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Amanda Smith-Millar,
Exchange Student/
Teaching Assistant


Amanda Smith-Millar's Blog

June 1, 2006 — The pig project

We did it. Our group returned triumphant to NUR by 11:30 a.m., a half hour before deadline. The entire team showed up at 7:45 sharp this morning. We grabbed a taxi voiture and headed for the IWACU Family Care Ministries. Our team worked like a well-oiled journalism machine. Etienne and Francine shot footage of all JB’s projects. The street girls were already at their machines, giggling and sewing away. The street boys proudly extracted the rabbits from their cages for us (the class later cooed at the cute close-ups we got of the bunnies, until they realized the entire point of the rabbit project is to sell them for meat once they’re fully grown). Finally, we shot an interview with JB, since the lighting from yesterday’s interview was rubbish. He talked about the importance of making projects long-term and sustainable. In the end, sustainable development became the focus of our news piece.

And the biggest triumph of all – the above-mentioned shooting only took an hour and fifteen minutes.

We then packed up our equipment. Etienne, JB, Hash and myself squeezed all four of us illegally into the back of the taxicab. Twenty minutes later, we were bumping along a potholed, grassy road. Spirits were high as our driver manoeuvred around massive gauges in the ground. We’d collected quality footage in record time, and we planned to use almost every shot – we were being highly efficient journalists; no shot would go to waste. The students laughed when little kids ran up to our car, screaming “mzungu, mzungu!” I’d become habituated to this phenomenon, but my classmates got the same kick out of it that I did when I first arrived in Rwanda.

On the way there, JB explained how the pig project works. Widows from one community work together to raise some pigs. Once the pigs get fat, the widows sell them on the market. It’s an example of a micro-income project – as JB says, you can’t rely on foreign aid because “you don’t know when it’s going to come and when it’s going to end.” So like other micro-income initiatives, the pig project is independent, small businesses or co-op that boosts the widows’ economic situation.

Finally, we arrived at the pigpen. It turned out to be a massive, multi-compartmental log structure, near to several one-room mud houses. Kids waved and ran up to the car. We grinned at the kids and tried not to step on little feet as they surrounded our vehicle, giggling in wonderment as we unpacked our camera equipment. The widows were due to arrive at 11 a.m.

It didn’t look good at first. The entire village was deserted. JB looked around nervously and said the women should be arriving soon. Ten minutes later, there were still no women, only little kids, one of whom had taken to Francine and was holding her hand. JB quietly walked over to a small mud house and knocked. When he came back, he had sad news –there’d been a death in a nearby village, and all the widows had gone to the funeral.

I then told my group not to worry, we would focus on the street kids project instead. But just as we were packing up, several women arrived over the hill, giggled, waved at us, and called out “Moraho!” It turned out that the funeral was over and the widows had returned. I asked JB if the widows were prepared to do an interview so soon after the funeral. JB consulted them, and they consented right away.

Etienne then collected various shots of pigs – pigs standing, pigs eating, pigs lying down. He shot the women feeding pigs, opening the door to the pens, etc. At one point, he hoisted the camera over his shoulder to get some extreme close-ups.
 
JB asked one widow, named Epiphanie, if she would be willing to do an interview. She consented cheerfully and walked us to her mud house. As we walked down the dirt road, the widow held my hand in hers – a sign of friendship in Rwandan culture. I beamed.

It turns out Epiphanie has one cow and a cute little baby calf. Generally speaking, households with food-producing livestock are better able to battle poverty than those without. So it was great to know that not only does she have animals, she’s participating in the pig project too. Hash conducted a brief interview in front of her house. He asked her how she felt about the pig project. She said she was excited about it because it would let her build a better house and access medical care.

Epiphanie then invited us to shoot inside her house. It had a dirt floor, a mat for a bed, a broom, some pots, and a small door that led to a storage room. The lighting wasn’t great, but we took some shots anyways. When we left, we all warmly shook hands with the widow and the giggling crowd that had surrounded her wooden gate. Through JB, the widow said, “God bless you” to our group. We returned the greeting.

We opened my laptop and wrote our script on the way home. This was challenge – the road was bumpy and jostling, and several times I came close to having a laptop screen corner up my nose. It helped that JB was travelling back to IWACU with us. Never before have I enjoyed the luxury of having my main source sit beside me as I wrote a script. Our group was able to ask him all sorts of clarification questions (“Is it fair to call IWACU Family Care Ministries a ‘charity house?’” “What was the name of the village where the widows lived?” etc.) Somehow, we managed to finish most of the script before arriving back at the university. Hash, Francine, Etienne and I began uploading and editing right away.

Easily, this is the most rewarding news piece I’ve ever worked on.

Soccer match

Today our class dynamic transported itself onto the soccer field, or football field as it is called in Europe and Africa. At 5 p.m., we shut our Rwanda Initiative editing suite down. It was time for a football game before our end-of-class party at our house in Taba (which as I found out today, the students call “Canada House”).

Somehow, Kanina managed to get me to play soccer. I’m still not sure how she accomplished this. I seriously, sincerely loathe the game. I was a horrible player in elementary school – and not just soccer, but basketball and volleyball and baseball and pretty much anything that involved a ball whizzing towards my face at breakneck speed. Gym class was a daily exercise in humiliation. My family and I figure it had to do with my abysmal eyesight. When I was small, I needed glasses but didn’t know it. So I used to get hit in the face a lot – I didn’t realize the ball was headed towards me until it bounced off my nose and made it bleed, which is always embarrassing, even when you’re 11 and it means you get to skip class to hang out beside the nurse’s office and apply one of those cool neon-coloured icepacks to your swollen face.

Anyways, I have contact lenses now. But I’m still rubbish at soccer and any other sport that involves throwing or catching. I associate the word soccer with mean kids taunting you, being picked last for teams, getting demoted to goalie and then letting the ball roll through your net as your team mates glare at you and the opposing team cheers, etc. I think some North American children have the capacity to be very, very cruel (and even when these kids grow up, they morph into office bullies who learn to be mean in a quiet, adult way). But in elementary school, classroom egos can clash on the soccer field, and the rigour of competition sorts the students into winners and losers in a way that can last even after the game is over. So naturally, I don’t associate soccer with fun.

But on this trip, Kanina decided to emphasize the link between soccer with teamwork. Long ago she decided that she wanted to play football with the class as a team-building exercise. So when we arrived in Kigali, stuffed inside one camera bag was a deflated black-and-white soccer ball. (Rwandans go crazy mad for soccer, like Canadians go insane for hockey. NUR’s school auditorium is packed full each game night, where they watch World Cup matches live, projected onto a massive theatre screen.)

Although Kanina was aware of my soccer inhibitions, she’d still been pressing Kayla and I to participate in the game. I’d been dreading it since we landed. “If you want me to make a total fool of myself,” I warned her, “wait until you see me on the soccer field.” But Kanina would hear nothing of my protests.

As the class came to a close this week, I couldn’t believe my luck. Our course was following a rigorous schedule that left no time for football. I thought that, maybe, just maybe, I could escape from Rwanda without having to set foot on a soccer field.

Alas, Kanina’s stellar organizing skills prevailed. After our final day of editing, the class was to meet at the soccer stadium to enjoy a celebratory “fun” game before our party at Taba. The whole class, that is, minus Kayla. Someone had to pick up the snacks for our party. So Kayla was exempt from football. I whined and complained, and begged for our roles to be reversed, and said it wasn’t fair that Kayla didn’t have to embarrass herself when I did. Doubtlessly, Kanina has never felt more like the mother of two daughters. She said I would be a better player, as I was an athlete, after all. I said archery doesn’t involve throwing or kicking, so it doesn’t count. Kanina said a soccer game with the class would be fun. I said it would be terrifying and that I would probably get a nosebleed. Kanina said relax, she wasn’t that great, either. In the end, my affection for my prof prevailed. Kanina begged some more, and I consented.

Kanina was ready to play by 5 p.m. She changed into her pink Carleton University t-shirt and running shoes. I stayed in my reliable cargo pants and Star Wars t-shirt (which provokes no “hey, cool!” reaction from people here, sadly). With a water bottle in one hand and our cameras in the other, Kanina and I walked to the NUR soccer grounds, a massive grassy field encircled by a dirt track. But our hearts sank when we got there – a group of students we didn’t know were kicking around a ball. Where was our class? Did they forget, or did they not want to play anymore?

Then Bercar (the class president), Patrice and Gilbert came around the corner. They were already perspiring from playing a game elsewhere.

“Where is everybody?” asked Kanina, her voice a little strained. A queasy feeling hit my stomach – what if the soccer game wasn’t successful? What if the students had said they wanted to come, but really had better things to do with their time? It had been a long two weeks, and although I was petrified at the thought of playing soccer, I wanted the game to come off successfully. The last thing Kanina needed was a spirit-crushing flopped event.

But Bercar didn’t seem worried. “They’re coming,” he said confidently.

Kanina and I exchanged apprehensive looks. “They’re coming” is what Bercar says when a few, or half, or most of the students in our class don’t show up after lunch break. They could arrive in five minutes or an hour, or maybe tomorrow, or not at all.

We were relieved when Sam Mandela showed up, along with a few other boys. Just as it looked as if we’d have our own baby-sized game, other young men started to materialize from the bleachers’ shadows, asking to play. Before we knew it, our little game had turned into a competitive, full-blown match. The group divided into teams. Half the boys whipped off their t-shirts to play shirts-and-skins style, a no-cost option used when you have no uniforms to distinguish one team from the other. Then they remembered Kanina and I were present. They told me that I could play on the skins team. I laughed and said, very funny. The boys laughed harder and apologized for their unintentional joke, and said that I could play for the skins but leave my shirt on. I wryly thanked them for their consideration.

I was very, very nervous at this point. Our cute journalism reunion had morphed into a mother-sized football game. The first 10 minutes were brutal. I spent most of it cowering in the defence area, not shielding the net but my head. I swear, it’s terrifying to face the thunder of feet, as the legs of several testosterone-pumped young men charge after a ball headed towards (gulp) you. And as the ball advances, and you see the glint of blatant aggression in your opposition’s eyes, you recall that your job is to stop the stampede, or at least redirect it by kicking the ball elsewhere. So I left most of the work to my fellow defenseman and stayed out of the way. Every minute, I glanced down at my watch, counting down the minutes until Kanina and I could leave to prepare for the party.
 
Thankfully, more of our class soon arrived, many of them girls (like Clementine and Sylvia). Those in our class who were playing the big game grinned at each other, excused ourselves from the competitive match, and hurried over to one of the larger goal posts.  We shook hands in greeting and decided to start our own baby game behind one of the goal posts. At first, we had no way to mark off our new goalposts. So we collected some rocks and water bottles and sweaters, which we sorted into four piles to create markers. We all congratulated each other on our ingenuity.

Then we “warmed up,” which involved us kicking around the soccer ball in a circle and slowly passing to each other. Sometimes it went flying off in various directions. This was a funny occurrence, as it meant somebody needed to chase after our ball, often into the big competitive game beside us.

Then we divided up the teams. This is an often-miserable process, but Captains Bercar and Patrice made it fun. Girls were chosen first. Bercar chose Kanina first for his team. She walked to his side, and Bercar reached out to claim her by the hand. He made some comment about choosing her because she’s special. Kanina laughed uproariously but said it wouldn’t change his mark.

Patrice made a face at Bercar, then picked me. I walked over and held his hand.

Bercar and Patrice then made a show of fighting over which girls they got to choose. In a few minutes, all the girls had lined up hand-in-hand, forming two rows. Then they divided up the boys.

We all faced off against each other in a pattern vaguely resembling proper soccer positions. They made Kanina and I play centre. We aggressively bared our teeth at each other and exchanged some threats. Someone placed Kanina’s now-inflated soccer ball on our imaginary centre line.

“Go!” everyone shouted.

And so our game began. Immediately, our class dynamic transported itself to the soccer field. People helped each other, made fun of each other, pushed and jostled each other. Boys passed to girls. Girls passed to girls. Girls faked passes to boys but actually passed to each other.

Our little game morphed into an error-filled comedy match, with more cheating and falling than actual soccer.
 
The ball often bounced out of reasonable bounds. The first time, someone asked if we should throw it in properly. Everyone objected and said it was too much work. “Can we please ignore some mistakes?!” pleaded Sam.

We had one foul shot, which didn’t work because after the penalty was set up, someone from the goalie’s team snuck up from behind the shooter and kicked it back into the game. Everyone groaned and laughed at the ingenuity. The team who had the penalty shot bellowed and charged after the ball, eager to seek their revenge.

I was amazed – the boys who had been competitive just a few minutes before had turned into total jokesters.

More of our classmates arrived, although not everyone wanted to play. They stayed at the sidelines to laugh and cheer for their favourite illegal stunts.

As the sun started to set, the dew became a hazard, but also a source of amusement – people constantly slipped and fell over each other. People gasped and cringed as fast players, like Sam and Bercar, charged towards each other, because it inevitably meant they would skid and crash, landing in a dewy entanglement of arms and legs. Sometimes I couldn’t play, I was laughing so hard.
 
I gazed over at the competitive match. I felt sorry for them. We were enjoying our game so much more. I reflected that if the odd game at Inkerman Public School had been this fun, perhaps I wouldn’t hate soccer.
 
My classmates kept kicking the ball towards me, trying to let me make a successful pass.
Of course, I still cringed when the soccer ball came my way. But it was well worth it, as I made my fellow students laugh (“Amanda, she is funny, she runs away from the ball!”).

In total, I kicked the ball twice. The class cheered both times.

The sun had dipped low on the horizon as Kanina and I excused ourselves, saying we had to prepare for the party. Our class waved, chorused goodbye, and continued on with the match.

When Kanina and I reached the top of the stadium, we smiled at each other and fondly looked back at our class. Their laughter echoed across the concrete bleachers. If we looked closely, we could pick out familiar silhouettes against the orange sunset.

I grinned at Kanina and asked if she thought our game could have worked out better. She sighed contentedly and said, nope.

So I suppose Kanina’s teambuilding football exercise was a success.

^Top

May 31, 2006 — Out of the monastery, into the pigpen

Since the day customs released our cameras, Kanina has performed an equipment balancing act. She’s managed to run a course by sharing five cameras amongst 25 students. But today pushed the limits of creative scheduling. Only two cameras (the silver ones Panasonic donated) have fire wire, an option that allows you to plug the camera directly into the computer to upload footage. So if a group used a black Carleton U. camera, they needed to plug it into a silver camera, then plug the silver camera into a computer. Most groups had an amusing entanglement of wires, cameras, and headphones beside their computers.

This sounds complicated, but to make it simple, the tech problems created a camera backlog. Some groups had to wait until the afternoon to start shooting. In TV, it’s easy to underestimate how long things will take, especially when students are making their first projects. Resources can only be spread so thin.

In the morning, I helped Julien and Carine upload their footage onto the Adobe Premier editing program. After lunch, I worked with a group that had been waiting all morning (with admirable patience) for a camera. Etienne, Francine, and Jean-Claude Hashakineza (called “Hash” in a classroom of three Jean-Claudes) had a hard-news story lined up. A local monastery is currently hosting a peace awareness conference. Select NUR students have gathered this week to discuss ways to promote peace in the post-genocide period. Etienne had done some substantial organizing. He’d arranged not only to shoot the interactive conference, but also interview the coordinators. Before lunch, I gave a relieved Etienne a camera and said go ahead, I’ll catch up after lunch.

An hour later, I was cruising on a motorbike to the monastery, named Gihindamuyaga. I deliberately didn’t take a taxi voiture – they’re too expensive, and anyway, when I ride a motorbike I feel like a 10-year-old at the fair. It costs 200 FRW (45 cents USD) for a ride that rivals a roller coaster. Recently, I’ve been using any excuse to ride a motorbike. Going to school? Grab a moto. Need bread? Better save time and take a moto. Walking home from supper? Oh dear, I’m very tired; mototaxi is the only answer. Butare moto drivers are pros – they weave effortlessly around cars and potholes; you can see potential accidents several metres away and, unlike cars that must either stop or smash, motos can gently avoid the disaster. You become a two-wheeled lightning bolt, whizzing through Butare as you overtake cars and dodge pedestrians, hair flying in the wind, your brains secured by a thick blue helmet. Experienced moto passengers demonstrate their bravery by letting go of the bar behind them. Hands should be folded in your lap, not grabbing at the waist of your bemused driver. If you want to look super-cool, you can apply sunglasses (which also have a practical purpose – they keep bugs out of your eyes).

The ride to the monastery was the most exciting yet. To get there, you have to take a slippery, pothole-ravaged mud road. I admit, I hung onto my driver’s waist. He kept glancing in the side-view mirror and chuckling. I suppose my stupid grin betrayed my love of risky moto rides.

Etienne met me at the monastery gate and showed me into the grounds. Once I walked inside, I gasped. The compound was gorgeous. The lawn was expansive and immaculate. Shrubs lined the walls, and every manmade object was made of old, classy cobblestone – the benches, the buildings, the garden sidings. This groups’ first assignment, I thought jubilantly, was going to be a visual masterpiece. A real keeper for future portfolios.

When I got to the courtyard, Francine and Hash waved excitedly at me. They’d already set up their first interview, textbook-style – two chairs facing each other, set against the courtyard’s scenic backdrop. Hash, the reporter, asked me to check over his questions. He planned to interview one of the conference coordinators momentarily. In his neat handwriting, Hash had copied out each question, phrased precisely. I corrected some minor English errors and then included a few “how-does-this-make-you-feel?” type questions at the end. Overall, though, it looked like a well-organized interview. I helped Francine set up the lapel mic and white balance the camera, although she and Etienne had mastered most of the set-up themselves. I was giddy – this group was as self-sufficient as a third-year Carleton U. news team. How they managed to absorb this much in two weeks, I can’t fathom.

About 10 young men were sitting under a tree, watching the set-up. They were university students, conference participants. I suppose they were on break. I shook hands with each of them and asked them about their program, how the conference was moving along, etc. They were nice but surprisingly shy – shyer than any other students I’ve met (but then again, I know mostly NUR jskoolers, who by nature are outgoing folks).

When the break was over, Francine and I fussed with the camera as the boys went to fetch the coordinator. But after fifteen, then twenty, then thirty minutes, Etienne and Hash didn’t return from the building. I went to investigate the hold-up. I found Etienne in the lobby of the building, regretfully shaking hands with a coordinator as a small group looked on. He had the subdued, distracted look of someone who’d been recently embarrassed. Between French, English and Kinyarwanda, Etienne updated me on the situation. As it turns out, Etienne had notified the correct authorities about our interview. But the authorities had to notify their authorities, and apparently these super-authorities were far away weren’t available to say yes, you can bring camera equipment onto the property. Apparently, our group had committed a grave error by entering the grounds.

I felt awful for Etienne. I asked if I could be of any help in terms of negotiation. Etienne said no, we had to leave – he’d already spent half an hour trying to get us in. I asked that if the monastery headquarters are at another far-off location, do they really need to give permission? Etienne said yes, he supposed so. I asked if they could please excuse us for intruding, but perhaps make an exception and let us shoot our piece anyways? Etienne said no, we had to leave. And besides, he added, the students had changed their minds – they no longer wanted to be interviewed. The group mentality had changed, he said.

I’m still not entirely sure why the students changed their minds. Initially, I was annoyed that for my groups’ first interview, they had to feel as if they were violating rules. Youth are socialized to respect hierarchy. So it takes practice to stand up against your instinctual politeness. It’s an uncomfortable but necessary part of being a journalist. You need to be comfortable with asking, “why exactly?” when institutions refuse to speak with you. 

It happens all the time in Canada. You get your interview lined up, but then some media-wary bureaucrat tells your news team that sorry, you can’t conduct your essential interview, because the supervisor of the vice-president of the sub-committee’s departmental board (who actually knows nothing about the project in question) must be informed, and sorry, it will take three weeks before government official X can clear your interview.

Sometimes, though, it’s best to change plans rather than fight administration. For example, at Carleton, I once wanted to record the sound of students talking. Nothing big, just some background sound. So I took my minidisk and mic to the Carleton residence cafeteria. I plugged everything in, and just stood there with my headphones on. (And I stayed outside the cafeteria entrance, mind.)

About one minute into my recording, the manager came outside and asked me what I was doing. I told him that I just want the sound of students chattering for my radio piece. But he got all panicky, and said I had to stop recording. But I’m outside the caf, I pointed out politely. The manager shook his head stubbornly, and said no, you’re recording sound from inside the cafeteria. Ed Kane is in charge of all Aramark sites, he said. You have to ask special permission to record the sound.

Now, from my experience, Mr. Kane is an approachable man, albeit busy – perhaps because he’s bogged down with micro-management decisions, such as whether a third-year jskooler can record caf air.

I wanted to make a snotty comment – something like, “Aramark might have a monopoly on food distribution, but as of yet, it doesn’t own the air.” But I just smiled politely and left.

And this is precisely what we did today. We packed up our camera equipment and marched dejectedly to the parking lot. In Ottawa, I’d fight to get us in. But the group was discussing the genocide, a touchy subject. Plus, it’s difficult to get an interview when the coordinators don’t want to talk, and the students don’t want to talk, and the authorities of the authorities haven’t cleared your interview.

Still, I tried to control my temper on the way out. The students had lugged 25-plus pounds of camera equipment to the monastery. We’d spent valuable Rwanda Initiative money to pay for the taxicab there. Etienne had planned the interview carefully – he’d researched the conference, secured interviews with the organizers and participants, and asked the correct authorities permission (or so he thought).

Of course, the genocide conference was a touchier situation than my caf confrontation. First of all, the bureaucracy was religious, not corporate. Secondly, the conference focussed on the genocide. People are still hesitant to discuss Rwanda’s recent history. When it comes to this, you can’t pass judgment, you just have to humbly admit that there are some sides of human suffering you can’t begin to understand.

I asked if the fact that I was a mzungu had anything to do with the turn of events. The group laughed and said no, my colour had nothing to do with it.

Then the oddest thing happened. The coordinator in charge came out and said we could stay, if we wanted to profile the monastery. It was an interesting place, he said, as it doubles as a hotel. People can stay for a small fee. I politely declined on behalf of my group. But then, as the priest shook our hands and left, I was confused…. If the authorities needed to be contacted – and it was impossible to reach them today – why suddenly was it okay to bring the camera in to do “profile” (ie – shoot a commercial) about their business?

I asked Etienne if the students seemed willing to be interviewed when he first cleared it with them. Etienne said yes, they were certainly interested at first. Then I asked, did they know it was a television interview? Etienne said yes, he’d made it clear. But he added that the group’s mentality had changed when we’d arrived with our cameras and tripods.

So it wasn’t the interview that frightened them, I said. It was the TV equipment.

Etienne laughed, and said that might have been the case.

I shrugged and said hey, it’s touchy subject, the genocide. You can’t blame people for being too intimidated to talk about it. Even if they’d agreed and then changed their minds. But then, as Etienne pointed out, the conference’s focus was “spreading the word of peace.” What better way than to spread it through media?

I gazed back at the building where the interactive conference was in session. How, I asked, are people going to spread peace, if all that is learned today stays in that building?

Yes yes yes, said Etienne miserably. I told them all that. But they don’t want to appear on camera.

It’s sad, I said. But I understand.  

We all had a good laugh as we were waiting for our taxis. (“What? You need a camera to make a TV piece? With a microphone, and wires? Oh dear, I thought TV pieces materialized out of thin air.”)

More trouble came when Hash made a phone call and asked someone to dispatch four mototaxis to collect us. He didn’t have the phone number of a taxi voiture. I gaped at him, and said it wasn’t safe to bring the equipment on the motos.

“But we can hold the camera equipment,” said Etienne optimistically. “Like this,” he demonstrated, holding the camera bag in front of him, perched on an imaginary moto seat.

I told Etienne, no no no, we couldn’t bring the bags back on a motorbike. Sure we can, Etienne protested cheerfully. I laughed and said, no way. Better we walk for four hours than risk busting the equipment. The camera is probably more expensive than an entire motobike, I said.

But Hash couldn’t call the motos and tell them to turn around. Francine and I started to laugh hysterically when, 10 minutes later, one motorbike roared into the gravel parking lot, shattering the monastery’s tranquility … only to be followed by three more.

Hash, the certified sweetheart that he is, paid them for coming. (I’m still not sure if the cash came out of the taxi fund or his own pocket. I tried to tell him to negotiate and lower the price, but I was laughing too hard.) Then the angry moto drivers sped away, returning the monastery to its peaceful state.

Several phone calls later, we were riding in a taxi voiture, returning home with no story. So I gave my friend John Bosco a call. JB is a 25-year-old genocide orphan. His house doubles as his NGO headquarters, the IWACU Family Care Ministries. JB is a good source when it comes to Rwandan social development. As Kayla and I like to say, he’s accomplished more by 25 than most people do by 40.

I told him that my group was stuck with no story. He said that if we wanted, we could profile one of his NGO projects. He has several on the go, including a rabbit project for street boys, sewing lessons for street girls, and an all-girls boarding school set to open January 2008. JB said it would be simplest to profile his pig project for widows. He offered to meet our team that evening. He also volunteered accompany us to the village where the pig project is situated. Relieved, I thanked JB heartily for his time, which is valuable nowadays – he’s a fourth-year business student at NUR, and he still has to write his dissertation. Comparable to an undergraduate thesis, the dissertation is the bane of every fourth-year undergrad I’ve met.

I hung up and told the car that we were saved, and had a great story. One with plenty of pigs. They cheered.  

The sun was setting by the time we met JB. We met at the Ibis hotel restaurant and planned the following day. Although the light was fading, we shot a preliminary interview with JB. It was dark by the time we all shook JB’s hand and waited for a taxi so I could cart the equipment home.

I told my group that today was, if anything, a good lesson on how to react when a story falls flat. Then I laughed, and said hey, this is a good lesson for me on what to do when a story falls flat. I’ve never had to totally start over.

We all gave each other high fives and warm handshakes. I told the group I was very proud of them, they were troopers today. They told me they were happy to have me. I grinned stupidly and said we had a hot story tomorrow. They agreed. I asked if they were excited and optimistic. They said they were.

The power was down when I came home. Our guard, Joseph, informed me that I was the first to arrive. I lit three candles and turned on the camera.

One glance in the viewfinder told me that we couldn’t use the interview with JB. It was too dark. Nonetheless, the information he’d given us was useful. I pulled out my laptop and started to write a draft script – normally I would make the reporter do it himself, but these are special circumstances. We’ll have to get all our footage tomorrow. Everything will need to be shot by noon. At Carleton, a 12 pm deadline qualifies as a same-day story… a challenge students usually tackle after two months of TV experience, not two weeks.

When I’d written all I could, I shut down my laptop and sat in the dark by myself. Then I grinned. Today had been a hectic but amazing experience.

All struggles aside, I love television.

^Top

May 30, 2006 — Final projects

Today was the first day for shooting the students’ final projects. Kanina decided (wisely) that she, Kayla, Robert, and myself should accompany the groups “to the field” for their final pieces. This way, we could solve most problems before they returned to the editing suite.

The first group I worked with was the trio of Sam, Carine, and Julien. They decided to do their story on the rise of begging in Butare. The focus had to be a soft one, as there hadn’t been any reports indicating that Butare now has more beggars. The group said that they’d generally seen more beggars on the street and wanted to find out why.

We actually started shooting yesterday. Onlookers surrounded our team as we unpacked our camera equipment and shot the crowded Butare market. I swear, the only thing that draws more attention than a mzungu girl is a TV camera. Street kids, shoppers and vendors dropped everything to watch our group set up our tripod. They oohed and aahed appreciatively when we pulled out the camera. Sam shooed them away to do a white balance. Unfortunately for us, street kids gathered to see the camera, too. This meant that either they were looking directly into the lens, or they were physically behind the camera. (“Amafaraga, madame?”) This problem turned out to be a constant one – the minute the street kids saw our camera, they would rush over to beg us for money, and therefore would be out of the shot. Although street kids are plentiful in Butare, our footage of them was not. It highlights one big problem with television – cameras change people’s behaviour. It’s not like print, where you record quotes and events into the notebook, and most times, folks don’t know they’re being observed. Even radio isn’t too intimidating; it’s just a snazzy-looking mic and a minidisk. But cameras are comparatively huge. How do you objectively portray a reality when the minute you whip out a camera, people start acting weird? There are some intense ethical questions involved in television, that being one.

As I feared, it was tough to find context for our story. Was begging on the rise in Butare? By lunchtime on our final day of shooting, we still had no proof. We did, however, have some powerful anecdotes from one beggar, a feisty man with only one leg. He told us that his disability makes it impossible for him to work. He essentially told Sam that the streets of Butare are his home, and that he has every right to demand for food. It was a blunt and illustrative quote that made the final cut. Eventually, we headed to an NGO to speak to a nun about the rise of begging in Butare. We got some footage of begging mothers outside the NGO. I find upsetting when street kids ask for money, but begging mothers literally bring tears to my eyes. Not only can these women not support themselves, they must beg for the survival of their families… I can’t imagine the humiliation. One young mum who we interviewed was on the point of tears. She said she’d recently given birth to triplets and had no food, clothing or resources to raise them. (I was skeptical that triplets – and a mother – could survive childbirth in third-world conditions. But someone later told me they’d sighted a woman with infant triplets who fit our source’s description. I’d like to believe she was telling the truth.)

To date, I don’t think I’ve seen Rwandans suffering more than the women and children outside that NGO. I was almost physically ill when a baby sought out its mother’s shrunken breast, started suckling, found it empty, then switched to the other breast and found that empty, too. After the group interviewed the begging mothers, they asked us for money. My group did the ethical thing and said no – journalists should never pay a source. But I figured, hey, I’m helping someone report, not reporting myself. So I quietly slipped the five mothers 100 FRW (about 20 cents USD) each. They all smiled with relief and thanked me, and said God bless you, and showered me with other undeserving praises that made me feel even more miserable.

On a positive note, our big score of the day came when Sam secured an interview with the mayor. Sam literally barged into his office and pleaded for five minutes of his time (which turned into 15, but hey, that’s TV reporting).

In the afternoon, we wrote an on-camera for Julien, who we chose to be the reporter because Sam had to leave the next day. While Julien memorized it, the rest of us wrote the script on my laptop. We squeezed into the tiny Rwanda Initiative office to peer into our viewfinder and pick out good footage. I made suggestions but ultimately let the group to decide what they wanted to write. The sun had long set by the time we called it a day. If nothing breaks down (fingers crossed), we’ll be able to edit tomorrow.

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May 27, 2006 — Auditioning
for Shake Hands with the Devil

By now, I suppose the news has hit home – a Canadian production company is currently filming Shake Hands with the Devil in Kigali. This time, it's not a documentary, but a based-on-the-book feature film.

So anyway, I might be in it. When Kayla, Kanina and I visited a beach a while ago, we ran into some French tourists. I started chatting them up. When the conversation worked around to the "where are you from" question, one gentlemen said, Canada? Did you know a Canadian production company is making a movie about Romeo Dallaire? And I said, no I didn’t. As it turns out, this guy had recently landed a small role in the movie.

"You should try out," he said. "They need anglophones."

The gentlemen gave me the phone number of Claude, the assistant casting director. Last Friday morning I clambered into the Kigali-bound Volcano bus. As the vehicle pulled away, I thought, jeepers, did I grow up in a nunnery? In Canada, young women should avoid the following: accepting phone numbers from strange tourists, travelling to a big city alone, hopping in a car with a man I’d never met before who (I was told) was a casting director, volunteering to perform in a movie I knew little about. Like an ignorant baby, I was doing all four of the above. (I can feel my mum cringing as she reads this.)

Even though I’d spoken to Claude over the phone, I didn’t know what part I was going to audition for, if I was going to do a cold read, etc. Conversations between Claude and I were perfunctory – we only ever talked for, at most, 30 seconds over a crackling phone connection. I prayed he was always just busy (the movie business is a frantic one, I hear), and not avoiding my questions so I’d walk blind into a snuff film. Worse, my hasty Google search had produced zilch about any new Dallaire movie.

But hey, forfeit my chance to hang out on a movie set because of a little fear? Sorry, not happening. Besides, I wasn’t totally without resources. I had my cell phone, and New Times interns Brian, Helen and Susannah were hosting me at the Rwanda Initiative house in Kigali.

Mercifully, I enjoyed the Volcano trip with the company of two students from our TV class, Joie-Grace and Jean-Claude. This came in handy when Jean-Claude and I hopped off at the last stop. A small throng of young men surrounded the only mzungu (me), teasingly squeezing up against me, asking if I wanted a taxi. Scanning the crowd for someone, anyone, who resembled a casting director, I became progressively panicky as I backed up against the bus.

Jean-Claude surveyed the situation, then firmly grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me to safety.

“You have to be careful,” he said. “This is Kigali.”

Jean-Claude then gave me a long, scrutinizing stare, glanced at his cell phone to check the time, and said he would stick around until my ride came. I thanked dumb luck for placing me in a class of such big-hearted people.

Twenty minutes later, we spotted a stressed-looking man in a white shirt, chatting on a cell phone as he paced around the noisy Volcano station. Clearly he was looking for someone (who turned out to be me).

Jean-Claude greeted Claude and asked him a few basic questions in Kinyarwanda. I soon realized he was verifying that Claude was, in fact, the casting director, and not some random creep posing as such. After Jean-Claude was satisfied that I would be safe (he also made sure I had a place to stay), he shook Claude’s hand and then mine, hesitating for a second before releasing my fingers, his face still scrunched in concern. I laughed and told him not to worry, I’d be fine.

Claude and I hopped into a taxi and sped down the highway. We soon arrived at One Love, a collection of pretty buildings coated in ivy vines. It was where, as Claude explained, the movie’s pre-production was getting organized. Important-looking mzungus paced around, jabbering on cell phones with folders tucked under their arms.

As Claude escorted me to the audition room, he occasionally pointed out, “oh, there’s the art designer,” or “there’s the director.” A hush hovered over the compound, the kind of intense atmosphere that builds when people are collectively working on an impending deadline.

I was relieved to discover that the audition studio was makeshift and unglamorous. Technically, it was only half a room, secluded behind a plain curtain. A single chair perched on several banana leaf weave mats, facing a handicam on a tripod. On the floor knelt a gorgeous young African woman. She was pinning black-and-white headshots of auditioners to a cork board. Claude introduced her as the other assistant casting director, Hope. I also met the Canadian assistant director, Simone.

Claude gave me a list of roles. One glance told me that Shake Hands with the Devil would not be begging for young mzungu female actresses. Most of the roles appeared to be for young black males. Claude then told me he’d already selected a small role for me to try, a CNN reporter. For copyright purposes, I don't think I can quote the lines. But basically, the reporter has to cite an intro announcing the death of 10 Belgian peacekeeping officers in 1994 (you know, the classic plot device where something concerning the lead characters coincidentally appears on television news). Hope handed me a plastic-covered script and a photocopy of my two lines. I took a glance at the paper, said it was no problem, and arranged to audition the following afternoon.

Really, though, it was somewhat of a problem. At school, journalism jobs that require me to appear on-camera are usually a second choice. I’d rather work the camera, write the script, or edit. Ideally, I’d love to wind up making longer documentaries. But the other issue is, I handle pressure like a grandmother handles driving in downtown Toronto. Unless I’m super-prepared, I’m I wreck. Don’t get me wrong – in high school, I was a drama geek, I scored top marks in high school presentations, blah blah blah. But I’m only smooth if I know exactly what I’m doing – if the lines I have to memorize are imbedded in my subconscious, so that when the pressure is on, I just shut my brain off and let the words slide out of my mouth. (Fellow drama geeks understand the subconscious brain thing. It’s a blessing, seriously.) But I figured, hey, it’s two lines, right? And I’ve got until tomorrow afternoon, so how hard can it be?

I then left for the Novotel, the classy hotel where the New Times interns eat and swim. I perched up on a plastic chair by the pool and opened the plastic-covered script. Just like Hollywood, I thought, grinning stupidly – I’m sitting by a pool, reading a script for an upcoming film. I wiggled my toes glamorously and asked the waiter for a drink.

After a few minutes, I realized that memorizing my lines wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d hoped. First of all, the intro (although it was only two sentences long) was wordy. I couldn’t say the second line without taking a breath mid-sentence. If I’d written that intro for a student anchor in my TV class at Carleton, I’m pretty sure she’d be like, “Amanda, sorry, but I seriously can’t read this. Bring it back fixed in five minutes.”

So anyways, I decided to give my lines another go. I read some script, then returned to my lines. I read another 50 pages of the script, then I studied my lines again. Sadly, by the time Helen, Brian, and Susannah came to pick me up a few hours later, not a single line had embedded itself in my head.

Everyone decided I should take a break and leave. After supper, we came home to the student intern house. Susannah read over my intro.

"This is hard," said Susannah, after she too had stumbled over the second sentence.

"I know, I would have written it differently," I groaned. "And it's hard to deliver the news without the teleprompter."

"Do you have to get the lines exactly?" she asked.

"I dunno. So I think I should be on the safe side – you know, just memorize it line-for-line."

Susannah drilled me – first sentence, second sentence, in front of the mirror, reading my script, holding my script, hiding my script, in British accent, in a Texan accent, quickly, slowly etc. And I couldn't get the two lines right, not once.

"Sleep on it," she advised. "You'll get it tomorrow."

I literally did sleep on it, rereading the lines in the dark until I shoved the crumpled paper under my pillow.

The next day was no better. I stumbled over the lines as I washed my face and applied my contact lenses.

Then came an agonizing six-hour wait. I called Claude, who arranged to have the film’s driver pick me up at 2 pm at the Novotel. I decided to make good use of my time. Walking to the Novotel at 10 a.m., I muttered the refrain of “six Belgian peacekeepers were killed in Rwanda today…” This evoked some giggles from the locals, who were sweeping streets and trimming hedges for the monthly national clean-up day.

When I reached the Novotel, I headed straight for the ladies’ room. Making sure no fellow bathroomgoers were around, I locked myself in a stall. Then I whipped out my digicam, set it on video mode, held it facing myself at arms' length, and proceeded to flub 12 consecutive takes. By that point, I was getting desperate and didn't care that people were giggling outside my stall. I suppose it was amusing to listen to the bodiless voice of some mzungu repeat the same faltering sentences.

I later went out to the pool and laid on my back in the grass, whispering my lines into the air. At noon, I satiated myself at the elaborate Novotel buffet. Between bites I murmured my lines to the table. It seemed like I was going to master sentence number one, possibly two.

Finally, at 4 pm, Claude called to say he couldn’t pick me up. He said it would be best if I took a taxi to One Love. I agreed, thoroughly exhausted by my day of repeating the same lines (although after 150+ attempts I still couldn’t get it right). 

"Nervous?" asked Claude when I arrived, surveying my doubtlessly pallid face.

"Um, a little," I answered casually. "I can't remember my two lines."

"Ha ha," said Claude, clearly assuming I was joking.

The set-up for the audition was agonizing but fun. Claude and Hope haphazardly assembled cords, switched on lights, searched for tapes – the mild disorganization reminded me of our second-year TV class in Butare. I was torn between the agony of having to wait (while my brain was saying, "Ten Rwandan peacekeepers were killed –" no wait, "Ten Beligan Rwandans died," oh crap I mean, "Ten Belgian peacekeeping officers," etc.) and being thrilled to finally hang out on a movie set.

Finally, it was time for me to spout my big two lines. Hope turned on the lights and camera. My face appeared on the big screen to my right. Claude disappeared through the curtain. My heart rate started to accelerate. Hope asked me to look into the camera, hold up a piece of paper with my number on it (27), and smile for a photograph. Then she pressed the record button and told me to say a little bit about myself; where I was from and what I was doing in Rwanda. This I did confidently, although I suspect the “introduce yourself on camera” take is something the director will never see – just a chance for auditioners to get comfortable talking into the handicam.

Hope smiled and asked if I was ready to cite my lines.

“How many takes do I get?” I asked.

“Two,” she said cheerfully, reaching for the record button. “Just relax.”

For the first sentence, my delivery was convincing and bang-on. But then I clear forgot how the second sentence started. I laughed nervously and then asked to stop the camera and try again. But the same thing happened on take two.

"Don't worry," said Hope encouragingly. "I hate auditions. And we don't need you to get the lines exactly – we just need to see how you look on camera."

Fine news to hear now, I thought. Because I was so nervous, I couldn’t improvise. I just wished my brain would switch on subconscious and recall my lines.

Hope gave me two extra chances, both of which I stumblingly completed. Then I asked if she could play it back again. She laughed and said sure, why not. This part was kind of cool – although I kept screwing up, the super-pricey movie lights still made me look like a star (everyone should get to enjoy this ego-inflating experience).

So anyways, to plug this extended onslaught of verbal diarrhoea, I didn’t get the part. Thankfully, they said they’d give it to "someone older" (and probably someone better). Apparently my face looks too young. But Claude suggested I be an extra for one of the first scenes they’ll be shooting. It’s a press conference, and they need inquisitive, hard-hitting journalist types in the background. I may take a trip to Kigali if I don’t have class. And hey, here’s another perk – I have a copy of the script for Shake Hands With The Devil in my Butare house.

And that is the story of my first audition ever.

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May 26, 2006 — It’s not a big deal, but…

I miss some things about home, mostly the emotional essentials (i.e. – family, boyfriend, Harry Potter). Other than that, I’m happy to leave behind modern North American “conveniences” (most technology creates more stress anyway). It’s difficult to whine about miniscule problems when most Butarians can’t afford running water or a cure for malaria.

Nevertheless, I would like to register my Butare complaint list:

  • The toilet adjacent to my room is what Kanina calls “part-time.” This is because it flushes occasionally and handles only half the jobs it is asked to do. I don’t think it qualifies as a part-time toilet any more, though. More like it’s taking the odd shift and thinking about quitting. Plus, a crack in the lid will pinch your bottom if you sit down in a hurry.
  • There’s a leak in Jovin’s gas pipe. Whoever sits in the back seat of his vehicle suffers the stench of gasoline for the whole ride. It makes me wonder why anyone would sniff gas as a pastime.
  • When I take a shower, the water splashes out of the stall and leaks all over the floor. I suspect that, like, 30 years ago, some heavy-hitting African industrial designer said, “ooh, white people enjoy these standing baths, called showers. Let’s install them!” But he didn’t think of curtains, and the trend of spray-it-everywhere showers was set. Unlike European showers (which often don’t have curtains either), our bathroom floor doesn’t have a drain. We just wait for the half-inch of water to evaporate. Sometimes, after two of us have showers, the water moves along the floor and sneaks into Robert’s room. Poor guy.
  • When there’s no hot water you can’t get shampoo out of your hair.
  • I am a walking carbohydrate. White buns and peanut butter for breakfast, pizza for a snack, baguettes with lunch and pasta at dinner. I think 70 per cent of my diet consists of refined carbohydrate. I shall soon start dreaming of brown bread.
  • Sometimes the water in our house doesn’t work. Often, in our entire neighbourhood, nothing happens when you turn on a tap. I’ve been told it’s because we’ve had a heavy rainy season. You’d figure more rain equals more water, but I suppose the infrastructure just can’t handle the volume.
  • We plan for power outages. After 7 pm, the lights usually die, and we fumble around for headlamps and candles. Unfortunately, evening is prime blogging time. I’ve started to handwrite my blogs and then type them up afterwards. Alas, this has made me realize that I am a product of the tech generation – I’ve lost my ability to write linearly. Longhand is agonizing when you’re dependant on the luxury of being able to write in chunks, then paste your work in the order you want.

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May 25, 2006 — Shooting today

Today Kayla and I made a cute little assignment for the students to edit. The idea is, we get the shots, build a piece, make a script, and then have the students work in groups of three to piece the story together. To keep things simple, we decided to make a piece about getting our cameras (finally) from customs. Kayla and I got use one of the two silver cameras donated by Panasonic Canada. Compared to the heavy professional cameras at Carleton, it’s a breeze – the new cameras are half as heavy, plus they have automatic iris and focus. (Hopefully Robert won’t read this, but I’m quite fond of not having to white balance or iris or focus. And I’m positively GIDDY about being able to carry my own equipment.)

For a student reaction, we interviewed Sam Mandela, the journalism faculty rep. Sam was an excellent interview subject. He said the class was relieved to get the equipment, as they are on a “rush program.” Amusingly, he added that the class planned to “exploit” the talented and experienced professor, Kanina Holmes, to her maximum. English as a second language is an endless source of miscommunication-inspired amusement.

Oh, and here’s a laugh – it turns out some students think I’m a seasoned tech expert. I mean, I love being the camera operator, and editing, and working with images, etc. I also find it annoying to watch myself (and Kayla is awesome on camera, so it made no sense for me to be the reporter).

But I guess because the students saw me working with the camera, they thought I was some tech-savvy expert. (Friends back home will doubtlessly find this amusing, as I’m one of the most technologically incompetent people in the history of technological incompetents.) One group even asked me to be their source for their first assignment, a five-minute interview, since I was the Canadian journalism student who was the “camera person.” Kayla and I laughed and told them that since we’re both third-year journalism students, we therefore could perform the same duties. The group wisely picked another source.

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May 24, 2006 — These dudes
keep coming to our door

These two dudes keep coming to our door. They’re trying to sell us antique woodwork. The first time it was justified, as Robert made “an appointment.” Our resident techie has developed a fancy for African art. To date, he has several masks, a statue of two giraffes with intertwined necks, and a few random Christmas presents for family members. He’s still figuring out how to ship it home.

Anyway, Robert asked the vendors to swing by so he could shop from the comfort of his own porch. Alas, he was delayed at school. So when the two men showed up lugging clinking knapsacks full of antique masks and pots, us girls felt badly and decided to buy something.

I found myself unimpressed with the selection, though Kayla and Kanina were interested in the masks and hair combs. They each bought an item, and the men went away.

During lunch a few days later, the duo returned. While us girls politely declined to buy more artwork, Robert felt compelled to buy something, as the men had walked all the way to our house. Besides, they weren’t selling wooden rubbish – these were antiques.  

A few minutes later, Robert stormed through the doorway, furious with himself for spending $50. Tucked under his arm was a massive ovular mask, complete with huge empty eye sockets and pouting lips.

 “Okay, next time, when I try to buy more art, you two have to stop me,” he ordered Kayla and myself.

Jovin was not impressed by the purchase. “Robert has brought a ghost,” he said, warily eyeing the mask’s eerie expression.

I stared at the creepy eye sockets. I thought I understood what Jovin meant.

Ghost or not, we continued to be haunted by the vendors. Strangely, the more we declined to buy the art, the more desperate their situation became. One man had an ever-lengthening story about how his father died, and how he was doomed to abject poverty as a result. Strangely, the tale became more extravagant and detailed each time Kanina told the men she wasn’t interested in any more antiques.

One lunch hour, Kanina was fed up.

“Do you have your $10 U.S. still?” Kanina asked me.

“Of course,” I responded, reaching for my wallet. “Why?”

“Those art vendors are back. I need to buy something cheap to make them go away. I’ll pay you back.”

I agreed that our privacy was worth $10 U.S. and reached for my money belt.

Kanina returned with a makeshift man, the sort of statue that can be separated into arms and legs and heads, then reassembled. I remarked that it looked like an armful of firewood.

“Oh, and Kayla,” called Kanina, grinning and dumping her purchase disdainfully on the couch. “Those guys wanted to say, if you’re interested in any more antique masks, they’ve got loads more.”

“No thanks,” said Kayla firmly.

“Which makes me wonder,” said Kanina after a pause, “if maybe they aren’t antiques after all.”

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May 23, 2006 — 'Ask me about my penis'

A suggestion for a unique shopping experience: park your car and roll down your windows in Kigali. In 30 seconds (tops), boys will surround your car with clothing, baby shoes, Kleenex boxes, “antique” pottery, used underwear, flashy neckties, fruit… No need to get out of your car, vendors will come to you. It makes Ebay shopping seem like too much effort.

The last time Kanina, Kayla and I were in Kigali, a serious old man was trying to sell some pottery. Unfortunately for him, his clothing immediately distracted me. He was wearing a simple black t-shirt. On the front were inscribed the following words: 'ASK ME ABOUT MY PENIS.'

The three of us stared and laughed heartily. The Penis Shirt Man got excited (in a professional way, mind out of the gutter please), thinking my eye contact indicated that I wanted to buy his pottery. The man clearly had no clue he was wearing an offensive t-shirt. I wonder how many English speakers have stared at him and giggled. Perhaps he wonders why he inspires so much humour. Before we drove away, I briefly considered asking Jovin to advise him to turn his shirt inside out.

Later I reflected, is this really a unique experience? In North America, Japanese and Chinese symbols are everywhere: on t-shirts, purses, knapsacks, cutlery, etc. And do we know what the symbols mean? Rarely. Someone once told me that in Japan, it’s all the rage to wear shirts with English phrases on them, without knowing what they mean. Apparently, sometimes the English decorations don’t make any grammatical sense or even form a coherent message.

Whoever designs these shirts has a pretty sweet job. Maybe if journalism doesn’t work out, I’ll design t-shirts with dirty sayings and then sell them to unsuspecting consumers in foreign countries.

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May 20, 2006 — It was a freaking hippo, okay?

Our group went to Akagera National Park this weekend. Basically, you sit in your vehicle, drive to the top of a mountain in two hours, and see some cool critters. Although it’s technically a “wild animal park,” some creatures showed the sad signs of too much human exposure – the antelopes and zebras, instead of running away from us carnivores, just stared stupidly at our car.

My most adrenalin-infused moment came when we saw the hippos. You have to watch for them, as they surface their greyish, flubbery heads when they need to breathe. Most of the time, the herd looks like 15-20 ominous blobs surveying you from afar. They surface with big, angry “urghs,” snorting water like great blue whales.

I’ve watched Steve Erwin Crocodile Hunter enough to know that hippos are VERY territorial animals. (“Folks, the hippo may LOOK like a cute pet, but BEWARE – he can chop a crock in two!”) So naturally, I gaped at our guide when he said we could approach the hippos – they’re used to humans, he said. Go ahead, get close. So our group inched towards to shore until we were only 10 metres (!) away from the family.

Your life doesn’t flash before your eyes. Your primal instincts kick in, and you MOTOR towards safety. I guess one bull decided that 10 metres was too close. With an angry snort, one greyish blob became a head, and then the head became a monstrous, dripping body.

I saw nothing more from that point on, as I turned tail and fled towards the car. Apparently Kanina didn’t move. Kayla joined me in a panicked flight towards the vehicle. Mercifully, the hippo concluded we weren’t endangering his family and re-submerged himself in the lake. (I didn’t see this part either, as I was cowering inside the jeep, praying the others would get in and shut the door.)

Of course, Jovin and the guide laughed at my reaction and said I was being a silly mzungu.

“He will not hurt you,” said the guide, looking fondly at the now placid bull. “He was just defending his territory.”

I was suddenly reminded of a bad North American dog owner – you know, when Snickums or Fluffy bites someone, and the owner is like, “Oooh, I’m sure my little baby boggie woo didn’t mean it,” or “My Sparky doesn’t bite unless you do X. Tell me, were you doing X?” (Possible X options include: show fear/run away/laugh loudly/walk/sneeze/blink/breathe/expose jugular etc.)

But hey, at least blogwatchers are getting this story from me and not the Ottawa Citizen (“A Canadian journalism professor and her two students were mauled by a raging hippo yesterday…”).

Best of all, I know I have an advantage over the zebras. Coward or not, at least my survival instincts are intact.

Jovin and the cops

Rwandan cops look young – many are in their early twenties. Picture this: your average college-age youth, wearing a khaki uniform with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. He spends most days sitting at checkpoints, looking bored. Intimidating? Heck yes.

Yet I suppose from Jovin’s perspective, young men are young men, law enforcers or not. As I mentioned before, our driver has a fondness for communicating in proverbs and metaphors. This commands a certain respect from us Canadians – and cops too, it turns out.

On our return trip from Akagera, Jovin obligingly pulled up at a run-of-the-mill roadblock. Most roadblocks in Rwanda consist of a rusty stop sign in the middle of a village. (Imagine it as a police-enforced speed bump.) Usually, officers just glance inside your car – I never know what they’re looking for – and wave you forward.

But this time, one young officer decided he wanted to inspect our vehicle. After directing us onto the road’s shoulder, he importantly strutted up to Jovin’s window. He then commanded Jovin to do something in Kinyarwanda. In response, Jovin gave the youngster a hard stare. After a few seconds, Jovin made a show of impatiently opening his glove compartment and extracting some papers.

Seeming unable to find a problem with Jovin’s forms, the cop launched into a heated speech, still in Kinyarwanda. I was getting a tad nervous, but Jovin wasn’t – he continued to stare at the young man, wearing an irritated but bemused expression.

In a few minutes, however, the cop started to speak a little less and listen to Jovin a little more. By the time our car pulled away, Jovin was doing all the talking and the young man was nodding, staring submissively at the pavement. 

“What happened?” one of us Canadians (I suppose it was Kanina) asked once we were on the road again.

“Ah, he said I was speeding,” said Jovin, shrugging indifferently.

“Were you?” I asked.

“I believe I was not,” said Jovin. “But it does not matter. I says to him, I admit I was speeding. But if I was a child, would you beat me, would you punish me, without giving me a warning first? Like a parent, you are a policeman. What will raise a better child?”

Apparently, this isn’t the first time a cop has been wowed by Jovin’s wisdom. Last time Jovin was caught speeding, he offered a complex proverb that I still don’t entirely understand – something about the cowardice of a lion who tortures his prey, or some such elaborate rubbish. The officer was so impressed by Jovin’s eloquence that he summoned one of his colleagues to the car window, just to listen to him talk. After the pair had drunk their fill of Jovinisms, they let him go without a fine.

“So you don’t necessarily have to be wise,” I said to Jovin after he recounted the story. “Sometimes, you just need to sound wise, right?”

“Well,” Jovin responded vaguely, “you could say that.”

A bit more about kids

On the way back, we stopped to snap some pictures, as two young men were herding some black-and-brown cattle with long sticks, used for prodding. It was beyond a Kodak moment – more like a National Geographic moment.

Later, houses started to resemble the traditional Rwandan thatched huts Kayla, Kanina and I saw when we visited the museum in Butare. The hilly landscape of Rwanda became basked in the misty mixture of dew and sunset, giving the landscape a romantic orange glow. Kids made their way to the side of the road to giggle and wave at the passing car of mzungus.

Sometimes when you pass kids don’t just yell, “Mzungu, amafaranga!” (White person, give me money!) Sometimes they yell, “agacupa!” (water bottle). Empty plastic bottles are prized amongst Rwandan kids because it means they can bring water to class.

Since we had some spare bottles in the car, we decided to pull over and give them to a group of four children. Some were wearing their blue school uniforms and had ratty binders tucked under their arms. Needless to say, they were thrilled when we rolled down our windows and dished out a handful of agacupas. Honestly, it’s the best method of recycling ever.

As we drove away, the kids gave us another sweet grin and waved goodbye. One gently squeezed my hand, holding onto my fingers until the moving car tugged us apart.

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May 18, 2006

Exotic fruit

On our first day of school, Kayla, Kanina, Robert and I attracted considerable attention, being the only mzungus in a sea of the native Rwandans. Our friend Solange (the fourth-year journalism student who rescued our baggage from the airport) had already given Kayla, Kanina and I a warning: We would generate some stares from the young men, being both new on campus and "exotic fruit."

Kanina did a stellar job of running her first TV class with no TV equipment – it's still locked in customs. To start off, Kanina showed the class a CJTV newcast from her third-year class, of which Kayla was a member. Although the goal of the exercise was to show what a student journalism class can accomplish, we soon realized the video had a dual purpose – it gave our Rwandan class a glimpse into Canadian culture. The group reacted with considerable laughter when the first black interviewee appeared on screen. They responded with hoots and hollers, incredulous that there were, in fact, black people in Canada. They seemed surprised when I explained that Canada is a nation of immigrants. Reflecting back, I find their reaction strange, as Rwandan youth are well-exposed to American hiphop culture, having several video stations (MTV included) at their disposal. Perhaps they assumed Canadian ethnicities are different from American ones.

Interestingly, the biggest reaction came when some lovely young jskool reporters did their on-cameras. Appreciative catcalls came in response to Megan Kelly and Sarah Gilmour's appearances, as well as when CUSA President Carol Saab was interviewed. A quieter, but certainly giggly, murmur of appreciation escaped from our female students when Tom Slade did his sign-off (and although Tom, with his ever-modest ego, would prefer if I was making this up, I'm not J).

The students stressed that they would much rather learn practical TV application than theory. Alas, this won't happen unless we can extricate our cameras from the clutches of customs. Overall, I believe that our class of 25-odd students is a promising one. They ask sharp questions, they're polite and inquisitive, they're eager to participate and gain hands-on skills. Impressively, most of our class volunteer at Radio Salus, the campus radio. I can't imagine running a weekly radio show AND managing my studies. The future of Rwandan journalism is looking good.

Pizza mistake

Kanina, Robert, Kayla and I each ordered a personal pizza for supper. But after a few minutes, we became stuffed and doggy-bagged the rest.

When we walked outside, the street was dark but teeming with motorcycle taxis, cars, pedestrians, and young men out for the evening. One young beggar boy came up to me, extended his thin hand and said, " madame, amafaranga" (lady, give me money).

Now, our group had previously agreed to avoid giving beggars money. Not only does it mean you're giving to one young person and ignoring others, it sets a precedent for other mzungus. If you give money once, beggars may begin to expect it every time, and before you know it, you'll be swarmed by street kids the minute you walk outside. So we decided to bring supplies (ie – clothes, toothbrushes, etc.) for a school or orphanage, and make our contribution that way.

But how can you hold an armful of tinfoil-wrapped pizza (which I didn't want anyways), when a hungry eight-year old kid is asking you to share?

Just once wouldn't hurt, I decided. So I scanned the dark street. After deciding he was the only little guy in sight, I slipped him a piece. The boy grabbed it from me, and, like a starving cat, hid in a dark corner to wolf it down. It felt ill.

As I watched the kid, Kanina leaned over and whispered in my ear, "you shouldn't do that, it might make him sick."

I'd forgotten, but we'd already discussed the problem of giving beggars food. The combination of refined carbohydrates, baked cheese and grease would probably upset a stomach dependant on potatoes and beans.

Worse, I'd been wrong in assuming that my well-meant gesture had gone unseen. About four or five children materialized out of the darkness, begging for pizza. They gestured towards their stomachs, demonstrating their hunger by rubbing their bellies and pointing towards the food. I looked at Kanina desperately.

"Don't give them any," she advised. "You might start a riot."

But it was too late – by that time, more beggar children were around us, tugging at my arms, imploring that I share this unwanted bundle of lukewarm pizza. As we escaped into a taxi and backed into the street, the kids pounded on the windows and chased after our car. I stared at my shoes the entire time.

Poverty is a complex problem.

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May 16, 2006

The writer’s paradise

Our Butare house is a writer’s paradise. It’s primarily white: white tile floors, white pillars, white walls and ceilings, white curtains that flutter in the breeze. It’s furnished with comfy chairs and classy wooden furniture. When the power dies at about 7 pm each night, our little home is basked in candlelight. We all read beside a candle, or we work on our laptops until the batteries die.

Outside, the gardeners rigorously maintain the yard. They spend much effort nurturing flowers and macheteing shrubs into submission.

Jean is our cook. He is a serious little man who speaks precise European French. Sometimes, I help Jean dry the dishes. The first time I picked up the towel, he gave me a strange look – I’m getting paid to do this, he said, so why are you drying? I explained to him that my reaction was one of habit; I always dry dishes at my Canadian home. He shook his head, amused, and let me continue. One day, Kayla and I had the privilege of seeing Jean’s cookbook, an ancient-looking notepad covered in illegible scribble. The book serves as the holy scripture of our kitchen. Kayla and I now know that that we are fed by a master artiste.

Jovin is our driver. In his mid-thirties, the Ugandan-born student picks us up sharply at 7:45 each morning (in a place where barely anything runs on-time). You know how in some movies, if the protagonists have a question, the chauffeur/taxi driver always has the answer? (ie – “Why do the people do X?” “Where is the best place to buy X?” “What happened to X 100 years ago?”) Well, Jovin is our narrative device, our wise guide archetype. He’s also a reservoir of witty sayings and proverbs. “You should never have a 100% day,” Jovin has advised us. “If you are having a 100% day, there is nothing left to live for.”

Kayla and I constantly question the ethics of our Butare lifestyle. We live in Taba, the ritzy part of town. We (white folks) have an all-black support system: a cook who also cleans up (we avoid using the word “servant”), a gatekeeper, a driver. But as both Allan Thompson and Kanina have pointed out, these jobs are good ones – and they provide income for families. We also make sure our employees are fed, and we enjoy a good relationship with each of them.

I think I’ll make myself feel better and help Jean dry the dishes this afternoon.

The coolest kids ever

Rwanda has the coolest kids ever. So far, my absolute FAVOURITE thing to do is take pictures of kids, and then show them the digital image. Their eyes go wide with surprise, and then they giggle and scream, and motion to their friends to come over. When you drive by in your car, they point and shout, “Muzungu, muzungu!” (white person, white person!). Jovin wishes everyone lived like kids: “We should keep the innocence of childhood,” he says, “but have more developed minds.”

Not so easy to deal with are the homeless children. It’s nothing like World Vision commercials, though – I haven’t seen anyone dying of starvation, although I have seen hungry kids. I haven’t seen naked children running down the street, although many are dirty and have holes in their pants.

I am thrilled to announce that I’m snapping between 150 and 200 photos per day (!). Photos, I have decided, are “instant gratification journalism”. You see a moment, you find an angle, you click, et voila. There’s no scriptwriting, no sorting through your notebooks or calling your source back. If done properly, a photo will capture a moment, in full colour, when words just aren’t good enough.

My mother is blonde

Kayla and I are currently guinea pigs. We are serving as Kanina’s prototype children – practice for when she becomes a real mum some day. I have informed her that she’s well prepared to mother a fine pair of 20+-year-old daughters. Alas, we cannot prepare her for the “infant stage” – although I adore Kanina, I am unprepared to simulate spitem-up on her shoulder. Nor am I comfortable with her changing my diapers (if I wore diapers, that is). For some reason, Kanina doesn’t seem upset by my prudishness….

Seriously, Kanina is mothering Kayla and myself. She worries about our meals, safety, and transportation; she makes sure the bills are paid; she wakes us up each morning to get ready for school; she worries if we sleep too much or eat too little. When Kayla and I relax or write our blogs (i.e. – homework), Kanina prepares the next day’s lecture. For several hours each evening, she sits in the dark with her headlamp on, paperwork strewn across the comforter. Sometimes, when the water is low, I suspect she skips showers so Kayla and I can take one. She hides the evidence by wearing a bandana, which she says makes her look like Aunt Jemima (or as Robert says, the illegitimate child of Aunt Jemima). After seeing a mother balance a family and a career for 20 years, I know careermum potential when I see it. J

Oh, and interestingly enough, I’ve had three people ask me if I’m Kanina’s daughter. And they’re dead serious. A muzungoo is a muzungoo, I guess.

They’re not gay

Public affection is different in Rwanda. Not only is it acceptable, it’s common to see either two men or two women walking hand-in-hand. Teenaged boys are especially sweet to one another. They walk with joined hands, or with an arm draped over the other’s shoulder. Sometimes they sit on a bench, cuddled together, shoulder laid on head.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to photograph this cultural phenomenon. The last time I saw two high school boys cuddled up together, I politely asked them for a picture. But they disentangled themselves to pose for the photo (argh!). I wish there was more platonic affection between same-gender people at home. Simply stated, it’s just cool.

Payphone: No spare change? No worries.

Few buildings have landlines. As Rwanda develops, and more people can afford a phone, most folks opt for a cell. This has led to an interesting concept: phones are attached to people, not buildings.

Alas – you’ve got no cell, you’re SOL. One day (before Kayla and I had cell phones), we needed to call Kanina. So we migrated from hotel to hotel in search of a payphone. Mercifully, a kind student saw we were confused and offered his help.

“What are you looking for?” the kind student asks.

“A payphone,” we respond.

“Do you have money?” he asks. “You can use the university payphone.”

“We have money,” I say, “but no coins.”

“Why would you need coins?” he returns, confused.

“Well, to use the payphone,” Kayla answers, equally confused.

The student shrugs but takes us to the university campus, where he reveals – ta dum! – a young man guarding an office telephone, with a long cord snaking into a nearby building. A stack of bills sits beside the phone. As it turns out, the young man – and the dirty little phone– constitute a Rwandan payphone.

This is actually a fantastic system, as you get back exact change. Bell, take note.

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Postings

June 1 , 2006 —
The pig project

May 31, 2006 —
Out of the monastery, into the pigpen

May 30, 2006 —
Final projects

May 27, 2006 —
Auditioning for Shake Hands
with the Devil

May 26, 2006 —
It's not a big deal, but . . .

May 25, 2006 —
Shooting today

May 24, 2006 —
These dudes keep coming to our door

May 23, 2006 —
'Ask me about my penis'

May 20, 2006 —
It was a freaking hippo, okay? Jovin and the cops; A bit more about kids

May 18, 2006 —
Exotic fruit; Pizza mistake

May 16, 2006 —
The writer's paradise; The coolest kids ever; My mother is blonde; They're not gay; Payphone: No spare change? No worries

 

 

 

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