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NUR School of Journalism
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Allan Thompson,
Assistant Professor,
Carleton University

Allan Thompson's Notes From the Field

February 3, 2006 — Goodbye Rwanda, until next time

This is my final blog entry from Rwanda: a chronicle of the long goodbye that has been the last couple of days. I knew I would be sad leaving Rwanda and I suppose exhaustion can make you even more emotional. The other night I went out for a farewell dinner with my Canadian colleagues, Sylvia Thomson, Roger Bird and his wife Ann. (Sue Montgomery is to arrive today just after my departure). We were also joined by Alice Musabende, a journalism student and development worker who has been acting as the local fixer for our project. (We call Alice the African Queen). We had agreed to meet at the restaurant at the Credo Hotel, which boasts the only swimming pool in Butare. Next visit I will have to find time for a swim. I was the first to arrive and in the dark of early evening, I stood by the fence at the back of the hotel property, looking out over the deep gorge that separates the two high points in town. Atop the hill on the right is the National University of Rwanda. Across the valley, Butare’s Roman Catholic Cathedral commands the other hilltop. The air was full of two sounds, the call to prayer emanating from a mosque just down the way and the blare of the latest Radio Rwanda news bulletin, piped from a loud speaker by the restaurant bar. The others arrived just as I was getting nostalgic.

Over dinner, we shared a toast to the successful launch of our journalism teaching partnership, keeping our fingers crossed I will be able to secure funding to carry on with this project in the months to come. Then a cloudburst of much-needed rain sent us scurrying for cover. You know you have begun to settle down in a place when you are glad to see rain because you know the local farmers desperately need the precipitation.

The last couple of days before my departure have been a mad scramble. I had to make a quick side trip to Nairobi to fulfill a commitment to help with media training sessions organized by the Canadian High Commission. I got back to Rwanda yesterday afternoon and after the familiar two-hour drive from Kigali to Butare, stopped at home long enough to wash my face then went straight to my classroom in the little computer lab where my students were waiting for our last encounter. They were busily working on their final assignment for me, a piece of opinion writing. We didn’t have a lecture today. This was just about saying goodbye and it was much, much more difficult than I had anticipated. They gave me a present, a simple woodcarving and a tray with Rwanda written on it. But it was the card that just about did me in. After reading their handwritten messages I was quite simply at a loss for words and afraid that if I tried to say much, things would end in an embarrassing show of emotion. It touched me so deeply to read messages from students who lost their siblings or their parents in the genocide and wrote that they now regarded me as a brother. So instead of the kind of graceful speech Africans are accustomed to on such occasions, I simply thanked them for our time together and said goodbye. I went around the room to give every student a hug, caressing three times in the Rwandan way. And with the men, each embrace ended with us briefly touching our foreheads together, another traditional greeting. To be honest, by the end of it, I just had to gather up my things and leave. The sadness I felt when taking my leave was compounded by another factor. One of the students told me the class will be getting a bit of a holiday now. There is no one available to teach their next course, so they will simply have to wait until a teacher can be found.

In our short time together, we formed a kind of bond. And for all that there is good reason to doubt the future of journalism in Rwanda, the time I spent with these nine young people gave me some hope that their country will one day have a new generation of journalists.

The last word has to be a message to my students. Diane, Solange, Nicolas, Prosper, Egide, Charles, Sixbert, Edouard, Leon:

I am just about to leave your beautiful country for the long trip back to Canada. I wanted to say goodbye properly before my departure. My apologies, but during our class yesterday I simply couldn't find the words to say goodbye. I know that here in Africa, people are accustomed to long, graceful speeches and kind words. But after reading the messages in the card you presented me with, I found myself speechless and quite frankly, I was afraid I would become too emotional if I went on any further, so I just had to leave.

Let me thank you for a wonderful time together. I learned a lot about your country, about each of you as individuals and about your generation. For that reason, I leave Rwanda hopeful that journalism has a better future in this country because of people like you. Do your best.

Thank you for the good times we had outside of the classroom and for making me feel so welcome. In a short time together, I have grown very fond of you and I will miss your company. I particularly enjoyed our trip to Maraba together. I know this may sound strange to you, but it was such a pleasure for me to be surrounded by so much joy, and enthusiasm and love of life. The world needs to learn more about the Rwandan spirit. Because of you, I am taking a bit of that Rwandan spirit away with me.

A la prochaine,


February 1, 2006 — Nairobi

Today was taken up with media training workshops organized by the Canadian High Commission for editors and journalists here. I also managed to fit in a quick side trip to the Makina Baptist School in the sprawling Kibera slum. The public school in Ottawa that my son Laith attends, Devonshire Community Public School, is twinned with Makina Baptist and I made it my mission to visit the school while in Africa. Nairobi seems like a sprawling mega-city compared to Kigali and makes Butare look like a crossroads. When I arrived last night, it took the better part of 45 minutes to get downtown from the airport in stop and go traffic. The workshops today were held at the Panafric Hotel. In the morning, I joined Canadian High Commissioner Jim Wall and Rosemary Okello, head of the Woman and Child Feature Service, in a workshop with newspaper editors about the role of the media in a multiethnic society like Kenya. The afternoon was taken up with a roundtable involving Kenyan correspondents who had come in from across the countryside. This evening I had a chance to get together with two recent Carleton grads — Tia Goldenberg and Ben Singer — who have been in Nairobi for the last few months working as interns with the Nation group of newspapers. The internship program for Carleton grads was organized by the Aga Khan Foundation, which owns the Nation media group.


January 31, 2006 — A drive in the country

Had to head up to Kigali today to catch a flight to Nairobi, in Kenya. Some time ago I agreed to take part in a couple of media training workshops being organized by the Canadian High Commission. The flight to Nairobi leaves this afternoon, the workshop is tomorrow and I’ll return to Rwanda on Feb. 2, just in time to wrap up with my students, finish some banking and then prepare to head for home on Feb. 3. During the two-hour drive from Butare to Kigali, I am struck by how I no longer notice the panoply of life along the roadsides here. It is becoming routine. So I decide to take some notes. Everywhere, people are on the move, many of them sweating and straining under heavy loads at the roadside, or working in gangs in the fields. In Butare, there are motorcycle taxis everywhere. Out in the countryside, you are just as likely to see a bicycle taxi. We drive past a woman in an elegant blue dress, sitting side saddle on the back of a touring bike. Further along, there is another bike piled high with a load of lumber. The boards, nearly three metres in length, are stacked 10 or 12 high. How can that guy paddle that load up the hill? In the fields, women with babies strapped to their backs wield hoes and other farm tools in the fluffy red soil that reminds me of a well-worked seed bed on the farm. At virtually no time during the two-hour drive from Butare to Kigali is there ever a point where there is not a pedestrian in sight, or someone out working in the fields. In this densely populated country, there always seem to be people going about their business. On the right, a barefoot man dressed in a ragged blue blazer — he looks to be in his 50s — is pulling weeds from around the graves at a genocide memorial site, then tossing the clumps over the fence. In most places, the roadsides are lined with small houses, one or two-room affairs, some with red tiles for a roof, others with corrugated tin. There’s one man walking with two canes. He has a leg missing from the knee down. One of the vans that ferries people from Butare to Kigali is pulled over at the roadside because of a flat tire and has disgorged its squashed passengers onto the shoulder. Along the way, many trees have been spray-painted with red Xs. Work crews will later come and chop them down and do up the wood. At one point, two men work an old-fashioned cross-cut saw, one man standing on top of a large timber, his body glistening, thrusting and pulling the saw up and down to make thick boards. Every now and then there is a large billboard at the side of the road, advertising for the few enterprises or causes that can afford it: the National University of Rwanda, the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, the MTN mobile phone company which now assures its customers they will pay per second for cell phone calls. There is a little boy running by the side of the road, in bare feet of course, using a stick to push a tire rim along as a toy. Buses and transport trucks belch out black clouds of exhaust fumes. Suddenly two motorcycles with blaring sirens and flashing blue lights drive straight towards us, the drivers using aggressive hand signals to tell us to clear the road for a motorcade. Some senior government official roars past in a blue sedan. Perhaps it is the prime minister, who comes from the Gikongoro region. In front of one mud-brick house which is covered with flaking clay stucco, a man sits working at an ancient Singer sewing machine. Freshly washed clothes hang on a bush to dry. A bike laden with three burlap sacks jammed full of something is parked at the side of the road. The driver is nearby in the ditch, taking a pee. By now we are descending into Kigali, crossing the causeway across a swampy area that gives way to the capital city around the next curve. A drive in the country.


January 30, 2006 — Rules of the road

I have been up and down the road from Butare to Kigali so many times during this visit that I now know most of the landmarks. And I have also picked up on some of the intricate rules of the road in Rwanda. The main highways in this country are well paved and maintained. But the tortuous path they wind through hills and valleys and around steep curves clinging to hillsides can make for some pretty heart-stopping driving. Rwandans have long since learned to adapt with a number of signals drivers use to help each other out. If you are following behind a truck and need to pass on a blind curve — of which there are many — watch what the vehicle ahead does with its signal lights. If it is okay to pass, the driver will turn on his right flasher. If he can see a vehicle coming in the distance, he will flick on the left signal to warn that it is not okay to overtake. Oncoming vehicles use a code familiar to Canadian drivers to signal when there are police on the road ahead - flashing headlights. To reinforce the point, the driver of the oncoming vehicle might make a hand single — jabbing the index finger toward the ground — to indicate it would be best to slow down. Now and then, an oncoming car careening around a curve will put on a left signal light. This means ‘move over and give me a bit more room.’ The driver of the other vehicle responds in kind, to indicate that the message was received. And along the way, the most clear-cut signal of all is the ubiquitous presence of Rwandan police in crisp navy uniforms and helpful fluorescent green jackets. There are cops standing at the roadside every few kilometers along the major highways, waving cars over if they have the impression the driver was going too fast, or driving carelessly. These traffic officers will readily hand out tickets for speeding - with no radar gun to assist them — or even for swerving into the opposite lane or failing to carry the right documents. And they do not take bribes.


January 25, 2006 — Media training

My colleague Roger Bird and I (Roger and Me?) today made our weekly trek to Kigali to conduct a media training session with working journalists. In addition to our journalism teaching partnership with the National University of Rwanda, we have taken up a request from government officials here in Rwanda to offer media training for working journalists. We chose to begin with The New Times newspaper, Rwanda’s main English-language paper. It is published three times a week and is just about to launch a Sunday edition. The paper is a crisp tabloid which seems to carry a lot of pictures of President Paul Kagame on its front page along with a good cross section of other news. It is light on features and heavy on official government news and wordy, opinionated commentaries by its stable of columnists. Roger and I met last week with the newspaper’s managing director, Edward Rwema and agreed that to take advantage of Roger’s expertise as an editor, we would begin with weekly training sessions with some of the newspaper’s editors and copy editors before moving on to work with some of its reporters. Edward said the newspaper’s main problem is the fact that most of its reporters lack any formal media training and many of its editors were hired for their language abilities more so than their journalistic background. The reality is that journalism is not a very well-paid profession in Rwanda; the media sector was devastated by the genocide when many journalists were either implicated in the killing campaign, killed or driven into exile. And since then, as such watchdogs as Reporters Without Borders will attest, the media climate in this country has been far from ideal. No wonder that veteran journalists are few and far between.

Today was our first formal session with the New Times, a getting-to-know-you held in a meeting room at the swish Novotel across the street from the newspaper’s cramped office and newsroom. By a happy coincidence, today’s issue of the newspaper carried a short story about Carleton’s new journalism teaching partnership with the National University of Rwanda.

Assembled around the table were 11 of the newspaper’s senior editors. Roger and I introduced ourselves and our project, then worked our way around the room to find out more about our colleagues. The paper’s newly-appointed managing editor said he had worked as a freelancer for the Monitor in Uganda. He graduated from the Mass Communication program at Makerere University in Kampala in 2002. The New Times society editor (akin to the Life and Entertainment editor in a North American newsroom) is a former secondary school teacher who taught geography and English and did some freelancing for newspapers in Uganda before joining the New Times. The news editor graduated from the National University of Rwanda’s journalism program in 2001 and worked on a student publication in Butare before joining the New Times. The business editor was a philosophy lecturer in Nairobi. The new Sunday editor introduced himself as a published poet who joined the paper in 2002. The production editor heads a team of four who produce the paper using PageMaker and PhotoShop. The sub-editor of the fledgling Sunday edition spent some time living in Canada and worked for a while with the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. The only woman in the room, an associate editor and proofreader, said she was a literature major in university who had also worked on her school magazine. The deputy Sunday editor said he did media training in Egypt and Tanzania before joining the paper. The Editor completed a journalism diploma in 1994, worked in Uganda as a stringer for television networks then joined the New Times in 1998 as a proofreader. In 2001 he did some further media training in the U.S., briefly ran his own newspaper and then returned to the fold at the New Times in 2004.

For the rest of the morning we discussed the newspaper’s copy flow, the hierarchy among editors and most important, the relationship between editors and reporters. Jaws dropped around the table when I reported that at my former employer, The Toronto Star, a lot of the copy produced by reporters is routinely spiked or tossed back as being unworthy of publication. At the New Times, virtually every story gets published and often after hours of massaging by overworked editors who are dealing with copy from junior reporters who often have a tenuous grasp of journalism and difficulty writing in English. Workload is a major issue and that translates into published copy that is not properly sourced or lacks context. The senior editors can only manage weekly meetings — nothing like the twice daily news meetings convened at The Star. The editorial team here is aware of the shortcomings of their operation but also justifiably proud that they produce a decent product in such trying circumstances. After a long and productive session we agreed on a schedule for weekly training sessions — back in the newsroom.


January 24, 2006 — The field trip

Today my students and I escaped the stuffy computer lab where we have been conducting our print reporting classes and went on a field trip. To be honest, we spent the first two hours of our field trip standing on a curb in front of the university, waiting for our van to show up. Apparently, someone had failed to fill out the appropriate form in triplicate the night before, so it took a bit of arranging to get our transport in place. But eventually a sparkling white van arrived and off we went. Our destination was a little village called Maraba, about 20 minutes outside Butare. Our mission was to conduct interviews and gather information for a series of stories my students will prepare on an innovative coffee growers cooperative that has been established in Maraba. Canadians who associate Rwanda only with genocide might be surprised to learn that this country produces some of the best coffee in the world, notably the specialty Arabica coffee produced by the Maraba Coffee Cooperative (Abahuzamugambi b’Ikawa ya Maraba). The coffee cooperative is working closely with the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL), a USAID-funded project led by Michigan State University. The goal of the project is to help Rwanda to rebuild from the impact of war and genocide by generating income through developing its agricultural products and new markets. Before the genocide, when world coffee prices were higher, coffee was Rwanda’s main cash crop. But a crash in prices and the devastation caused by the genocide was a body blow to this important industry. The Maraba cooperative, formed in 2001, is one of many revitalizing the coffee growing industry — particularly the premium specialty brands. You will read more about this topic later on the RwandaInitiative.ca website because my students will be publishing their work here.

In Maraba, the students interviewed staff members of the cooperative, coffee farmers young and old, experts who work at the washing station for coffee beans and finally, the “cuppers’’ who taste-test the local coffee to compare it with leading world brands. Everyone had been assigned a story and with virtually no coaching from me, the students simply fanned out across the village, interviewing everyone in sight. In between, we found time to have lunch together on the front porch of a sparse roadside restaurant. The owner, a hefty woman in a bright print dress, plunked down a case of beer and a case of pop, then disappeared to supervise making our lunch — goat shish kabobs. As the supervisor for the outing, I decreed that since most of our work was done, it would be okay to have a beer or two with lunch. We are journalists after all. At the boulangerie next door, one of the bakers carried large trays of uncooked buns out to a roadside wood oven - from the outside the oven looked like a clay hut. Moments later we got to sample the piping hot buns while we waited for the kabobs. When the meat finally arrived, my students gave me a lesson in how to grip a piece of meat with my teeth and pull it off in one swoop. I liked the chunks of meat but wasn’t as keen on the second round of skewers, which I learned were some kind of goat innards. One mouthful of goat intestine (zingalo in Kinyarwanda) was enough for me. After lunch, we had a “cupping’’ session at the coffee cooperative with two women who have become world-renowned experts in taste-testing coffee. They showed us their technique of first sniffing the ground coffee beans, then taking a whiff of coffee with hot water added before carefully tasting — or rather slurping — small mouthfuls of fresh hot coffee from a spoon. They would swirl and chew the coffee, then spit it into a glass, just like wine-tasting sommeliers. We all took turns doing the same.

By now it was nearly the end of the afternoon and time to head back to Butare. And the meek, timid students I first met just a couple of weeks ago had now been transformed. Or maybe they were just being themselves and I hadn’t had a chance to notice before. They sang all the way back to town. I mean they really sang. The class clown, Egide, was leading the chorus, improvising a new lyric to describe everyone in the vehicle while everyone else clapped their hands. There was even a chorus for our driver who was slapping his hands against the steering wheel. The only student who didn’t join in at first was Edouard — a bit older, a bit more reserved. That is until the group began singing a famous military marching song, familiar to Edouard from his days in the RPF. Now he too was belting out the tune as our van careened down highway. Amid all the laughter and song, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the seeming disconnect between this overflowing joy and love of life and Rwanda’s international reputation for stoicism, tragedy and sadness. Yet another lesson learned by the teacher.


January 22, 2006 — Murambi

On every trip to Rwanda, I try to visit one of the memorials to the 1994 genocide. Today I went to Murambi, about 45 minutes away from Butare, just on the edge of the town of Gikongoro. The road from Butare to Gikongoro passes through beautiful landscapes, sweeping, terraced hills and lush green valleys. As usual, the roadside was dotted with pedestrians, some in their Sunday best, others straining to push bicycles laden with impossibly heavy loads. The first time I visited Gikongoro was as a reporter for The Toronto Star, in 1998, when I was in Rwanda writing a series of feature stories. For one of those features I interviewed a 15-year-old girl named Alphonsine Mukeshimana, an orphan of the genocide who had long since abandoned her dream of becoming a school teacher because she was now in charge of a child-headed household, caring for her four younger brothers. “I'm a widow, I'm a sister, I'm a mother, I'm everything,’’ she told me then.

On this quiet Sunday afternoon, I decided to visit the memorial to those, like Alphonsine’s parents, who perished in 1994. At the first crossroad in Gikongoro there is a signpost marking the way to Murambi. A rutted, dirt road leads to the former technical school complex which has been converted into a shrine. This memorial, funded and established by the Aegis Trust in Britain (www.aegistrust.org) includes a Genocide Prevention Centre in the main building. Behind, a dirt path leads to a series of long, low buildings that look as if they may have been intended as dormitories or classrooms for students.

Aegis estimates that some 40,000 to 50,000 perished here on April 21, 1994 after taking refuge in the unfinished school complex. Beside the main building are large graves, sealed in concrete, containing the remains of most of those who were killed here.

I traveled to the memorial with Ann Bird, the wife of my colleague and fellow visiting lecturer Roger Bird. When we arrived, the main building was locked and deserted. But not long after our arrival, three vehicles pulled up the drive and a man emerged with a set of keys. He looked anxious and smelled of alcohol. He told us later that he lost 10 members of his family here and as one of the survivors, he now maintains the memorial. He beckoned Ann and I to follow him down the path. He said to please hurry because he had others who were coming to see the memorial. When we reached one of the long buildings, he hurried ahead, unlocking and opening a series of doors into the dormitory rooms.

Neither Ann nor I were prepared for what was inside those rooms. “You can look at the dead bodies now,’’ our guide said. “We have 24 rooms here, for some of the 50,000 people who were buried in mass graves. We moved some of them here, after covering them with lime.’’

Inside each of the small rooms, partially mummified bodies have been laid out on wooden pallets, which are raised about a foot off the concrete floor. About 800 bodies have been preserved this way in the entire complex. Ann went into one of the rooms first and recoiled. The smell was overpowering. All these years later, the partially preserved bodies continue to decay. There were 40 or more in each room — not quite skeletons, still wrapped in leathery flesh, hardened and white from the lime. Some still had wisps of hair. Most were contorted one way or another, some with wide grimaces in the open spaces where their mouths used to be, or hands clawing heavenward. One room seemed to be dedicated to children, the wooden platforms covered with tiny, misshapen figures. I could only stand and stare, before moving slowly from one room to the next, finally taking some pictures. No one should ever forget the existence of these lost souls.

I found myself looking for the longest time at two figures. They seemed to be a couple. He had both arms above his head, one hand clenched into a fist, with just the index finger raised. The smaller figure next to him still had a tuft of fine, curly black hair attached to its fractured skull. Suddenly, I heard my own voice: “Who are you?’’ I asked. As if in reply, there was a loud clap of thunder, followed by a torrent of rain that drenched the red earth outside.


January 19, 2006 — Taxi?

After a quick return trip to Kigali yesterday to arrange media training workshops at the New Times newspaper, I flopped into bed last night without preparing my lecture notes for this morning’s class. As penance, I was up at 5.30 this morning, banging out some notes and a lesson plan. My colleague Roger Bird and I usually share a taxi to the university each morning at about 8 a.m. for classes that begin at 8:30. But this morning, I had to head in at about 7 a.m. to get on the internet so I could gather up some more material for my class and check my email messages. I decided to walk out to the main road and flag down a taxi.

In the dim morning light I headed down the red dirt road that leads from our house to the highway, past the Eglise Ste Therese where I could hear the choir singing and finally, out onto the road that forms the main street of Butare. Even at 7 a.m., the roadside was teeming with people. The reality is that the most residents of Butare and the surrounding area have no access to a vehicle and walk many kilometers every day to go about their business. For that reason, I felt stupid standing there waiting for a taxi and instead, merged into the seemingly endless stream of pedestrians. I passed men who were exchanging chickens at the roadside, others pushing bicycles piled high with plastic water containers, sticks or sacks of potatoes. (The other day I saw someone ride by with a couch strapped to the back of his bicycle).

Eventually, I realized that it was going to take me an hour to walk to the office and decided to try to find some kind of transport. Just then, one of Butare’s ubiquitous motorcycle taxis pulled up beside me. “Taxi?” asked the driver, who was wearing a sort of blue apron, indicating his was a commercial vehicle. “Oui,’’ I replied, with some trepidation. He handed me a helmet, which was two sizes too small. So he pulled off his own helmet and we plunked it on my head. With my computer bag slung over my shoulder, I hung on for dear life. It’s not that there is all that much traffic in Butare. But the motorized vehicles are in constant competition with seemingly suicidal pedestrians. At first, I thought I would have to simply close my eyes and hope for the best. But by the time we passed through the middle of town, past the Ibis Hotel and restaurant, I was already contemplating getting a motorcycle myself. My driver deposited me at the front steps of the imposing central building of the university, an art deco structure with peeling white paint. I paid 350 Rwandan francs (about 75 cents), then bounded up the steps to my office, another Rwandan experience under my belt.


January 17, 2006 — Looking for lecterns

My colleague Roger Bird was scheduled to teach his first class today, and he was a nervous wreck. Like Elvis, despite 30 years of experience in the classroom, Roger still gets a bout of nerves before a show. To my great good fortune, Roger agreed to come out of his semi-retirement (he left teaching a year ago but still works full-time as a freelance editor) to join this journalism teaching partnership. Roger was one of my teachers at Carleton more than two decades ago and I worked for one year as his teaching assistant. I very much wanted him here to lend his vast knowledge of journalism and journalism education to this project and both his presence and his friendship have been invaluable.

For that reason, I was determined to make sure Roger had everything he needed for his first class here in Butare. I went ahead of time to the classroom he would be using - a rather dreary former TV studio, full of those kinds of university desks that have the little arm rest on the side. But there was no lectern or podium of any kind at the front of the room. I knew Roger’s media ethics course would require intensive lectures, so I made it my mission to get him a lectern. Earlier, I had spotted a furniture storage area, behind one of the buildings on campus. So this morning, I walked down to see what I could find. And lo and behold, there were a number of beautiful new lecterns, made of local softwood. But before I could cart one off, a woman who had been busy varnishing the new furniture stopped me. We couldn’t communicate very well, but we did establish that I couldn’t just sling a lectern over my back and walk away. I had to obtain someone’s permission.

She took me across the road and into a non-descript building that turned out to be a busy woodworking shop were carpenters were busy constructing lecterns, desks and other university furniture. Amid the buzz of saws and a cloud of sawdust, I explained to the manager of the woodworking shop that I wanted a lectern. He took me to yet another building, where I met with a man who was sitting in an office. He seemed to be in charge of allotting furnishings on campus. I explained that I was a visiting lecturer from Canada and would very much like to have a lectern for a classroom. He agreed without a moment’s hesitation and sent me on my way, back to the storage area.

But when I tried to carry off a lectern, the woman I had first encountered a few moments earlier grabbed the piece of furniture and tried to tug it away from me. The manager of the woodworking shop entered the fray. She wasn’t trying to prevent me from taking the lectern, but she was determined that she would carry it up the hill for me, to the classroom. I insisted on carrying it myself. “Don’t worry,’’ I said as I slung the lectern over my shoulders. “I grew up on a farm in Canada.’’ With that I headed up the hill, to the snickers and glares of onlookers, Roger’s lectern on my back. I arrived just as Roger began his opening three-hour lecture on media ethics. Now he has a lectern.


January 15, 2006 — Underestimated students

I am ashamed to admit that I underestimated my students. That first day in class, they all looked so young, so timid. As their first assignment I called upon that old chestnut used by journalism teachers: interview the student sitting next to you and write a short profile. Tonight, I sit here in my office at the National University of Rwanda, reading those short biographies. The power has gone out and I am shrouded in total darkness, but for the glow coming from the screen of my laptop. And I am transfixed by the stories of these shy, young people I had taken for novices.

Diane is already an accomplished filmmaker and has produced a documentary that was broadcast on the French network TV5. She is already at work on another documentary in collaboration with a German non-government organization and has been selected to represent Rwanda at an upcoming film festival in Brussels.

Prosper is in his mid-30s and before enrolling in the journalism school was chief editor of a military magazine called Ingabo. He is a soldier who joined the Rwandan Patriotic Army in 1994, just after the genocide. Before that, he taught literature, sports and fine arts at a Kigali secondary school. The student who wrote about Prosper ended the profile this way: “He is one of four surviving children in a family that lost eight members during the genocide.”

Egide, 25, who goes by the nickname Black Eagle (his father gave each of his children a nickname associated with an animal), is the Rwandan Patriotic Front vice-president for the school of journalism. He has done internships at Radio Maria and Studio Ijambo, both in Burundi.

Leon was born in Ukraine, where his parents were studying at the time and returned to Rwanda at age 5. He thought of being a lawyer, but friends convinced him to enrol in the journalism program. He is the student representative in the school of journalism and in that capacity, takes part in much of the decision-making of the school and also represents his peers in meetings with the university Rector and before the academic Senate. He wants to follow one of his two passions and be either a sports writer or a political reporter.

Edouard, 34, says his passion for journalism started when, as a child, he would listen to radio announcers and dream one day of becoming one of them. Edouard lost his parents and four brothers during the genocide, when he joined the RPF and later worked in a number of political posts in the army. But his chosen profession is journalism and that is what brought him to the university.

Solange, 26, has two passions, journalism and dance. After secondary school she worked as a freelancer at Radio Maria, in Bukavu, Congo. She has done internships at Studio Ijambo in Burundi and Rwanda Television and is also part of the university’s contemporary dance troupe. She plans to be a great journalist.

Sixbert, 27, first worked as a journalist as a little boy when his father, a primary school teacher, would assign him to listen to the radio and then provide summaries of the news. Sixbert joined the Rwandan Patriotic Army in 1994 and was later demobilized as a child soldier. In 1997, after his secondary school education was interrupted by the genocide, he returned to school to obtain his diploma. The brief biography of Sixbert ends this way: he “survived the genocide along with three of his young brothers. But three other brothers and his father were lost in the 1994 holocaust.”

Charles, 25, was orphaned by the 1994 genocide. He told a fellow student he had to work hard to get the marks required for university. “I knew that only my efforts could save my future,” he said. At first, he also had to work fulltime as a receptionist at a local hotel, to fulfill his dream of one day becoming a famous journalist. An article he wrote about the 10th anniversary of the genocide was published by a Swedish newspaper. The profile of Charles says “he deeply regrets the loss of his lovely family members in the 1994 genocide, but has hope for the future.”

These are my students.


January 13, 2006 — First class

Today I formally met my students and held my first class in the fourth year, advanced print reporting course that I am teaching here in Butare. Seven students were in attendance, of nine who are registered for the course. We met in the journalism computer lab at the National University of Rwanda. The lab is a room about 20 feet square, with 10 computers on tables arranged around the edge. A handful of the computers have been dead for some time now, but the others are alive and well, connected to the Internet. After introducing myself — explaining my background as a reporter with the Toronto Star and outlining the purpose for this journalism teaching partnership with Carleton University — I asked the students to tell me a bit more about themselves: where are you from, why are you here, why do you want to be a journalist? For now at least, there are two women and five men in the class. One of the women is from Bukavu, in Congo. The other students are from various corners of Rwanda and most are in their early 20s. Almost uniformly, they said they want to improve journalism standards in Rwanda, to do better. Several had worked on school newspapers during secondary school and some have part-time jobs now in the media. One student used to be the designated media monitor in his household, recounting for his father the news and sports he had heard on the radio. And all had a low opinion of Rwandan media. “When I was young, I loved reading and read newspapers and magazines all the time,’’ one student said. “But not Rwandan newspapers. Even now, I don’t like to read Rwandan newspapers. They are not so professional and everything is about the government. I prefer reading newspapers and magazines from outside, like Jeune Afrique.’’

In the end, it was a great first encounter. We talked about reporting and newswriting, the role of journalists and about how journalism is the way a free society has a conversation with itself. And I told them about the time I ended up having a physical confrontation with then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who grabbed me by the arm and pushed me out of the way when he didn’t like my persistent line of questioning on the stairway outside the House of Commons. They marveled when I told them that a day or so later, Chretien went out of his way to pick me out of the crowd at a press conference and invited me to pose a question. The class will meet again on Monday, and virtually every day thereafter until I depart at the beginning of February.

In the afternoon, my colleague Roger Bird and I attended a departmental meeting of the Butare journalism faculty. This regularly scheduled meeting provided an opportunity for the director, Prof. Jean-Pierre Gatsinzi, to formally introduce the visiting Canadians. But the real purpose of the meeting was to allow Gatsinzi to give his colleagues an annual report on the school’s strategic plan, to finalize teaching assignments for the coming academic year and to discuss the school’s challenges. Notably, in addition to the half dozen faculty members in attendance, two student representatives played an equal role in the deliberations.

What was of most interest to me was to learn more about the school’s shortage of teachers — one of the primary needs the Carleton project is meant to address. The academic year here runs from January through to November and is divided into two semesters. The school is still trying to figure out who is going to teach the photo-journalism course scheduled for March, in addition to a course on public opinion and propaganda, another on media management and a fourth on writing for the broadcast media. Prof. Gatsinzi has also asked if Carleton profs would be willing to act as supervisors — in some cases by email — for fourth-year students in Butare who are working on the thesis or “memoire” they need to complete before graduation. The university is also keen to get some assistance in designing a management and programming structure for its new campus radio station, Radio Salus. As it now stands, visiting teachers brought to Rwanda through the Carleton project will teach a total of five courses this year. But the school needs help with four more courses between now and the summer. Funding for this initial phase of Carleton’s journalism teaching partnership with Rwanda runs out in March, but there is so much more to do.

We ended the day — lucky Friday the 13th — by hosting a cocktail party at our Butare home for the rest of the journalism faculty and staff members. The electricity had been out all afternoon, so the bottles of local Mutzig and Amstel beer we had piled up in the fridge were anything but frigid. After we positioned candles in strategic locations all over the house, the power came back on, just as our first guests arrived. We served warm beer and Scotch — neat. The ice had all melted. It was just as well that I didn’t crack open my secret supply of Glenmorangie single malt, because most of our guests asked for their Scotch mixed with Coca-Cola, a favourite local concoction. At the end of the evening, Prof. Gatsinzi gave a gracious speech, welcoming us to Butare and expressing his wish that the university family would continue to grow.


January 12, 2006 - The desk saga

I’m here. Now if I could just get my students to show up. January is the beginning of the academic year in Rwanda and during the first week of classes, students tend to straggle in, pay their fees, find a room and maybe, show up for class. So when I arrived at the appointed time for my first session with the 10 students registered in my fourth-year print reporting class, there were three students in attendance. I thanked them for showing up and asked them to please call or email their classmates to spread the word that we will try again tomorrow, but that I don’t plan on beginning until everyone is in attendance. Then I shared the same message with the director of the school, Prof. Jean-Pierre Gatsinzi, who promised to call each of the students personally. We’ll see how it goes.

But don’t get me wrong, the universe is unfolding as it should. I traveled up to Kigali to meet Roger and Ann Bird at the airport yesterday. Roger has arrived to join the teaching partnership and after a few days rest, will plunge into teaching third-year print editing. He will also co-teach a course in media ethics with a member of the faculty here. It was exciting to greet Roger and Ann at the airport and to show them Kigali, the road to Butare and finally Butare itself - the house we will be living in during our stay here, the main street, the university campus, the little office we share with Prof. Jean-Bosco Rushingabigwi and my favourite restaurant at the Ibis Hotel.

Truth be told, I spent most of the time since my arrival on Saturday morning fussing around trying to set up our house and make arrangements so that things would be just right for Roger and Ann. The house is a nice four-bedroom bungalow, just on the edge of town. It is comfortable, but not lavish, nothing like some of the mansions down the street. For the most part, the house is furnished. But I was determined to set up little home offices, for Roger and myself. We’ll be spending a lot of time in the evenings, marking and doing lesson plans. So the other day I set off with Jean-Pierre Gatsinzi in search of two basic desks. I’d seen a couple of them at the side of the road at a woodworking shop, right across the Credo Hotel, where I spent the first few days in Butare. Ah, the saga of the desks.

The desks I wanted — rough-hewn wooden ones that looked as if they’d been made the day before — had already been sold to someone else, the man in blue overalls said. They had a couple more desks in the back, but they were a bit larger and had been stained an awful red colour. We decided to shop around. As it turns out, there is only one other place in Butare that makes furniture, a sprawling woodworking shop behind the cathedral, property of the Catholic church. The shop was the size of a hockey arena and was jammed with odds and ends of furniture, mostly primary school desks but alas, nothing that would work in my home office. So, back we went to purchase the ugly red desks at the first place. We rounded up a truck, Jean-Pierre went to the bank to change some money for me and workers at the shop began loading the desks into the back of the vehicle — an operation in itself. Just as we were tying the last knot on a rope to hold the desks in place, a passerby began screaming at the top of his lungs in Kinyarwanda. As I learned momentarily, he was saying something along the lines of: “what the hell are you doing with my desks, those are my desks so what are they doing in your truck,’’ then in French, as he stormed into the woodworking shop, hollering: “j’ai deja paye” (I already paid). Chortling, the workers from the shop dutifully untied the ropes, unloaded the desks and carted them back into the shop. I retrieved Jean-Pierre from the bank and he had a ‘conversation’ with the manager of the woodworking shop. The two desks I’d had my eye on in the morning where still sitting there, so I suggested to Jean-Pierre that we take those instead. “You already sold me two desks that had been sold to someone else, so why can’t you give me those two desks that were already sold to someone else.” Money changed hands and the desks were piled into the back of the pickup, where they were joined moments later by my three gigantic suitcases from the hotel.

Like the Rwandan version of the Beverly Hillbillies, we made our way up the main street of Butare, to my new, temporary home on the edge of town. I have well and truly arrived.


January 5, 2006 - Rwanda bound

This return journey to Rwanda has been a long time coming. Loaded down with three enormous suitcases (thank you KLM), I am bound for Butare, in southern Rwanda, to launch a journalism teaching partnership between Carleton University — my employer — and the National University of Rwanda. One suitcase contains my entire collection of beige pants and blue shirts. The other two are packed with laptop computers and a data projector (donated by the Carleton Cares program, my faculty and The Ottawa Citizen), about 75 lbs of textbooks and 100 toys selected with care from the collection of my six-year-old son Laith. (The toys are for an orphanage in Butare.) This will be my fifth visit to Rwanda.

Up to now, Laith has taken my travels and those of his equally busy Mom in stride. His usual strategy is to extract a promise to bring back presents as the price of his acquiescence. This time was different. For two days, Laith pleaded for a chance to come along. “I can pack my bags really quickly Daddy, you’ll see. It will be ‘easy-peezy, lemon-squeezy.’ “ My pledge to try and take him along next time got me nowhere. In the end, after a lot of tears, we all hugged and kissed and said goodbye, but with more misgivings than usual.

I will be in Butare for a month, teaching a fourth-year print reporting course and officially launching this teaching partnership. I will be joined in a week or so by Roger Bird, a retired journalism prof from Carleton for whom I worked as a teaching assistant 20 years ago, when I was doing my degree at Carleton. Roger’s wife Ann is joining him as well and we will all be roommates in a house the university is renting for us in Butare. In February, Montreal Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery and CBC producer Sylvia Thomson will also come on board. (We will all be blogging to the Rwanda Initiative website).

The idea for this journalism teaching partnership first emerged in late 2003, not long after I left my fulltime employ at The Star for a teaching position at Carleton.

Katherine Graham, the Dean of Carleton’s Faculty of Public Affairs and Management, encouraged me to organize a conference on the role of the media in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. While pulling together that event, I came in contact with Jean-Pierre Gatsinzi and Ines Mpambara, two faculty members at the School of Journalism and Communication in Butare. I wanted their input on the March 13, 2004 symposium, which brought together an international group of experts to discuss the role of media inside and outside Rwanda during the genocide.

Both Ines (who has since left the university) and Jean-Pierre encouraged me to try to find a way to have Canadian teachers travel to the university in Butare, as visiting lecturers. The director of our school, Prof. Chris Dornan, gave me the green light to go ahead. Then came the hard part - paying for it.

The International Development Research Centre, which helped fund the conference, agreed to pay for some research on how to implement the teaching project. And the Human Security Program at Foreign Affairs Canada is funding this first phase of the project itself. I went to Butare in June for a round of meetings with university officials and near daily trips up to the capital, Kigali, to outline the proposal for the ministers of education and communications and the head of the government information agency. Everyone greeted the proposal with enthusiasm and all asked that in addition to helping teach journalism students at the university, we also conduct training workshops with working journalists in Kigali. So, that’s what we’ll be doing.

As I have explained to Roger, Sue and Sylvia, this teaching gig in Butare is a bit of a blind date. I’ve been to Butare before, but only for a few days at a time and my colleagues have not been to Rwanda at all. We all know what our teaching assignments are - in theory. But we know little more than the names of the courses that have been assigned and have no idea how many days a week we will have to teach, or in what circumstances.

The National University of Rwanda has a very pleasant campus with bright, airy classrooms. But students don’t have the same easy access to computers and the internet that Carleton students now take for granted. Hence, the drive to collect laptop computers, the data projector and other equipment to enhance the teaching experience on the ground. Inspired by the Canadian Tire geek, Roger and I each purchased one of those Motomaster power packs that promise to suck up electricity when the lights are on, then provide a source of power for computers and equipment during power outages, which are frequent in Butare. We’ll see how that goes.

And so, the journey begins: KLM bus from Ottawa to catch my flight at Trudeau airport in Montreal, stops in Amsterdam and Nairobi and finally, Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills.



February 3, 2006 — Goodbye Rwanda, until next time

February 1, 2006 — Nairobi

January 31, 2006 — A drive
in the country

January 30, 2006 — Rules of the road

January 25, 2006 — Media training

January 24, 2006 — The field trip

January 22, 2006 — Murambi

January 19, 2006 — Taxi?

January 17, 2006 — Looking
for lecterns

January 15, 2006 —
Underestimated students

January 13, 2006 — First class

January 12, 2006 — The desk saga

January 5, 2006 — Rwanda bound




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