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Garrett Zehr


Garrett Zehr's Blog

August 19, 2007 — What I learned from the beautiful game

Disclosure:  I am not a huge fan of professional sport.  I think team allegiances are a bizarre concept and most pro athletes are criminally overpaid.

Kristen and I decided to go to our first soccer game a couple of weeks back.  Like any good sports fans, we decided we should pick a team based on colour.  Kristen chose yellow, although at this point we had no idea if there would be a yellow team.  We arrived at the stadium (2 bucks for admission and a couple beverages of choice), went inside and soon found ourselves in the fan section of the green and yellow team (what luck).  We would soon learn that the team was Atraco FC and ranked third in this year’s league.  The game was a blast – our small section of Atraco fans was far outnumbered in bodies but we definitely made up for it by dominating in drumming, cheering and dance.

Soccer is everywhere here.  Game days in Kigali remind me of Toronto during the playoffs (when the Leafs actually make the playoffs of course).  Driving around the countryside you often see young and old of all ages playing the sport.  Kids play all the way home from school with their homemade banana-leaf soccer balls.  There are many obvious good reasons why soccer is such a universal sport.

Now I am about to contradict part of my earlier disclosure.  I now feel that I am an Atraco fan.  I felt good when we tied and was incredibly disappointed when we lost.  And I can’t describe the adrenaline rush when we scored and finally won.

I was at home for part of the Stanley Cup finals this year in Ottawa, when madness appeared to engulf the city.  At the time I didn’t understand but perhaps now I do a little bit more.

But what I wish is that people could get as excited about issues of human rights and social justice – issues that matter infinitely more than any sports victory. I wish that people would fill the streets and celebrate achievements with the same kind of madness.  I want huge street parties that shut down our cities to mark our triumphs.  And I want equal participation and vigour as we continue to demand an end for injustices that continue to plague our societies.   That is what I want.


August 17, 2007 — A small error that is very telling

Last week the film Shake Hands with the Devil had its premiere here in front of small group of Rwandans, including politicians and journalists. (It will have its Canadian debut next month at the Toronto International Film Festival).  The movie is about the experience of Romeo Dallaire during the 1994 Genocide and is based on the book of the same name.  Unfortunately, I was scheduled to co-host the evening news edition that evening so I was unable to accompany my colleague from Radio Rwanda who attended the film.  However, she gave me a great review when she got back and said it was the best film about the Genocide that she has seen.

I also read about the event the next day on cbc.ca.  (Because of a slow internet connection I was unable to watch the TV news story that accompanied it.  I am assuming the online story is based on the television report).

The story was interesting and well-written.  However, the following sentence was factually incorrect.

“Barna called the screening, using a makeshift screen because Rwanda has no cinemas, a nerve-racking affair for the producers.” (my italics)

This came as a surprise because I visited a cinema here in Kigali with some friends a few weeks earlier.

Now, this small fact probably does not carry too much weight in the story.  It is incorrect but you could rightly argue that the media make mistakes every day – true enough.

But to me the error is incredibly revealing of a number of problems that exist today in mainstream media and especially coverage of Africa.

First, corrections in general.  Like any good media consumer I reported the error to CBC News Online.  They provide a nice little form that accompanies stories to provide feedback.  The note at the bottom of the form even alleviates any worries that my response would be lost to cyberspace.  It says all submissions “will be carefully read, considered and appreciated.” (The confirmation also told me that an editor would be reading about the error soon.)

Unfortunately, over a week has passed and no one from CBC has contacted me. The story remains on the website with the inaccuracy, and assumedly will be archived as such for eternity.  (Though it is not as though many online readers would have noticed the correction anyways - I had to use the site search engine just to find CBC’s Corrections page.)

This is quite discouraging.  People should be encouraged to engage their media critically and play a strong role in coverage and accuracy.  Media is something that I do (almost) full time so I will continue to report mistakes when I find them.  But what about someone who just wants to sit down after a long day of work and flip on the TV to find out what happened in the world today?  If they submit a correction that goes nowhere and receives no response, what are the chances that they will be continue to be engaged? 

Secondly, I think the error reveals a common fallacy of much mainstream African coverage.  For some reason, it is still easy to portray Africa as a backwards and primitive - even archaic (that heaven forbid –doesn’t even have movie theatres!)  Why?  At this point I am not yet sure.  I must say I was quite ignorant about many things before coming to Rwanda and am often quite surprised by things I see.  I thank the mainstream media for this.  But it really is doing a harmful disservice to global knowledge and understanding.

Finally, perhaps the biggest problem that I see in this is the commitment of African coverage by mainstream media (which has also permeated our public broadcaster). 

CBC has one African correspondent – one reporter for a continent of more than fifty countries, hundreds of peoples and languages - perhaps the most diverse continent in the world.

Because of this, I cannot lay too much blame on the journalist responsible for the error.  I assume he was told that Rwanda has no movie theatres by someone at the event.  And it is not the easiest fact to check - the cinema probably doesn’t have an internet website and I haven’t seen any phonebooks kicking around (though again, please be aware that I may have just spread fueled the “backwards” notion if you are of the opinion that phone books mark a certain level of advanced societies.  If anyone can correct me, please let me know.  I promise a response and correction.)

Unfortunately, the bottom line of today’s media says that costs and profits trump quality journalism.  One of the first things to go when budgets need trimming is foreign coverage – bureaus and correspondents.  And which continent is always on the top of that list to be axed?  Africa.  You see, it’s all too easy to just talk about Africa as a lump sum.  I have heard (intelligent) people talk about countries such as “Germany, Brazil and Africa.”  Ignorance has people asking a Zimbabwean if they know so and so from Burkina Faso (much more ridiculous than my American friends who are convinced I must know their cousin Joe in Vancouver.)

It is amazing that as technology and capacity now enables the media to cover the world like never before, quality coverage is on a sharp decline.

Of course, this is something I would expect from the corporate media who will often give us whatever sells, for the lowest cost.  And I think I am safe to say that Africa is hardly a best-seller.  But we should expect and demand more from our public broadcaster.  We need an end to budget slashing and a push for more investment if we expect public broadcasting to be the bar-setter of quality journalism.

There is a lot more than you may think that depends on it.


August 10, 2007 — 'The public doesn’t have a right to know anything'

Human Rights Watch recently released a report called “There will be No Trial” about alleged extrajudicial killings in Rwanda.  The report says more than twenty prisoners have been killed while in police custody since last November.  The National Police have acknowledged the deaths but say they were all carried out in escape attempts or when the prisoners were trying to disarm guards.  Human Rights Watch has gathered evidence that shows in the vast majority of cases there is substantial evidence to indicate this is not true and have called the deaths extrajudicial killings.

Now of course we know that injustice knows no boundaries.  And like some of my other blogs (you may be noticing a small trend) I will share a similar story back home.

It is the story of Ian Bush, a 22 year-old who died in police custody in October 2005.

Ian was at a hockey game in the small-town of Houston, BC with some friends.  He was hanging out with his buddies between periods and was holding the beer of one of his friends.  RCMP Constable Paul Koester approached him because of the open booze and asked for his name.  Ian jokingly gave him the name of another friend, which elicited laughs from his peers.  Koester was not so impressed.  He arrested Ian and took him to the station.  Another officer told Ian’s friend that he would probably be released after the game. 

This was never to be.

Within twenty minutes of his arrest, Ian was dead in the police interview room - a bullet in the back of the head. 

Sometime during those twenty minutes a violent struggle occurred.  Two people know what happened that evening.  One is dead.  The other claimed he was acting in self-defense. 

This could be true.  But thankfully our justice system has certain policies and procedures (however limited) to ensure we don’t have to rely on the testimony of those in power alone.

Here are some of the glaring irregularities that came out of the coroner’s inquest.  I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

  • Ian and the Koester were the only two present in the interview room. 
  • There was a video camera on the wall but it wasn’t turned on.
  • Ian’s body was left in the station for at least 24 hours allowing decomposition to begin and diminishing the full potential of an autopsy to reveal what actually happened.  The autopsy was not performed until three days later.
  • Const. Koester destroyed his notes from the night of the shooting.
  • 18 days past before Koester gave his first written statement
  • It was more than three months before he was interviewed by the police
  • Koester was told which questions he would be asked before his interview 
  • An Edmonton police officer told the inquest that based on blood patterns, the shooting couldn’t have happened the way Koester explained it.
  • The investigation was done internally and then handed over for “independent analysis” to another police force that is under investigation for a similar incident.

Now when journalists asked about some of these irregularities they received a startling answer.  (Kudos especially to Gary Mason and the Globe for persistent, unrelenting coverage of this case.  We need much more of this journalism.)

Mason asked Const. John Ward of the RCMP’s B.C. media section about the force’s policies on handling prisoners.

His response?

“The public doesn't have a right to know anything."

Today is Prisoners’ Justice Day.  The memorial was started by prisoners in 1975 at Kingston’s Millhaven Penitentiary to remember the death of fellow prisoner Eddie Nalon, who died in segregation while waiting for medical assistance.  The day now remembers all who have died in prison or state custody.  Inmates honour the day by fasting and refusing to work and supporters gather outside prisons in solidarity.

Inmates are some of the most susceptible humans in our societies.  They are usually completely powerless and privacy and secrecy often keeps the happenings of prisons far from the eyes of public.

But I say the public in Rwanda, in Canada and everywhere else has every right to know.  That public also has the responsibility to demand justice for those who have lost the ability to demand it for themselves.


August 6, 2007— First impressions – mistaken identities

Throughout my few blogs I have had the opportunity to share some of my impressions here in Rwanda.  Now let me share a few of the first impressions that Rwandans have had about me.

Age -  A common mistake, especially interculturally.  Most Rwandans that I first meet assume that I must be in my thirties (I am 22).  Even a friend, whom I had already known for over a week, told me that he had decided with his work colleagues that I must be 45…

From a Different Millennium– It has become almost a daily occurrence now that someone will tell me that I look like Jesus (or that I must be Jesus).  It started in a market I was visiting and now I hear it from moto-taxi drivers, storekeepers and friends who can’t resist.  Most often though I am walking down the street and someone will call out “Jesus.”  (One night I was even told through an interpreter that I look like the people who killed Jesus - I must say I prefer to look like Jesus).  Now, I can understand if you are looking at my blog picture and wondering how this could be.  Even those who know me well are probably confused.  I developed some facial hair while I’ve been here and it seems that the longer it gets, the more I am mistaken for Jesus.   I sometimes remind people that Jesus had darker skin than I have and that we don’t have any pictures of Jesus to compare the two of us.  But most of the time I just smile.

Attitude – This is the first impression that I like the least.  I was recently told by a couple of my Radio Rwanda colleagues that they thought I was a grumpy person when they first met me.  Now if you know me, I hope that you will vouch that this couldn’t be true. (I do get grumpy – just try to do a good job of hiding it).  I am a bit of an introvert when I am meeting new people in a new context which I suppose was what was interpreted as grumpy.  Thankfully my colleagues confirmed they were definitely mistaken and they consider me a very friendly person – a relief.

Sadly, we base a lot on first impressions – far too much. 

I’m not 45, I’m not Jesus and I am not a grumpy person.  So please be careful the next time you meet someone new.


August 2, 2007 — Consumption Part 2 – Banning the bags

In 2005 Rwanda banned plastic bags.  This followed earlier clean-up attempts, when thousands of Rwandans took the day off work to clean up the bags which they said were scattered all over the country.* 

The law makes the recently announced “efforts” by the Ontario government to reduce bag use seem laughable (and I must say quite embarrassing).  Just for some context, an estimated 80 plastic bags are used per second in Ontario, equal to about seven million each day.

Ontario’s bag plan is based on a deal that will see companies reduce their plastic bag use in half over the next five years.  Retailers are also committed to “considering” in-store recycling depots and pilot reusable bag projects.  We all know that “considering” means “voluntary,” and voluntary measures have a less than exceptional record.

Of course, like most government policy, the bag scheme only came after consultations with Big Business: Big Plastics, Big Retail and Big Grocery.  (How corporations have not yet won the right to vote should surprise us).  Imagine the potential for democracy if citizens were consulted as much as the corporate world.

Now, of course there was also outcry from businesses in Rwanda when the ban was first announced.  They complained of the increased expenses and hassles (I obviously have much more sympathy for them than billion dollar business back home crying over lost pennies).  But the government stood firm, saying that a healthy environment can trump business concerns.  Climate change debate take note.

50 per cent in 5 years or 100 per cent right now?  Which government is showing political leadership on behalf of its citizens (you know, those entities who have the vote)? 

* The clean-up is similar to something that takes place every month in Rwanda.  Usually held the last Saturday morning of every month, all businesses are closed and public transit shuts down.  It is called Umuganda and all Rwandan residents, even the President, are expected to pitch in and help clean-up their neighbourhoods.  The benefits are numerous: clean cities and villages, community-building, and a break from regular work routine for everyone (not just those who have the luxury of weekends off).  It is one of the reasons people rave at the cleanliness of Kigali and it’s an incredible show of community.  Anyone interested in getting this started back home please be in touch.


July 29, 2007 — Consumption Part 1 – Welcome to Heathrow Shopping Mall

This is the first entry (of an as-of-yet undetermined number) on some observations about consumption.

I am now about half way into my journey and the culture shock I was told to expect hasn’t come.  They said research shows us that it usually occurs 1/3rd of the way into a new culture, no matter the length of the trip.  Anyways, I guess it is good to be prepared for what could arrive, but in some ways I feel more at “home” here than in Ottawa.

I did however, feel what might be called “culture shock” (shock at the very least) on my passing through Heathrow airport.  Here is the story:

I have a good eight hours to kill after arriving from Toronto.  I sleep, walk, eat a bit and find an Internet cafe.  Other than that I find the terminals quite boring.   I am surprised because someone told me how lively and exciting Heathrow was.

So like a good traveller, I check in the recommended 2.5 hours before the flight and proceed to security.  Now this was only a few days after the explosion at the Glasgow airport.  So security was tight -  police and their rifles everywhere.  Arriving at security we are told we are only allowed one carry-on (this included purses and shopping bags to the utter dismay of many passengers).  I just have my backpack so I’m okay.  However, my deodorant is another problem.  Unfortunately, when I was considering my body odour for the next two months, I had bought the large stick.  Like liquids, sticks too have to be less than 100 mL.  I think mine was 110.  So I am stopped.  The security guard looks it over.  She calls her manager over.  She looks back at me.  She talks to him.  She gives me a glare as though I was purposely testing her and that she is putting her job at risk because of me, but finally I am cleared.  The deodorant makes it through. 

Thinking that is it, soon we are herded again, this time through the shoe explosives test (this processes seem to be different at all airports and they don’t do a great job of explaining what’s going on). Anyways, I pass the shoe test with flying colours and finally meet the customs man who nods me through.

Now for the shock…  Heathrow is fact not an airport but a shopping complex.  I walk forward and am immersed in lively music.  Big signs are all around me shouting DUTY-FREE!  Others signs tell me that any liquids bought at this point can be taken on the airplane – Even those more than 100 mL – whooppee!  I would have been able to purchase deodorant anyways!

I look around searching for an airport.  I don’t see anything that resembles the sort.  I look for boarding gates, passenger lounges, departure/arrival screens …nothing.  Nothing but bright lights, huge displays of most anything imaginable and shoppers rushing home (or somewhere) with their treasures.  Clothing, food, alcohol, luggage (assumedly to carry all your new purchases), everywhere.  To give you an idea of the size of the place, there is not one sunglass store but three.  Some useful stuff – much that is not.  So I follow the maze (it really was) passing store after store.  Finally, after I am convinced I’m lost, I come to some screens and a big sea of waiting chairs.  I check for my departure gate (at Heathrow you don’t know until you are passed security) but it still isn’t listed.  I still have about two hours so I grab a bite to eat.  Half an hour passes and still no gate listed.  An hour passes and still no listing.  (I am convinced it’s a marketing ploy that they hold you in the common shopping area until the last minute as this encourages you to buy more junk).

Finally about half an hour before scheduled departure, they list the gate and I head off in the direction of what actually resembles an airport.  I board and take my seat, still a bit jolted by what I have just experienced.

Thinking about it, I guess Heathrow shouldn’t have been such a shock.  Back home, we are surrounded by consumer culture every day.  Ads saturate our lives:  the buses, the streets, food, our media and campuses.  I guess I am usually just prepared and try to ignore it (though subconsciously I know this isn’t possible). 

I am heading through Washington instead of London on the way home.  Wish me luck.


July 26, 2007 — A day for justice

A great triumph for Rwandans and all of humanity.  Rwanda is now the 100th country to have officially abolished the death penalty.  Parliament approved the legislation in June, which paved the way for the law’s official signature today.  Rwanda becomes the first country in the African Great Lakes region to abolish capital punishment (Burundi currently has similar legislation awaiting promulgation).

Over 600 Rwandans will now see their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

Apart from the realization of the inadequacies of the death penalty, it is expected the Rwandan government has other motives for abolishment.  The mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (which tries those responsible for the genocide) is set to expire at the end of next year.  Fortunately, many countries (Canada included) refuse to extradite people to nations that still practise the death penalty if they face that punishment.  Since a number of wanted genocidaires remain abroad, the abolishment brings the expectation that those hiding in places such as Europe and Canada will be sent back for trial. 

There are now fourteen countries in Africa, including Rwanda, that are abolitionist for all crimes.   The world-wide trend toward abolition continues.  On top of the one hundred abolitionist countries, thirty others are such in practice.

In 2005, four countries shared the notorious title of carrying out 94 per cent of the world’s known executions.  They are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. 

Yes the US of A, the nation that the world apparently looks to as its model justice system, still executes its citizens.  But the tide is turning.  American governors are realizing the inadequacies and imposing moratoriums.  State courts are finding the laws unconstitutional.  Grassroots activists and organizations are winning real change and some experts predict the end within a decade.  Since 1973, 124 prisoners have been released in the US after evidence emerged of their innocence.  Numerous studies have shown the sheer failure of the death penalty to act as a deterrent (These stats abound on the Internet. Check out this link and click on Deterrence to show the comparison of homicide rates in abolished states versus practicing states. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org).  And finally, more and more people are speaking out about what they see as paramount - the immorality of the institution.

This October, a resolution will be introduced at the United Nations General Assembly calling for a moratorium on executions.  All over the world, people are calling for an end to this archaic institution.   In countries that have welcomed its end, the push continues against cruel and inhumane prison conditions and to persist in the fight to institute alternatives.  May the struggle continue…

Congrats Rwanda.


July 25, 2007 — First week at Radio R

I’ve been working at Radio Rwanda for almost a week now. 

The station is part of ORINFOR, the state-run news media, which also includes a television station and puts out a few newspapers.  Radio Rwanda broadcasts in English, French, Kinyarwanda and Swahili, with many of the reporters working in at least two or three different languages.  The flagship news shows run in the evening in all four languages.

So far I have had lots to do and a large variety of tasks.   When I work mornings, I go out with a reporter to cover a meeting or press conference and then package the English report in the afternoon.  The reporters have been very helpful and friendly.  If I work in the evenings, I help to record the international news and next week I have been told I will be part of the announcing team.

The work atmosphere is quite pleasant – much laughter and fun, yet everything gets done on time and in a professional manner.  I am a little hesitant about the guard’s gun at the gate, though perhaps less apprehensive than by the semi-automatics that were everywhere on my way passing through Heathrow airport on the way here.

Yesterday I went to Parliament to cover a speech by British Conservative Party leader David Cameron who was addressing Parliament.  Following the speech, we were setting up for an interview with the Speaker of the House, but soon found out that he refused to be interviewed.  I saw some woman parliamentarians standing nearby (Rwanda has one of the highest gender equal parliaments in the world – far outdoing the measly record of Western countries.  Rwandan law actually requires 1/3 of parliamentarians must be female – currently almost half are women).  I suggested that we could get reaction to the speech from them, but was told that we weren’t allowed to speak to parliamentarians other than the Speaker.  I still haven’t figured out if that is a blanket ban or just in place for major speeches.  It’s interesting that Canadian media have incredible access to Members of Parliament and yet rarely do we hear from or hear about anyone except the party leaders (who surprise, are all male).  Backbench MPs have less concern about image and therefore can speak more openly and honestly.  It would be nice to hear from them more often.

One other difference that I have seen so far that is worth noting is the length of clips.  At Radio Rwanda, it is common for a clip to run over two minutes.  When the President opened a conference on biodiversity, they played the entire nineteen minute speech.  This is a remarkable difference to most Canadian media that search for that perfect 20 second soundbite.  Context is often a resulting victim.  Politicians and the PR junkies know this all too well and tailor their speeches to provide those “magical” snippets.  Substance is often a resulting victim.  Understandably, newscasts are limited in time and listeners want the reporters to do their job of finding what’s important.  But maybe if we reported less fluff, there would be more time to give the stories that matter.  And giving listeners more direct, unfiltered access to that which decision-makers are saying could not be a bad thing.

More on Radio Rwanda to come.


July 16, 2007 — A few thoughts
on human interaction

I am here, Rwanda is beautiful, Kigali is busy, work is great and the people I have met have already touched me in many different ways.

But first, a couple reflections on blogging. This is my first blog attempt, though I have considered it at various times before.  I am a bit apprehensive about the idea for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s impossible to know who will read these personal thoughts and observations.  Some people will know me quite well, while others not at all.  This consideration definitely bears upon what I write and how it will be understood.  For those who stumble upon this who don’t know me, I invite you to contact me ([email protected]) and I can tell you a little about bit about who I am.  My second apprehension is that being in such a new context creates many initial reactions that are not appropriate to share, given the lack of context that a reader does not have access to.  For this reason, I may take some time before posting experiences.  I do already have lots of ideas about what to write though, so I will try to keep the flow constant.

I thought I would share a few initial thoughts on human interaction that I have observed in my short time here so far.  It is definitely something that struck me quite soon after my arrival, I think largely because of its vast contrast with my experience living in North America.  I may comment more on each of these things in more detail at a later time.

One of my first observations was the interactions in the midst of the busyness in downtown Kigali.  People will often stop and greet each other and display a genuine interest in the other person.  This appears to happen quite regularly even between strangers.  Asking someone how they are doing will receive an honest answer (which takes some getting used to).  Back home, we often don our mp3 headphones or talk on our cell phones (or pretend to), in hopes of avoiding human interaction with those we pass.  I am a fast walker and even people at home often remark that it appears as though I have somewhere pressing to be.  I wonder what I miss at such a fast pace.

Human touch varies greatly among cultures.  One just has to cross the Ottawa River into Quebec to experience this to a small extent. But here in Rwanda touch is very personable.  Rwandans always touch when greeting – either shaking hands or kissing cheeks (3 times). Sometimes a person will hold your hand for an entire conversation, maintaining a personal contact throughout. Men hold hands with men and the same between two women. (More on this in another blog).  People are quite comfortable cramped onto buses (sometimes sitting on each other) or weaving through crowds in tight spaces at the market.  It is quite a contrast to back home where we often feel we must apologize if we brush up against someone. 

Creating community seems to be a real priority for Rwandans.  The work that I have seen is rarely done in solitude and there is much more interaction than I am used to seeing.  People eat together, sing and dance together, enjoy themselves together.  After living in the same house for the past two years in Ottawa, I met my neighbours once and couldn’t even tell you their names.  What a missed opportunity.  I had two roommates but we rarely shared a meal together, except when we ordered in. 

Community is very natural and yet somehow we have learned to suppress it.  Sure, many of us have our friends, family and co-workers.  Perhaps we share a passion on a team, a club we belong to, or a hangout we frequent.  Yet, in the end we promote a very lonely culture.  We sit in front of our televisions and computers.  On the street, we only talk to those whom we already know.  We often drive alone, study alone, eat alone, work alone…  And then we wonder why we don’t understand each other.

I am excited about the community that I see here.  And I am excited about the impact that will have on me.



August 19, 2007 — What I learned from the beautiful game

August 17, 2007 — A small error that is very telling

August 10, 2007 — 'The public doesn't have a right to know anything'

August 6, 2007 — First impressions — mistaken identities

August 2, 2007 — Consumption Part 2 — Banning the bags

July 29, 2007 — Consumption Part 1 — Welcome to Heathrow Shopping Mall

July 26, 2007 — A day for justice

July 25, 2007 — First week at Radio R

July 16, 2007 — A few thoughts on human interaction

    © 2006 Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication DESIGN: SMDESIGN