After the killing, stories
By Allan Thompson
This story first appeared in the Toronto
Star on Saturday, February 4, 2006. It was the cover story
in the Life section.
BUTARE, Rwanda—The power has gone out
in my little office at the National University of Rwanda and
I am shrouded in velvety darkness. For now, my little world
is defined by the dim grey glow coming from the screen of
my laptop computer and I am transfixed by what I am reading
— the biographies of my new students.
On my first day here as a visiting lecturer
— through a partnership between Carleton University's
school of journalism and its counterpart here in Rwanda —
I gave one of those standard introductory assignments: interview
the person next to you and write a short profile.
Reading the bios they compiled, I learn they
are the survivors of Rwanda's lost generation. And in a country
where the media climate can be hostile, they have placed their
hopes on becoming a new breed of journalists.
Most of them were teenagers or in their early
20s during the events of 1994, when up to one million people
were slaughtered in an orchestrated campaign to exterminate
ethnic Tutsis and any Hutu moderates willing to share power
with them. Today, the official government position is that
ethnicity is a moot point in Rwanda and such discussions are
divisive. I don't raise the subject, nor do my students.
But we do talk about the corrosive and deadly
role played by hate media during the genocide. For some, that
is something of a justification for the government's present
go-slow approach to true freedom of the press — President
Paul Kagame's government keeps a firm grip on the media. But
others make clear they hope to push the journalistic boundaries.
Most students lost family members in the carnage.
One student is among four children surviving from a family
of 12. Another lost his parents and four brothers; yet another
lost his father and three brothers. One of the poignant profiles
ends this way: "He deeply regrets the loss of his lovely
family members in the 1994 genocide, but has hope for the
Indeed, as I will learn in our three weeks together,
for all that they are compelled to wallow in the past, these
young people are fixed on what lies ahead, determined to make
their country a better place.
In our first classroom encounter, we talk about
reporting and news writing and the role of journalists; particularly,
about how journalism is the way a free society has a conversation
with itself. Their pledge is to do better than the current
media, which seem content to dwell on official, political
news and rarely ask questions or challenge authority.
But my students are realistic about what journalists
can accomplish in Rwanda, a country where journalists who
criticize the regime risk being harassed or assaulted.
I tell them about the time I ended up having
a physical confrontation with then-prime minister Jean Chrétien,
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 marvel that, a day or so
later, Chrétien went out of his way to pick me out
of the crowd at a news conference to invite me to pose a question.
The students, of course, have had a vastly different
experience. While on internships with media organizations
in Kigali, such as Radio Rwanda, they were shushed as upstarts
when they tried to ask more questions at news conferences.
We joke about journalists who ask questions like, "Can
you please tell me the message you would like to deliver?"
That said, Rwanda is a society with many protocols
about manners, age and respect for authority. Even this new
generation of journalists will not be nearly as brash as their
Canadian counterparts. They also know the limits and already
have a sense of some of the boundaries they will not be able
Also, they almost uniformly express admiration
for Kagame and see things improving here in this tiny country
that is — despite its horrific recent history —
something of a sea of safety and tranquility in central Africa.
The buses run on time, the roadsides look as if they have
been swept and no one is afraid to walk at night.
These students hope that, however incrementally,
they can be part of moving their country forward. For me,
that is enough reason to be here, teaching journalism.
It has been fascinating to watch Rwanda's evolution
from afar and through occasional visits over the past decade.
I came here first as a reporter for the Star in 1996, to cover
the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire that was part of the fallout
from the 1994 genocide.
That first visit to Rwanda proved to be something
of an epiphany for me as a journalist. Standing amid a pile
of mutilated corpses in a refugee camp in Mugunga, eastern
Zaire — the site of a massacre that was but a tiny,
tiny microcosm of the 1994 slaughter — I found myself
asking: where the hell was I in 1994? How did I, along with
most of my media colleagues, effectively miss the Rwanda genocide?
|A wild-eyed hungry vagrant turned
out to be one student's former classmate
Since then, I have taken every opportunity to
write about this country and to chronicle the career of Roméo
Dallaire, the Canadian general who commanded the ill-fated
UN mission in Rwanda at the time. When I became a journalism
teacher, I made Rwanda my primary area of interest, organizing
a conference on the media and the genocide, editing a book
on the same topic and, finally, organizing this teaching partnership
with the university here to help address their shortage of
One note about the challenges of teaching here
compared with teaching at Carleton. The university requested
that I teach in English as, in theory at least, the National
University is a bilingual institution — that is, English
and French. Plus students speak the local language, Kinyarwanda.
My fourth-year students were able to function
in English but I figured out very quickly that, while their
comprehension was quite good, their writing was, almost without
exception, very, very weak. As a teacher, I decided to forge
ahead in English but graded my students on the quality of
their journalism: the interviews they did, the information
they gathered and the structure of their stories.
About one week into the course, we escape the
stuffy computer lab where we have been conducting our fourth-year,
print-reporting classes and go on a field trip. Our destination
was the village of Maraba, about 20 minutes outside Butare
and the site of an innovative coffee growers co-operative.
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 Co-operative (Abahuzamugambi
b'Ikawa ya Maraba). Our mission is to gather information for
a series of stories.
In Maraba, the students interview staff members
of the co-operative, 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. We had divided up story
assignments ahead of time and, with virtually no coaching
from me, the class simply fans out across the village, interviewing
everyone in sight.
In between, we find time to have lunch together
on the front porch of an unprepossessing roadside restaurant.
The owner, a hefty woman in a bright print dress, plunks down
a case of beer and a case of pop, then disappears to make
goat shish kebabs for our lunch.
As the supervisor for the outing, I decree that
since most of our work is done, it would be okay to have a
beer or two with lunch. At the boulangerie next door, one
of the bakers carries large trays of raw buns out to a roadside
wood oven — it looks like a clay hut. Moments later,
we sample the piping-hot buns while we waited for the kebabs.
The rest of the food finally arrives and my
students give me a lesson in how to grip a piece of meat with
my teeth and pull it off in one swoop. As we eat, a man in
ragged beige clothes and flip-flops approaches. He has a wild
look in his eyes and hair on his head. (The fact that he is
not clean-shaven like all the other men indicates he didn't
have the 50 cents for a haircut.)
Edouard, who at 34 is a thoughtful man, always
fastidiously dressed, strikes up a conversation with the vagrant
in Kinyarwandan and each of us shares with him the last morsel
or two from our skewers. After the man walks away, contented,
Edouard tells me they had been classmates in high school.
The man is from a family that had been quite prominent before
the genocide. Now he is among Rwanda's legions of jobless,
struggling to survive.
On the way back to Butare a few hours later,
I am astonished to see that the shy, quiet students I first
met a few days earlier are transformed. Or maybe they are
just being themselves and I hadn't had a chance to notice
They sing all the way back to town. I mean,
they really sing. The class clown, Egide — he's also
the Rwandan Patriotic Front vice-president for the school
of journalism — leads the chorus, improvising lyrics
to describe everyone in the vehicle while the others clap
their hands. There is even a chorus for our driver who is
slapping his palms against the steering wheel.
The only student who doesn't join in at first
is Edouard — a bit older, more reserved. That is until
the group begins singing a famous military marching song,
familiar to Edouard from his days in the RPF. Now he, too,
is belting out the tune as our van careers down the highway.
Amid all the laughter and song, I can'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.