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NUR School of Journalism
and Communication

Sylvia Thomson,
CBC Producer

Sylvia Thomson's Notes From the Field

March 20, 2006 — A drive in the country

His name was Veronique but now it’s Vincent.

Just as I am getting used to Rwanda I realize the surprises just keep on coming.

Today I was out for a long drive, far off the main paved road, into the countryside, south of Butare. Solange and Nicolas were filming a doc about Bernard, an old man - how old I don’t know, neither did he, although he knows he was born in the time of Hitler because he heard people talking about him…that’s the way it goes here…born in a certain historical period…not too precise. Anyway, Bernard was run out of the country in 1959 along with many other Tutsis, whose neighbours wanted them dead. He left on foot, in the middle of the night, when he was probably around 20 years old with his family. He walked all the way to Burundi. His and his father’s house were later burned.

He lived there until 1994 when he came back to resettle at home. Only, home was no longer home. Because he left the land his father owned and because the house was burned down, the government took the land for its own. Unless you had a house or other identifiable structure on your land you can not reclaim it. Also he had been away too long to reclaim it. So, when he came back he was moved into a new community built by some wing of the Rotary club. He can still work the land but its not his land, he works on a communal farm owned by someone else.

My students are doing a doc about his life, his (useless) dream of getting his land back. So they decided to take Bernard (with his 12-year-old-hat with “seahorse” written on the ribbon around the brim...so oddly common here) back to “his” land.

Once we got off the main road to Burundi, we drove and drove and drove. I am amazed the taxi man kept driving his little white car. I would have insisted it was too hard on the vehicule. We crossed wooden bridges I might not have walked over. We drove over ditches and through huge puddles and over crevasses and huge rocks in the road. Finally Bernard told the taxi to pull over. We got out of the car and walked and walked up a hill dodging cattle with huge pointed and elegant horns. He greeted people at some of the dung or red dirt houses. He knew these people, here in the middle of nowhere, nestled on the side of a stunning hill overlooking a spectacular valley with a river running through it. The air was crisp. It was like paradise. A poor paradise.

We got to his land. He stopped. Looked over it and started telling his story to Nicolas and Solange. He pointed to the banana trees where his dad’s house used to stand and to the field of low growth where his house was. He pointed to the terrasses below - land he says he owned where he grew onions. People came by to greet him. He said he would greet everyone nicely but he knew these were the same people who wanted him dead back in 1959. Indeed, many of the men came out of nowhere wearing hats, suit jackets and canes and looked about his age. He too was wearing a hat and perhaps his best navy, ironed dress pants and proper shoes and a blazer to go with his sea horse hat.

All his brothers and sisters were killed in the genocide. He and his wife came back in 1994 to resettle, reclaim their land but they found the law wasn’t on their side and they were, instead, given a Rotary club house.

Meanwhile kids and young popped out of nowhere to look at me and ask me to take their photos while they danced, posed, held a baby to a very young yet already drooping breast.

Then we headed back down the hill to the taxi and took a “shortcut” home. Bernard knew the dirt road back to Butare. No one else in the car had ever been on any of the roads. At one point we passed a massive Catholic, red brick seminary, literally in the middle of nowhere and I was reminded of how much property the Catholic church owns in this country.

Then we passed a man on the dirt road and Bernard yelled out something in Kinyarwanda. Then he turned in the car and started telling Solange and Nicolas the story of the man we had just passed.

He was born a she, born Veronique. Later in life she changed into a man, Vincent. He had both sexes apparently and was the father of around 30 children by different women.


March 9, 2006 — Two per bed

I began teaching a new class yesterday to the fourth year students. Only seven of them showed up. Several things might have kept the missing two away: it was the first class, it was Wednesday so Gacaca was on, and some other mysterious thing could have kept Sixbert and Edouard away. I know these students already, from Allan having them over on my second day in the country. They are a great group that seems to get along very well, dance well and have lots of fun.

I launched them into the idea that they will make reality TV documentaries, following one person through a day or two, a person whose life is interesting in some way but who also tells some kind of larger story. This was the bright idea of an old journalism school classmate of mine who answered my email question about how I could possibly get the students to put together their own 15 minute documentary in a three-week course. We shall see how it pans out.

We watched a documentary about James Orbinsky's return to Rwanda on the 10th anniversary as a very good example of following someone doing something interesting. Then we called it a day.

Four of the students: Egide, Leon, Solange and Nicolas took me around for an impromptu tour of campus. They showed me the girls dorm, Viet (named after the country as it was built during the war between US and Viet Nam), and pointed out the room where Nicolas and Solange first "met." Then we went over to Egide's room where we took a bunch of photos with all of us sitting on his tiny bed which he shares with Sixbert (I still find it hard to imagine two of them sleeping in the same tiny, single bed), especially since Egide is built like a football player. There were two, nearly identical boom boxes in the room and Bob Marley and Che Guevera posters on the wall — some things are the same everywhere.

Then we visited Leon and Charles' single room. They sleep together as well.

We went to Diane's room, she also shares a bed with a journalism student, Providence.

After the tour of the dorms, Viet, Cambodge and Titanic (where there are six in bunks per room and condoms in the washroom), we went over to the faculty of medicine to watch a concert by a pianist woman from Vancouver who played a lot of classical and some jazz and a couple of pieces accompanied by Rwanda drummers. These last pieces were the best received.


March 7, 2006 — Kibungo

"Have a safe journey," a few of my students said, when I told them I was going to Kibungo.

It was as though 'going to Kibungo' were a large and unchartered journey. Perhaps it is to them.

Or perhaps it's just that people are more conscious and concerned about each other's trips here than at home.

Or a final option: they were concerned because of the reputation of Kibungo. You can't double cross a girl from Kibungo, legend goes, or you might wake up to find yourself in a tree. Kibungo is the "magic" place in Rwanda which I gather means that more kinds of witchcraft, voodoo or what-have-you happens there. A couple of the third year students are from there. Their classmates tease them that they don't travel by bus or airplane but rather by some kind of magic flight. These are the first stories I've heard about magic — other than the stories from Congo where there are "urban legends" of humans transformed into cats and dogs who talk, people who buy and sell thunder and others who are cured of illness from a long distance.

I was going to do a "needs assessment" of a small community radio station, Radio Izuba, for Journalists for Human Rights.

It was my first solo trip in the country so I had lots of time for my own thoughts.

I took the Volcano, which I am becoming increasingly fond of for its punctuality and comfort. The only downside is that sometimes, still, the music is too loud. Today, the song, Poor Black John, came across the radio. I like the tune but the lyrics, translated and sung in Kinyarwanda (except for the refrain 'Poor Black John') are ironic.

As we headed out of town two guys on a motorbike zipped ahead of us. The man on the back waved his arm at the bus driver who then pulled over. He jumped off the bike, sweating, and hopped onto the bus with his ticket. This is what happens with the punctual Volcano — often.

A white pick up drove past. It had a big, wood cross sticking up behind the cab. Six people sat on the sides, in the back, with a coffin, lying draped in purple fabric in the centre. Purple is the colour of mourning, not black, here. I was reminded that I was leaving behind the sad stories of the second year student whose husband just died and the fourth year student whose little sister had fallen into what appears to be some kind of religious, psychotic trance. When I expressed sadness at these stories the reply came, "This is Africa."

Sitting two seats over was a man with a big dent in the back of his skull and a long, neat scar running through it. The man in front of me had six scars on the back of his neck which looked like raised, long dashes. Every trip I see people walking along the road on crutches, missing a leg. There are very evocative, yet healed, wounds everywhere. The one which sticks most in my head is the beggar in Kigali who comes around the Volcano looking for money. He sticks his two arms through the windows, pleading. He has no hands. Just healed stumps. He is missing one eyeball.

We drive by a semi which obviously ran off the road by accident. It is bright yellow and perfectly flipped over onto its back. It's as though a boy were playing with a yellow toy truck and just dropped it upside down and walked away. How did it happen? Was anyone hurt? I've seen a number of trucks which have run off the road in odd looking situations but I've never seen one so perfectly in tact and completely flipped on its back.

I made a connection in Kigali and took the time there to have lunch and hunt down some saline solution (you can't buy it in Butare). I was walking around town looking for a pharmacy, ignoring the calls of 'Muzungu!' and 'Sister!' and occasionally 'She!' (I like this one best), when a man I passed started talking to me.

"Why are you walking so quickly?"

He had just graduated from University in Butare, in law, and was looking for a job. He walked me over to a clinic where I was then pointed to another pharmacy. I walked there to find they had just sold the last bottle. So they sent me to another pharmacy which then sent me to an optometrist. It was 45 minutes later. But, there, sitting on the shelf, was a lonely bottle. The price, I asked? 20 bucks. For a small bottle. I said I would shop around, thinking what-the-hell, 'shop around?' That could take hours. But still, I declined to buy it deciding to take up the hunt the next day, on my way home.

I got on the tiny, bright yellow, Stella bus, bound for Kibungo. It was midday and hot. The bus was the size of a minivan and had five rows of seats. We sat four across. It was not wide enough to fit all our shoulders so I leant forward and fell asleep on my arms on the back of the seat in front of me.

As we got close to Kibungo people jumped out at various stops. Then it was just me and the driver and the woman in the front seat and I was half way out of the bus at a stop that looked like it could have been Kibungo, how was I to know? The driver turned and asked me where I was going, I'm not sure in what language. I smiled and said Radio Izuba. He gestured for me to close the door and get back into the bus. He turned it around, drove for five minutes up a hill and dropped me right in front of the radio station.

I got off the bus. Was aware I was finally stretching my legs which had been pressed into the seat in front of me. Spoke to the secretary. The director, Clement, wasn't there. He was being sworn in as a new secretary for the district. I took a little tour of the place. It's really just one studio in a building which could accommodate more. It's got the latest computer and editing system. But only one. Everything looks brand new. USAID stickers on all the gear.

Clement arrived in a big white land rover type vehicle. He wore pointy black leather shoes, pin stripe pants, a blue shirt and a short, fat shiny blue tie. He had a big Nokia cell phone/blackberry type device. And a brand new laptop in his office.

He was a 33 year old bachelor — something people in town didn't understand.

We spoke about the radio station at some length. Most small community radio stations in the country are decentralized branches of the state owned Radio Rwanda. Radio Izuba, on the other hand, is a "real community radio," he said. Radio by and for the people. It organizes 'clubs d'ecoutes' (listener clubs) to act as link between the community and the station. It needs more bicycles and radios to set up these clubs and the 'points d'ecoutes'. It also needs training in how to use and maintain the equipment as well as in journalism. None of the journalists there have any professional training. Some students from the university go there to do their internships.

Then Clement took me to the Umbrella Pine hotel, reserved by Emmanuel, one of my students who comes from Kibungo. His uncle, Alfred runs the hotel. It was a mini tropical garden hotel with bright lights flashing on and off, hanging from the roof's edge. The clock over the bar was fixed at 11:12. There was much negotiation between Alfred and Clement. It seems the rooms were all full. Eventually Alfred gave me a key to his own room. There was a big, pink-draped bed, a fax machine, and various posters of Jesus on the walls.

Clement's cell phone rang every five minutes. People calling to congratulate him on his swearing in? I think, out of Rwandan politeness, he stayed with me for beer — he drank Bell, from Uganda - and then fish brochettes and plantains because I was starving. I told him he didn't have to stay with me and that I was sorry to hijack his evening especially the night of his big swearing in. He said it was no bother and he wasn't Rwandan in that way. He would go in half an hour.

He spoke about how he went to Uganda as a refugee in 1959 and then returned in 1995, to the land of milk and honey, Rwanda. I asked him what it was like to come back afterwards. He said everyone's scars were fresh then, unlike the healed over ones I had remarked on, on my bus trip. Some of his sisters and brothers in Rwanda had been killed. Even his sister who was married to a prince, and thus thought she would be safe, was killed. But still he was happy to come "home." In Uganda he was always treated differently, like a refugee. At the university which he started, in Butare, in 1995, there was a lack of teachers. If you can imagine, he told me, some professors killed their students. And many of the professors were killed. So the university in 1995 was full of foreign profs to fill in the gaps.

He stayed with me for three hours.

The next morning hot coffee and cold toast was waiting for me at a table with a plastic covered giraffe patterned tablecloth. The server was obviously gay and wore a Celine Dion T shirt. So we talked a bit about Canada. You can't really be gay in Rwanda so he left me wondering. It's illegal here and everyone denies it even exists in any natural way.

I caught the Stella at 9 am and began the long journey home. I stopped through Kigali, picked up that 20 dollar bottle of saline (people don't wear contacts here), a bottle of Cinzano, a bar of dark chocolate, capers and some real bread . . . all from the grocery store beside l'ecole Belge. All total luxuries which I afforded myself. That along with lunch at a tiny Indian restaurant, Ice and Spice, which was amazing on many fronts. It had a large vegetarian menu, the lassie was awesome, I hadn't had 'ethnic' food since I arrived here and the spices were very welcome. Plus the candle the waitress brought over and lit at my little table in the middle of the day was very cute.

Little things like that keep surprising me, here.


February 27, 2006 — Good bye Canadians

My roommates over the past month left, yesterday, in African style. That is to say, they thought everything was perfectly planned but then a wrench was thrown into their plan.

They had organized for a car to pick them up at 9 am to drive Sue directly to the airport and Roger and Ann to a hotel (they planned a last day and night in Kigali, before flying home, the next day).

I hear it didn’t quite work out that way.

By 9:30 am the car hadn’t arrived. At 10:15 I ran into the journalism school director, Jean Pierre Gatsinzi, at school. He was rushing off to get gas for the car that was to take them all to the airport. He assured me he had checked three days in a row to be sure the university car would be there ready at 9 am for the pickup.

From the story I can patch together from the driver and Gatsinzi, the promised car never arrived. A pick up was sent - late and with no gas. And it was raining. So all the bags in the back would get soaked. Someone ran off to buy some plastic sheeting to cover the bags. Time was ticking for Sue’s flight departure.

I hear Roger got mad. And that Sue said something like “Africa is a constant adventure.” And that was true to the very end of their stay. You really have to be able to roll with whatever gets thrown your way to get along here. There’s no point fighting the seeming disorganization. The best skill for survival and happiness is adaptability, making things work when they are broken, finding a second solution -whatever you call it.

Sue made her flight and Roger and Ann made it to Kigali, albeit a bit later than they hoped.

I will miss my constant partners. We shared common experiences and insights over meals, during hilly road trips, at house parties and while working together in the computer lab (where we groaned each time the power went out while the Rwandans sat there, mostly, quietly).

We held a going away party at the house. There were, of course, many speeches including a tearful goodbye from Sue. She said she was deeply moved by her students, by their intelligence and their lively spirit, especially given the horrible things they had survived in their short lives and their relative poverty. She said she wished Canadians could have half the spirit Rwandans have.

Roger and Sue were both given gifts. Roger, I think, was very touched by the stately, African walking stick. A very thoughtful gift, I thought, for the elder, PhD, hiker.

I would be a bit lonely if it weren’t for the attention of the students and everyone else who is concerned about me being alone.

I’m also kind of welcoming the chance to experience this without other Canadians reinforcing Canadian ideas and impressions of the place. I’m extending my stay. Who needs to return to minus 30 wind-chill when there is so much sun and so much to teach and learn here?


February 25, 2006 — Kigali

We barely made the Volcano bus to Kigali. Volcano, is, I learned from a student’s assignment, the most efficient, punctual and expensive bus company in the country. Tickets for the two and a half hour ride cost two dollars.

Some things here run late:

the other bus companies. The tickets we had for the Yahoo bus to Burundi were for 9 am although the bus was to leave at 9 h 30 and eventually only left after 10h00. It cost five dollars for a cramped, four and a half hour trip.

students, who seem to think class start time is anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes after the scheduled start.

and anyone who says they will be five minutes could really be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.

But the Volcano is something you don’t want to mess with. The two dollar, very comfortable trip to Kigali leaves on time or leaves you behind.

Sue and I barely made it. The past days have been nothing short of manic. So much going on at once. But work was left behind and we were on our way to see a concert in Kigali and then to the north to visit the gorillas this weekend.

I sat beside one of the fourth year students, Prosper, for part of the ride up. He’s preparing his “memoire,” the long written assignment the undergrads complete after their course work is done. His topic? An analysis of the editorial cartoons that ran in various newspapers leading up to the genocide.

As I mentioned the past days have been a whirlwind. I spent time grading final TV reports on the election. As well as time with Nicolas and Solange, the only declared couple among the students, to talk about some possible places on CBC where they could pitch stories. Nicolas is working on Radio Canada International and Solange on a pitch to CBC’s Global Village.

The students here have the skills and resources to put together interesting stories from Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi, Condo and Uganda, even. I want them to get their pitches in before I leave, to get the ball rolling.

They can pitch their radio stories to private and state radio here too but they face some hurdles. When I suggested one student pitch his story to Radio Rwanda he said it was impossible, RR would probably ask the student to pay it to run his story.

Right now the class is working on a special Business in Butare radio broadcast. Their topics are :

The motorcycle taxi business. The small bikes, “the goats,” are competing with the bigger ones. Both face government regulations which forbid them from operating on all holidays - there were 10 out of the 28 days of Feb.

Shema Fruit, the organic fruit juice and jam company which was founded by Canadian and Belgium expats as a co-op to help genocide widows associations (who pick fruit) but then turned into a private business when the co op failed.

The business of the Catholic church. The church has a share in the city market, gas stations, a micro credit business and much more. This topic the students didn’t want to tackle, “No one will talk to you about it….it’s very secretive.” Sounds like a good story I said. Finally, the class president, Emmanuel, volunteered. His interview with the local church has been put off five times.

The business of traditional dance. A national dance group works out of the huge national museum in Butare, and give shows around the world. Dancers have day jobs doing small jobs at the museum but face being laid off as the government has announced a 60% cut to public service (including 415 laid off at the University). Will the dancers main jobs be cut? Will they survive on the tiny supplement they are paid for dancing, alone?

The carpentry business. Constant electricity outages wreak havoc on the business which is heavily dependant on electric saws. The business is also affected by new logging rules and limited wood supply...causing furniture prices to skyrocket.

We arrived in Kigali at 4 pm to check into the Beausejour hotel. Sue got into it with the front desk because they wouldn’t let us sleep in the same bed, instead charging us more for a room with two single beds that were, in effect, an inch apart. What if we were married asked Sue? That’s illegal, here, came the response.

I went out to meet the previous director of the school of journalism, a young woman, Ines Mpambara, who did her masters on a Fulbright in Ohio, in development communication. Roger had told me he thought she was the smartest person he’s spoken with, in the country.

She now works for the Minister of Health and is launching public health campaigns like ads encouraging Rwandans not to shake hands so much…..there’s much in the way of handholding, shaking, rubbing for various greetings here. She’s also working on a US grant application to gets funds to train health beat reporters at various media outlets. As it stands now, in Rwanda, there are some beat reporters: environment, reconciliation, and sports. But few with the health beat. We also spoke about a Bill Gates-funded project to study the feasibility of creating a sub Saharan health news service to promote the latest health surveys through the media. Something I had been talking to the Institute of Population Health, in Ottawa about, before I left.

Ines had lived in Canada with her family and decided to return to Rwanda. Her mom was visiting from Montreal to help her take care of her newborn son. She said Ines is the only child who decided to return.

We went to the Golden Pen journalism awards at the brand new Intercontinental Hotel. I felt like the country mouse gone to the city. Everyone greeted Ines warmly…from the Minister of Information to heads of news organizations.

There were diplomats, people in suits, canapés and drinks on silver trays. Hostesses wore white with gold saris draped over their shoulders. I’m just not sure how many regular journalists were there. Unfortunately the speeches were too long and numerous for me to endure so I left.

I met Solange and Sue at the Franco Rwanda Cultural Centre for a concert by Sur La Terre, a very popular music group. Solange was going to do some interviews about the music and pitch a piece to Global Village about the group and its funny, modern, and traditional music about having fun and avoiding AIDS. Solange interviewed Minani, the lead singer and introduced me to him. Turned out, he said, he had spent some time in Canada. In Montreal, in fact, he said. Oh, did you play at the Jazz Fest, I asked. No, came the reply, we were at Parc Safari for four weeks.

Weird. On many levels.


February 24, 2006 — Everyone wants something

Does anyone here like me? Or do people befriend me because, in the end, they want something from me? When they look at me do they see nothing but dollar signs?

The constant approaches for money have got me down. Does everyone who asks really need it? Are stories being made up to get cash from the Muzungu? Is everyone working me?

I suppose it’s like Allan said in an email. “Now you know what it must feel like to be a millionaire here at home.”


February 21, 2006 — My mom’s doll

Sue and I had a bunch of kid stuff to give away and a new friend, Leopold, who works a the World Food Program, found a good place to drop the gifts.

He took us to a section of the Butare hospital where malnourished kids come, often with their moms, for a month at a time, to get re-nourished. As there is a draught and a near famine in parts of the country now, there were plenty of kids here.

The first thing I noticed were the blond eyelashes. Then the blond hair. Black kids’ hair loses its pigment when there aren’t enough vitamins or minerals. Then I noticed a tiny kid with an iv receptor taped to its forehead. Leopold explained that the vein in the forehead is the only one big enough to take the injection in many malnourished kids…so they get their food that way.

When we arrived trucking a big suitcase on wheels behind us, the woman started to sit in rows on the benches in the courtyard, quietly looking forward as though a speech were about to begin. This I supposed is the custom when white people arrive with gifts. Leopold jumped into action explaining in Kinyarwanda that we were from Canada and how Sue had brought a stack of her kids clothes to give away.

Then we started dishing out the clothes and toys so that everyone got something. I gave a young boy a Scooby Doo book which Allan’s son gave him before he left. To give to a kid in Rwanda. I took a photo of the boy holding it, to send to Allan.

I had another special gift to give away. My mom had given me an old doll with a sack full of clothes handmade by her great aunt. She asked me to give this to a special girl, here. I found a young girl with a baby strapped to her back and gave the one foot tall doll to her. There was much excitement about the doll and the bag of clothes was quickly being unpacked by many hands. One woman held up a hand knit wool sweater, in curiousity. I thought they simply liked the doll but then quickly realized they were picking through the doll clothes for clothes that would fit their children.


February 19, 2006 — Bujumbura

Sue and I didn’t know what to do this weekend but decided on a trip to neighbouring, sister-country Burundi, at the last moment.

We took a five-dollar, crammed Yahoo bus. There was a live chicken under a woman’s seat in the back. Thoughts of the first case of bird flu in Rwanda did cross my mind.

We weren’t sure exactly what would happen at the border. Turns out we had to get off the bus and line up at Rwanda customs to exit the country. Then we walked across a bridge, past a barrier to a second window where we lined up to deal the Burundi officials and pay them 20 dollars for a visa. One woman clearly thought nothing of the lines and thought she should be first…..so she simply went to the head of the line and reached her arm over and around us all to stick her document in the official’s face. Good thing I have long arms, too. I am getting into the shove-my-way-to-the-front way of thinking - that, despite rumblings in line behind us that the Muzungus were going to hold up the process for everyone on the bus. We didn’t.

Bujumbura looked very run down, like a country coming out of war - not that I have a clue what that looks like from any real experience. The UN was everywhere in its huge white Land Rovers and transport vehicles. It has so much money. And seemingly, not so much to do. I met one of the UN soldiers, a short man from Paraguay, in the Havana night club that night. When I asked him what exactly he did with the UN he answered, nothing, adding he shouldn’t be telling that to a journalist. It was interesting to watch the UN guys at the bar with the young Burundi women. There is some resent by the Burundi men on this front as they can’t compete with the coveted UN salaries.

We stayed at a beach resort, Saga Plage, across from UN HQ. I can only describe it as an African hotel…with little curtained off salons with low wooden chairs, colourful embroidered fabrics separating it from bed room…and TV...Finally!!! I turned it on. The Burundi news cast featured a woman reading scripts with a beach scene backdrop, including palm tree. It was on a lake. You could see Congo across the way. But apparently you aren’t supposed to swim too far out because there is a crocodile, Mister Gustav, in the water. We did go swimming on the Monday morning. We were alone on the beach when suddenly a swarm of students came up to the shore of the water and started asking us all kinds of questions. It was surreal.

Other than them I met two men from Zimbabwe visiting for a football match of CAPS International, on the club circuit. They were owner and manager. One worked for or owned Central Africa Pharmaceutical society…hence the name of the team. They were wearing black, pressed pants, shirts, shiny belt buckles. We talked a bit about Rwanda and how beautiful and resorty it is at Lake Kivu, in Kibuye.

I’ve also got to mention our encounter with Elvis, the taxi driver. He was our driver slash bodyguard all weekend. He was happier, he said, that I bought him a loaf of bread one night for his kids and gave him a tiny sack of homegrown Burundi peanuts than with the 20 dollar tip at the end of the weekend. I believed him. He wore a very nice Timberland shirt. Which he bought in Kenya. He tried to explain the situation with the FNL (front national de liberation) to me : still armed and occasional uprisings, hence the UN and the midnight curfew. The UN is good to stop the war, he said, but bad for stealing all the women away from the Burundi men. The woman like their money.


February 14, 2006 — Children/Marambi Memorial

There’s a thin layer of red dust on everything here but the students keep their sneakers ultra white. It’s the style, I learned, the hard way. Yesterday, when I went to grab my running gear my shoes were nowhere in sight. The housekeeper, Annie, had them in the washing machine…they had a bit of mud on them from a hike, on Sunday, in the national forest, in Nyungwe, and she assumed I would like mine ultra white, as well.

Today when I came home the shoes were dry and as white as the day they came out of the box. Could she have used shoe polish on them?

I took them out for run tonight along the red dirt road — which is now two shades darker and less dusty because of the rain. It was drizzling so I thought I might not come across as many people, as many stares. The looks are friendly and I am getting used to them but still, it’s nice to be a tiny bit anonymous. Last time I went for a run in Taba, our neighbourhood, kids were coming home from school in their royal blue uniforms and there was a constant stream of “bonjour”s from them. Every now and then I would come across a white person. A woman from the UNHCR house walking her dog, another woman in hippy clothes heading presumably to CARE or one of the other NGO or religion-based charity houses in this neighbourhood. When I see a white person my instinct is to say “hi, where are you from? What are you doing here?” but their instinct is, most often, to not make eye contact with me and keep on walking. Weird. Perhaps they have been here a long time.

Sometimes I catch a child’s glance — usually in a smaller village — and it’s like the kid has never seen a white person before. There’s a look of awe. The mom’s usually stop and point me out to the kids and watch as I walk by. They are stunned.

A boy on a bike tagged along tonight, on the other side of the divided, bumpy, rocky dirt road. He yelled “courage, courage,” from time to time, in French. We split at the main road. On my way back, two school boys ran alongside me. One limping. Both with school backpacks. The smaller one said “Comment ca va?” in very deliberate French.

The company was welcome, friendly. I really am never alone, here. Sometimes when we drive through the country (with Roger, Ann and Sue) we stop to take pictures in the middle of nowhere, overlooking a tea plantation or a spectacular valley, and then a bunch of kids just pop up over the edge of the road and come running at us, smiling and laughing….out of nowhere.

It happened this weekend on the way back from the forest. One kid was wearing only a floor-length sweatshirt with the way-too-long sleeves pushed up. He had the cutest, heart-tugging smile. I loved him in a second despite the dirt on his face and body. Something about him made tears swell in my eyes. He was so happy and didn’t have any of the latest gizmos kids at home whine and plead for.

After the forest and the kid stop, we went to, Marambi, a genocide memorial which houses hundreds of the bodies from 1994. They lie -- coated in white lime -- on low racks, in room after room, of sparse, cinder-block buildings. A few have hair still stuck on their scalps. One held up a hand with a now too big wedding ring on it. There were babies and children missing parts of their skulls. Some had no feet. Many of them look flattened, crushed.

I took photos.

There’s also a building with two clothes lines ladden with the clothes people wore when they were killed. There are no fine clothes on the line as they were taken by the killers. It’s really a clothes line of rags.

Beside the buildings is a huge, deep pit where the bodies were exhumed. I assume some of the bodies look so flattened because of the weight of the bodies that were piled on top of them.

We were guided around the site by two men. Both seemed drunk. They creeped me out. One answered questions but never made eye contact. One had what I swear is a bullet hole in his forehead. When he greeted us he lifted his baseball cap, exposing it, to say hello. His wife and entire family was killed in front of him, in 1994.

How do these guys do this job?

Later that night, at home, I cried about the bodies at the memorial, the photos in my camera.

Still later, when the power went out, Sue and I plugged her computer into our Canadian Tire battery pack, by candle light. We downloaded the photos of the day : the forest, the cute boy in the long sweatshirt and the shots from Marambi.

Perhaps because of the weak power supply the photos popped up on her computer in jumbled order. The boy with the knock-out smile came up right in the middle of the Marambi shots, in fact, right beside a shot of a dead, lime-covered baby, lying on a rack.

I went to bed troubled that night.


February 10, 2006 — Road trip to Kigali

“Is there press freedom in Rwanda?”


“Is there access to information?”


My student, Jean Claude, peppered one of the journalists we met in Kigali.

We made the trip to visit an international TV production house, the government-backed Radio Rwanda and the private City Radio.

The journalist explained his answers.

He had recently produced a story about a cholera outbreak. He described the steps he took to cover. To begin, he called the authority, the Minister of Health. He asked for information and numbers of people affected. He was shut down from the start -- given no information; the Minister refused, completely, to talk to journalists. So he visited the affected area, collected his own statistics as best he could and reported on them and the story as he saw it.

The day the story aired the Health Ministry called to scold him. It held a press conference that night to release its figures. They didn’t jive with his.

Doing journalism here baffles me. How do you get the facts? For a simple question like the price of a private drive from Butare to Lake Kivu, I might get five different answers if I asked five people. And all answers with the authority of the truth. Who can a journalist rely on for unbiased, fact-based opinion? Does the journalist have to do all the primary work of say Stats Can and the Health Ministry before being able to make a report? And if so, how can a journalist possibly report on breaking news?

My students tell me that, for example, when covering an election issue such as the tax policy of the various candidates you can’t do what you might do in Canada: call up the smartest, most unpartisan tax lawyers/economists/professors in the country and drill them for their research and analysis. Everyone has an agenda. And many government authorities simply won’t talk to you. The agenda bit is, of course, true in Canada too and this is a good lesson, in that regard.

When we arrived at Radio Rwanda, right behind the US embassy, we had to wait at the gate for 20 minutes or so in the scorching sun, fork over each of our identity cards (including my passport) to guards with machine guns and unfriendly faces, and then pass by the gate one by one as our names were read off our identity cards.

The place was like a bunker. But the students were fascinated by the equipment and how everything worked. One said it would be an honour to work at the nation’s radio station. Another said he would never want to work at a place like because you would be under the arm of government. One student said if you watch Radio Rwanda, TV Rwanda and read the New Times you will get exactly the same stories : mostly press-release, unquestioning, government-messaged stories.

There was lots of the good old-fashioned tape and razor blades as well as a digital editing system. The remote truck was interesting. Apparently there were three such trucks before “the war” (the word people use for the genocide) but the government made off with two of them to spread hate messages and Radio Rwanda hasn’t seen them since. RTLM and Radio Rwanda were used during “the war.”

City Radio was cool. The few people working there looked like they belonged on Queen Street West or something. It’s a small operation but all digital. Lots of music and sports and some news.

We drove back home as the sun set in shades of red, grey and blue. Up and down and up and down along the best-paved, hilly road in the country. This is not the country of a ‘mille collines,’ it seems, but more like the country of a million hills, says Roger and Ann and its true. We made a couple of pit stops for students to get goat brochettes on sticks and banana beer and water. One student sat beside me in the front seat so I would have someone to talk to on the trip home. He told me his life story of growing up in Uganda after his parents left during an earlier Tutsi backlash, in 1959. He said everyone is Rwandan now and he believes the more people mix marriages the better for the country, the world. I asked him about the Catholic church and the genocide. He said it was hard to understand how some of the priests were involved in the genocide but that it was the individuals and not the church (or the religion) who were to blame.


February 8, 2006 — The University of Rwanda

You drive up a gentle hill lined with extremely tall trees — some eucalyptus, others a variety on Canada's pines — as you approach the main quad of the University of Rwanda . . . passing an on-campus genocide memorial.

The main building is an old, Belgian, white-washed quad with pinky-red painted doors, banisters and trim. The campus lawns are dotted with lush poinsettia trees in bloom and other flowering plants. The paths are red soil. Many of the students wear freshly pressed shirts and pants. There is an air of relaxed formality but no baseball caps or sunglasses or mugs of hot coffee.

Thick white columns line the outdoor hallway on the second of the two-storey building. Wood chairs, with attached armrest desks, sit in rows in the rooms; the classrooms have windows laced with flowery curtains which open to the air.

It's very picturesque. And it borders a huge old-growth arboretum which you can spot monkeys in, occasionally, if you are up early in the morning for a jog . . . the popular jog time is 5:30 a.m . . . I haven't quite made it, myself. The university had thought of lighting the arboretum paths at night but the students protested; couples finding it more romantic without the electric light.

The journalism department consists of a few offices for the director, secretary and professors. There is a TV/radio room on the other side of campus with not a single functioning TV editing system (they edit with Adobe 6 when they can get ahold of a computer with a video card). There are three Hi 8 cameras and one Mini DV . . . but no tape. So that was the first order of the day: buying tape in town.

Radio might be better equipped as a new campus radio station, Salus, was launched in the last year (although I heard the four tape editing systems dropped down to one when the systems broke down and the station plays music much of the day).

On my first day, a student asked if I had brought cameras for the class to use as well as computers with video cards for them to edit with. Unfortunately, my answer was 'no.'

I predict a few technical hurdles ahead.

From what I can tell, though I'm dealing with some very resourceful students who adapt quickly and can help overcome the hurdles.

The students seem very bright, dedicated to making a difference in Rwanda, passionate about journalism and quite a bit older than your average Canadian undergrad. Oh, yes, and they are 80 to 90 % male. As are the journalism teachers. Not surprising, then, that the first questions tossed my way in class were "What is it like to be a lady journalist?" and "Are you married?"


February 6, 2006 — Elections here and there

Monday, I was told, was another one of those surprise holidays which meant class would be cancelled.

You never know, week to week, which days the university will be closed for holidays. Although, one constant is that Gacaca, the ongoing community trials about the genocide, take place on Wednesdays. Sometimes the students go to present their evidence.

I broached the subject with the students on Friday, trying to plan ahead, for the next week’s TV reporting field trip, script writing and editing. They said Monday was a holiday because of the local elections but that they wanted to cover it as their field trip. I admired them for giving up their holiday to work…and for a political story to boot. So, I found myself, once again, rejigging the course plan. (The classes only vaguely resemble the outline I handed the students the first day. There has been a ton of improv. And I simply can’t cram everything I want to teach for radio and TV production into three surprise-holiday-riddled weeks.)

I took the class outside for the rest of class. We are jammed into a tiny TV studio which overheats me, daily. The students chose a spot in the shade under a tree. There, we brainstormed election story ideas. I asked them to come up with different focuses. They got excited, talking about the various “angles”: the voting system where voters literally line up behind the candidate of their choice -- to be counted, the campaign, an important issue and the problem some voters face in simply being able to walk the long distance to the voting station. A fourth year student, Solange, walked by, saw us sitting under the tree, and took photos. She said she wanted to send the photo to the website but didn’t want to give everyone the impression that in Rwanda university courses are held outside under trees.

Then we went over logistics. We decided the students should have some kind of signed letter from the university in case anyone asked them why they were filming. (A letter seems to grease the way for getting resident fees for park entries and inviting foreign journalists into the country - in fact, there’s a stamped, signed, sealed letter for everything.)

On Monday they shot their stories and came back to class for us to look at the pictures and interviews (all in Kinyarwanda). I was surprised to see rows of people lined up, about two metres behind each candidate. The candidates stood on school soccer pitches or in stadiums so there was plenty of room for the long lines. They looked straight ahead and were forbidden to turn around. They were not to know who voted for them. It was 30 some odd degrees on Monday and the voters had to wait in line sometimes for four or five hours to be counted. There was no shade.

Still, the voter turnout was over 70 %.

The next day, I showed them tape I brought from home of the election debate and the kinds of stories CBC spun out of it.

The students loved watching the debate. They laughed at Gilles Duceppe’s English. They listened intently to Jack Layton. They said he was confident and said good things. And besides, piped up Astrida, the one woman in class, “He is handsome.” They watched Harper attack Martin and when the camera went to a wider shot showing Martin’s body language, they laughed spontaneously. Some things are apparent, even in Rwanda. They were intrigued by all the talk of scandal and investigations.

In the end, one student said, “We vote for Jack Layton. Why didn’t Canadians elect him?”


February 3, 2006 — My students

On the first day of class I had my third year students interview each other and dream up radio and TV treatments for how they would do a profile of each other. Here are snippets from their homework, mostly in their own words, with a couple of additions by me.

Because we were an odd number in class one student, Richard, interviewed me. I thought it fair to include what he wrote about me…it’s here at the end.

1. Germaine Uwahiriwe, 24, was born in Kigali, Rwanda, and has three brothers. He wants to change the history of hate media in Rwanda by advocating for a peaceful world. He also wants to create a good image for Rwanda that was tarnished by the 1994 Genocide. One of his goals is to broadcast youth programs to educate the young ones about culture and how to adapt to new global changes carefully. His role model is the BBC because of its world coverage.

2. Emmanuel Nuwamanya, aka Emmy or Mercedes, 26, was born in a four children family in Uganda. He grew up there until 1994 when his parents came back to Rwanda. Since his childhood he developed a strong passion for journalism due to the inspiration he got from some famous journalists like Tim Sebastian of BBC. When he arrived in Rwanda, some other factors strengthened his love for journalism including: Rwandan media industry in need of professional people to get back trust lost during the 1994 genocide. He wants to start his own broadcast media once he gets experience and the means.

3. Jean de Dieu Bagirishya, 23, still remains with pains due to 1994 genocide which took a big size of his family. He likes sports, society "being with his", and likes his country and ready to die for it when necessary. His motto is ‘courage, simplicity and time management.’ He works as a producer at the campus radio station, Radio Salus, presenting sports, children's program and Salus top ten. He is doing journalism by accident even if he is interested in it. He would rather prefer being a journalist by profession with short courses ; but not doing it as a university subject. He likes the music, “We be burning,” by Sean Paul.

4. Emmanuel Mungwarakarama, 33, aka Manu, was born in Kibungo, Rwanda. He is the fourth born in a family of 8 children. He speaks Kinyarwanda, Swahili, French and English. He had also done 3 workshops on cinematography. He likes watching TV especially football matches in which Chelsea is involved. He doesn’t like: Disobedience, injustice and time wasting. Nelson Mandela is his inspirational hero. He likes the traditional melody of Rujindiri

5. Bernard Mutijima, 23, has 9 brothers and sisters living all over the world (France, Belgium, Rwanda). He was born in Mutara, Rwanda. His nickname is “Bubu.” His father was an architect before he was killed in 1990 as a suspected sympathizer. He likes country music. His goal is to produce film and TV documentaries. He made a documentary for GBVs (gender based violence).

6. Jean Claude Ndengeyingoma, aka Ngomajec, 25, grew up in Kigali, Rwanda. He has two sisters living in Ottawa. Journalism was in his ambition since his minority age (childhood). He chose journalism not only because of being the voice of voiceless but also as a good profession that contributes in informing people. On this point, he emphasizes that the most dangerous people is the one that is not informed. His admired Radio station is Salus because of novelty that it started with. Concerning leisure, he likes football, swimming, music, traveling and sharing glass (drinking) with colleagues.

7. Jean de Dieu Tuyishime, 25, has chosen to study Journalism with the ambition of promoting professional journalism in Rwanda because of the bad image that some media have given to Rwandan journalism after 1994 Genocide. He was born in Kibungo, Rwanda. For him the radio is the first medium that is very popular in Rwanda. His favorite media in the world, is the BBC on Radio and CNN on Television, he also criticize the VOA, because it glorifies the US government and he finds that not to be as balanced as it should be. He has his likes out of journalism, this is to say that as other single men some times he needs the time of leisure. He loves traditional music, dancing and singing. He is also good at acting drama. He is looking forward to becoming a professional journalist.

8. Placide Magambo, the self proclaimed “king” of the class, works at Radio Salus and missed the first class because he was in northerrn Rwanda covering an environmental conference.

9. Astrida Uwera, the only girl in the class, is called “the queen,” by Placide. She missed the first day of class, as well. But from what I gather her father was from Butare, where the university is, and that’s how she got her name. Butare was named “Astrida” by the Belgians (after Queen Astrid) before reverting to its original name in 1962. She wants to work in TV.

10. Richard Kwizera, 24, was born in Uganda to Rwanda parents who fled the country in the 1959 revolution. His parents told him Rwanda was the land of milk and honey. So he dreamed, along with his parents, of returning to this magical land. When they did return in 1995, he looked in the river for milk and honey but there was none. It took him some time to adjust to the new country. But now he loves it. He’s had a passion for journalism since he was in 2nd grade and now wants to use the media to construct society. He sometimes writes for The New Times and is a member of Never Again, Rwanda chapter. He is a Seventh Day adventist and wants to spread to the word of God on campus.

11. Jean Pierre Nixitanga, 23, was born in the centre of Rwanda, the last of nine children in his middle class family. His wish is to become an excellent news gatherer and reporter; but, the most interesting thing about him is that he doesn’t believe in himself so he is planning also to emphasize on a technical side of his future profession. In his leisure time he likes to watch movies, listening music especially Hip Hop, chatting with friends in large communicating. He is gifted with great video camera skills and, so far, has the best grades in class.

Finally, here’s what Richard had to say about me :

Sylvia Thomson

“Being committed to each other in Canada is more valuable than marriage” says Sylvia Thomson who was born and raised in Montreal in an Anglophone family.

Sylvia, 39, and not yet married but has a boyfriend admits that people in Canada can just live together given the fact that they are committed to each other.

“In Canada, you can live with your boyfriend or girlfriend for any period just in case you feel dedicated to each other”, she adds.

Sylvia, whose parents divorced while she was 16 only says that she has no plans of getting married soon.

Despite having a boyfriend, she also likes humble, honest, intelligent, creative and inspiring people.

“I like such kind of people in case they are truly motivated and keen on doing something”, she reveals. She however hates liars.


February 2, 2006 — Religion in Rwanda

My flight from Nairobi to Rwanda was full of red baseball-capped Canadians. The group of 15 or so, from the New Life Community Church in Calgary (Pentecostal), came here on a mission to help put electricity into a church in Kigali and do other charitable work. Some of them plan to return here in April for what they called "Hope Rwanda," (an international aide gathering which I presume will have a religious bent). It will run for 100 days just as the genocide did. When I asked one of them how "Hope Rwanda" came to be she said God spoke to Rwandan president Kagame through a religious text and he decided, right there, to help orchestrate the event.

I soon found there's a lot of religion going on in this country, let alone the imported kind.

• I pass by a turquoise painted mosque on the way to university and hear the call to prayer amplified across the valley at night.

• A Muslim driver refused to take our empty beer bottles in his car to return them to the shop.

• There are many Catholics.

• On campus, at least one of my students is a Seventh Day Adventist and prays with a group at the school stadium on Friday nights and on the Sabbath.

• There's a schedule of a university "Evangelical Campaign" for February posted on the bulletin board beside the journalism class schedule. Some of the sessions are "Biblical view of healing and reconciliation and Gacaca courts," "Jesus and HIV/AIDS pandemic," "The National University of Rwanda, The light and salvation of Rwanda," and finally "Jesus and intellectuals, the basis of national development."

• One of the people who works at the house where we are staying gave me a Jehovah's witness booklet today and asked for a donation.

I'm not sure if this is anything new for Rwanda or where it came from exactly but religion is strikingly more omnipresent than at home.


January 27, 2006 — Nairobi note

Last night, after 23 hours of travel, I arrived in Kenya in an anti-histamine and fatigue-induced haze.

The day I left Ottawa it was mild, sunny and beautifully snow-covered. I woke up with a full-fledged sinus cold, ran around the house cramming last items (including Tylenol extra strength sinus medication) into two humongous and heavy bags -- which spilled over into a third bag at the last moment. "You're definitely going to have to pay extra baggage you know," said my bus driver, at the airport. KLM graciously let me off the hook once I told them the bags were crammed full of stuff to give away and heavy journalism training books for the Rwanda Initiative.

The flights were long and sniffy and painful but I met some interesting people : the guys from NYC coming to climb Kilimanjaro, the German who just became a Kenyan citizen and ran a quinine business, the Kenyan who had been studying in DC and wanted to work for a big international banking institution to make lots of money. The ones who had been to Rwanda, or knew people who had, said it was a beautiful country.

I felt awful and disoriented when I arrived in Nairobi, in a near trance, last night. After a good sleep and a shower I feel much better. I ate a huge breakfast (including paw paw juice) this morning, on an outdoor terasse, with flowers blooming everywhere. I watched people waiting on the road side. When a bus came along it was bright yellow and green with the words "Citi Hoppa" emblazoned on it (if only OC Transpo could go with it).

In a couple of hours I will head back to the airport for the final leg of the trip, from Nairobi to Kigali. Then the adventure really begins. I haven't taught a class since I was a masters student in the early '90s. So figuring out class plans and delivering them will be tricky — not to mention making sure the material is relevant to the Rwandan students and Rwandan media. I've brought several Canadian Broadcasting Corporation training guides for radio and tv production as well as a Carleton University journalism class curriculum (thanks Kanina) and video and audio of stories aired on the CBC. I've also got a couple of ideas for Rwandan students to do projects for CBC radio. I wonder how all this will pan out and whether I have prepared enough.

I also worry about simply living in Rwanda. What will it be like? Will I get malaria? Will I like the food? Will I miss home? Will it be o.k. to go for runs, alone, on the street? Before leaving home I had some fitful evenings of sleep worrying about all these questions. I've been thinking of coming here and been bugging Allan for eons to please take me on his project so I know I definitely want to do this. Still, it's a challenge.

One last comment: At home I spent several evenings saying good bye to friends and family. They reacted to my plans in different ways : some really felt like they needed to see me before I left as though I would never come home, some surprised me by saying they were jealous, others said things such as 'have fun in Rwanda, if that's possible,' and several thought the experience would change me.



March 20, 2006 —
A drive in the country

March 9, 2006 — Two per bed

March 7, 2006 — Kibungo

February 27, 2006 —
Good bye Canadians

February 25, 2006 — Kigali

February 24, 2006 —
Everyone wants something

February 21, 2006 — My mom’s doll

February 19, 2006 — Bujumbura

February 14, 2006 —
Children/Marambi Memorial

February 10, 2006 — Road trip to Kigali

February 8, 2006 —
The University
of Rwanda

February 6, 2006 —
Elections here
and there

February 3, 2006 — My Students

February 2, 2006 — Religion in Rwanda

January 27, 2006 — Nairobi note




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