Jennifer's Notes From the
September 21, 2007 — Moving on
There is no escaping the memory of the Genocide here. The Gacaca courts are still processing thousands of suspected killers and accomplices cramming the jails, and those prisoners can be seen almost daily in their pink jumpsuits, riding in the back of pickup trucks or working the fields around town. Newspapers and newscasts are filled with stories of others who fled the country and who authorities are now trying to track down to bring to justice. And as you drive through towns, it’s hard to miss the memorials, large and small, to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives.
At the same time, you get the distinct sense that the country is moving on. While the rest of the world remains fixated on the massacre that took place here, the country is, it seems, trying to get past its past.
The government is trying to replace the image of a country racked by civil war with that of a safe haven for tourists. It’s trying to expand the economy and to cement Rwanda’s reputation as a major force on the world’s specialty coffee market.
And it’s trying to overcome the ethnic divisions that just 13 years ago pitted neighbor against neighbor and tore the country apart. Officially at least, there are no Hutus or Tutsis here anymore, just Rwandans. So-called divisionism is a major crime. Even talk of ethnicity is taboo. When it is mentioned, it’s often in hushed tones, whispers of H’s and T’s.
Everyone here still knows who is who. But an outsider can only guess what group someone belongs to by listening carefully to their personal stories. And those are not often readily shared. Typically, you just get pieces of a puzzle: a student who reveals in a class assignment, for example, that she lost several family members during the genocide, witnessed rapes and murders and lived in a refugee camp. Or people who tell you they grew up or lived in Uganda. In both cases, it’s a pretty good chance they and their families were the victims of Hutu oppression.
Some of those people sit in my classes every day, beside fellow students whose families partook in the killings. There may be some underlying tension, but you would never know it from my vantage point at the front of the class. They work together day in and day out. They gossip. They debate each other intellectually. They help each other with assignments.
There was a lot of that on the first day of my second-year Journalism Ethics class. As I’d done with my first-year class, I had them introduce themselves and share something with the class that nobody else would know about.
I’ve come to learn that Rwandan society is fairly secretive. People are pretty guarded, especially at first. It is, for example, almost impossible to know who is dating whom.
So when one student offered up, as his little tidbit, the name and faculty of his girlfriend (in addition to the fact that he is very much in love with her), the class roared.
Then launched into a series of similar romantic revelations.
Not to be outdone, the girl after him shared that all last year, she’d had a crush on a guy in class. (though kept everyone hanging by not revealing his identity). Two other guys offered up they were “naifs” – the term given to singles on campus – but were on the prowl. Another openly admitted his love for a female classmate who happened to not be in class that day. He added that she doesn’t know of his secret crush.
I’m guessing she will now.
I also learned a lot of nicknames that day. (Rwanda is, I have discovered, the land of nicknames.) There’s Jean Damascene, aka “Makoun” – named for a soccer player. He’s not to be confused with the other Jean Damascene, who goes by JDK. Then there’s Maurice -- “the Governor,” because he was president of his high school. Theoneste is “Texas” and Thierry, who does a sports show with him on Radio Salus, “Tigos.” Jean Paul is Masware, which means “questions” in Kiswahili. He asks a lot of them. The class president, Oswald, is Oswalki. The “ki” being short for “kiwi” – as in black kiwi leather polish, which is about the same color as his skin. Shami, meanwhile, is “old white man” because, his classmates told me, he’s like an old white man. Very civilized. Not exactly nicknames that would go over too well in our race-sensitive society.
The class is, in general, a lot less shy than my first-year class was when we first began. They attribute that to Melissa, who taught them radio production. As one student put it: Melissa broke them in, got them used to having a muzungu at the front of the class.
I think they also just happen to be a pretty talkative bunch. Thoughtful, too.
I had them read and critique the Rwanda Press Law for class this week and the discussion it generated was intense. I’d asked them to pull out what they thought was good and bad about the law.
They started with the negative.
Namely, the amount of control the government has over the media.
They saw a lot of contradictions in the law. It guarantees press freedom and prohibits censorship, they noted, yet contains a number of clauses that limit that limit journalistic freedom. For example, “contempt” of the President is forbidden, as are “verbal assaults” on any head of state or foreign diplomatic officials, and “defamation and abuse” of public authorities and forces there to ensure law and order.
Students noted that the definitions of those terms, as well as many others in the law, were open to interpretation, and could be easily used to punish the authors of unflattering reports.
The law guarantees access to information, but limits that access “where necessary” when it comes to legislative, judicial and executive documents. Some limiting considerations: national security and integrity and confidential government and judicial deliberations.
Also problematic in the eyes of the students and many journalists here: the role of the High Council of Press, which was created by the law to ensure press freedom and adherence to journalistic ethics, to license media outlets and recommend their suspension or closure. The council is supposed to be autonomous, but how can it be, students remarked, when it is attached to the President’s office.
Another article of the law guarantees that all journalists’ sources and notes are confidential, except when a court demands that they be released. And who do you think controls the courts? one student asked.
Some students argued that the government needed to have some control in a post-genocide era, to prevent abuses of the past – namely the use of the media by Hutu extremists to incite killings.
The law, passed in 2002, directly addresses such abuses, containing, for example, a provision making it an offence, punishable under the penal code, for the press to incite a crime. Everyone seemed to agree that was a good thing.
Other positives they pulled out: that authors must sign their names to articles, and that personal privacy of individuals is guaranteed except in cases where the information affects their public lives.
The class will get another chance to discuss the law and media ethics in general next week, when we head to Kigali, along with my first-year class, for a field trip to the High Council on the Press. I’ve organized a panel discussion there for them to ask questions of the council’s executive secretary as well as the editors of the pro-government New Times, an English language daily, and Umuseso, an independent Kinyarwanda paper known for riling authorities – and getting into some serious trouble.
It should be an eye-opening discussion – for both the students and me. Several Umuseso editors have been jailed or fled the country after publishing controversial stories. The current editor, Charles Kabonero, has had his share of problems, too. He was brought up on divisionism and defamation charges after the paper ran a story accusing the parliamentary vice president of abusing his influence – and plotting to seize power from President Kagame. Prosecutors were seeking a four-year prison sentence and hefty fine, but the courts ultimately acquitted Kabonero of the divisionism charge. He ended up escaping prison and paying a fine on the defamation charge.
The other panelist is David Gusongoirye of the New Times, who visited the campus this week to speak to students about working at the paper. He got some tough questions, especially about press freedom. He openly acknowledged the paper was pro-government, but said there was always room for independent journalism. He pointed to recent stories staff had done about suspicious government contracts and spending irregularities in several different ministries.
“Does that suggest we’re so muzzled?” he asked.
But when it comes to Kagame, he acknowledged, the paper had to be careful.
Running the wrong photo of the President, for example, can cause problems.
The discussion immediately brought to mind a recent incident in which the Sunday Times editor was fired after an unflattering picture of Kagame appeared on the front page.
Gusongoirye spent a lot of time addressing the paper’s leanings, but he really came to woo students into writing for him. The paper is expanding, he said. Not many of his staff are professionally trained, he added, and many can’t translate well from Kinyarwanda to English. He needs good people, good stories.
And he can pay.
Freelancers get a retainer plus 3,500 Rwf ($7) for articles under 400 words, 8,000 Rwf ($16) for articles of 800 words, and 15,000 Rwf ($30) for full-page features.
Staff writers get 250,000 Rwf ($500) a month, while editors can make 350,000 ($700) a month. Many of the people who are filling those editor jobs – jobs that should go to you, Gusongoirye told the students -- right now are from Uganda, Kenya and the U.S.
I’ve told my first year class that I’ll work with them to get their final stories for the class published, so I was happy to hear Gusongoirye was actively seeking submissions. I’m meeting next week with a handful of students whose stories really stood out to fill in any reporting gaps and polish the English. I’m hoping they can present them in person to editors when we go to Kigali.
They’ll get their chance when we visit the New Times and Umuseso newsrooms, which we’re scheduled to do before the panel discussion on media law and ethics. The second year students, meanwhile, will go with Lee, a CBC reporter from Newfoundland who is now teaching them television production, to tour the state-run TV Rwanda.
The trip will mark the end of my teaching stint at the National University of Rwanda. It’s been seven weeks, which seemed like an eternity before I got here.
Now, I just wish I had more time.
Still, I couldn’t ask for a better or more fitting ending.
We’ll probably leave several hours late, because the bus doesn’t have fuel, the driver hasn’t shown or some authorization hasn’t been signed.
But when the bus starts rolling, as it invariably does, I’ll be surrounded by all my students, probably listening to them singing songs in Kinyarwanda at the top of their lungs. Maybe even recognizing a few lyrics myself.
Really, I can think of a lot worse goodbyes.
September 10, 2007 — Murambi
It’s taken almost a full week to write this blog entry. Maybe it’s taken that long to absorb what I saw. It’s quite possible I never will.
They say that 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the genocide. Up to 50,000 of those people died on Murambi Hill, 30 km from Butare. They assembled at the school, cramming into its classrooms, thinking they would be safe there, amid the rolling hills.
Instead, they became a perfect target for mass slaughter. Hutu extremists attacked, lobbing grenades through windows and slicing machetes through limbs.
More than a thousand of the bodies that were later exhumed from mass graves have been preserved in lime and crammed back into the classrooms as a chilling reminder of what happened there.
It was, I was told, a memorial unlike any I’d ever visited.
One friend warned me it was so disturbing, I shouldn’t go alone.
I did, anyway.
I’d seen pictures. I really thought I’d seen the worst of it.
And the others at the house had either already been or were busy.
So I set out solo with Ephraim, my driver for the afternoon.
A heavy mist filled the air as we headed out on the road to Murambi, where hills rise up on both sides, their slopes covered with farmland that create a patchwork of red dirt and green, punctuated by tufts of trees. From a distance, it looks like a landscape out of a Dr. Seuss book. We passed by coffee plantations and tilapia ponds, potato crops and rice fields tended by prisoners in their hallmark faded pink jump suits. Genocide suspects and convicts paying their debt to society.
It was snapping a picture of prisoners on this very road a few weeks before that Melissa and Jill had run into trouble. After taking a shot, they – and Ephraim, their driver that day, too – were mobbed by members of the local defense force and scared senseless before finally allowed to go. Few people here, unless you know them really well, like to be caught on film and snapping a shot even of a crowd scene is likely to cause a major ruckus. But turning your lens on a prisoner or an official of any type is strictly off limits.
So we avoided the prisoners this time. But I did get plenty of other shots of the landscape because every once in a while, Ephraim, who dutifully tried to acquaint me with my surroundings using a combination of broken French and English, would slow down and ask: “Photo?”
While snapping a shot of Mount Huye (Butare recently had its name changed to Huye though everyone still seems to calls it Butare), two gap-toothed women wrapped in brightly patterned cloth approached Ephraim on the side of the road. It had started raining and they had a long way to walk home, they told him in Kinyarwanda. Could they, they wondered, get a lift?
I said I didn’t mind if Ephraim didn’t, and he didn’t, so they eased into the back seat. As we drove, Ephraim filled me in on their story. Their husbands were among the prisoners we’d seen working in the fields, and they had walked there to meet them for lunch. They weren’t kidding when they said they had a long walk home. One got out after about 4 miles. The other stayed with us for about 6 miles. After that, she still had far to go – high into the hills, she showed us with an outstretched arm.
We, meanwhile, were relatively close to our destination. We turned off onto a dirt road that led us through a small village and onto a one-lane road hugging a hill. Across the valley, in the distance, you could see Murambi hill and the low-lying buildings of the school through the mist.
It looked so peaceful. A far cry from the image that kept popping into my mind: smoking buildings teeming with screaming people. Blood everywhere.
Up close, the place is literally deserted, the quiet surrounding it broken only by the occasional farm animal. Ephraim had to call the guide/caretaker, Francis, who had gone into town and came rushing back on a moto with a set of keys to let us in.
Francis led us behind a newly renovated building that is supposed to one day soon become a full-fledged visitot-cum-genocide research and education center/conference facility. For now it sits relatively empty. Some days, nobody comes through here. Others, 20, Francis said. While I was there, a few locals were using the lobby space to keep dry while playing a game of igisoro, a wooden board game played with pebbles of sorts.
We went straight back to the school buildings, which, Francis said, were under construction when the masses assembled and the killings took place. Another man quietly joined us as Francis guided me and Ephraim past a small farm, smoke wafting up from a slow burn in the adjoining field, to a block of classrooms. The newcomer was tall and skinny and didn’t say much, with the exception his name, which I already knew because I’d read about him. His name was Emmanuel and he had a bullet hole in his temple that was hard to miss.
Like Francis, he lost much of his family here, too.
I asked Francis if it was hard, ushering people through the place where his relatives were killed, seeing these bodies day in and day out.
We must remember what happened, he said simply, so that it never happens again.
As it started to rain, Francis pushed open the first door and ushered me in. The room was mostly dark, its back windows sealed with some red semi-translucent material that gave off an eery glow. A small open window above the door provides the only source of fresh air. The stench was stomach-churning. A mixture of death and lime left to fester in a bottle.
You can take photos, Francis offered. And even though it seemed wrong, I pulled out my camera to document my visit. Like others I’d seen before, though, the photos I took couldn’t capture the scene.
Half-skeleton, half-body, the dead lay jumbled together on raised wooden slats, limbs intertwined as if they were clinging to each other. Some still had clothes, worn and crusted, hanging off them. Many were flattened – crushed, Francis said, by others layered overtop them in mass graves.
He closed the door and unlocked the one next door. More petrified bodies, petrified looks plastered on their faces.
The next room was the same.
As Francis swung open the door after that, he said simply: “the children.”
Then he started pointing: a slash mark on a small skull (“Ma-chette”), a cut to the heel to prevent its owner from running away (“ma-chette”), a hole blasted in a tiny rib cage (“grenade.”)
After five rooms, I’d seen enough.
It was pouring outside by the time we left the classroom block and made our way to the last stop: what might have been built as a cafeteria or assembly room but now has become a warehouse for the clothes of the dead. Pants and shirts are heaped over a line hanging in the middle of the room and stacked on shelves against the wall.
I couldn’t feel anything, except the stench from the classrooms still lingering in my lungs. I just wanted to go.
We ran through the downpour to the empty visitor center where Francis pulled out the guest book for me to sign.
I looked at what the person ahead of me had written.
It sounded so trite. So inappropriate.
But then I realized there really were no right words for this.
Which is what I wrote, next to: “I’m numb.”
The numbness stayed with me as we ran out into the rain again, as Emmanuel and Francis ran behind the car, pushing it because it wouldn’t start, as I sat in the front seat trying to take notes about what I had seen. I finally dropped my pen and stared out the window in silence at the rain.
I fell asleep staring, and slept the rest of the way home.
September 7, 2007 — Rwanda-cize!
Ever since Shelley told us there was an aerobics class in town, Jill and I have been dying to check it out. You see plenty of people exercising here, walking and carrying heavy loads. But you don’t see much exercising for the sake of athleticism or vanity — a few men out running at dusk from time to time, but that’s about it — and I, for one, was curious to see what was happening out of plain view. Plus, who couldn’t use a good workout?
So after weeks after talking about it, Jill and I got off our tushes and went.
I can’t believe we waited this long.
It was, we decided afterward, one of the best experiences we’ve had here. Even though it has left parts of my body screaming that I didn’t even know had a voice.
Shelley had told us it would be tough (that and that we’d probably be the only muzungus in sight) but I don’t think Jill or I knew exactly what lay ahead as we set out Monday night with instructions to look for the place between Iris bakery and Aux Delices Eternelles restaurant on Butare’s main street. When we got there, there was no sign, just an alley that we decided to give a shot because, while it didn’t really seem like there could be a gym back there, there was really no other direction to go.
A man in shorts ahead gave us hope that we were on the right path.
“Gymtonic?” Jill ventured.
He nodded, and led the way into a non-descript building at the end of the alley that opened into a large, dimly lit room with a painted cement floor and a smell strongly reminiscent of Tiger Balm. Overhead, a fluorescent light on its last legs flickered from the peaked ceiling. Around us, paint curled away from walls that might once have been white. Directly across from us was a man, his bottom half draped in a green cloth and top half glistening with sweat, lounging on what looked like bleachers on the far wall. He sat beside a cabin of sorts with a door fashioned out of similar green material and a sign, laser-printed on a piece of white 8 ½ by 11, that read: “Massage.”
On the wall to his left, four other closed doors lead to who knows what. Somewhere in between them sat a large ghetto blaster next to a TV silently broadcasting a motorbike race.
Hmmmm. This could be very interesting, indeed.
Jill and I coughed up our $2 and waited for class to begin as more people – men, mostly –trickled in.
Shania Twain’s voice on the boombox finally signaled it was time to start. As the only two muzungus (Shelley was right) and a full quarter of the women in the crowd of about 30, we stuck out, but we did our best to blend in. And keep up.
It wasn’t easy.
After walking, then skipping and hopping in a circle, we broke into two groups and lined up against opposite walls. Then everybody started marching, hard, toward the opposite wall – and each other.
There wasn’t room for this, I realized. It was a collision waiting to happen.
Several collisions did happen, most of them involving me (I don’t know about Jill because I pretty much lost sight of her in the chaos that ensued). It turns out the exercise involved marching back and forth across the room endlessly, and that involves a lot of oncoming traffic. There was cross traffic, too, as several other glistening bodies, green cloth hanging precariously low from the waist, emerged from Door Number One (a sauna!) and sauntered through the marching masses to the bleachers on the other side of the room. There, they could cool off. And watch the show.
Everyone else seemed to navigate each other quite nicely, expertly weaving at the last minute to avoid an accident. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. A very sweaty deer.
The steam from the sauna probably didn’t help.
We were only 10 minutes in.
80 more to go.
I checked the clock on the wall compulsively as we jumped our way through some techno, African beats, more country and a little bit of Cher, who drew great whoops from the crowd. A few men spontaneously entered into a high-powered game of pattycakes with each other, slapping hands high in the air as they kicked their legs to the music.
Their energy was boundless, mine plummeting by the minute.
I was sopping wet and dogging it by the time we hit the mats, which, it turns out, do not provide much cushion against concrete.
They do, however, provide a good vantage point from which to see the crowd of spectators that you hadn’t noticed gathering outside the window.
We finished the class watched from both sides (the bleachers were, by the end, half filled with half-clothed bodies).
By the end, we were drenched and exhausted and our tailbones were in for a rude awakening the next day.
But we left Gymtonic feeling exhilarated. We hadn’t had so much fun exercising in long time.
By the time we’d hit the door, we had already decided we’re going back Monday.
September 3, 2007 — Jennifer Lopez-Moroz
I’m taking a break from marking right now. We’re into the final week of class, and will be spending most of it working on the final assignment, an original news story. Meanwhile, I have 24 tests to correct, plus another 23 assignments that came in on Friday, not to mention more prep work to do for my next course, which starts right after this one finishes.
What better time to document some random thoughts on life in Rwanda?
First up: my Kinyarwanda is progressing nicely. My repertoire now includes “crazy” and “you’re drunk” and “I speak Kinyarwanda badly.” And in what can only be considered a major breakthrough, I have had my first actual interaction in the language. By interaction, I mean someone saying “how are you?” and me replying, with less than two minutes of lag time: “I’m fine.” I got a lot of practice the other day at the market, where it seemed like the vendors got a real kick out of testing the muzungu’s newly acquired language skilal. After overhearing one “how are you?”-“I’m fine” conversation, the vendor at the next stall down would inevitably ask “how are you?” and chuckle when I replied: “I’m fine.” Repeat about 40 times – and add the purchase of a nice piece of fabric and one stolen cell phone (snatched, probably, while someone distracted me by asking me how I was) – and you’ve got my afternoon at the market.
Another fun conversation is the one I typically have when I introduce myself.
“Jennifa?” they’ll say.
“Like Jennifa Lopez?”
I wish, I think, before saying “yes, just like Jennifer Lopez.”
I was one of five Jennifers in my graduating class of 50. It was a popular name in Canada in 1974.
Here, it’s rare. One student told me you just don’t find Jennifers in Rwanda who are under the age of 15. But if the apparent popularity of Ms. Lopez is any indication, I think a whole new generation of Jennifers could be on its way.
(By that same logic, there could soon be a whole lot of Kennys running around here soon, too … we have discovered that Kenny Rogers, for whatever reason, has a pretty big fan base here. Go figure)
A few other things I’ve learned in the past few weeks:
1) when dismounting from a moto, swing your leg wide or risk getting a tumourous burn on your calf from the exhaust. That, or just get off on the left side, as Shelly pointed after several clumsy descents that involved leaning heavily on my poor moto driver.
2) if you want a beer, don’t head for a saloon, because that’s where you get your hair cut.
3) if you want to make the name of your business sound better, just add “new” to the beginning of it. (ex: “New Sombrero Club,” or more to the point, “New Restaurant.”)
Another rule: no street eating. It’s amazing how much less snacking I do here as a result. You rarely even see food outside. If it’s not on a restaurant patio, it’s typically covered up. In bags that are not plastic.
That’s because plastic shopping bags are banned here. True fact. They’re bad for the environment so they’re out. You’ll see some smaller plastic bags here and there (think sandwich baggies) but when you’re taking something out of a store, paper is your only option. It’s pretty serious business. If you’re carrying plastic bags when you arrive at the airport, you won’t have them when you leave it.
There are, happily, plenty of other ways to carry things here. Dead chickens can be dangled from the racks on the back of bikes, which are also sometimes fitted with padded seats for those on the lookout for a much slower-moving version of a moto. And I’ve realized that most anything can fit on a head: jumbles of canary yellow plastic containers reminiscent of large vegetable oil dispensers, tied together and filled with liquids of all types; giant bunches of green bananas and sacks of rice and baskets of potatoes; cloth sacks and backpacks (a ridiculous number of which carry L.A. Kings logos) whose straps get little use here. One guy we passed on the way to work the other day was precariously balancing a pyramid of chairs on his head, maybe a dozen of them, probably more. He even had a smile on his face. Impressive stuff.
Children are also part of the balancing act. It’s not uncommon to see women, heads full, also toting infants and toddlers on their backs, expertly swaddled with a blanket or piece of material tied at the front. It’s amazing to me that the tykes don’t ever fall. If the tying were left to me, I’m fairly certain there would be a lot of crying kids on the ground.
Also a common sight as you walk down the street: men holding hands or draping their arms easily around each others’ shoulders in conversation. There is never a thought that any of them might be gay because depending on who you ask, homosexuality either doesn’t exist or Rwanda isn’t ready for it to exist.
Then there are the phone people, whose numbers increase exponentially at bus and moto stops. There are the ones who hawk phone cards, for those who prefer to use their own phones. Then there are the people who walk around with what look like multi-line office phones, only with no office wall to plug into. You place your call right there on the street, as the attendant stands by, and pay for the time you use. Rwanda’s version of a telephone booth – without the privacy of a booth.
The phone culture, in general, is pretty fascinating. Text messaging isn’t just for teens here, and you soon find out why. Actually talking means burning through those phone cards pretty quickly. So you:
A) Text (much cheaper).
B) Talk very quickly (I marvel at how fast my students can get through a conversation).
C) ‘Beep’ the person you need to talk to. For those who are not in the know, that means calling and hanging up immediately, then expecting the beepee to call back and pick up the tab.
The cost of talking makes reporting, particularly on deadline, a bit of a challenge. This is especially true for students who are chronically short on cash and phone credits. If an interview can’t be done in person, it probably won’t get done, period. Which turns writing a story about anything having to do with government (120 km away in Kigali) a very tricky proposition.
If only you could beep the Ministry of Education ….
September 1, 2007 — Lessons in patience
Things here typically happen at a much slower pace than at home. Getting anything done that involves a computer is a perfect example.
For one, I’ve learned that there is no high-speed Internet, or if there is, I haven’t found it yet. At first, you may think that the 400 Rwandan francs (less than $1 USD) they charge per hour at the Cyber Café in town is a good deal. But then you find out how long it takes to load a page, send an e-mail, or, heaven forbid, try to upload a photo. A few hours and sometimes a power outage later, you leave the terminal frustrated, having accomplished half what you wanted to.
Needless to say, I’ve had to check my North American concept of time at the door.
It’s not often you see anyone rushing anywhere here. I know now that if a class is at 8, it typically means 8:30 or 9 (or in the case of a few of my students yesterday, 10:15). I know not to expect meetings to start on time. And I know what it will take to make a class handout, so to always to plan ahead.
It goes something like this:
Type the handout, but not on your laptop, because you’ll have to use a jump drive to store the file and transfer it to another computer, and that other computer may have a virus. So you type your material at the cyber café (see above) or at the computer lab at school. Or you do type the handout on your laptop and take the laptop to school to hook up in the lab and transfer it to a jump drive there. But the lab is only open from 8 to noon and 2 to 5 (it closes from noon to 2 for lunch, like many things here), and typically you’re teaching one of those two time slots. So getting into the lab means making a second round-trip to school each day – a 40 minute walk or 10 minute taxi each way.
When you finally get your handout onto a jump drive, you take it to the office, where one person will print it out – unless it’s lunch, before 8 or after 5, or Wednesday anytime up until 2. (Everything in Butare is closed Wednesdays until 2. That’s Gacaca day – the day that the grassroots courts system hears the cases of the thousands of genocide suspects still overflowing the prison system 13 years after the massacres.)
Once you get the handout printed, it goes to an adjacent office to get photocopied. But paper is expensive and typically scarce, so if you forget to bring some, you might have to come back later to complete the task you set out hours – sometimes days – before to accomplish.
The process reminds me of an exercise we did before coming here in a weekend course on intercultural effectiveness. Our instructor, Kelly, asked us to write our names five times with our left hand. It was a frustrating five minute undertaking and a lesson in how simple things can suddenly become a lot more difficult in a different culture with a different language.
I’m happy to report that I’m becoming more ambidextrous with each passing day.
August 31, 2007 — My class
I’ve been teaching for two weeks now, and by the end of next week, the course I’m teaching, basic news writing for first years, will be over. I can hardly believe it. The teaching timetable here is not only last-minute — you often don’t know until Friday afternoon, sometimes even Monday morning, what your schedule will look like for the next week – but three or four weeks of intensive classes, and the course is done. Before I know it, I’ll be moving on to second year Journalism Ethics with a whole new crew. Meanwhile, I feel like I’m just really getting to know this one.
They’re a varied bunch. Many have grown up or lived in different countries, their families at one point driven from Rwanda during the genocide and years of ethnic conflict leading up to it. Nearly all have been affected in some way by the countrywide killing spree. Some even cited the genocide and the media’s role in it (fanning the flames of hate internally) as a reason for going into journalism. They want to be watchdogs, they say — prevent anything like that from ever happening again. Several want to stay in Rwanda, others hope to become international correspondents. A few are already working in journalism, mostly for Radio Salus, the fast-growing and very popular student radio station here (the “impediment” one student cited as a reason for not coming to class one day, it turns out, was a show he had to do).
Several admitted the first day they don’t want to be journalists at all. One chose to study it because the school doesn’t have an arts program, so she chose the next best – most creative -- thing on offer. Another wants to be a soldier, another a musician. And a fourth went into journalism because his father always wanted to be one, so he’s living the dream for him.
All of them are really starting to grow on me. And slowly, they’re opening up to me.
At first, they were really shy. Getting them to answer a question or participate in a simple show of hands was like pulling teeth. Knowing Kinyarwanda was a first language for most of them, I asked on the first day of class how many students spoke English as a second language. One or two hands went up, timidly. How about French? I asked. Same response. The numbers certainly didn’t add up. There are 24 students in my class.
Fast forward to this week, when I asked the same question again to a few students gathered outside before class. This time, I got my answer. Two students, they told me, could manage well in English. The rest, French.
I’d already been speaking French in class, but needless to say, I’ve stepped it up since then. It’s not always pretty – eight years working in the U.S. takes its toll on one’s French vocabulary – but it’s been good practice for me, and helpful and sometimes entertaining for them. (“Guys, anyone know how to say ‘mudslide’ en francais?”) When I asked whether they wanted the option to write their final assignment – an original news story – in French, their eyes lit up.
I’ve even busted out some of my crusty Kinyarwanda on them. “Mumveh” (listen) and “Memcekeke” (don’t ask me how it’s spelled but it means “be quiet”) are some of my favourite new words, and my use of them invariably invites a twitter of laughter, but seems to get their attention. They also shut each other up quite nicely, I’ve found. One of them tells the others to shush, and they do. Students who do that at home, meanwhile, are labeled keeners.
There’s still a language barrier, but it’s getting better. And there’s still some shyness on the part of students, especially the women, but it’s waning.
In the beginning, they almost always nodded when I asked if they got what I was saying, and then turned in assignments that make it abundantly clear that many didn’t. But more and more, they’re speaking up when they don’t understand something. And more and more, they’re actually picking up what I’m teaching them.
After one lesson on writing story leads, during which I had emphasized the importance of writing in the active tense wherever possible, one student approached me holding a handout I’d given the class. He pointed to one example of a lead I’d written and asked: “Isn’t this in the passive tense? Shouldn’t it be active?”
Hmmm. Why yes, yes it should, I said.
He smiled. Nothing like busting the prof.
I smiled, too. Never felt so good to get showed up.
Not all moments are like that, though.
After hammering home that it’s a journalistic no-no and can lead to a failing grade, a couple of students have continued to make up quotes and information during class exercises. And trying to get them to write a story that puts the news first has been, well, trying. It doesn’t help that this is the end of their first year (the academic year ends in October) and they’re just now learning the basics of news writing. At least they’re learning it in their first year at all, I guess. My colleagues who are teaching second and third year courses are still hammering the same basics home to their classes.
Meanwhile, when it comes to other things, namely coming up with story ideas, the students almost universally shine. They have GREAT story ideas. Far better than I remember having in journalism school, and far better than you’d find in a lot of newsrooms. One student is doing his final story about what it’s like to be single on a campus where being part of a couple is, apparently, a social imperative. I’ll give you a hint: it’s much like being unmarried at 33. You’re a freak.
A lot of the ideas they’ve floated in class have given me much better insight into their lives. For example, university students each get paid 25,000 Rwandan francs (about $50 USD) a month by the government, a big incentive to stay in school. Without it, many of them wouldn’t be able to carry on their studies -- that or they’d miss more classes than they already do to go to work. I also learned that overcrowding on campus is a big problem, as evidenced by the fact that they sleep two to a single bed in the dorms.
It’s clear that some of the students really want to do well, and get ahead. One pulled me aside one day and pointed to a story posted on a school bulletin board. It was an article written by a second-year student that had been published in the New Times, the English language daily in Kigali. Could I help him, he wondered, get a story published like that? Maybe, he ventured, I could even lend him a digital camera so he could have a picture with it?
I told him and the rest of the class that if they came up with a really strong story idea and wanted to get it published, I’d work with them to try to get it in a local paper.
At least one student, though, is thinking a little bigger. As we walked through campus the other day, he asked whether I might be able to help him get a story in a big American paper. Did I think, he ventured, that my editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer might be interested?
I didn’t say no. What I did say was that maybe we should concentrate on coming up with a good local story idea and nailing a lead first.
Our class discussion a few days later probably just fueled the fascination with American journalism. We were talking about journalism ethics, and I was going over some basic principles. North American principles, that is. One of those principles being that reporters shouldn’t take money or gifts from the people they’re covering so as to avoid even an appearance that they are beholden to anyone. Here in Rwanda, meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for journalists to be provided transportation to cover events by the people hosting said events. And they are given money to cover press conferences.
That got us into a discussion about how much journalists in Rwanda make, and my students were agog when they asked me – and I told them – how it compared to the U.S. I told them that reporters in North America can get paid anywhere between $17,000 a year (entry level at a small paper) to $100,000-plus a year (senior reporters at large newspapers). The $17,000 figure alone made eyes pop. That’s roughly 8.5 million francs. Starting journalists in Rwanda can make as little as 300,000 Rwf a year, they said. (Having said that, students who work at Radio Salus get 45,000 Rwf a month … almost double that)
During the same ethics discussion, we talked about journalists avoiding writing stories to which they have a personal connection. One student asked what a reporter should do if he couldn’t avoid having to interview a friend or family member. He cited a recent radio show on which one of the panel guests was the moderator’s brother. What should the moderator do? the student asked. Well, I said, he could, at the very least, reveal the relationship to his audience. Or he could step aside as moderator for one day and get someone else to fill in.
Option C, of course, is “none of the above.”
Which is apparently what the moderator did.
Another reminder that the journalism here and the journalism I’m here to teach are still worlds apart.
August 28, 2007 — Rwandan rollercoaster ride
Where to start? Sometimes things happen so slowly here and others, so much seems to happen at once. It’s been just five days since I’ve last written and I could write a novel.
We went to Kigali again this weekend, on our way to National Volcano Park to see the mountain gorillas. Jill and Melissa had already been to the genocide memorial museum at Gisozi in Kigali, but I hadn’t, so ventured off on my own to find it. It was too far to walk, so I decided on a moto, which I’ve taken several times before to get around. No problem, I thought. It never occurred to me that the other times I’ve jumped on the back of a bike, it was either in Butare, where it’s mostly flat, or for just a short ride in Kigali, where it becomes more apparent why they call this country the land of a thousand hills. This time, I had to go pretty far. And let me tell you, it was a pretty freaky experience. I’m not a wuss by any stretch. I’ve bungee-jumped, after all. But when those bikes go flying down those hills, you just hold on tight and pray. And if you’re me, you close your eyes, too. That way, you don’t see it when your driver decides that it would be a good time to pass the truck in front of you when another big truck is coming in the opposite direction. While barreling down aforementioned hill. Even the helmet they give you (yes, Mom, I was wearing a helmet) isn’t much comfort in times like that.
I survived to take two more moto trips that day, and consider myself a veritable pro now. I even kept my eyes open the last time (well, maybe there were a few winces here and there….)
The rollercoaster ended at Gisozi. There, I was in for a completely different ride. The museum, a modern white building perched on one of those thousand hills, officially opened in 2004 and documents the horrors of the genocide that took place here 13 years ago. I’ve done a lot of research on the subject, but it apparently hadn’t hardened me for this. It was still tough to read about the hundreds of thousands of Tutsis who were macheted, burned and shot to death just because of who they were, and the moderate Hutus who were similarly killed because they wouldn’t go along with the genocidaires’ plans. About neighbours who turned on each other and parents who were forced to kill their own children. About the tens of thousands who ran to churches, tricked into believing they would be safe there. How could they know that many church officials were complicit and would offer them up, en masse, to the Hutu-led Interahamwe?
Behind glass windows were hundreds of smashed skulls and bones – the remains of the victims. Nearby, there were some of the clothes they were wearing when they were exhumed from mass graves. Among the still blood-stained garments: an Ottawa t-shirt with a heart in the “O” and a Cornell University sweatshirt.
I managed to keep it together until the end. The children did me in. The museum had a room devoted to the ones killed during the genocide. There was a picture of each, usually smiling. Then below:
Favourite food: chips with mayo.
Last words: “Mum, where can I run to?”
Favourite sport: football
Clever at School
Killed by machete at Nyamata Church
Wanted to be a doctor
Last words: “UNAMIR will come for us.”
Tortured to death.
Loved cake and milk, singing and dancing
Stabbed in her eyes and head.
Loved to play hide and seek with her big brother
Burnt alive at the Gikondo Chapel.
Favourite Toy: her doll.
Smashed against a wall.
Try keeping it together after that.
The fear/exhilaration I felt on the moto ride home was actually welcome. It’s hard to cry, it turns out, when your heart is going a thousand beats a minute.
On Sunday, it was yet another adventure. Time to see the gorillas. It’s been on the top of my list of things to do while in Rwanda — something those who had done it before me said could not be missed. An experience of a lifetime, they called it.
Melissa wasn’t so sure. The cost was pretty steep — $500 USD (locals get a much cheaper rate). And there was no guarantee of seeing a gorilla, though we’d been told that not having a sighting was rare. Jill and I convinced Melissa that it was worth it and hoped we were right.
Oh, we were.
But I won’t lie: there were some downsides to the experience, including the 3:30 a.m. wake up.
The park is a good 2.5 hour drive from Kigali, and we had to be there by 7 a.m., so we were up well before the sun. Not exactly Moroz primetime, but I managed. The driver we’d hired for the day, Alphonse, picked us up at 4 a.m. and we were on our way. I figured the roads would be empty at that hour, and they were, for the most part. But the sides of the roads! As we wound our way up toward the mountains, a steady stream of people were making their way toward Kigali, carrying large loads of bananas, potatoes, and wood on their heads. They’re headed for the market in Kigali, Alphonse informed us, and many start walking at 1 a.m. If they get to town ahead of schedule, they stop and rest at the city limits and wait until it’s time for the market to open.
And I thought 3:30 was bad.
A few hours of unbelievably bumpy roads later, we arrived at the park, and gathered with the rest of the tourists in the shadow of the volcanoes that gave the park its name. Alphonse pulled some strings and made sure we got in the group headed to see the Susa group — the second largest group of mountain gorillas in the world, with 37 gorillas, and the one studied by Dian Fossey. We’d all read that the hike up to see the Susa group was pretty harsh, but worth it. So we were happy to learn that we would be among the eight (max) the park allows to see each group at a time. Our guide, Diogene, confirmed that we and the five other Americans in our group had made the right decision. “We’re going to visit the Susa group,” he said, greeting us. “The best group.”
It may be the best group, but the guidebook was right when it said getting to it was exactly a cakewalk. We had to drive another hour along the bumpiest road I may ever have experienced. With Alphonse’s mixed tapes blaring in the background (think Kung Fu Fighting and Wham), we literally and figuratively rocked our way through small farming communities. It was almost as if all the local kids got ready for the muzungus who came through every day to see the gorillas. They literally lined the roadway, waving and shouting, some giving thumbs up signs, others asking for money or empty plastic bottles (to refill themselves).
>From where we parked, in the middle of farmland, it would take two hours to get to the gorillas, Diogene (“D”) said. Three rifle-toting soldiers would accompany us – one ahead and two behind. Asked, as we made our way up to the edge of the bamboo forest, what exactly the soldiers were there for, D said “protection from buffalo.”
Um, anything else? I ventured.
Well, he said pointing to the mountain top, after that, it’s Congo. And some people there don’t like Rwanda.
Good to know. Always good to know when you’re THIS CLOSE to rebel territory.
D, in fact, was full of comforting news. As we made our way through the towering bamboo (I’ll never look at the puny stuff they sell at Ikea the same), D used his machete to cut down stalks then planted them across certain paths. Asked what he was doing, he said some guides didn’t know the territory too well and he wanted to make sure they didn’t go the wrong way.
I had to ask: have any guides ever been lost?
Oh, yes, D said. And some park employees have died of starvation and thirst. And oh, did he mention that a few tourists have fallen, too? Those are in addition to the ones who can’t quite cut the hike and have to be carried back down by trackers.
Meanwhile, we were climbing a fairly steep incline through thick bamboo and stinging nettles, often forced to crouch low to ease ourselves and our backpacks (why did I have to bring a backpack?) under fallen stalks. Sweaty business, indeed.
On one of our breaks, D busted out with another gem. When we get to the gorillas, he said, just beware that the bulls charge.
“But don’t panic,” he added nonchalantly. “If you run, you’ll give them confidence to run after you.”
If it happens, D said, he’ll take care of it, tell us what to do.
(Another subject D brought up during a break: Rwandan sexual customs. The best part — other than the fact that our gorilla guide was explaining human sexual rituals to us — was that he spoke in French and made Melissa translate all the details for the rest of the group.)
After about an hour of climbing, D got a radio dispatch from the trackers ahead of us. The gorillas were moving down the mountain. They were just outside the first bamboo forest, the one we’re in right now.
Gorilla turds started appearing in our path — then on the bottom of my foot. Proof that we were getting close.
We emerged into a clearing and there stood three men, including Antoine, the tracker who had been radioing D with the 411 on the gorillas’ whereabouts. We were super close now. Time to drop our bags, taking just what we needed from them: passport, wallet, camera, and in my case, notebook. Time for action.
We walked into a small grove of trees and all of a sudden, there he was. Kurira. The big cahuna. The leader of the pack. A giant silverback who was, at that moment, lounging in the shade, his chin resting on his hand (paw?) as if in deep thought. So human looking. Once I got over the shock of being THIS CLOSE to a mountain gorilla, I was able to focus on my surroundings. And when I did, there were gorillas everywhere. One small guy was playing in a tree, until he came crashing down with the branch he broke. Near Kurira, Ruvumu sat with her baby. More lounged and played off to the side. We were literally surrounded.
Get closer, urged Antoine. Closer? I thought. Are you kidding me? Apparently not. He grabbed my camera and nudged me toward Kurira. Face me, Antoine said. He wanted to get a pic of me with the silverback.
At this point, I was just a few feet away from this hulking animal, my back toward him, posing for a picture. Slightly absurd in retrospect. I never even got the photo. That’s because this is the point at which our friend Kurira decided to do a bit of charging. In my direction. I heard a great rustle of leaves, and what I find out later was chest beating, and all of a sudden Antoine was pulling me away and D was making his gorilla whisperer noises, which aren’t much of a whisper at all, but rather a throaty, prehistoric-sounding yell:
“Maaaa-mu! Ye-aeeee. Maaaaa-am!””
Don’t panic, I reminded myself. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.
Yeah, right. You try not panicking when a furry ton of bricks is coming at you.
At least I didn’t run. I let Antoine pull me to safety. And lived to tell the tale.
It turned out Kurira was more interested in sun and celery than he was in me. He led the group out to a sloped clearing, where they fanned out and started snacking, sunning, frolicking and nursing in the long grass. They remained pretty much oblivious to us the whole time, just occasionally turning to give us a curious look. We got used to them quickly, too. Antoine and D continued to push me toward them to take pictures (they seemed to take a liking to me for some reason) and by the end of our time, I didn’t even wince when there was a surge of testosterone and one of them charged or got into a scuffle with another male gorilla.
The gorillas are clearly accustomed to humans (and having them within just a few feet) and it really makes you wonder about how healthy this is for the animals. It certainly is healthy for the Rwandan government… last year, more than 12,700 people came through the park, most of those to see the gorillas (you can also see monkeys, or visit Dian Fossey’s grave for $50) and most of those non-residents who pay big money to see said gorillas.
What the park does do to attempt to protect the gorillas from us is to limit each group’s time with them to an hour. And our hour was soon up.
“It’s time to leave the gorillas,” D announced. “Leave them to make babies and their natural habitat.”
The trackers would stay behind, he said, watch over the gorillas (and more specifically, watch out for poachers) until 6 p.m., when the gorillas would make their nests and retire for the day.
For the rest of us humans, the adventure was over.
It was an expensive one, to be sure. $8.30 a minute, to be exact — $2.08 a minute, if you include all the hiking.
But it was worth it.
It was an experience of a lifetime, after all.
Even Melissa, the skeptic, agreed.
August 23, 2007 — Getting schooled
Will wonders never cease? It’s stopped raining. In fact, it's been brilliantly sunny every day. I’ve learned my students’ names by heart already. And they’re all coming to class! Not only did 18 of 24 show up for our first day Monday … they voluntarily stayed late. During the class, I had them introduce themselves and share something interesting or unusual about themselves that no one would know about them in preparation for writing mini profiles of each other. At the end, I told them they could go a bit early, thinking that, like most university students, they’d jump at the chance. But they lingered in their seats, all of them. Something was going on that I wasn’t party to. Jean Damascene, aka “Philos,” the class president, finally fills me in. What about you? We want to know more about you, too.
You want to interview me? I say. They all nod. Well, I think, who am I to quash such journalistic enterprise?
I figured they’d want to know more about my journalism career, maybe my childhood. Oh, no. They get right down to the nitty gritty:
How old are you?
Are you married?
(Unspoken question: What’s wrong with you?)
What one girl in the front row blurts out instead, in a slightly astonished voice: Why?
Being this old and unmarried as a woman is pretty unheard of here (the word "spinster" has been used), so I explained that it’s a little more commonplace where I come from, before turning it into an upbeat lesson on how not to inject your personal bias or opinion into an interview. Lesson one complete.
The next day, more students came — and showed up early. As I made my way to class, I got a text message — the preferred way of communicating here — from Philos saying “Miss, where are you? We’re waiting for you.”
(Other text messages include ones like this one received the other day: “Miss, I can't come to class today due to an impedement. Thank you for your good comprehension.")
I’ve taught every day this week, 8 to noon, and we’ve crammed a whole lot in: What is news? Where to find story ideas. How to find a focus. Write a lead. Structure a basic news story.
English is a second or third language for many of the students, so making sure they get the point of each lesson has been a struggle. I’ve been using my French a lot and more than a few wild hand gestures. I’m sure they must think I’m slightly crazy sometimes, come to think of it. But hey, they’re still coming to class. We hit an all-time attendance high today, in fact: 22 out of 24. Well, until seven disappeared after the break.
Guess you can’t win ‘em all …
Meanwhile, I got roped into buying my first “ancient” artifacts. This guy Joseph and his buddy approached me on my first day here and asked whether I knew “Sherry” (everyone here knows Shelley, the Rwanda Initiative's on-the-ground coordinator, and everyone here pronounces r’s as l’s and vice versa) before asking what day he could come over to the house to show me his wares. I didn’t want to commit to anything and so I said I was new here, didn’t know my schedule, etc … I thought I had successfully ducked him until Monday after school, when a guy sidled up beside me on the street and said "‘remember me?"
Did I? I thought, then ventured: “Joseph?”
He nodded. Remember, he said, when you said we would arrange a time for me to drop by? There was no getting rid of him this time, so I agreed to check out his stuff by the side of the road. There was nothing I wanted, but he was insistent, so I picked out the smallest (and presumably cheapest) pieces he had — two small candlesticks (antique, from Congo, he asserted) — and asked how much. 40,000 francs (80 bucks), he said. Now I don’ know much about ancient Congolese art, but I know enough to know that these little bits of je ne sais quoi were maybe Congolese, but definitely not ancient. I offered 10,000, and after arguing a bit, he took it. And probably laughed inwardly at what a sucker I was.
There was more suckering to come. After getting absorbed into a hand-holding chain of small children (the one on the end thought it would be great fun to grab the muzungu’s hand and if the hoots of laughter were any indication, his friends apparently agreed), I finally made my way home, eager to eat lunch. But a man stood between me and my food. He was standing outside the house waiting to tell me he had the small masks I’d wanted him to bring. I was confused.
Who said I wanted any masks?
This had to be Joseph’s friend, I figured, before telling him I didn’t want any more stuff; I just bought some stuff from Joseph.
To which he responds:
To which I respond: Did you change your shirt?
To which he responds: No.
I was so tired and frustrated and confused by that point that I paid 5,000 francs to make it all stop. i.e., I bought a mask.
I think I probably got ripped off. I asked Jean, the cook/housekeeper at the house, because he’s a local and would know. He swears I got an okay deal. I kind of I think he’s just trying to male me feel better.
All I know for sure is that someone is getting candlesticks and a mask for Christmas.
August 19, 2007— Six hours ahead and a world away (except for the Diet Coke)
It’s supposed to be dry season here but I’m beginning to have some serious doubts.
It’s my fifth day in Rwanda and so far, it’s rained every day. Hard.
Yet the Rwandans I’ve pressed on the issue insist the wet season doesn’t start until mid-September. “It’s dry season,” one promised as we stood under an awning waiting out the downpour the other day. “This is a surprise to us.”
The place has been full of surprises so far. For one, it’s not always so hot here. It can be, but it can also get downright chilly at night and on more than one occasion, I’ve wished I’d packed a little differently.
Something else I didn’t expect: Tthere’s Diet Coke in Butare! For those of you who know me, or even have just a passing knowledge of my daily habits, you’ll know this is huge. I’m a certifiable addict. Upon flying into in Kigali Wednesday, I was told to stock up there because I wouldn’t get it anywhere else. Then just the other day, I ran into my fellow Rwanda Initiave-er and housemate Melissa coming out of Matar, the local supermarket in Butare, with a big grin on her face. “They have Diet Coke!” The guys who own the place are Lebanese and apparently import the stuff from UAE, which is why it costs an arm and a leg. 800 Rwandan francs. A little more than $1.50 a can. You can get a goat brochette meal for that here. My addiction is taking a bit of a hit as a result. Probably a good thing, but it sure is nice to know a can of pure joy is just around the corner if I’m ever in a pinch.
My joy over access to Diet Coke aside, I am – I promise – really trying to learn local custom and to settle into life here. That includes getting used to regularly being called “muzungu” – white pserson. I’ll admit it’s a bit weird, coming from a culture where singling people out based on their race is sensitive stuff. Here, ‘muzungu’ is thrown about with ease. It’s the first word I learned in Kinyarwanda. Others I’ve been practicing madly – mwaramutse (good morning) and mwiriwe (good afternoon and good evening). Sometimes, I get a ‘bonjour’ or ‘bonsoir’ on the street from people – often small kids — who know probably as many words in French as I do in Kinyarwanda. It’s kind of sweet – except when it’s followed by “Donne moi de l’argent.” I’m the one in their country and they’re going out of their way to greet me in my language. Which isn’t really my language at all, but I daresay it’s been fun really using my French for the first time in years. While a lot of people here don’t speak it, a lot do, which makes getting around a lot easier because I’ve found few people who speak English.
Having said that, I’m set on learning as much Kinyarwanda as I can while here because in a lot of cases, the French just doesn’t cut it. Case in point: My first day in Butare, I decided to go for a run to get my bearings. It’s really not all that hard in Butare, which is a small city, with one main road. So the run started off well. I didn’t even have a pack of children chasing after me as I’d been warned might happen, though I did get more than a few amused looks. Running for sport here doesn’t appear to be all that common, especially when the runner (okay, jogger) is a white woman.
Anyway, all was fine until the end of my run, when I turned off the main road into Taba, the suburb where we’re staying, and hit the maze of red dirt roads that at the time still looked the same. Needless to say, I got lost. In an area of about a half square mile. And it turns out it’s really hard to tell someone “I’m lost” when all you know how to say in their language is “good day.”
I had a similar incident today in Kigali. I made the two-hour trip there on the “Volcano Express” with Jill and Melissa to explore a bit over the weekend and ended up splitting up with them this afternoon to scout out some sources for a possible story. On my way back to catch the bus back to Butare, I decided to take a ‘moto’ – motorbike cab — and couldn’t explain to my driver where I wanted to go. I went through all my options. Mumuji? (downtown?) Volcano? Various hand gestures, pointing to a map. A crowd started forming around us on and about 20 curious onlookers had gathered before one arrived who, thank heavens, spoke French and saved the day. If taking pictures here weren’t such a sensitive thing (ask Jill and Melissa about their efforts to take a shot of prisoners in a field), I would have been tempted to capture it on film. I spent much of the two-hour bus trip back to Butare getting a tutorial in Kinyarwanda from Lambert, a kindly (and very patient) man who works at a local monastery and had squeezed in to the folding aisle seat next to me. I’ve got to hand it to the Rwandese. They waste no space. They fit more people than you’d think possible into a bus the size of a minivan.
This week, work starts, and it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. I’ll be teaching journalism at the National University of Rwanda here in Butare, a fast 35 minute walk along the main road from our house. I’ve been preparing for my first course – Introduction to Reporting and Writing for first year students – which I’ll be teaching intensively over the next three weeks, followed by journalism ethics. So far, I have discovered there often isn’t enough paper to make photocopies for handouts, so had to buy some to copy my course outline for the class. I don’t even know how many students will be in class tomorrow morning. I’m told it can be difficult getting them to show up, and so I am hoping that by making attendance and participation a significant part of their final grade, I can create some sort of incentive. More to come on how well that works …