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After the killing, stories
By Allan Thompson

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star on Saturday, February 4, 2006. It was the cover story in the Life section.

BUTARE, Rwanda—The power has gone out in my little office at the National University of Rwanda and I am shrouded in velvety darkness. For now, my little world is defined by the dim grey glow coming from the screen of my laptop computer and I am transfixed by what I am reading — the biographies of my new students.

On my first day here as a visiting lecturer — through a partnership between Carleton University's school of journalism and its counterpart here in Rwanda — I gave one of those standard introductory assignments: interview the person next to you and write a short profile.

Reading the bios they compiled, I learn they are the survivors of Rwanda's lost generation. And in a country where the media climate can be hostile, they have placed their hopes on becoming a new breed of journalists.

Most of them were teenagers or in their early 20s during the events of 1994, when up to one million people were slaughtered in an orchestrated campaign to exterminate ethnic Tutsis and any Hutu moderates willing to share power with them. Today, the official government position is that ethnicity is a moot point in Rwanda and such discussions are divisive. I don't raise the subject, nor do my students.

But we do talk about the corrosive and deadly role played by hate media during the genocide. For some, that is something of a justification for the government's present go-slow approach to true freedom of the press — President Paul Kagame's government keeps a firm grip on the media. But others make clear they hope to push the journalistic boundaries.

Most students lost family members in the carnage. One student is among four children surviving from a family of 12. Another lost his parents and four brothers; yet another lost his father and three brothers. One of the poignant profiles ends this way: "He deeply regrets the loss of his lovely family members in the 1994 genocide, but has hope for the future."

Indeed, as I will learn in our three weeks together, for all that they are compelled to wallow in the past, these young people are fixed on what lies ahead, determined to make their country a better place.

In our first classroom encounter, we talk about reporting and news writing and the role of journalists; particularly, about how journalism is the way a free society has a conversation with itself. Their pledge is to do better than the current media, which seem content to dwell on official, political news and rarely ask questions or challenge authority.

But my students are realistic about what journalists can accomplish in Rwanda, a country where journalists who criticize the regime risk being harassed or assaulted.

I tell them about the time I ended up having a physical confrontation with then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, who grabbed me by the arm and pushed me out of the way when he didn't like my persistent line of questioning on the stairway outside the House of Commons. They marvel that, a day or so later, Chrétien went out of his way to pick me out of the crowd at a news conference to invite me to pose a question.

The students, of course, have had a vastly different experience. While on internships with media organizations in Kigali, such as Radio Rwanda, they were shushed as upstarts when they tried to ask more questions at news conferences. We joke about journalists who ask questions like, "Can you please tell me the message you would like to deliver?"

That said, Rwanda is a society with many protocols about manners, age and respect for authority. Even this new generation of journalists will not be nearly as brash as their Canadian counterparts. They also know the limits and already have a sense of some of the boundaries they will not be able to cross.

Also, they almost uniformly express admiration for Kagame and see things improving here in this tiny country that is — despite its horrific recent history — something of a sea of safety and tranquility in central Africa. The buses run on time, the roadsides look as if they have been swept and no one is afraid to walk at night.

These students hope that, however incrementally, they can be part of moving their country forward. For me, that is enough reason to be here, teaching journalism.

It has been fascinating to watch Rwanda's evolution from afar and through occasional visits over the past decade. I came here first as a reporter for the Star in 1996, to cover the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire that was part of the fallout from the 1994 genocide.

That first visit to Rwanda proved to be something of an epiphany for me as a journalist. Standing amid a pile of mutilated corpses in a refugee camp in Mugunga, eastern Zaire — the site of a massacre that was but a tiny, tiny microcosm of the 1994 slaughter — I found myself asking: where the hell was I in 1994? How did I, along with most of my media colleagues, effectively miss the Rwanda genocide?

A wild-eyed hungry vagrant turned out to be one student's former classmate

Since then, I have taken every opportunity to write about this country and to chronicle the career of Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian general who commanded the ill-fated UN mission in Rwanda at the time. When I became a journalism teacher, I made Rwanda my primary area of interest, organizing a conference on the media and the genocide, editing a book on the same topic and, finally, organizing this teaching partnership with the university here to help address their shortage of journalism educators.

One note about the challenges of teaching here compared with teaching at Carleton. The university requested that I teach in English as, in theory at least, the National University is a bilingual institution — that is, English and French. Plus students speak the local language, Kinyarwanda.

My fourth-year students were able to function in English but I figured out very quickly that, while their comprehension was quite good, their writing was, almost without exception, very, very weak. As a teacher, I decided to forge ahead in English but graded my students on the quality of their journalism: the interviews they did, the information they gathered and the structure of their stories.

About one week into the course, we escape the stuffy computer lab where we have been conducting our fourth-year, print-reporting classes and go on a field trip. Our destination was the village of Maraba, about 20 minutes outside Butare and the site of an innovative coffee growers co-operative.

Canadians who associate Rwanda only with genocide might be surprised to learn that this country produces some of the best coffee in the world, notably the specialty Arabica coffee produced by the Maraba Coffee Co-operative (Abahuzamugambi b'Ikawa ya Maraba). Our mission is to gather information for a series of stories.

In Maraba, the students interview staff members of the co-operative, coffee farmers young and old, experts who work at the washing station for coffee beans and finally, the "cuppers" who taste-test the local coffee to compare it with leading world brands. We had divided up story assignments ahead of time and, with virtually no coaching from me, the class simply fans out across the village, interviewing everyone in sight.

In between, we find time to have lunch together on the front porch of an unprepossessing roadside restaurant. The owner, a hefty woman in a bright print dress, plunks down a case of beer and a case of pop, then disappears to make goat shish kebabs for our lunch.

As the supervisor for the outing, I decree that since most of our work is done, it would be okay to have a beer or two with lunch. At the boulangerie next door, one of the bakers carries large trays of raw buns out to a roadside wood oven — it looks like a clay hut. Moments later, we sample the piping-hot buns while we waited for the kebabs.

The rest of the food finally arrives and my students give me a lesson in how to grip a piece of meat with my teeth and pull it off in one swoop. As we eat, a man in ragged beige clothes and flip-flops approaches. He has a wild look in his eyes and hair on his head. (The fact that he is not clean-shaven like all the other men indicates he didn't have the 50 cents for a haircut.)

Edouard, who at 34 is a thoughtful man, always fastidiously dressed, strikes up a conversation with the vagrant in Kinyarwandan and each of us shares with him the last morsel or two from our skewers. After the man walks away, contented, Edouard tells me they had been classmates in high school. The man is from a family that had been quite prominent before the genocide. Now he is among Rwanda's legions of jobless, struggling to survive.

On the way back to Butare a few hours later, I am astonished to see that the shy, quiet students I first met a few days earlier are transformed. Or maybe they are just being themselves and I hadn't had a chance to notice before.

They sing all the way back to town. I mean, they really sing. The class clown, Egide — he's also the Rwandan Patriotic Front vice-president for the school of journalism — leads the chorus, improvising lyrics to describe everyone in the vehicle while the others clap their hands. There is even a chorus for our driver who is slapping his palms against the steering wheel.

The only student who doesn't join in at first is Edouard — a bit older, more reserved. That is until the group begins singing a famous military marching song, familiar to Edouard from his days in the RPF. Now he, too, is belting out the tune as our van careers down the highway.

Amid all the laughter and song, I can't help but reflect upon the seeming disconnect between this overflowing joy and love of life and Rwanda's international reputation for stoicism, tragedy and sadness.

Yet another lesson learned by the teacher.



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