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NUR School of Journalism
and Communication


Shelley Robinson


Shelley Robinson's Notes From the Field

Tuesday, January 30, 2007— Why I came

The first class of third year print editing was in the DSTV room, so named (I think) because there is a television in the corner with digital satellite reception. I chose it because it was open and no one else seemed to be using it.

Big enough for 75 people, it has ceilings maybe 20 feet high, filled with plywood chair and desk sets. All my students were there: Carine, Clementine, Etienne, Eugene, Gilbert, Jean Paul, Joseph, Julien, Maurice, Mediatrice and Providence — only 11 but it felt like twice that many and I wondered how long it would take me to remember everybody. There was a podium for me to stand behind (though I didn't) and a freestanding blackboard I filled with scrawls and then tried unsuccessfully to erase.  

We introduced ourselves by describing either the best story we'd ever done or the first one that came to mind. I should have written them down, because they were great, though I pushed for more detail as the first lesson.

But I tripped on my own advice a bit when describing a story I did about a woman in Ottawa who was on welfare for 31 years when she suddenly decided she wanted to get out of the system. How do you describe welfare in detail out of one context and after only eight days in another? 

Then I handed out the course description: one percent per class for bottom in chair and another percent for participation, seven story assignments that we would then edit together in class, seven quizzes and one in-class group project. All in 21 classes, three per week.

The journalism school is down the hill from the main white stucco academic building, and at break the students milled around the sunny concrete courtyard or drifted off to the computer lab.

We spent the second half brainstorming about what an editor's responsibilities are: I could teach the course as a strict English copy-editing class but decided, in a place where English is often a third or fourth language and where newspapers are written in Kinyarwanda, French and English (or a blend of all three), that it was better to work on skills that apply more universally: accuracy, consistency and ethics chief among them. 

Already two of my students are editors at The New Butarean, a campus newspaper published by journalism students but posted around school for everyone to read.

We also started our own class style guide. They have since decided that gacaca, the grassroots community court for those accused of participating in the genocide, will have a small g. That the short form of Rwandan Francs will be Rwf and that irish potatoes (what we would just call potatoes) have a small i. No honorifics. 

The most controversial was names. Many people here often write last names first, all capitalized, followed by the first name: BIRIMOYEZU Joseph, BARADA Clementine, TWAHIRA Maurice. Maybe because their last names are so significant and individual, chosen in a special ceremony by their family in their first week of life. Regardless, in the end they voted for CP style: Joseph Birimoyezu, Clementine Barada, Maurice Twahira.

Then we discussed the class field trip. They wanted to go to Gisenyi, a resort-town that is exploring methane gas extraction and to Kigali to visit the newsrooms of The New Times, the country's only daily (which is pro-government and in English) and Umuseso a controversial weekly, mostly in Kinyarwanda. 

There's no class on Wednesdays because it's gacaca day in Butare, and the next class was cancelled because Thursday was Heroes' Day, a national holiday. So we made plans to hold a mock press conference on Friday about proposed changes to the country's press law, after which they would have two hours to write a news stories about what happened.

I scurried off to find copies of the old and new laws, repeating the students' names to myself like an incantation.


Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007 — Looking back at my first week

I’m writing this from the living room of the house in Taba, technically a suburb of Butare, but really just down the main road. Too much HGTV means that I am hyper-aware of the 24” by 24” marble floor tiles, funky wood-paneled ceiling, handcrafted clay candleholders and polyester curtains, all of which already feel homey and familiar.

We have a monkey in the backyard which Jean, the cook, feeds. And Sue and I saw our first cockroaches last night so I’m also keeping an eye out for them, feet tucked up onto my chair. The music from my computer competes with the sound of cicadas outside and the din from the bar next door.

I start teaching my first class, third year print editing, on Tuesday and tomorrow am going to a meeting about agricultural farm radio at le Petit Prince, a new hotel and restaurant just down the road.  

Earlier this week I walked into the student computer lab and someone was watching a video of Celine Dion, another of Aishwarya Ray in a Bollywood duet. One student was looking up a French wikipedia entry and one was wearing a shirt that said “Labatt Lite 24-hour relay, Saint John, N.B.” Providence, a third-year student, was downloading new hiphop onto her mp3 player. 

In Sue Montgomery’s Advanced Writing class, they were going over leads on a class assignment about the abolition of the death penalty which, in a place where people are accused of killing so many of their neighbours, is very controversial.

Then they talked about their feature stories: Richard was doing a piece about a couple who had met online dating. The woman is a journalism student and the guy had claimed for more than a year of online chats that he was living in France. He said he would fly over to visit but it turns out he was also on campus. They’ve been dating ever since.

Emmanuel M and Jean-Pierre were writing about street kids, who have been abandoned as the product of rape during the genocide or orphaned by AIDS. And Placide profiled a street kid who joined one of the evangelical churches sprouting up here as a way to keep himself off drugs.

Emmanuel N. did a piece on an engineering student who is also a local singer, Frank Joe. We danced to one of his songs last night at Safari, Butare’s only nightclub. I wilted in the humidity, but the music and dirty dancing were contagious.

Astrida is profiling Beata, a Polish woman married to a Rwandan who together live down the road with their three kids. She teaches classical guitar and practices musical therapy with children whose parents were killed in front of them during the genocide.

Jean Pierre wrote a piece about “Intwari” (which translates as “heroes”,) a rec-league football team of both Tutsi and Hutu men that has been going since a year after the genocide. It’s a way for them to come together, work out aggressions on the field and drink a glass of beer after a game, instead of being in the bars all day.

And Germain did a piece on Gymtonic, the cement-floored gym in town where people do the wildest, most participatory aerobics I have ever seen, three times a week. I want to start going but am going to have to work up to the hour and a half of pounding music and extreme leg lifts. There’s a sauna there too, and during the class men wander around wearing nothing but towels, catching the news on the TV in the corner.

There is no shortage of good stories here. Or people to tell them.


Friday, Jan. 26, 2007 — Back of the bike epiphanies

Sue, Providence and I made plans to go Kibuye for the weekend, a low-key resort town on Lake Kivu. We figured the whole trip including travel, food and hotel would cost no more than 25,000 Rwandan Francs, roughly $50 US. 

I decided to meet them after the first leg of the trip, in Kigali, because I wanted to register at the Canadian Embassy in person, having done so to great effect in Afghanistan, where we got a tour, met all the staff and got a security briefing. But I knew my boss in Kabul had pre-arranged that visit so was expecting a less gilded version: a Canadian pin and a handshake maybe. 

At 6:15 Friday morning Sue walked me down to where our dirt road meets with the highway. She hailed a moto, one of the motorcycle taxis that swerve and honk their way down the streets, while I chewed my lip and thought about walking.

I was three times the size of the driver, perched with a big backpack on what felt more like a scooter than a hog. But five minutes and 200 Francs later I was a convert. The Volcano minibus even felt a bit bougie after all that freedom. 

I was early enough to snag a window seat though, and if I was crammed against my seatmate more than is polite in North America, it cleared up after we dropped some people off at nearby villages. 

Only a few entries in I already struggle with what to say in this blog because I know certain things here are so remarkable that every foreigner pressed for details will mention them. Like the Volcano running the green hills as if on the tracks of a rural roller coaster. Really, it is just like that.

I was supposed to call Solange when I got into town two hours later so she could arrange a car. Instead, I hailed a moto and said "Ambassade Canadien? Combien?" in an accent that would make me swallow my tongue before speaking, if in Quebec.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am a poulet of epic proportions. I have hitch-hiked once in my life, accepting a ride in the pouring rain from a woman in a minivan, 2 kilometres down the road from my high school in Milton, Ontario. I held the door handle, avoided using identifying details in my small talk and planned how to safely roll out onto the Third Line should she turn nefarious. 

But I have internalized the safety here. And so when the moto driver headed for what felt like the leafy middle of nowhere I just trusted. Then we were at the Embassy.

I signed in, filled out a form, sat in the lobby for five minutes browsing pro-Canadian pamphlets and was done, after only talking to a secretary behind a glass partition. Then I asked for information about how to get a visa and she said someone would be with me shortly. Aha. Twenty minutes later another woman came out, gave me another form and tried to go back inside the office, but not before I wrestled a handshake out of her. 

It would have been a total letdown but for Pamela, who I met while waiting. She wants to come to Canada to get a science degree and was asking me about schools and scholarships. I have no idea what she was doing at the embassy since she talked to even less people than I did but she walked me back out to the road, gave me her email address and helped me catch another moto.

It was only 9:15 and I had a whole day to kill. 

I have been reading Allan's blog regularly and so knew about Ikarezi, the bookshop. Two hours later I had touched the spine of nearly every book in the place and bought "Weep Not Child" the first novel by Ngugi wa Thiong'o another copy of Romeo Dallaire's "Shake Hands with the Devil" and "Murambi: the Book of Bones" by Boubacar Boris Diop.

Then I walked down the street and stopped four people for directions to the bank, which was 500 metres up the street. Changing money took about another hour.

I finally called Solange around noon, who picked me up for lunch with her friends Moses, a human rights lawyer, and Alphonse, a driver and gorilla guide. They took me to Karibu (Swahili for "welcome") and treated me to a buffet buckling under the weight of all the sweet potatoes, cassava and bananas.

They were starting work that day as fixers for a documentary film crew from Canada. Because of timing (and since I had nothing better to do) I ended up going to the airport with them to pick up the Canadians who loaded their gear into the trucks and rushed to their first shoot at the King Faisal Hospital. 

I didn't want to get in the way so sat on the curb by a fence. In no time a group of boys clustered behind it, trying to make small talk with me in a variety of languages I don't speak.  I stammered in French "c'est un film documentaire". Suddenly one of the boys said to me "How can I get a fucking job on that movie, man?" in a perfect American accent. When I shrugged, he reverted to French and shook the chain link.  

Moses went to drop off the luggage and so I tagged along (again) and read in the hotel lobby for a few hours, trying to look like I belonged. "A Mighty Wind" was playing on a TV hung over the front desk.  

I eventually tried to moto back to the bus terminals to buy our tickets to Kibuye. But at least four drivers had no idea what I was talking about. Then, when I finally got on the road, a police siren went off and my driver pulled over, yanking at his shirt to indicate that he was not wearing a neon vest and was therefore not a registered driver. I hadn't noticed. He sped away and all I knew was that I was somewhere in Kigali and had to go somewhere else. 

Eventually I phoned Sue who put on one of her students to explain where I wanted to go to a new driver, who sped us down a mountain overlooking the city, dodging traffic as the sun set and glinted off the cracked windshields. I have tried since to remember exactly how it felt, besides perfect.   

At the bus terminal they weren't selling tickets for Kibuye that left the next morning because it was the last Saturday of the month, which is Umuganda, a national day of (compulsory) collective community service. 

So I caught the last Volcano to Butare and, once back, followed a cluster of engine revs and single headlights to my last ride of the day.


Saturday, Jan. 20 - Monday, Jan. 22 — Ottawa – Montreal – Washington – Rome – Addis Ababa – Nairobi – Kigali – Butare

The writer Pico Iyer says all kinds of remarkable things about airports and the globalized world. I mostly zoned out and ate snack foods from cellophane packages.

But I did meet some interesting people along the way: starting with my Kuwaiti taxi driver in Ottawa. We talked about the effect of colonialism on the Rwanda genocide, the US occupation of Iraq and the growing fear and rhetoric about Iran. He said he had once driven a white man who told him that colonialism had been good for South Africa. We looked at each other in the rearview mirror, eyebrows raised.

I developed a cold the first 15 seconds after I got on the plane to Montreal and thereafter scrounged napkins, toilet paper and kleenex whenever possible. By the end my nose was a red and runny testament to more than twenty hours in the air and people were less willing to shake my hand.   

Caught in traffic on a shuttle bus between airports in DC, I met Julie, an American who has lived in Germany, Belgium and Holland since 1979, working with the US military. Now she’s back, in a small town outside Reno, Nevada. I told her my mother is Dutch and she assured me that “my people” were smart and thrifty and that her fellow Americans are too narrow-minded. As a black woman she had experienced some racism in Europe but that happens everywhere, she said. She also said she could understand why European countries limit immigration and citizenship. She got into a bit of a customer-service tiff with our driver, a Nigerian who sped around the city, honking at cars and deflecting my questions.

After an endless parade of security checks I started off the Ethiopian airways flight next to a woman and her grandson, who was probably two years old, squirming around on her lap and in and out of her long head scarf. She didn’t speak English but dealing with toddlers is pretty universal: I gave him my bangles and he amused himself for at least half an hour by dropping them and having us contort ourselves to pick them up. Then the woman gave them back to me and motioned for me to hide them under my sleeve while she distracted him with a Dora the Explorer video on a portable DVD player. “See? Dora, Dora, Dora,” she murmured to him between words I couldn’t understand. She eventually moved to the back of the plane where there was more room.

Arriving at Addis, those of us who were making connections the next day clustered around the man giving out the hotel vouchers. There were about 12 of us, including a Rwandan woman on her way back from visiting Ohio, where she had done her masters, the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, an American working for a Quaker NGO in Kigali and a Haitian-Canadian who was going to Angola to meet her fiancée for the first time, after being introduced through a friend of a friend over the Internet. She had downloaded his photos to her cell phone and showed us how he wouldn’t smile in pictures because it wasn’t manly, but said he cried when she told him her life story.

We were all making plans to go out to a nightclub but after waiting in line for two hours we got to the hotel by 10:30 and, knowing we were being picked up again at 6:30 a.m., settled for a late dinner at the hotel. I had seen a tray of injera and wat in the hallway and had high hopes, but it must have been for the staff because instead we got a loose interpretation of western food: fries, Pillsbury-type rolls, a salad encased in mayonnaise, a random meat dish and a cabbage stir fry. I fell asleep watching English Al-Jazeera in my room and woke to the muezzin’s call.  

We had a 45-minute layover in Nairobi and I stood on the stairs leading to the tarmac trying not to be what I still am, at heart: a wide-eyed suburban girl from Milton, Ontario. I hate when people homogenize “Africa” but a hot enervating wind was blowing through the savannah grasses surrounding the runway, punctuated by tall trees that looked like a watercolour backdrop. It didn’t feel like it could be any other continent.  

Back in the air we flew beside Mount Kilimanjaro and then descended over Rwanda. I have landed in a lot of cities, most often in Toronto, where the approach is all highways and the turquoise blue of backyard pools and Halifax, surrounded by dark forests and lakes. Kigali was layers of green, with red dirt roads so close you could make out people riding their bicycles. In some sort of cosmic coincidence Toto’s “Africa” was playing through my headphones. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but it worked.

Allan Thompson, the project founder, was waiting outside the gate. He was in Kigali to meet Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. I also got my first taste of how secure this country is: once in the car I realized I had forgotten my backpack (the one with my new laptop and all my money) on the ground beside the baggage carousel, surrounded by other passengers and porters. Twenty minutes later it was still there.

We picked up Solange, the project’s fixer and a journalism student who’s finishing her “memoire” or dissertation: instantly I got three kisses and a hug. We ran some errands and then jumped in a taxi to get to Butare in time for the launch of Allan’s book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.

In the classroom I sat next to Joseph, a third-year journalism student, who started teaching me some Kinyarwanda expressions (among which I learned “igishubaziko” which he defined as “a lady who has spent a long time without getting married.” But subsequent investigations have led me to believe it might also have more pejorative connotations so I’ve retired it before fully committing it to memory.)  I also met Sue Montgomery, a journalist from The Montreal Gazette who’s here to teach for the second time in two years.

It was the perfect event to start off my time at the National University of Rwanda. Development work is crowded with well-meaning projects that don’t connect with the people they most claim to serve; instead, I listened to journalism students who lived through the genocide ask pointed questions about why international journalists didn’t (and don’t) adequately cover Rwanda and the implications of domestic hate media. These were students who saw their training as an antidote to the problem.

Afterwards there was a reception outside. By then I had gained and lost my fifth wind so had goat brochette and my beloved Fanta Orange on the sidelines, while students came up to introduce themselves and successively blew my socks off with their stories. By 6:30 it was dark and the students’ mobile phones floated and blinked in the courtyard like fireflies.

At the house in Taba, my home for the next six months, another party was already setting up. Emmanuel, a fourth year student, DJ’d a mix of American gangsta rap, Caribbean Souk and African music that kept everyone dancing on the porch past midnight.


Friday, Jan. 19, 2007 — If everything is going wrong is it a sign that you should give up, or try harder?

I was due to fly out on Saturday. By Thursday I was still scrambling to get all the paperwork for a new passport signed. Mine was good till August but Rwanda requires that it shouldn’t expire till at least six months after your departure. And the new legislation that Canadians need passports to fly in to the US had jammed all the phone lines and offices.

The line-up at Passport Canada stretched out into the atrium, way beyond where they had set up benches. I leaned against a potted plant while a man sold coffee and muffins to the crowd from a trolley cart. 

An hour and a half later I had made it to the top of the line when I realized I had forgotten my birth certificate in Halifax and nothing but an original document would do. The woman at the front desk then seized my guarantor form as illegal because it had not been properly filled out.  But she said if I came back the next day with new paperwork, all my documents and two references who could vouch for me, I might be all right. 

So my mother sent my birth certificate by Express Post, guaranteed to arrive the next day before noon. And I spent that afternoon getting new photos, making sure two friends (who were surprised to hear I was going) would be around the next day and swearing an oath that I was, in fact, myself.  Worse case scenario, I figured, I’d just fly on my old passport and take my chances.

The next day: 12:30 and still no delivery. I called Canada Post, where the woman was very nice but explained that only the person who sent the package can trace it. My mother was out on lunch and so I drowned her voicemail in hang-up clicks.

Out the window I saw a postman moseying down the street in the opposite direction and sprinted after him. He had an Amazon.com package for the friend I was staying with but nothing else.  Maybe because my eyes were welling up, he checked his bag again, and found it. He said he was sorry for the delay but there had been an anthrax scare at the mail processing plant that morning.

Back in the line-up at Passport Canada, the muffin man was nowhere to be seen. It took two hours to get to the front of the line, again (where I dodged the woman I had dealt with the day before.) I made it through the first hurdle then waited another hour to see an agent. She voided my old passport just before telling me that the printer was overloaded and I might not get my new one in time. Plan B had evaporated.

I sat in the waiting room. The staff started talking about their weekend plans and somebody said the printer had broken down. They called “Robinson” but it was for someone else.

At 4:30 they locked the doors. I couldn’t decide if it was better to be quiet or throw a hissy fit. I slouched down in my seat. I had stopped talking to anyone else in the waiting room about two hours earlier because I could no longer sustain pleasant chit chat about whether, if they were going to Mexico in a month, they would get their passport on time. When I told them I was leaving in the morning they would just look at me like I was an idiot. Which, of course, I was. I would have sworn an oath to it if it would have helped.

At 4:45 they called “Robinson” again.

“Which one?” I asked.

“Shelley Lauren,” he said, without looking at me.

I floated out the door and through the snowy streets to the mall, where I bought myself clothes that anyone in Ottawa would be crazy to wear outside at this time of year. I could think about packing, now that I was really going.



January 30, 2007 — Why I came

January 28, 2007 — Looking back at my first week

January 26, 2007 — Back of the bike epiphanies

Jan. 20 - Jan. 22 — Ottawa – Montreal – Washington – Rome – Addis Ababa – Nairobi – Kigali – Butare

January 19, 2007 — If everything is going wrong is it a sign that you should give up, or try harder?


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