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Roger Bird,
Retired Professor,
Freelance Editor

Roger Bird's Notes From the Field

February 25, 2006 — Preparing to say goodbye

I’m writing this on a beautiful sunny morning here in Butare after a rainy, cold night. The rainy cold night followed the last reporting class taught by Sue Montgomery and me. I really felt for our mandatory house guard, Joseph, good father of four children, good stepfather of two more, orphaned when their parents were murdered in 1994. Rain or not, cold or heat, Joseph stays outside in a miserable hut every night. Sue and Sylvia Thomson went to Kigali Friday afternoon for a concert and to attend some journalism awards, organized in part by the director of the School of Journalism here. Tomorrow they are off by bus way up north to see the mountain gorillas and will return Monday. Today I’m grading and will attempt to do some of the edits that are piling up in my e-mail from Diplomat and other magazines back home.

We have 23 (out of 25) completed student questionnaires in hand from second-year ethics and second-year reporting. Sylvia has distributed questionnaires to her TV students and to the fourth-year class taught by Allan. We will bring them all home next week.

On the souvenir front, we are promised delivery of two posters touting the awesome Maraba Rwandan coffee. The posters are slightly naughty, drawing attention to a lovely Rwandan miss, and when first published they attracted the wrath of local puritans. It reminded me of Mencken, “a puritan is someone who suspects that somewhere, somebody is having a good time.”

Our reporting field trip Thursday went to the Hall of the Rwandan Kings at Nyanga, and to the Gikongoro area to check out rumours of famine. A young man named Leopold of the World Food Program briefed the students for the latter. It was a classic PR “briefing” in which the speaker told the students All About Everything with regard to WFP and nothing about local conditions. That was until the students and Sue (her team did food; mine did the Kings) dug into him until finally he used the F word and acknowledged that despite government denials it was a “famine.”

Then the students fanned out into the Karambi market to talk to the locals, while Sue took endless pictures of children and gathered a crowd which verged on the dangerous at times, simply because of the crush of hungry people.

None of the students had ever been to either site, and they were incredibly pumped all day long. We got back at 4:30 p.m. We fed the whole crew plus bus driver plus Leopold at the Dallas Restaurant (a scene in itself) in Gikongoro for about 18,000 francs, or $35 Cdn. It was my best day here, with the teaching finally starting to bite. They described farmed out soil conditions, hungry people, women starting to cry as they explained they couldn’t feed their kids. Sounded like journalism to me.

It is starting to sink in for the students that we are leaving and there were many inquiries whether we could stay in touch by e-mail, whether we could help with future stories and the like. We could indeed. I can only hope that this country will open some avenues so they can all use their education to good effect. They are a wonderful bunch with the exception of two who care only about their (admittedly ravishing) appearance. I’m going to miss them.


February 7, 2006 — Long weekend road trip

We just had a long weekend, Monday being a day off to allow people to vote for local officials right across the country. So the four Canadians hired a vehicle and set off on a 2½ hour trip to Lake Kivu, a huge body of water between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our destination was Kibuye, one of several towns on the eastern (i.e., Rwandan) shore and Hotel Centre Béthanie, run by the Presbyterian church. Other hotels in town have been more or less appropriated for NGO headquarters, and almost all visitors at Béthanie were Europeans attending NGO workshops in its conference centre. Workshops are everywhere and always, and if poverty, ignorance and hunger can be quelled by them, Rwanda is on the road to a bright future.

Lake Kivu fishermen at Kibuye, Rwanda.

Hunger. Driving through the achingly beautiful hills between Butare and Kibuye, a stark Malthusian equation began revealing itself. A word of explanation. In 2004 I edited a world map for Canadian Geographic. Part of its content was UN development data, plugged in on the CIDA side of the map (the Canadian Geographic side had Canada’s presence in the world in matters scientific and cultural). I shepherded the UN numbers into their proper places without really taking account of them. Here’s a couple for Rwanda: area, 26,338 square kilometres; population, 8,387,000. Around me on the trip was a four part equation between forests (disappearing), erosion (severe), agriculture (intense) and population (growing). People marry young and love large families. For example, our class representative is one of 11 children in his family. More people means fewer trees, more agriculture and erosion, less land available for more people. Equals less food.

But we are rich. Food in Kibuye was good, though, notably, the fish were tiny, caught by men paddling immense wooden, flat-bottomed boats linked together by booms made of tree trunks. They sing as they paddle through the night and land their catch of slightly-larger-than-sunfish tilapia from an overfished lake the next morning. We met a crew on a shoreline walk the next morning. Bunch of cheerful show-offs. “Take our pictures!” was the message of their gestures and a few words of French. Anyone with their physique who didn’t show off would be in need of emotional counselling. On our return trip to Butare, there were long lines of Sunday best-dressed people walking home through the heat, having voted by lining up behind the candidate of their choice at the appointed polling places. Candidates were not allowed to peek at the line behind them. Soldiers enforced the rule. I suspect the turnout was way ahead of the numbers during a municipal election in Canada. That has to be good news.

Tuesday was the day Sue Montgomery of the Montreal Gazette met her first class of second-year reporting students. She took one look at the dark, computer-deprived room assigned to her and marched her students outdoors for a lesson in the arboretum. I offered my assigned computer-equipped classroom so the students could write up their mutual interviews, but when we got there it had been hijacked by another teacher and his group (a frequent occurrence, according to a U.S. education prof who has been here for years). Since I was too Canadian to protest vigorously, Sue’s group will do their writing tomorrow, if the current plan holds. You never know.

One ornithological note. In Kibuye, I heard a robin singing. Honest. Looked up, and silhouetted against the lake was a robin-shaped bird with a red breast. It flirted its tail like a robin. “Looks like a robin, sounds like a robin, acts like a robin …” It was Pogonocichla stellata, a white-starred robin, found in most of Rwanda, as well as parts of Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Definitely had a Canadian accent.


January 31, 2006 — Breakthrough

Something of a breakthrough this week in the journalism ethics course I’m teaching with Prof. Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi. It’s been our first “group presentations.” Some readers know that in Carleton’s School of Journalism version of the course, students do such presentations in the form of skits, complete with props, costumes, funny hats and sophomoric humour. Prof. Bosco advised against this approach. We decided instead to hold a panel discussion: students in teams of four confront a previously unseen ethical dilemma, have 20 minutes to discuss it, and then sit down in front of the class in our empty TV studio cavern and provide their take on the dilemme du jour.

Monday was a strain. Students struggled to make clear their intricate, reasoned thoughts on what to do about the charity board that begs a reporter to hush up the news of the alcoholic employee who embezzled millions of Rwandan francs for his private benefit. These students struggled because they were operating in their third language, English. This despite assurances beforehand to our teaching team that the university was indeed trilingual — Kinyarwandan, French and English. No, the university is working towards being trilingual, and these students have the hard task of understanding English-speaking instructors and expressing themselves as well in English. Worse, they didn’t “get” the panel discussion format, an alien import. The panelists were stilted, the students in front of them addressed their questions and comments not to the panel but to the professors, despite our efforts to avoid eye contact, to remain impassive and the like.

But we soldiered on through three cases anyway, with never a doubt about the worthwhileness of the ideas behind the halting words and broken social scene.

Then came Tuesday. Same group. Tougher dilemme du jour: the financial reporter who writes a stock column which makes readers rich while he struggles to make ends meet. His daughter needs expensive dental work. Should he break his paper’s iron rule against him buying or selling stock? Through a deal with a couple of friends? Just this once? Maybe?

We hand out the assignment to all (a few moments later we’ll pick the presenting group). Everyone reading intently. Then someone puts up his hand and asks, more or less, “Could you please give an very simple explanation of what this means?” Bird and Rushingabigwi probe a bit and discover that nobody in the room knows the square root of squat about stock markets, les bourses du monde. Six minutes of explanation by Rushingabigwi in Kinyarwandan. Presenting group steps outside (fresh air!) to consult.

Then their presentation. Animated. Heavy accents. Clear. Good reasoning behind the ethical choices. Then the assembled room. Students leaning forward toward the panel, ignoring the professors (!) hands in the air, pleading to be heard. Raucous but orderly discussion, huge though largely one-sided debate. They would fire that reporter if he even thought about trading stock.

Someone made the point that the underlying lesson about journalism was you’re always learning something new in this trade. These Rwandan students learned several new things over two short days. And they made at least one prof feel less like he was presenting a cardboard replica of a course instead of the real thing.

Tomorrow is Heroes Day in Rwanda, a national holiday to honour all the nation’s heroes. We (the team has been joined by the CBC’s Sylvia Thomson and is minus Allan Thompson off in Nairobi talking to journalists) get a day off and will likely join the crowd tomorrow at the soccer stadium to see what it’s all about.

The Roger and Ann Bird part of the team are still slowly adding birds. On Sunday we met our first bee eaters, the European (in its migratory winter home) and the Cinnamon-chested, with their dazzling arrow-shaped flight configuration, intense turquoise, chestnut, yellow and white paint jobs, and social habits. Today in a walk to the campus there was a felled tree with dark maroon wood at the roadside. It was about half a metre through the middle at ground level. As a confessed tree obsessive, I counted the rings and there were only about 30 of them. In eastern Canada, a hardwood tree that thick would be a 50- to 70-year tree. This one had grown to its thickness since about 1975. That’s what life without winter will do for you.


January 23, 2006 — Election day ethics

Election day in Canada was the first opportunity for students in “Ethics and the Responsibilities of the Media” to present their own ideas instead of just listening to me and Prof. Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi lecture to them about the uncertainties of ethics in our trade. We set up our data projector, destroying only one power bar in the process as it succumbed in a shower of sparks to 230-volt input. Sigh. Bosco and I used the projector to flash puzzling English terms onto our “screen,” the blank white reverse side of Bosco’s map of Africa draped over our three-legged green chalkboard. I was briefly entangled in the black-white metaphor that map created in my mind, then did a short lecture on the pitfalls of enforcing ethical behaviour among journalists. Conclusion: only education of journalists, and of the public by journalists, could encourage, though not enforce, ethics.

So it was the students’ turn to give it a try. Sam Mandela considered the reporter whose paper’s policy was to inform sources if they were being taped on the phone. Etienne Ntawigira had to figure out what to do about the reporter who showed up on a day off among demonstrators in front of an abortion clinic, and Gilbert Ndikubwayezu looked at the case of the reporter, flying off on holidays, sitting by chance behind a cabinet minister and hearing all kinds of things he shouldn’t have heard.

To give you some idea of what they were up against. We sat in a circle formed by a miscellaneous chair collection in a cavernous room intended some day to be filled with TV equipment. The only available light came through the windows (I was shown the hidden light switch later). The class meets five days a week for three weeks and then it’s all over. There’s no dress rehearsal. For virtually all of the students in the room, English is a distant third language, behind Kinyarwandan and French. I can only guess at their family histories, since almost everyone here grew up in a world shattered by the genocide. These young people are (consequently?) more mature than most of the second-year students I taught at Carleton. They are intensely aware of the political and social implications of journalistic activities and decisions. As well, they had an amazing ability to construct a rational argument for an ethical decision. I was impressed.

Later, as Bosco and I discussed grades, it dawned on me that university grades in Canada are so inflated as to be almost meaningless. Here, the grade scale is zero to 20. A really impressive-phone-your-mom grade is 15. You pass with a 12. Canadian graduate admission committees please note.

On the home front, this birdwatching professor is picking away at the elusive prey in the trees via Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe. Today with no argument from the other birder in the family, we chalked up a pair of white-headed black chats in the garden. Sunday’s visit to the campus arboretum (also a forestry research station) turned up a spectacular African pitta (golden tummy shading into crimson, vivid black-and-white striped head) according to me, a point of view under dispute.

The election will be decided as we sleep, and we’ll miss the rolling TV coverage from coast to coast to coast. We’ll pray that the campus Internet connections are up in the morning, or that Allan’s short-wave can find RCI in the clear.


January 19, 2006 — Trip to Kigali

Jan. 18 was a trip to Kigali to meet local journalists. We set up regular Wednesday newsroom stints at The New Times, working alongside the staff. More below, but the trip itself is worth some attention.

An almost full “Volcano” bus picked us up at the corner of our road and the main highway at 6:10 a.m. and we squeezed into the back seat, Allan with his laptop, me with a backpack carrying stuff intended to impress our hosts — my Canadian Geographic/CIDA world map, a copy of Diplomat magazine with Dallaire on the cover. This was A two-hour ride north up a road with an almost constant stream of Rwandans on either side going to work, stepping aside as we hurtled past.

Local work: common forms. Mothers, assisted by one child, hoeing a field or a banana orchard. Skinny young guys (no fat people in Rwanda that I have seen) pushing bicycles loaded with immense sacks of produce (or furniture, huge jerry cans of water or anything else you can think of) up hills. There is no flatland between Butare and Kigali. Every square centimetre of land appears to be cultivated, no forest remaining. The steep hills are terraced to support crops. Everyone appears to be working frantically. I have no idea where the cliché of the “lazy African” came from.

We left the bus on a crowded, rutted, side street in Kigali. Plenty of taxis on offer, but we sought a restaurant. Turned out to be a tea house, and in our ignorance we ordered coffee, which eventually arrived thanks to the resourceful server: two cups, a saucer of Nescafe instant, and a tankard of boiling water. I ended up with an omelet though everyone else was enjoying large bowls containing a soup broth and a boiled joint of lamb or pork, hard to tell. As I paid the server he said, “Merci Poppa,” solidly establishing my age and rank.

A combination of Allan’s longstanding knowledge of Kigali and the taxi driver’s resourcefulness got us to the basement quarters (formerly a nightclub) of The New Times, Rwanda’s only English-language paper. We were welcomed by managing director (the boss, editor-in-chief/publisher) Edward Rwema, news editor Victor Mugarura, and administrative officer Iyamuremye Justus. We met many of the staff. The paper has risen from an original circulation of 800 to today’s 5,000. It publishes Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and is launching a Sunday edition Jan. 28.

Rwema’s views: journalism not regarded as a serious profession here. Low pay, government pressure combined with better-paying jobs in the ministries as information officers. The Times now offering better pay and some medical coverage. Still, only about 10 per cent of staff meet professional standards. Editors hired for their English-language skills, but lack journalism knowledge. As an example, yesterday’s story on President Kagame lashing out at his critics during a meeting of religious leaders, saying, no, he never sought - as his critics say - the presidency. Lots of quotes from Kagame. But no quotes from his political opponents.

That night, driving back from Kigali (in a friend’s truck loaded with Kigali-purchased household gear) we heard the same story on the BBC’s Kinyarwandan radio newscast. We asked our friend to translate, since several of the clips were from a Kagame opponent, the missing element from the New Times story. We have to find out whether this kind of reporting (let’s hear from both sides) is confined to foreign reporters and bureaux or whether local reporters can do the same thing.

New Times staff invited Allan and me to work with their editors in their newsroom every Wednesday, as they edit stories. Staff have had a bellyful of journalism “workshops” where they sit in a seminar room away from the paper and listen to some foreign expert talk to them about how to do journalism. Instead, we’ll just slide in beside their screens and, when appropriate, help out with suggested journalistic interventions, back-and-forths with the reporters, and the like. Later we’ll work with the reporters themselves.


January 17, 2006 — Journalism ethics

Hello Max, this blog is a belated account of my first journalism ethics class taught jointly Jan. 17 with my colleague Professor Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi. We worked together frantically Jan. 16 to “Rwandize” the material I had brought from Carleton and we walked into our classroom together at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 17 to meet 18 students. The School of Journalism here has only nine full-time (desperately overworked) faculty: all the students knew him, none knew me, so he did the intro.

Our classroom was a cavernous room intended as a TV studio, but still awaiting the arrival of longed-for but expensive equipment. Two windows let in the only available light. Students were seated in a collection of miscellaneous chairs, some with writing arms, some without. The rest of the furniture was two wobbly triangular-shaped tables and a portable blackboard. I launched into “why we care about ethics in journalism,” reading in the dim light my notes laid out on one of the tables. Awkward but doable. At about minute No. 3, someone appeared at the rear entrance. It was Allan Thompson packing a brand new, sturdy lectern on his equally sturdy back. He had liberated it from the campus woodworking shop which produces desks, lecterns, tables, cupboards, you name it. His arrival generated much mirth. He took pictures for the website while I proceeded.

The students: attentive, keen, intelligent. Five women and 13 men, the reverse of Carleton’s normal ratio. Those who were shy outnumbered those willing to offer comment or ask questions. We had four or five talkers in our group of 18, in this instance about the same as at Carleton. Max, you’d fit right in with these people.

Content: “freebies” generated much interest. Is it OK to take gifts from sources or organizations? In Canadian journalism we say, “Of course not.” Well, said my students, if you have to cover, say, the opening of a new tea plantation, the only way to get there is in a vehicle provided by the company running the plantation. And the company will likely provide lunch too, as the reporter is often too poor to buy it. Otherwise no story. Conclusion: your ethics are heavily affected by where you stand on the Earth.

The students and Prof. Rushingabigwi were to meet Jan. 18 while Allan and I were in Kigali meeting the staff of The New Times, the English-language newspaper. Bosco’s mission was to Rwandize my remarks and ideas.


January 13, 2006 — A note to Max

What's going on here is a retread professor and freelance editor hired on to teach print editing and journalism ethics at the National University of Rwanda. This blog takes the form of a note to Max, a first year journalism student at Carleton in a course which was my first assignment in the School 30 years ago.

Our contingent is Roger Bird, my wife Ann (computer backup and social enabler) and Carleton colleague Allan Thompson, the brains behind this whole venture. We live at the north end of Butare in a spacious house with a lovely garden, an iffy electrical supply and no Internet connection.

L-R: Allan Thompson, Jean-Pierre Gatsinzi, director of the School of Journalism, Ann Bird and Roger Bird in the main building at the National University of Rwanda campus, here
in Butare.

I'm writing this in a shared office on the campus where we have failed in our attempts to get online via its high speed connection. Ann and Roger got here Wednesday afternoon by a big jeep from Kigali, loaded with all our gear (nothing missing: thank you KLM and Kenya Airlines) and a massive household shopping carried out by Allan and our local fixer, Alice Musabende. So far it's all about logistics — transportation, shopping, plumbing and the like.

Electrical logistics: almost nothing works in the array of electrical adapters and transformers we bought in Ottawa to cope with Rwanda's 230 volt, 50 cycle electricity. We are hoping Kigali stores can help.

We've met a handful of our disarmingly genial Rwandan journalism colleagues. We are on a campus swarming with well-dressed (no shabby sweatshirts, bare tums or baseball caps here Max) predominantly male students. January is the start of the academic year, like September at home. Classrooms have rigid seating with lines of benches. Some rooms are computer equipped, some not. This building, the central one on campus, was built in 1955 and forms a gentle quad with trees in blossom and formal European-style gardens. The air is sweet, the people handsome, the roads a terrifying channel of high-speed vehicles and an endless stream of people on foot on both sides, shifting out into the traffic, stepping nimbly aside at the last moment along with the bikes and motorcycles. Bikes carry everything from bananas to office furniture.

Soon I hit the 48-hour in-country mark Max, and it's been almost impossible to think professionally about my courses so far in the face of the electrical (how soon will my laptop battery die?) and Internet (why won't this cable coming out of this office wall actually connect me?) frustrations. With luck we'll defeat all obstacles and learn stoicism along the way. This evening we host (thanks to Allan's social skills) a cocktail hour or 10 for Rwandan colleagues. I hope to pick up technical tips. I hope to learn something of what I came here to learn — what journalism and journalism teaching are like in this beautiful country with the catastrophic history.



February 7, 2006 —
Preparing to say goodbye

February 7, 2006 —
Long weekend road trip

January 31, 2006 — Breakthrough

January 23, 2006 — Election day ethics

January 19, 2006 — Trip to Kigali

January 17, 2006 — Journalism ethics

January 13, 2006 — A note to Max




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