the most stable country in the region, and given Rwanda’s not too distant past, its ironic a country still coming to grips with a large-scale genocide was the safest place to be.

Then, an earthquake struck along the southwestern Rwanda border. Centered in and Eastern Congo, it caused a significant loss of life and the destruction of countless homes and buildings.

To say my time in Rwanda was boring would be quite an understatement. It ran the gambit from the mundane to the exhilarating. It opened my eyes to the struggles of a nation trying to reconcile its recent past, while at the same time hosting a visit of a US President. As the middle class grows, the poor and displaced are sometimes forgotten with the progress. There is over cultivation of the land as one of Africa’s smallest nations tries to feed one of the continent’s most densely inhabited populations.

The people are friendly and welcoming, eager to speak to foreigners and to make friends. At the same time, they can be reserved, bordering on shy. They are learning of the past that tore the country apart, and yet, the genocide is not an open topic of conversation for most.

The one truly unfortunate experience for me was discovering the vast majority of my students engaging in plagiarism on a written word assignment. Having to give a “Zero” grade to 7 of 10 students was most disconcerting.

The most distressing episode occurred during the visit of US President George Bush, when one of my students was arrested, and detained for four hours, after photographing a military helicopter as it flew over Kigali.

On the flipside, I believe I was able to convey the basics of newspaper photography to them. I think it’s safe to say, by the end of the four weeks of classes they understood two additional simple facts. First, “emotion” is the cornerstone to a good photograph – regardless of its genre. Second, shoot lots of pictures – that way the choices during the edit process will be bountiful.

« Previous Entries