Apr 2


vallis-t Mary Vallis, 2008

Ever since we arrived in Rwanda way back in February, I’ve been trying to organize a live news event for our journalism students to cover.

On Friday, it all came together with a great headline act: Elam Karara, Rwanda’s national disaster management coordinator, agreed to visit the National University of Rwanda and give a press conference addressing the government’s response to the recent earthquakes in Cyangugu.

The man works in the prime minister’s office. The topic is sexy. I figured my students would be suitably impressed. It was a great opportunity for Rwanda’s next batch of journalists to make an important contact, practice their note-taking and ask real questions.

But were the students impressed?

When I announced the news conference to my fourth-year advanced print writing class, most of them stared back. I asked if they were excited. Some of them nodded politely. I caught one student on his way out of class and asked him again.

“Press conferences are boring,” he sniffed. Fair enough.

Of course, when the appointed day finally arrived, our home in Butare was devoid of fresh water, gas and electricity. My plans to dress appropriately went horribly awry. We lost the utilities when all of my clothes (yes, all of them) were halfway through a wash cycle. I pulled on the jeans and grubby cotton shirt I had worn the day before, ran a brush through my hair and hurried off to meet my esteemed visiting dignitary in the university parking lot.

Mr. Karara drove all the way from Kigali in a spotless SUV to meet our students. He brought with him a laptop loaded with pictures of the earthquake zone and an impressive four-page handout packed with statistics about the natural disaster. He stepped out of his vehicle in a pristine grey suit and shiny leather shoes. He looked me up and down. And then he smiled politely.

I extended a hand and apologized for my apppearance, then led him down to the appointed room to set up his equipment. About a half-hour later, the other instructors and I had herded enough of our students into the room for him to begin.

Despite the fact the overhead projector failed at the last moment, Mr. Karara took everything in stride. He calmly picked up a stray piece of chalk and began an hour-long presentation on the government’s response in the disaster zone. He gave dollar figures for the amount spent on earthquake recovery and the amount still needed. He gave detailed statistics on the number of Rwandans still sleeping under plastic sheeting. He gave the death toll, the number of people injured and a list of international donors. He talked about the dangerous gases in Lake Kivu and how they added to the region’s volatility. On and on he went, gracious and patient as students interrupted with well-crafted questions. The whole event seemed to go well (although I don’t really know, as it was all in French and I only speak the odd word).

When it was all over, he took questions and answered them all with grace. And after the questions were done, he stayed on for another hour, showing students crowded around his laptop the pictures he had brought. He gave several radio interviews and spoke with Eugene Kwibuka, one of our students who writes for the New Times. (You can read the story he published nationally here.)

And then it was over. Six weeks of planning, and it was over. I walked Mr. Karara back to his car, thanked him profusely and waved goodbye. News comes, news goes.