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Claude Adams,
Journalist

Claude Adams' Notes From the Field

May 15, 2007 — Teaching the teacher

You may leave Rwanda, but it doesn’t leave you. I’m back in Canada with Emmanuel’s genocide story in my head. And Theogene’s take on the process of forgiveness. And Emmy on the difficulties of practicing journalism in Rwanda. And the light in Jean-Bosco’s eyes when he talked about how his TV story helped fix the potholes on Kigali streets.

They were four of my students and I like to think they taught me as much as I taught them. Only half of my time in Rwanda was spent in the classroom, but that time was a rich vein. At its best, teaching for me is a joyful negotiation: I’ll give you something, and you give me something back. Occasionally, I get the best of the bargain. This was one of those times.

But it all happened accidentally. I was never supposed to be a Rwandan classroom at all. Blame it on a few loose words.

Ever since my first reporting trip there in 1994, Rwanda has taken up residence in a small corner of my brain, in the form of an anguished question mark. How could this genocide possibly have happened? When I signed up for the Rwanda Initiative last year, I thought this might be a unique (and oblique) way of getting me closer to an answer. I agreed to spend three weeks in the newsroom of TV Rwanda. I would help the reporters develop some professional reporting skills. In return, I would use those contacts to pursue some stories of my own, as a freelance journalist.

But something happened. In my first week in Kigali, I wrote a blog that upset some influential people, and these people decided that I would not be welcome in the country’s only TV newsroom. Something about my obsession with “shadows” that one still finds in Rwandan life. It was my first civics lesson in 21st-century Rwanda: Be careful—very careful—what you say about life in the aftermath of the genocide. People are listening and reading, and weighing every word, every nuance, every opinion, especially if there might be an international audience.  Some things in Rwanda may only be whispered. On reflection, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Rwanda is still in post-traumatic shock. When a visitor comes and unburdens himself of an opinion that may be even mildly critical of the government, it will set off alarm bells.

As a result, instead of going to TV Rwanda, I was re-routed  to the campus of the National University in Butare. I would be teaching the fundamentals of broadcast writing to a group of journalism and communication students. As it turned out, the fuss over my blog was useful preparation for me as a teacher: It gave me insight into the environment that these prospective communicators would be launched into after graduation. If they decided on journalism, they would have to learn to walk a fine line. Tightrope walking is not necessarily a bad thing in this business: if nothing else, you learn to step carefully, you learn balance, you learn to be intensely aware of your environment. Up on the high wire, you learn to focus. Or else.

Happily, a number of my students also worked at TV Rwanda in their spare time. I could watch their work on the nightly news. We could discuss it. And day-by-day, I began to see things that they could do to improve their product—to create a better newscast—without risking the displeasure of their bosses, who have to be so mindful of politics. I told them that this was vital work: Television news can be—should be—a forum for public dialogue, and Rwanda was in urgent need of as much public dialogue as it could generate. Here are some of the things I told them:

  1. “Let me hear more voices, and see more faces, in your news reports. Average people, talking about things that matter to them, in simple language. This is where politics starts. People talking to other people. Make your newscast a more democratic platform.”
  2. “Don’t be in such awe of the politicians. Drop the titles, like ‘honorable.’ Ask them tougher questions. Be polite, but politely skeptical. Don’t take everything they say at face value. Ask them, politely, to back up their statements with facts.”
  3. “Convince your editors to expand their news agendas. Rwandan domestic news consists almost entirely of press conferences and seminars. The images are boring to the point of catatonia.  TV news should not be a government bulletin board, it should be an informed conversation. Take the cameras outside, videotape people where they live and work and play, and tell stories that have a greater social import. Rwanda is full of powerful human stories. Tell these stories. Over time, both your editors, and the politicians who rely on television to ‘get their message out,’ will see that this makes for far more compelling TV news.”
  4. “In your writing, try to simplify, and try to stay away from bureaucratic jargon. You are professionals. Don’t parrot press releases. You are not publicists. You are journalists trained to think critically. Let that be reflected in the language and the scope of your reporting.”
  5. “Let me hear more people talk, especially in close-up. I want to see their eyes, glance into their souls. And don’t paraphrase them. Don’t put your narration over video of their lips moving. Give them voice, even if it’s in an unfamiliar language. That’s how you get authenticity.”
  6. “You, the reporters, are the agents of change. This change does not have to be confrontational. These things I’m talking about are not subversive, they’re common sense. So tactfully convince your bosses, convince officials, heck, tell the president, that it is in everyone’s interest to develop a more watchable, balanced and independent news media. It will be more work for you, but ultimately, much more satisfying. And it’s an exciting enterprise: you’ll be pioneers.”

And so on. Some of the students complained that, in their work, they were constrained by what they called “the editorial line.” One student called their work “appeasement.” That sounded dangerously blunt, but it may hold some truth. Public broadcasting in Rwanda is not public broadcasting in Canada. “Freedom of the press,” in the Rwandan context, is seen by many as a dangerous two-edged sword that needs to be managed and contained. This argument has some strong historic underpinnings—in 1994, for example, leading radio stations and newspapers were organs of genocidal propaganda.

But I also got the feeling that my students were holding themselves back, even censoring their own instincts. One student who worked regularly at TV Rwanda bluntly called it a culture of “laziness.” Many of the reporters, he said, just didn’t want to do the work needed to expand the boundaries of their craft. We didn’t have the time to explore this further in the classroom; it would be a great subject for some future master’s or doctoral thesis.

With the lessons out of the way, I asked the students to talk about themselves, their own life histories, and their own motivations. To my pleasant surprise, they were expansive and candid—more candid, in fact, than any students I’ve ever taught in Canada. And this is where my learning came. I learned things about how they viewed the limits of forgiveness: where the personal anguish and loss they suffered in the genocide came crashing up again the social imperative of national unity. One student gave me insight into reconciliation of the “heart,” as opposed to reconciliation by political decree. As they talked, they gave me hope that the next generation of Rwandan journalists does indeed have a strong voice and a social conscience that will help to break ground and heal wounds.

All that’s needed, perhaps, is a little more oxygen, a little more empowerment—an acceptance by authorities that the rewards of more open expression in Rwanda, may well outweigh the risks. Especially if the voices doing the expressing belong to people like Emmanuel and Theo and Emmy and Jean-Bosco . . .

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April 27, 2007 — Jump in with both feet

The Sufi poet Rumi has a wonderful poem about learning to fly by falling.  You grow wings because you have to.

This week, I threw my 4th year journalism and communications class over a cliff.

“Your final assignment,” I told them, “is to produce a television documentary.” I held up a newspaper headline that talked about how they, the students at the National University of Rwanda, live under “appalling” conditions. It was more tabloid than truth, but I thought it was a good subject matter to get the students airborne.

If they failed, no matter. If they succeeded, they would brush against glory.

Eleven pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly. “We have three days to complete this,” I told them.  “You will do all the work yourselves. Videotaping. Interviewing. Writing. Producing. Editing. Your deadline is Friday. Okay, how long should our documentary be?”

“Twenty minutes,” said Bernard. He’s fearless.

Whoa! Flying is one thing. But 20 minutes is supersonic. “Why don’t we go for eight minutes?” I said. “Even that’s an awful long time on television, where you measure in seconds.”

I looked out at them. Maybe three students had ever handled a digital camera. Four of them had some limited TV news experience. One had reasonable editing skills. Was I asking too much? Of course I was. That’s one of the sadistic privileges of teaching.

I said the project needed a producer and asked for volunteers. After a full minute, Jean-Pierre tentatively raised his hand. He wasn’t sure what a producer did, but it sounded like an interesting challenge. Jean-Pierre edits the student newspaper. He had delegation skills. He’ll do fine.

I divided them up into five teams of two. Team 1 would look at the bland student cafeteria food. Team 2 would investigate the scarcity of student housing. Team 3 would look at student bursaries (chronically late). Team 4 would pursue the Science student who had organized the survey that produced the story. And Team 5 would go after the university administration.

Over the next few hours, a half-dozen other students wandered into class, in that infuriatingly careless, casual way that many Rwandan students adopt. It’s a disregard for the clock that won’t serve them well as journalists later in life, but I’ve learned to roll with it. I told them to check in with their fellow students, and assign themselves to one or another of the teams.

We came up with a title: “Ibibazo: Inside Campus.” Ibibazo is Kinyarwanda for “problems.” We discussed whom they would interview. We drew up lists of questions. I gave them a 10-minute crash course on the use of the digital camera. Automatic and manual focus. Framing. Don’t shoot into light. Proper use of microphones. How to shoot sequences—wide, medium and tight shots. Cutaways. The importance of natural sound. “And listen, don’t talk while you are recording, because the camera will pick up your voices and it will ruin the ambient sound.”

They were anxious to get going. “Three more things. And these are REALLY important! Whoever is using the camera MUST wear headphones, so you know you’re getting sound. Second, use a tripod. We don’t want any shaky-cam. And third, and this is really really important, bring back lots of close-ups.”

Two hours later, they began straggling back. I slipped their tapes into the player. The first tape had absolutely no sound. I glared at Jean-Bosco, the cameraman, and he gave me a sheepish grin. “Wrong audio channel,” he said. In fact, he’d disobeyed the mandatory headphone rule. The next tape was a study in cinematographic epilepsy—constant undirected movement. (The crew forgot the tripod.) The third tape was a dizzying sequence of pans, zooms and tilts, the kind of thing you expect in Uncle Fred’s home movie, but not on television. There was also a lot of their own chatter on the audio track.

Things was getting ugly. But I counted to 10 and followed the Golden Rule of Pedagogy: Don’t break their hearts before they’ve had a chance to learn something. I looked for something positive in their work, and found it: On all the tapes, the novice filmmakers showed enthusiasm  (and some skill) in the  “standup,” in which the reporter looks into the camera and says something profound. I complimented them on their camera presence, and sent them back out to re-shoot everything they’d done. And I put a little steel into the spine of the producer, Jean-Pierre. “Headphones, tripod, close-ups. And no talking while the cameras are rolling” I told him. “Make sure they remember.”

Over the next 24 hours, things began to happen. Emmanuel and Bernard came back with some inspired videotape illustrating cramped student housing—four men to a room, leaky bathroom plumbing. Other teams came back with some quite vivid student interviews, mostly in English, full of passion. The camerawork was steadier, the sound was good, even the framing began to show real imagination. And there was one extraordinary tape, shot in the campus cafeteria kitchen, with scenes that might have been lifted from Dante’s Purgatorio. I’m exaggerating, of course, but after their first efforts, this was like gold.  Jean-Pierre was clearly putting on some pressure.

Neville, a particularly quiet student, showed a natural talent in front of the camera. He had no nerves, and he hit his standup on the first “take.” As for scriptwriting, I found a fluent writer: Ritah. She produced crisp, short sentences in a hurry, and wasn’t intimidated by deadlines. And Jean-Emmanuel showed a lot of promise in his interviews: he kept repeating his questions until he got the answer he wanted.

They shot a total of 10 hours of tape, and I said enough. The story was edited by a committee of three. In charge of editing was the unflappable Emmanuel Mungwarakarama who, over 13 hours, overcame computer crashes, power failures, audio problems, and a blizzard of technical glitches that would have driven most North American editors mad. He was a resolute titan who carried the project on his shoulders. I fought back the urge for editorial intervention. This had to be their work, their voices. No time for muzungu (white man) management.

 “Ibibazo: Inside Campus,” a story of student life in Rwanda, will never make Cannes or Sundance. It’s choppy, there are too many different voices, there is no original music. It was produced with unreliable equipment, and has no post-production glitz.

But I think it’s fine. Remembering Rumi, I look closely at the students on camera, and I think I can see something. They’re not flying yet, but with at least three or four of them, I can see the first telltale signs of avian evolution. They’re growing wings.

(Note: Watch this space. No promises, but we’ll try to upload the documentary in the coming days.)

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April 22, 2007 — New discoveries

All my life, I’ve been struggling against Traveler’s Myopia. It’s a common ailment. We think that globetrotting makes us smart; then, we land in a so-called “exotic” place, and we are surprised to find that the people are so very much like us, with many of the same impulses, dreams, dilemmas and sensitivities.

Last week, I returned from lunch to my classroom at the National University in Butare, and discovered on the blackboard a message of condolences to those Americans whose lives were shattered by the gunman on the campus of Virginia Tech. It stopped me in my tracks.

I’m guessing that one of the 4th year journalism and communications students—I never found out who—had taken the time to write the heartfelt message, in English. (The word “tech” was misspelled—a clue that the author was probably not one of the foreign teachers.)

I’ll be honest. I was initially surprised because, in my bonehead ex-pat fashion, I had imagined that two or three dozen violent deaths in a country far far away wouldn’t really register here. After all, this is genocide country: It’s a rare week when someone doesn’t discover another grave of anonymous Rwandans killed and hastily buried 13 years ago. Surely, I imagine, the survivors here are hardened to this kind of thing.

Wrong.

The students were transfixed by the reports on Sky News and CNN that come in by satellite to the campus TV room; they were shocked by the contents of the gunman’s video diary, fascinated by the tabloid tone of the coverage.

In the Broadcast Writing class that followed, we talked about emotionalism in reporting—good or bad?—and we discussed the propriety of repeatedly airing the “suicide tape.” (Most of the students felt it was a mistake to show the tape over and over again, but they were split fairly evenly on the question of emotionality.)

Later that day, I told the students to organize themselves into teams of two, and to come up with ideas for video stories that they would be producing over the coming week. Once again they set me back on my heels. I expected that at least a handful of story themes would touch on subjects related to Rwanda’s post-genocidal experience. The reconciliation between victims and victimizers, maybe, or the government’s ongoing battle against “genocidal ideology.”

But again I was wrong. The things the students came up with were things that would preoccupy students anywhere, whether the campus is in Butare, Berlin, or Burnaby, B.C. “The cafeteria food is awful,” said one team. “How can we live when bursaries are delayed almost every month?” said another. “There’s a new gymnastics club in town, just for women,” said a third.  “Student housing is hopelessly inadequate,” said a fourth. Only one story idea even remotely touched on what happened in 1994. “The local football team has a chance to make first place in the national league for the first time since the genocide,” said Richard, who reports regularly for Rwandan TV.

Why should I have been surprised? They’ve lived half their lives in post-genocidal Rwanda. Like university students everywhere, their careers are in fast-forward. They look ahead, not back. There are immediate things to worry about, things they are in a position to do something about.

Later, over a cold Mutzig beer at the Ibis Hotel, a handful of students joined me and we talked about the highs and lows of working as young broadcast journalists in Rwanda. They were candid about the things that bothered them:  an editorial line that was unfailingly pro-government, the long hours, the low pay, the lack of reliable equipment. But by the second round of drinks, the mood shifted. After all, these were young men, they were smart and adaptable, and they believed they could cope with almost anything. No, rather than complain, they wanted to talk about the things they liked about the job, its personal rewards.

“I did a report for the news on holes in the city streets,” one of them said. “Two days later, while walking to work, I saw the work crews on the streets, fixing the holes. I think my story may have made a difference. That made me happy.”

One small story. One small victory. It’s an equation of personal achievement that means the same in any time zone, any country, any hemisphere.

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April 18, 2007 — The art of storytelling

“Tell me a story. Dites moi une histoire.”

I am hoping this will be the icebreaker in my opening class of a weeklong broadcast writing seminar. But the eight 4th-year journalism and communications students at the National University of Rwanda shift uneasily. They are not yet ready for that level of intimacy, even though we are crammed into a tiny classroom with barely enough room for eight rickety chairs, a desk and a blackboard.

“All right,” I say, after a long pause. “Maybe the stories will come later.”

The two Emmanuels, Richard, Jean-Pierre, Christine, Jean de Dieu, Theogene, and Donosias, seem visibly relieved as I go back to my lecture, and they to their note-taking.

Storytelling, I tell them, is at the heart of broadcast writing, especially when your subject is human interest. And we all tell stories every day, stories with a clear theme, characters, structure, flow. The stories come naturally, with a beginning, middle and end, succinct, and there are no wasted words. We are all born storytellers; with a little practice, we can turn this natural skill into effective broadcast writing.

Pause.

“C’mon, try it,” I said. “En Anglais ou Francais, either language.”  I can see a wealth of stories behind those faces; all of them lived through the 1994 genocide, one of the most harrowing events in modern history. But it’s still too early.

I tell them about storytelling as community building. We share stories, discover what we have in common, draw closer together, feel more secure. Broadcast journalists, if they do their job right, help create a national dialogue, a conversation of collective citizenship. I turn to the blackboard and, with the brittle chalk crumbling in my fingers, scratch out the famous quote from Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostilities.” I explain that we, as journalists, are here to uncover those “secret histories,” to reframe them and to send them out into the world.

One of the Emmanuels raises his hand. “What is ‘hostilities’?” he asks.

And so the day goes. We critique stories from the nightly TV Rwanda newscast, I have them write scripts, they struggle bravely with English syntax, I remind them to keep their sentences short. And every once in a while, I try to coax them to tell me a story “just so you can see the structure.”

The breakthrough does not come until the end of the second day. We are discussing a story I am researching, a story that deals with post-genocide reconciliation in Rwanda—of victims embracing their tormentors. I remark that some of the stories I’ve come across have an almost “miraculous” aspect.

That’s when I see that Theogene (nicknamed “Toto”) has his hand up. “I heard a story. I don’t know if it’s a miracle, but it’s true.”

His classmates lean forward to listen. “In the town of Byumba,” Toto begins, “there were two families living side by side. When the genocide started, the father of one family went into the house of the other family, and killed everybody. The only survivors were a boy and his sister.

“After the genocide, the man went to prison. He confessed, and after some years he was released. He went back to the house of his neighbors, and he saw the surviving boy, who was now a young man. And he asked forgiveness. After a time, the young man forgave him. But the old man was not sure. He didn’t believe he was really forgiven. So he went back to the young man, and said: I will believe that you forgive me, but you must do something to prove it. I need a symbol. You must marry my daughter.”

Theogene stops. He looks at our faces and savors our anticipation. He has come upon a first principle of successful storytelling: the dramatic pause.

“They were married,” he said.  “And they are still married. They moved away, but they come back now and then to visit the old man.”

There is a collective sigh in classroom, and other stories pour out.

We are learning.

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April 13, 2007 — A week of mourning

My dining companion at the La Fiesta Mexican restaurant, in the Kimihurura district of Kigali, was visibly agitated, and her distress had nothing to do with the food. I asked her what was wrong. She said: “Can’t you hear the music?” I could. It was a mariachi band.

“Should I tell the owner to turn it down?” I offered.

My companion, a Rwandan woman, shook her head. “Doesn’t he realize it’s genocide memorial week?” With that, she left the table and went looking for the owner.  Moments later, the mariachi music was gone, replaced by an FM radio station playing solemn music.

The owner was lucky. People playing inappropriate music in the second week of April, whether in a restaurant, or at a child’s birthday party, risk the wrath of neighbors, the seizure of the offending radio, even arrest if police decide to make a case of it. Restaurants have reportedly even been shut down when the management was deemed to show disrespect. Nightclubs and discos do virtually no business in memorial week.

It’s a very special time in Rwanda, by decree. The trauma of the human catastrophe that left nearly a million dead is still raw after 13 years, so raw that people here are highly sensitive to even the slightest lapse of decorum.

A few days ago, for example, a Kigali man tied purple bandannas—the national symbol of mourning—around the necks of his dogs, in memory of pets he had apparently lost in the genocide. Outraged neighbors demanded his arrest, and Rwanda’s national newspaper editorialized that the man should be detained until he came to his senses. There’s a law on the books against “trivializing” the genocide.

Students at the National University in Butare and elsewhere are relieved of all out-of-class assignments during the memorial period, and teachers may not grade any of their work. This is meant to encourage the students to spend their free time reflecting on the genocide, its victims and its consequences. And they do just that. Almost daily there are marches somewhere in Rwanda, to commemorate a particular massacre, or to excoriate the international community for turning its back on Rwanda in 1994.

At night in downtown Butare, and other cities and towns, survivors sit around giant bonfires, sharing stories about their experiences 13 years ago. Meanwhile, you can’t turn on the state-owned TV Rwanda, or open the inside pages of the New Times, without being overwhelmed by genocide-related features with the recurring theme: we must uproot any trace of “genocidal ideology.”

Yesterday, I visited the main genocide memorial site in Kigali, a building that is now easily accessible thanks to a new road paid for by the Chinese government. It was jammed with Rwandans and visitors filing through the exhibits. In a darkened room containing skulls and bones, a soft voice recited the names of men, women and children who were slaughtered. The roll call of the dead created a profound mood; a woman overcome with grief fell to the floor, wailing and crying.

Outside, people sat in benches around an eternal flame, deep in thought. It’s as if the nation is still struggling to come out from under shadow of the “Jenoside.”

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April 8, 2007 – Commemorating the genocide

A genocide anniversary ceremony, at least in Rwanda, is more than a solemn act of national remembering and self-reflection. Here, it’s also a deeply political act, a shout to the world.

It’s early Saturday morning, April 7, and I’m on the road to Murambi. It’s a name that may someday resonate with Rwandans in the same way that Auschwitz and Buchenwald resonate with the Jews. My driver John has the radio set to a campus community radio station that is carrying an anniversary special. The presenter, a woman student at the National University of Rwanda, is reading a timeline of the 1994 genocide. The report is a simple recital of dates and facts, no commentary, no angry adverbs. But in its spareness, it stands as a polemic: “That afternoon (April 11) the UN soldiers are ordered to withdraw to the airport. Most of the civilians they abandon are killed.”

Outside the car window, the country is awakening. It’s cool and sunny, the landscape   lush and green, and a visitor needs to remind himself that this is Africa and not the Eastern Townships of Quebec on a spring morning.

In the town centre, hundreds of Rwandans are being marshaled into buses for the ride to the genocide memorial site. No private transport is allowed down the access road. I abandon John and the taxi, and stand in a queue for one of the buses. An organizer pulls me aside, and tells me to get in the bus through the driver’s door, to avoid the crush. Being white, an umuzungu, still carries its privileges in Rwanda.

At the memorial site, a former school compound perched on rolling hills, there’s heavy security. The people who arrived by bus are directed to one entrance; VIPs, or anybody dressed like one, are directed to another, where soldiers seize all cell phones. I ask why. “It’s security,” is all that the soldier will offer in the way of explanation. Next, he handles all cameras and electronic equipment, and then issues me a press card without asking for credentials or ID—a curious lapse.

It’s shortly after 8 a.m., and the speeches don’t begin until 11, but the “common” people are already here in great numbers, sitting on hard wooden benches in an enclosure. They will sit today with remarkable stoicism, under a cruel sun, for nearly six hours, under the gaze of blue-uniformed police. The police have a intimidating way about them: they glare at the people to discourage too much movement, or noisy talk. There are many children, and even babies, in the crowd but they too will wait quietly and dutifully in the heat. It’s the kind of grit and fortitude that seems uniquely African.

By contrast, the VIPs, including the diplomatic corps, invited guests and members of the press, have complete freedom of movement. They sit on comfortable chairs, bottled water in hand, shielded from the sun under huge pavilions.

In a perfectly just world, I’m thinking, it would be the other way around: the common people--the primary victims of the genocide—sitting comfortably in the shade, while the VIPs and the media, who were so craven in their indifference to the genocide, would be cooking in the sun in their jackets and ties.

Promptly at 11 am, the speeches begin. Here, there is no deference to the international guests. Even though the speakers are talking to the world, as well as Rwandans, there’s not a word of English or French. It’s all in Kinyarwanda, the national language. This strikes me as a departure from normal protocol, and the message to the diplomats is clear: We will rebuke you, as envoys of the world at large,  for letting this genocide happen, and you will have to hear the rebuke in our language, the language of the victims. And you will listen for as long as we require. The diplomats sweat, fan themselves, look at their watches, but in the end they play out their roles with resignation.

The masses in the enclosure don’t seem very interested in the rhetoric of recrimination. They know exactly what the genocide was. The cadenced sentences of the politicians don’t add anything to their understanding. But they too seem to know their role here, so they sit and listen patiently.

Foreign media is scarce: apart from me, there’s a French documentary crew, a Reuters TV stringer, and one or two freelancers. This is not “news” by world standards, a lamentable fact, maybe, but not surprising. Rwanda TV, however, is carrying the entire event live.

The speeches, including an address by President Paul Kagame, last more than 2 ½ hours. There is also a ceremonial burial of two coffins, representing the tens of thousands of men, women and children who were killed here 13 years ago.

Then, the emotional heart of the ceremony begins. Kagame, his aides, cabinet members and their wives, lead off the tour of the school grounds. The VIPs follow the politicians, and then the masses follow them. It is a grisly and heart-stopping parade. We visit the “death” rooms where hundreds of corpses, preserved in lime, are arranged on low tables. Many of them are locked in the poses of their final agony—arms outstretched, jaws open as if screaming. I see one corpse with the index finger of the right hand extended, as if to say: “Wait, please.” I smell the sweet pungency of death—it seems impossible after all these years, but the odor is unmistakable. We then visit the rooms where the bloodstained clothes of the dead are folded and stacked in shelves. In a strange way, this gathering of rags is almost more emotionally overpowering than the tableaux of corpses.

I watch the faces of the people emerging from the death rooms. I see bewilderment. Rage. Despair. The blank look of disbelief. Some are sobbing. Some glare at me with my video camera. A handful of people collapse in hysterical grief, shrieking and flailing their limbs, and they are led away by Red Cross personnel.

Kagame’s purpose here in Murambi is more than a paying of respects to the dead, however. After the genocide, these killing fields were used a base by French soldiers. The French are reviled by many Rwandans: they are widely seem as supporters of Rwanda’s majority Hutus, and it’s felt the soldiers could have done a lot more to protect the Tutsi victims. Kagame leads his entourage to a spot where the French soldiers proudly flew their flag in the weeks after the genocide, and then another field where, a sign says, the soldiers played “volley.” It seems the soldiers were cavorting at volleyball over what was in fact a mass grave of genocide victims.

It’s a harsh metaphor for what the world did (or rather didn’t) do in 1994—a little heavy-handed and unfair, perhaps. But genocidal remembrances, especially this soon after the fact, are not meant to be subtle, soul-soothing affairs.   

Final note: My job here is to work with TV Rwanda journalists, and to help them put together more professional newscasts. In a future blog, I’ll look at how they, and other Rwanda journalists, report on the genocide and its aftermath. Are they able, after these few years, to do their work with balance and fairness?  Do they have the courage, and the professionalism, to “speak truth to power” in dealing with a state whose post-genocidal agenda has a number of rough edges?

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April 4, 2007 – Remembrance framed

Thirteen years ago, while scouring through the carnage of the Nyarabuye massacre site in eastern Rwanda, I picked up a scrap of yellowing paper bearing 12 names—a father, mother and 10 children. The youngest child was one, the eldest 23. It was some kind of parish record, torn at the edges, with what looked like a child’s doodle in the centre—a figure eight scratched with a ballpoint pen.

Sickened by the horror around me—decomposing bodies that the government had purposely left in place as a testament to the genocide—I assumed that I was holding a record of a family caught up in the violence. I told myself that if I took the time, I could probably match the names on the paper to the corpses of men, women and, yes, infants, around me. But I had other work to do.  I carefully folded the paper into my notebook, continued filming for a Global TV series on the genocide that I was working on, and forgot about it.

Back home in Canada, I was going through my notes, when the Nyarabuye document fell out. I picked it up, and my mind was once again flooded by the images of the scene. I had the document mounted and framed, with an inscription “Nyarabuye Parish, Rwanda, April, 1994” and hung it up on my bedroom wall. I resolved that one day I would return to the parish, to uncover the full story of how Stanislas Bagezaho, 53, and his family had perished. Why did they come to the parish grounds in the first place? Would I find any survivors? Had the killers been arrested, and convicted? Were relatives and friends of the family ready to forgive?

Over the years the framed document drew my mind me back to the churchyard, and reminded me of the work I needed to finish.  But I procrastinated. I returned to Rwanda in 1998, to produce a CBC documentary about the incredible challenges faced by the country’s justice system—130,000 suspects in detention facing charges of mass murder. It was absorbing work, and I was unable to get back to Nyarabuye.

The years passed. In 2003, I was teaching broadcast journalism at the University of British Columbia. I told my students about the massacre site, showed them graphic videotape, and related the story about the Bagezaho document. This, I told them, would be a powerful way to tell the story of the Rwandan atrocity: to gather the details of the how an entire family disappeared, a microcosm of the larger story. This was important work, I said, especially now as memory of the genocide was beginning to fade in the West, and the inevitable historic revisionism began to set in. But when the students asked, I had to admit that I hadn’t gotten around to the story of Stanislas and Alvera. Yet.

Finally a month ago, I decided I couldn’t delay any longer. I contacted a Rwandan academic in Butare, wired him some money, and asked if he could make some inquiries on my behalf in Nyarabuye. He agreed to make the trip, and ask some questions. I emailed him a copy of the churchyard document, and waited anxiously. Two weeks later, came the reply: Yes, he had found the family. Yes, they were all alive. In fact, their family had grown by one child. Oh, and by the way, Stanislas and his wife Alvera were Hutus! 

I was stunned. And a bit ashamed. How could this happen? Clearly, my state of emotional turmoil in the Nyarabuye churchyard, compounded by my ignorance of the reality in Rwanda, led me to construct an elaborate fantasy that I had fed over the intervening years. After all, it was the classic narrative, stark and irresistible and rich in human drama. It was the very stuff of human-interest journalism. The only problem is, it never happened.

I’m writing this blog in the Frankfurt airport terminal, on my way to Kigali via Addis Ababa. For the next three weeks, I will be working at TV Rwanda, as part of the media-training program of the Rwanda Initiative. I will be helping Rwanda TV journalists with things like story telling, story structure, interviewing and creating a purposeful news lineup.

It strikes me that the journalists I’ll be working with might learn something from my Nyarabuye anecdote, and what it says about our work: That in our probing of the Human Story, things are seldom as they first appear. Passion, and emotional engagement are good tools for a journalist, but they must be tempered by an inquisitiveness and skepticism: you need to look beneath the surface of things, to question your first impressions, to be ready to embrace complexity.

As journalists, especially in radio or television, we carry with us ready-to-use one-size-fits-all narratives, and our tendency is to squeeze all the stories we come across into one or another of these narratives. This is an especially common pitfall in television, the medium of simplification and the six-second sound bite, where our journalism is often constrained by impossible deadlines and a demand for “simple stories.” But to yield to this tendency is a mistake. We need to remain fully open to surprise, to the uniqueness of every human story. And then we must learn how to tell that story in a clear, honest and, if possible, original way. If that story includes ambiguities, or gaps, well, so be it. Life’s that way.

By the way, the story of Stanislas Bagezaho and his wife Alvera, and their 11 children, is still a good one. It should (and hopefully, will) be told. It will just have a different frame from the one I imagined. Meanwhile, that piece of paper is staying up on my bedroom wall.

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Postings

May 15, 2007 —
Teaching the teacher

April 27, 2007 —
Jump in with both feet

April 22, 2007 —
New discoveries

April 18, 2007 —
The art of storytelling

April 13, 2007 —
A week of mourning

April 8, 2007 —
Commemorating the genocide

April 4, 2007 —
Remembrance framed

 

 

 

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