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Melissa Kent


Melissa's Notes From the Field

September 11, 2007 — Jill and I are taken to the police station

We’re coming back from the genocide memorial in Murambi. En route we spot some prisoners working in a rice field. Jill asks the driver if we can take photos. He says no problem (nta kibazo in Kinyarwanda).

They wear these pale pink uniforms. Juxtaposed against the lush green of the rice fields, it makes for a very pretty picture.

The driver puts the car in reverse. Almost knocks over some people walking along the side of the road — but then there are always people walking along the side of the road.

We jump out. Snap some photos. Hear screaming. Get back into the car. Within two seconds the car is surrounded. Farmers, a prison guard in a beige uniform carrying a rifle, and some members of the Local Defence Force. The LDF wear burgundy uniforms, carry sticks and are supposed to assist the police. They are paid very little but what they do have is authority. If that isn’t a cocktail for corruption I don’t know what is.

They start yelling at us and at our driver, Ephrem. They try to grab Jill’s camera. She holds onto it. They grab the keys out of the ignition and start pushing Ephrem around. They are yelling at him because we haven’t gotten authorization to take the pictures. We were not aware we needed this. I’m not sure what people are yelling. I can hear "muzungu" over and over. Loosely translated it means white person.

One young, angry and particularly aggressive LDF thug starts getting physical wih Ephrem. I say stop. He turns, looks at me and starts waving his stick in my face through the open window. Our driver is trying to call the police. He runs out of credit on his phone. Our car is literally surrounded by people. There’s a surreal moment when this little kid comes next to the car window and starts practicing his French with me. “Bonjour.” “Ca va?" "Ca va bien,” he says, while the men are yelling. I felt so bad for Ephrem.

Eventually the prison guard with the gun and one of the LDF officers get in the car with us. We are told we are going to have to go see the prison director because our unauthorized photos are a prison matter, not a police matter. The prison guard says the prison director will decide what to do with us. When I ask what could happen he shrugs his shoulders and says “it’s up to him to decide”. Jill manages to call Shelley and says `we’re being taken to prison` before the phones dies.

We’re all sandwiched in the back seat. The LDF officer yells at Ephrem to turn right. Instead, he keeps going straight. The officer tries to grab the prison guard’s rifle. I’m not sure what he’s planning to do. It wouldn’t be much use shooting the person driving. The prison guard holds on to his gun. Then, all of a sudden, Ephrem starts honking and waving as two police officers on motorcycle drive toward us. He pulls over and stops, waiting. They drive right by. My heart sinks. Then the LDF officer starts talking to me in broken French. “Tu me donnes quelque-chose et tu va. Tu ne vas pas a prison,” he says. You give me something and you go. You don’t have to go to the prison. I pretend not to understand. Ask him to repeat. Which he does several times, until finally, the police turn around and come back. No doubt the crowd a few meters back has told them where we are. As soon as they pull up, the guard and the LDF kid get out of the car. We follow the motorcycle to the police station in our little town of Huye. So humiliating. We get out, ready to grovel. Standing in civilian clothing, surrounded by officers in uniform, is the chief of police. I ask if he is the prison director, because at this point I’m not sure who we’re meeting. The officers laugh. I’m not sure why the question is so funny, but I’ve encountered this reaction a lot with my students. They’ll crack up at the oddest times. He explains that he’s the chief of police. But before we can even launch into our apologies — “we just arrived and we didn’t know you needed authorization and the rice fields were just so beautiful" — he says "Next time just ask first."

He was calm, he smiled and that was it. Nta kibazo. It was such an anti-climactic ending to our story. Jill had already decided she was going to lock arms with me if they tried to separate us at the prison. Instead we went for a beer. A few beers.


August 21, 2007 — Sound-sational

I was waiting to write my blog about my teaching experience because I didn't want to be negative.

The other lecturers' blogs were so full of praise and examples of how great their students were.

When I arrived, I faced a class full of vacant, slightly hostile stares.

I would play tape, give them exercises, ask them questions...nothing worked.

I even translate everything i'm saying into French...because the bulk of my class is clearly more comfortable speaking le Francais. Nothing.

I probably would have bought a red clown nose and giant shoes had I been able to find them in Huye!

I began thinking ither they hate me or I suck as a teacher. Either way this isn't good.

Then after a few days things began to change. They smiled more. Asked questions. Even told each other to be quiet when I was talking or we were listening to some tape!

They still come to class late. Walk up to you - while you're teaching - and ask to leave because they're ither working at the university radio station or have some family emergency at the hospital. Many of my students seem to have relatives in hospital.

They still talk in class constantly. Send and receive text messages during the lecture. Walk out of class to answer their phones. But atleast, now, the phones are on vibrate. And when i'm saying something important and a phone goes off, a simple look and they'll quietly put the phone back into their pockets.

The most exciting turn of events came a few days ago. I was coming home on the Volcanoe bus from Kigali. The bus driver was playing Radio Salus (the university radio station). It was 5 o'clock, and the news was on.

All of a sudden I recognize one of my students' names. The news story starts...with SOUND EFFECTS!!! or ambiant sound - as they call it. I was so proud.

I've been trying to hammer into them the importance of sound in radio.

They have been resistant. But there it was.

I brought it up in class today. They all laughed when I told them how proud I felt. I have no idea what the story was about, since it was in kinyarwanda, but that hardly seems to matter. The reporter's name is Faustin.

This is another thing I love; their names.

Check this out: Bonaventure, Theoneste, Ildephonse, Jean de la Croix, Evariste, Oswald, Damascene, Darius, Viateur.

They're so old-fashioned and pretty. Sometimes I like telling them to be quiet, because it gives me a chance to say their names.

SO, if you are reading this blog because you are coming to teach at the university...don't be turned off or feel inadequate if the students don't respond at first. Give it time, because they take time.



August 11, 2007 — My introduction to Africa took place at the Washington, Dulles Airport

The Ethiopian Airlines flight was supposed to leave at 9:50 a.m.. That gave us just enough time to make our connecting flight from Addis Ababa to Kigali. But our plane was missing its black box. One had to be flown in from New York, and installed, before the plane would take off. So that gave us about 13 hours to kill at the Washington, Dulles airport.

The waiting passengers were a mixture of Africans, now living and working in Canada or the U.S., and various Christian groups traveling to Africa to do good works. Jill and I were definitely the odd ones out, not fitting into either category.

During our 'stay' at the airport I met Julius, who teaches math at a University in Louisiana. He was taking a group of young Sudanese refugees (now living in the U.S.) to do missionary work in Cameroon, his former homeland. I also talked to Melissa and her 8-year old son Josiah who were traveling to Tanzania to build orphanages. I killed a good two hours teaching Josiah card tricks. There was 16-year old Malikah. She said she was the niece of Omar Bongo (president of Gabon) and invited me to visit her there, when I finish my teaching stint in Rwanda. There was another man from Calgary – who was going home to Congo to visit his sick father. Ken from New Jersey is one of only 35 certified coffee tasters/graders in the world. He's also a smoker? He was off to Burundi – presumably to taste coffee – and strengthen the coffee-trade business between that country and the United States. We all started calling each other by our final destinations. Eg. "Where's Nairobi? We're finally boarding".

After a 15 hour flight we landed in Addis in the dead of night. After being told to board and then get off three separate buses we were off to our hotel – The Queen of Sheba.

Side Note: Not everyone was staying at the same hotel. The next day, our new friends (Burundi crew) told us that after we got off the bus the driver hit a dog on the road. Not sure if it lived.

After a quick 2 a.m. meal, I was so grateful to get out of my clothes - it felt like I'd been wearing them for 2 weeks – and jump into the shower. But like everything else on the trip so far, this would not go smoothly either. The shower head fell off and hit me on the head. I couldn't put it back on and finished my shower under a single – slightly painful - jet of lukewarm water. I also flooded the bathroom because the shower drain wasn't working. When the hotel employee came to unblock it, the whole room reeked of sewage.

After a 'refreshing' 3-hour nap we were back at the airport on our way to Kigali – finally.



September 11, 2007 — Jill and I are taken to the police station

August 21, 2007 — Sound-sational

August 11, 2007 — My introduction to Africa took place at the Washington, Dulles Airport




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