Roger Bird's Notes From the Field
2006 — Preparing to say goodbye
I’m writing this on a beautiful
sunny morning here in Butare after a rainy, cold night. The
rainy cold night followed the last reporting class taught
by Sue Montgomery and me. I really felt for our mandatory
house guard, Joseph, good father of four children, good stepfather
of two more, orphaned when their parents were murdered in
1994. Rain or not, cold or heat, Joseph stays outside in a
miserable hut every night. Sue and Sylvia Thomson went to
Kigali Friday afternoon for a concert and to attend some journalism
awards, organized in part by the director of the School of
Journalism here. Tomorrow they are off by bus way up north
to see the mountain gorillas and will return Monday. Today
I’m grading and will attempt to do some of the edits
that are piling up in my e-mail from Diplomat and other magazines
We have 23 (out of 25) completed student questionnaires
in hand from second-year ethics and second-year reporting.
Sylvia has distributed questionnaires to her TV students and
to the fourth-year class taught by Allan. We will bring them
all home next week.
On the souvenir front, we are promised delivery
of two posters touting the awesome Maraba Rwandan coffee.
The posters are slightly naughty, drawing attention to a lovely
Rwandan miss, and when first published they attracted the
wrath of local puritans. It reminded me of Mencken, “a
puritan is someone who suspects that somewhere, somebody is
having a good time.”
Our reporting field trip Thursday went to the
Hall of the Rwandan Kings at Nyanga, and to the Gikongoro
area to check out rumours of famine. A young man named Leopold
of the World Food Program briefed the students for the latter.
It was a classic PR “briefing” in which the speaker
told the students All About Everything with regard to WFP
and nothing about local conditions. That was until the students
and Sue (her team did food; mine did the Kings) dug into him
until finally he used the F word and acknowledged that despite
government denials it was a “famine.”
Then the students fanned out into the Karambi
market to talk to the locals, while Sue took endless pictures
of children and gathered a crowd which verged on the dangerous
at times, simply because of the crush of hungry people.
None of the students had ever been to either
site, and they were incredibly pumped all day long. We got
back at 4:30 p.m. We fed the whole crew plus bus driver plus
Leopold at the Dallas Restaurant (a scene in itself) in Gikongoro
for about 18,000 francs, or $35 Cdn. It was my best day here,
with the teaching finally starting to bite. They described
farmed out soil conditions, hungry people, women starting
to cry as they explained they couldn’t feed their kids.
Sounded like journalism to me.
It is starting to sink in for the students that
we are leaving and there were many inquiries whether we could
stay in touch by e-mail, whether we could help with future
stories and the like. We could indeed. I can only hope that
this country will open some avenues so they can all use their
education to good effect. They are a wonderful bunch with
the exception of two who care only about their (admittedly
ravishing) appearance. I’m going to miss them.
February 7, 2006 —
Long weekend road trip
We just had a long weekend, Monday being
a day off to allow people to vote for local officials right
across the country. So the four Canadians hired a
vehicle and set off on a 2½ hour trip to Lake Kivu,
a huge body of water between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic
of the Congo. Our destination was Kibuye, one of several towns
on the eastern (i.e., Rwandan) shore and Hotel Centre Béthanie,
run by the Presbyterian church. Other hotels in town have
been more or less appropriated for NGO headquarters, and almost
all visitors at Béthanie were Europeans attending NGO
workshops in its conference centre. Workshops are everywhere
and always, and if poverty, ignorance and hunger can be quelled
by them, Rwanda is on the road to a bright future.
Kivu fishermen at Kibuye, Rwanda.
Hunger. Driving through the achingly beautiful
hills between Butare and Kibuye, a stark Malthusian equation
began revealing itself. A word of explanation. In 2004 I edited
a world map for Canadian Geographic. Part of its content was
UN development data, plugged in on the CIDA side of the map
(the Canadian Geographic side had Canada’s presence
in the world in matters scientific and cultural). I shepherded
the UN numbers into their proper places without really taking
account of them. Here’s a couple for Rwanda: area, 26,338
square kilometres; population, 8,387,000. Around me on the
trip was a four part equation between forests (disappearing),
erosion (severe), agriculture (intense) and population (growing).
People marry young and love large families. For example, our
class representative is one of 11 children in his family.
More people means fewer trees, more agriculture and erosion,
less land available for more people. Equals less food.
But we are rich. Food in Kibuye was good, though,
notably, the fish were tiny, caught by men paddling immense
wooden, flat-bottomed boats linked together by booms made
of tree trunks. They sing as they paddle through the night
and land their catch of slightly-larger-than-sunfish tilapia
from an overfished lake the next morning. We met a crew on
a shoreline walk the next morning. Bunch of cheerful show-offs.
“Take our pictures!” was the message of their
gestures and a few words of French. Anyone with their physique
who didn’t show off would be in need of emotional counselling.
On our return trip to Butare, there were long lines of Sunday
best-dressed people walking home through the heat, having
voted by lining up behind the candidate of their choice at
the appointed polling places. Candidates were not allowed
to peek at the line behind them. Soldiers enforced the rule.
I suspect the turnout was way ahead of the numbers during
a municipal election in Canada. That has to be good news.
Tuesday was the day Sue Montgomery of the Montreal
Gazette met her first class of second-year reporting students.
She took one look at the dark, computer-deprived room assigned
to her and marched her students outdoors for a lesson in the
arboretum. I offered my assigned computer-equipped classroom
so the students could write up their mutual interviews, but
when we got there it had been hijacked by another teacher
and his group (a frequent occurrence, according to a U.S.
education prof who has been here for years). Since I was too
Canadian to protest vigorously, Sue’s group will do
their writing tomorrow, if the current plan holds. You never
One ornithological note. In Kibuye, I heard
a robin singing. Honest. Looked up, and silhouetted against
the lake was a robin-shaped bird with a red breast. It flirted
its tail like a robin. “Looks like a robin, sounds like
a robin, acts like a robin …” It was Pogonocichla
stellata, a white-starred robin, found in most of Rwanda,
as well as parts of Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Definitely
had a Canadian accent.
January 31, 2006 —
Something of a breakthrough this week
in the journalism ethics course I’m teaching with Prof.
Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi. It’s been our first
“group presentations.” Some readers know that
in Carleton’s School of Journalism version of the course,
students do such presentations in the form of skits, complete
with props, costumes, funny hats and sophomoric humour. Prof.
Bosco advised against this approach. We decided instead to
hold a panel discussion: students in teams of four confront
a previously unseen ethical dilemma, have 20 minutes to discuss
it, and then sit down in front of the class in our empty TV
studio cavern and provide their take on the dilemme du jour.
Monday was a strain. Students struggled to make
clear their intricate, reasoned thoughts on what to do about
the charity board that begs a reporter to hush up the news
of the alcoholic employee who embezzled millions of Rwandan
francs for his private benefit. These students struggled because
they were operating in their third language, English. This
despite assurances beforehand to our teaching team that the
university was indeed trilingual — Kinyarwandan, French
and English. No, the university is working towards being trilingual,
and these students have the hard task of understanding English-speaking
instructors and expressing themselves as well in English.
Worse, they didn’t “get” the panel discussion
format, an alien import. The panelists were stilted, the students
in front of them addressed their questions and comments not
to the panel but to the professors, despite our efforts to
avoid eye contact, to remain impassive and the like.
But we soldiered on through three cases anyway,
with never a doubt about the worthwhileness of the ideas behind
the halting words and broken social scene.
Then came Tuesday. Same group. Tougher dilemme
du jour: the financial reporter who writes a stock column
which makes readers rich while he struggles to make ends meet.
His daughter needs expensive dental work. Should he break
his paper’s iron rule against him buying or selling
stock? Through a deal with a couple of friends? Just this
We hand out the assignment to all (a few moments
later we’ll pick the presenting group). Everyone reading
intently. Then someone puts up his hand and asks, more or
less, “Could you please give an very simple explanation
of what this means?” Bird and Rushingabigwi probe a
bit and discover that nobody in the room knows the square
root of squat about stock markets, les bourses du monde. Six
minutes of explanation by Rushingabigwi in Kinyarwandan. Presenting
group steps outside (fresh air!) to consult.
Then their presentation. Animated. Heavy accents.
Clear. Good reasoning behind the ethical choices. Then the
assembled room. Students leaning forward toward the panel,
ignoring the professors (!) hands in the air, pleading to
be heard. Raucous but orderly discussion, huge though largely
one-sided debate. They would fire that reporter if he even
thought about trading stock.
Someone made the point that the underlying lesson
about journalism was you’re always learning something
new in this trade. These Rwandan students learned several
new things over two short days. And they made at least one
prof feel less like he was presenting a cardboard replica
of a course instead of the real thing.
Tomorrow is Heroes Day in Rwanda, a national
holiday to honour all the nation’s heroes. We (the team
has been joined by the CBC’s Sylvia Thomson and is minus
Allan Thompson off in Nairobi talking to journalists) get
a day off and will likely join the crowd tomorrow at the soccer
stadium to see what it’s all about.
The Roger and Ann Bird part of the team are
still slowly adding birds. On Sunday we met our first bee
eaters, the European (in its migratory winter home) and the
Cinnamon-chested, with their dazzling arrow-shaped flight
configuration, intense turquoise, chestnut, yellow and white
paint jobs, and social habits. Today in a walk to the campus
there was a felled tree with dark maroon wood at the roadside.
It was about half a metre through the middle at ground level.
As a confessed tree obsessive, I counted the rings and there
were only about 30 of them. In eastern Canada, a hardwood
tree that thick would be a 50- to 70-year tree. This one had
grown to its thickness since about 1975. That’s what
life without winter will do for you.
January 23, 2006 —
Election day ethics
Election day in Canada was the first
opportunity for students in “Ethics and the Responsibilities
of the Media” to present their own ideas instead of
just listening to me and Prof. Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi lecture
to them about the uncertainties of ethics in our trade. We
set up our data projector, destroying only one power bar in
the process as it succumbed in a shower of sparks to 230-volt
input. Sigh. Bosco and I used the projector to flash puzzling
English terms onto our “screen,” the blank white
reverse side of Bosco’s map of Africa draped over our
three-legged green chalkboard. I was briefly entangled in
the black-white metaphor that map created in my mind, then
did a short lecture on the pitfalls of enforcing ethical behaviour
among journalists. Conclusion: only education of journalists,
and of the public by journalists, could encourage, though
not enforce, ethics.
So it was the students’ turn to give it
a try. Sam Mandela considered the reporter whose paper’s
policy was to inform sources if they were being taped on the
phone. Etienne Ntawigira had to figure out what to do about
the reporter who showed up on a day off among demonstrators
in front of an abortion clinic, and Gilbert Ndikubwayezu looked
at the case of the reporter, flying off on holidays, sitting
by chance behind a cabinet minister and hearing all kinds
of things he shouldn’t have heard.
To give you some idea of what they were up against.
We sat in a circle formed by a miscellaneous chair collection
in a cavernous room intended some day to be filled with TV
equipment. The only available light came through the windows
(I was shown the hidden light switch later). The class meets
five days a week for three weeks and then it’s all over.
There’s no dress rehearsal. For virtually all of the
students in the room, English is a distant third language,
behind Kinyarwandan and French. I can only guess at their
family histories, since almost everyone here grew up in a
world shattered by the genocide. These young people are (consequently?)
more mature than most of the second-year students I taught
at Carleton. They are intensely aware of the political and
social implications of journalistic activities and decisions.
As well, they had an amazing ability to construct a rational
argument for an ethical decision. I was impressed.
Later, as Bosco and I discussed grades, it dawned
on me that university grades in Canada are so inflated as
to be almost meaningless. Here, the grade scale is zero to
20. A really impressive-phone-your-mom grade is 15. You pass
with a 12. Canadian graduate admission committees please note.
On the home front, this birdwatching professor
is picking away at the elusive prey in the trees via Field
Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John
Fanshawe. Today with no argument from the other birder in
the family, we chalked up a pair of white-headed black chats
in the garden. Sunday’s visit to the campus arboretum
(also a forestry research station) turned up a spectacular
African pitta (golden tummy shading into crimson, vivid black-and-white
striped head) according to me, a point of view under dispute.
The election will be decided as we sleep, and
we’ll miss the rolling TV coverage from coast to coast
to coast. We’ll pray that the campus Internet connections
are up in the morning, or that Allan’s short-wave can
find RCI in the clear.
January 19, 2006 —
Trip to Kigali
Jan. 18 was a trip to Kigali to meet
local journalists. We set up regular Wednesday newsroom
stints at The New Times, working alongside the staff. More
below, but the trip itself is worth some attention.
An almost full “Volcano” bus picked
us up at the corner of our road and the main highway at 6:10
a.m. and we squeezed into the back seat, Allan with his laptop,
me with a backpack carrying stuff intended to impress our
hosts — my Canadian Geographic/CIDA world map, a copy
of Diplomat magazine with Dallaire on the cover. This was
A two-hour ride north up a road with an almost constant stream
of Rwandans on either side going to work, stepping aside as
we hurtled past.
Local work: common forms. Mothers, assisted
by one child, hoeing a field or a banana orchard. Skinny young
guys (no fat people in Rwanda that I have seen) pushing bicycles
loaded with immense sacks of produce (or furniture, huge jerry
cans of water or anything else you can think of) up hills.
There is no flatland between Butare and Kigali. Every square
centimetre of land appears to be cultivated, no forest remaining.
The steep hills are terraced to support crops. Everyone appears
to be working frantically. I have no idea where the cliché
of the “lazy African” came from.
We left the bus on a crowded, rutted, side street
in Kigali. Plenty of taxis on offer, but we sought a restaurant.
Turned out to be a tea house, and in our ignorance we ordered
coffee, which eventually arrived thanks to the resourceful
server: two cups, a saucer of Nescafe instant, and a tankard
of boiling water. I ended up with an omelet though everyone
else was enjoying large bowls containing a soup broth and
a boiled joint of lamb or pork, hard to tell. As I paid the
server he said, “Merci Poppa,” solidly establishing
my age and rank.
A combination of Allan’s longstanding
knowledge of Kigali and the taxi driver’s resourcefulness
got us to the basement quarters (formerly a nightclub) of
The New Times, Rwanda’s only English-language paper.
We were welcomed by managing director (the boss, editor-in-chief/publisher)
Edward Rwema, news editor Victor Mugarura, and administrative
officer Iyamuremye Justus. We met many of the staff. The paper
has risen from an original circulation of 800 to today’s
5,000. It publishes Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and is launching
a Sunday edition Jan. 28.
Rwema’s views: journalism not regarded
as a serious profession here. Low pay, government pressure
combined with better-paying jobs in the ministries as information
officers. The Times now offering better pay and some medical
coverage. Still, only about 10 per cent of staff meet professional
standards. Editors hired for their English-language skills,
but lack journalism knowledge. As an example, yesterday’s
story on President Kagame lashing out at his critics during
a meeting of religious leaders, saying, no, he never sought
– as his critics say – the presidency. Lots of
quotes from Kagame. But no quotes from his political opponents.
That night, driving back from Kigali (in a friend’s
truck loaded with Kigali-purchased household gear) we heard
the same story on the BBC’s Kinyarwandan radio newscast.
We asked our friend to translate, since several of the clips
were from a Kagame opponent, the missing element from the
New Times story. We have to find out whether this kind of
reporting (let’s hear from both sides) is confined to
foreign reporters and bureaux or whether local reporters can
do the same thing.
New Times staff invited Allan and me to work
with their editors in their newsroom every Wednesday, as they
edit stories. Staff have had a bellyful of journalism “workshops”
where they sit in a seminar room away from the paper and listen
to some foreign expert talk to them about how to do journalism.
Instead, we’ll just slide in beside their screens and,
when appropriate, help out with suggested journalistic interventions,
back-and-forths with the reporters, and the like. Later we’ll
work with the reporters themselves.
January 17, 2006 —
Hello Max, this blog is a belated account
of my first journalism ethics class taught jointly Jan. 17
with my colleague Professor Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi.
We worked together frantically Jan. 16 to “Rwandize”
the material I had brought from Carleton and we walked into
our classroom together at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 17 to meet 18 students.
The School of Journalism here has only nine full-time (desperately
overworked) faculty: all the students knew him, none knew
me, so he did the intro.
Our classroom was a cavernous room intended
as a TV studio, but still awaiting the arrival of longed-for
but expensive equipment. Two windows let in the only available
light. Students were seated in a collection of miscellaneous
chairs, some with writing arms, some without. The rest of
the furniture was two wobbly triangular-shaped tables and
a portable blackboard. I launched into “why we care
about ethics in journalism,” reading in the dim light
my notes laid out on one of the tables. Awkward but doable.
At about minute No. 3, someone appeared at the rear entrance.
It was Allan Thompson packing a brand new, sturdy lectern
on his equally sturdy back. He had liberated it from the campus
woodworking shop which produces desks, lecterns, tables, cupboards,
you name it. His arrival generated much mirth. He took pictures
for the website while I proceeded.
The students: attentive, keen, intelligent.
Five women and 13 men, the reverse of Carleton’s normal
ratio. Those who were shy outnumbered those willing to offer
comment or ask questions. We had four or five talkers in our
group of 18, in this instance about the same as at Carleton.
Max, you’d fit right in with these people.
Content: “freebies” generated much
interest. Is it OK to take gifts from sources or organizations?
In Canadian journalism we say, “Of course not.”
Well, said my students, if you have to cover, say, the opening
of a new tea plantation, the only way to get there is in a
vehicle provided by the company running the plantation. And
the company will likely provide lunch too, as the reporter
is often too poor to buy it. Otherwise no story. Conclusion:
your ethics are heavily affected by where you stand on the
The students and Prof. Rushingabigwi were to
meet Jan. 18 while Allan and I were in Kigali meeting the
staff of The New Times, the English-language newspaper. Bosco’s
mission was to Rwandize my remarks and ideas.
2006 — A note to Max
What's going on here is a retread professor
and freelance editor hired on to teach print editing and journalism
ethics at the National University of Rwanda. This
blog takes the form of a note to Max, a first year journalism
student at Carleton in a course which was my first assignment
in the School 30 years ago.
Our contingent is Roger Bird, my wife Ann (computer
backup and social enabler) and Carleton colleague Allan Thompson,
the brains behind this whole venture. We live at the north
end of Butare in a spacious house with a lovely garden, an
iffy electrical supply and no Internet connection.
Allan Thompson, Jean-Pierre Gatsinzi, director of
the School of Journalism, Ann Bird and Roger Bird
in the main building at the National University of
Rwanda campus, here
I'm writing this in a shared office on the campus
where we have failed in our attempts to get online via its
high speed connection. Ann and Roger got here Wednesday afternoon
by a big jeep from Kigali, loaded with all our gear (nothing
missing: thank you KLM and Kenya Airlines) and a massive household
shopping carried out by Allan and our local fixer, Alice Musabende.
So far it's all about logistics — transportation, shopping,
plumbing and the like.
Electrical logistics: almost nothing works in
the array of electrical adapters and transformers we bought
in Ottawa to cope with Rwanda's 230 volt, 50 cycle electricity.
We are hoping Kigali stores can help.
We've met a handful of our disarmingly genial
Rwandan journalism colleagues. We are on a campus swarming
with well-dressed (no shabby sweatshirts, bare tums or baseball
caps here Max) predominantly male students. January is the
start of the academic year, like September at home. Classrooms
have rigid seating with lines of benches. Some rooms are computer
equipped, some not. This building, the central one on campus,
was built in 1955 and forms a gentle quad with trees in blossom
and formal European-style gardens. The air is sweet, the people
handsome, the roads a terrifying channel of high-speed vehicles
and an endless stream of people on foot on both sides, shifting
out into the traffic, stepping nimbly aside at the last moment
along with the bikes and motorcycles. Bikes carry everything
from bananas to office furniture.
Soon I hit the 48-hour in-country mark Max,
and it's been almost impossible to think professionally about
my courses so far in the face of the electrical (how soon
will my laptop battery die?) and Internet (why won't this
cable coming out of this office wall actually connect me?)
frustrations. With luck we'll defeat all obstacles and learn
stoicism along the way. This evening we host (thanks to Allan's
social skills) a cocktail hour or 10 for Rwandan colleagues.
I hope to pick up technical tips. I hope to learn something
of what I came here to learn — what journalism and journalism
teaching are like in this beautiful country with the catastrophic