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NUR School of Journalism
and Communication

 
 
   
 


Charles Gordon

 

Charles Gordon's Notes From the Field

Mar. 30, 2007 — Attendance follies continued

The last day of class was a lot like the first. I arrived a few minutes early at the small and dark classroom I have been using except when someone else is using it which has only happened a couple of times. I looked around for students. Eventually one came. He immediately took out his phone and began beeping the other students. Another student arrived and then left, looking for more students. He came back.

"They're coming," he said.

You quickly learn not to take this personally. It's just the way the journalism students at the National University of Rwanda are. In fact, there's something very nice about the fact that each of them sees it as his or her job to round up the others for you.

Sometimes they are more successful than others. In fact, one of the measures of the success of our classes is attendance. "How was class?" one of us will ask. "Good," the other will reply. "I had eight out of 11."

That matters perhaps more than it does in Canada because we have such a short time here. I have been here two months. Others have been at the university as little as three weeks. I am teaching opinion writing, in English. The course, like many of the others we teach, lasts four weeks. That could mean 12 classes. If a student misses one, there is almost no time to catch up. And because we think that we are here to help people learn, rather than teach them the virtues of perfect attendance records, it is hard when they miss what may be the only lecture on a topic like, for example, reviewing.

We learn that the students have all kinds of reasons not to be in class. Some of them work, often in media jobs, such as at a local radio station, Radio Salus. Others go as far as Kigali to work for the national television station. Some of them may be trying to finish the assignments we so generously dish out. They don't have their own internet connections and they don't have their own computers.

That would be all right if the computer labs they use were always up and running, but they are not. The main one used by the journalism students had no internet for more than two weeks. That's half of a course, and given the fact that the internet is what they use to file their assignments, that's a catastrophe.

The guy who is missing the lecture on reviewing may have found a free computer so he can finish his assignment on editorial writing.

Or, being a student, he may just be skipping class.

What has impressed me most about these kids (most of whom are considerably older than their Canadian counterparts) is how hard they have worked to catch up on the assignments they missed. The concept of deadline may be a floating one, but the work gets done, and done attentively. If I ask for 700 words, I get 700 words, or maybe 701.

One-on-one, where I have been doing more work lately (having gotten tired of hearing my own voice lecturing), they are great, very conscious of their inadequacies in written English, very eager to improve, even if their future work will be on the radio and in another language altogether.

Mind you, in the middle of the one-on-one, just as you are giving some extremely important advice, they will excuse themselves to take a phone call, and right where they sit.

You get used to that too. The theory I'm working on is that people can't be rude if they don't know they are being rude. They don't know answering the phone is rude. One of my predecessors suggested that we should all make a big show of turning off our phones before the class. I didn't do that, but did make sure the phone was off. One day I forgot and the phone rang in the middle of a lecture. I ignored it and carried on and the students were troubled. "Why don't you answer the phone?" several of them said.

Few of them actually answer phone calls during class and none of them actually (itals) make (unitals) calls. However, some of them will occasionally stroll out of the class for no reason that you can figure out. Usually they come back, but not always. That's why the idea of taking attendance is not terribly useful. Attendance, like many things around here, is a relative concept.

Does that mean I'd trade this group of students for others who were more conventional in their approach? Not on your life. I'm sure I share with every teacher who has worked at the Rwanda Initiative the feeling that we have been touched more by the students than we could ever touch them.

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Mar. 21, 2007 — Observing the observed

A common risk for journalists is that they become the observed at the same time as they seek to be the observers. Our visit to Kigeme is a textbook example.

Kigeme is a very unhappy looking town, about a 40-minute drive west of Butare, near another large town, Gikongoro. Where Butare bustles with activity, Kigembe has an atmosphere of unenjoyable idleness. In Butare, the streets are alive with people with some place to go. They are going to the university to study or work, going to work at the hospital, taking produce to market. They look busy and they are dressed well to be busy.

Kigeme, when we arrived, was full of guys standing around. They were poorly dressed and so bored that the arrival of a bus full of university students was an event. You wouldn't believe that so many people could spend so long standing beside a bus staring at it.

They also stared at a van belonging to CARE International whose project we were visiting. It was an HIV/Aids project. The idea was that the students, third-year opinion writing students on a field trip, would meet with a woman with HIV and another woman who had been trained to help her.

The bus and the CARE van stopped down the street from her house and we walked back to it. Unfortunately, it was high noon and all of the town's students were let out for lunch and they crowded around us to see the spectacle, such as it was.

The spectacle was enhanced, if that was the word, by the presence of a muzungu (white person), a rare sighting apparently, and also by the presence among the students of Clementine Barada, who is well known for her program on Radio Salus, a popular station. For these various reasons, we drew a crowd and when we reached the house, a small unlit room, really, a few steps down from the road, the CARE project manager, Jeannette Nduwamariya, realized that this was not going to work. Back we walked to the vehicles, accompanied by a deranged man, also infected, I was told, who attempted energetically to amuse the crowd and ourselves. He was half successful.

The interview would now take place be on the bus, a smallish vehicle of the type that carries passengers back and forth between Butare and Kigali every half hour. It would hold 20 people comfortably. The students, another CARE worker, the volunteer and the subject, all got on. The muzungu decided that his presence would not be helpful and stayed outside.

Did I say that there is not a lot for people to do in Kigeme? The area is known for prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction, displaced people and lack of work. The crowd beside the bus and the van was probably a representative sampling of all these problems. A drunk old guy wanted money and kept asking for it, to different people in different ways. At one point he went away for awhile and came back with a new toothbrush for some reason. The deranged man danced and lip synched to a song on the radio. Children in ragged school uniforms just stood there, looking. And lots of young men who, in a better world, a better town, would have been working just stood there too. Only the drunk was actively begging. The rest just stood. And stood.

Jeanette explained that even without Barada and the muzungu, the CARE vehicle itself would have drawn a crowd. The people want money, she said, and some of them are just curious.

On the bus, the students were getting an education. The woman they were interviewing was only 19, younger than they, and a prostitute. She had contracted the disease when she was 18. They gathered around her, firing questions for almost an hour. Outside the bus, life went on, such as it was. A little kiosque, fashioned out of logs, had fashionable bags for sale, hanging outside. On the ground beside the kiosque, two boys filled small sacks with flour out of a larger one. A minibus pulled up, a large decal with the name JESUS on the front windshield. Some people got out, others crowded on. A man walked by, shabbily dressed except for his hat, a brown fedora with the words Sea Horse on the hatband. The drunk man returned to the CARE van. The project manager, who had handled all approaches with good humour up to now, sighed and rolled up the window.

When the interview was over, the young prostitute walked back to her house alone. The elementary students had gone back to school. The bus full of university students drove away, past a dozen guys sitting on the median.

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Mar. 14, 2007 — Baby on board

Yesterday I went in the office we share with a communications professor to check e-mails. There were four from my future daughter-in-law Cynthia Chan. Reading the headings from the bottom up, as I do, I saw:

"Update on Mary G"
"Mary's room number" and
"More information"

all sent within 12 minutes of each other. Update? Room number? Then, above them, sent five hours later, was another e-mail from Cynthia, entitled: "Hello, Grandparents!!!"

Thus did I learn that my daughter, Mary Gordon (a proud Carleton MJ grad) had given birth, a lot earlier than anyone expected, to a baby boy, our first grandchild.

You can imagine the excitement, but also the powerful feeling of being out of the picture. We return to Canada in about two weeks and had expected to be home in plenty of time for the baby's arrival. Now, here I was, alone in an office at the National University of Rwanda with no one to tell, a powerful urge to tell and an even more powerful urge to be in contact with Mary.

Here our daily communications realities come in to play. It was 3 a.m. in Canada. I couldn't call Mary, but I could call her husband, Chris Rands. The only thing was, my cellphone seemed to be out of juice and because I didn't expect to be at the university long that morning, I hadn't brought a charger along. There was also the question of a phone card. The night before, a friend had gone through phone card after phone card, 2,500 Rwandan francs at a time ($5) in an attempt to straighten something out with Air Canada. I had some credit on my phone, but not a lot.

I would use it to call Nancy, my wife, the new grandmother, who is in Butare but was visiting a nearby genocide memorial. She would know what to do. Her phone was out of service, a French voice told me. (This was because she had turned it off and left it at home.) I decided to call Chris. The other night, while our friend wrestled with various airlines over long distance and fed new cards into his cellphone, we heard tales of a land line, an actual real telephone, in the director's office. Perhaps this would be the answer.

I went in and asked his secretary if it was possible for me to use it. It is not possible, she said. Because of the level of my French, it was impossible for me to learn whether it was not possible because the phone didn't work, or not possible for hierarchical reasons. Suspecting the latter, I pled my case, informed Placidie that I was now a grandfather for the first time and that my grandson was premature and I needed to phone Canada to see if everything was all right.

Don't you have a mobile phone? she asked. Yes, I said, but the battery is low and I'm not sure if I have enough credit. At least that's what I thought I was saying. Within minutes, Placidie had dispatched an assistant to buy me a phone card with big-time credit on it. When he returned, she put the credit on her phone and gave it to me. I connected, woke Chris up and he assured me that everything was fine. The conversation turned rather emotional when it came to discussing the baby's name, which is Charles. Charles Alan Gordon Rands. Placidie watched all this and brought over a charger for me to plug the phone into so I wouldn't run out of battery in mid-blubber. It was one of the best conversations of my life and while we were having it I was looking out the window and across a beautiful green valley to the big brick cathedral across the way.

By the time I got home, Nancy had returned and could share the excitement. We decided we would charge all the phones, load up on phone cards and call Mary at a respectable Canadian hour. And then, there was nothing for it but to go to class. I took John Honderich with me, former publisher of The Toronto Star and an old, old friend. We had suggested he come visit us in Rwanda and when he accepted he also agreed to allow himself to be shamelessly exploited by the Rwanda Initiative. The day before he had given a lecture to all the journalism students, on the newspaper's role in dealing with diversity. There were lessons for aspiring Rwandan journalists here, if they could read between the lines, which they could. The students and much of the faculty had come to the Rwanda Initiative house for a party afterwards and John had mightily enjoyed talking to them.

For the class, 3rd Year Opinion Writing, I had thought we could take the issues he talked about — representing different groups in your coverage, being sensitive but also being bold in writing about diversity — and show how they would relate to individual journalists. I knew John would have some great horror stories about columnists and cartoonists who had ventured over the line, either in fact or in the eyes of outraged readers. And I had a few myself.

Even though all the time for planning the class had been taken up with celebrating Charley's arrival and buying phone cards, the class went well, with a lot of smart discussion from the students. When it was over, John announced my news to the class. They offered congratulations and one student asked if my grandchild had a name. I said yes and told him, managing to do so without choking up this time. The students were surprised that a baby would have a name so soon. They told me that in Rwanda there is a party, eight days after birth of a baby, to which friends and family are invited. They eat and drink and celebrate and somewhere in the middle of this the baby gets a name. The party is called kwita umwame izina.

They asked me what I thought of this. I said the party sounded like a great idea but I thought the baby had a pretty good name already.

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Feb. 27, 2007 — The other part . . .

There is an old Rwandan saying — actually it isn't an old Rwandan saying, but what the heck — that if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You can apply it to teaching writing to Rwandan journalism students.

You see part of the student, the part that struggles to write in English, a third language for most of them. The 11 fourth year journalism students, 10 men and one woman, are happy in Kinyarwanda, comfortable in French, tentative in English. Their written work is fun to read, full of good ideas and opinions, but the tendency is to see only the weaknesses — the misuse of idioms, the odd punctuation, the mishandling of quotations.

But take this same group out into the field and you see something else. You see 11 young journalists who know what to do. From the moment they got off the bus at the first CARE project they visited in Nyamagabe, in the southern province, the members of the class showed me how little of the person you see when you are focussing only on the vocabulary and the grammar.

At a school where primary students were learning about agriculture, the students scrummed the headmistress like Canadian journalists would (I mean that as a compliment). But they also showed a touching sensitivity toward the children. Emmanuel N gave one the last of his cookies. Bernard carried on a quiet little game of peekaboo with some kids looking out the classroom window. Placide knelt down and talked for some time with a small boy in a blue jacket.

You can probably be too quick to draw inferences about the students, the horrific childhood experiences of 13 years ago and the small acts of kindness I saw at this school in Cyanika. All I can say is that the empathy the university students showed the elementary students was touching. I told them a couple of days later that you can't be a good journalist unless you care about people, which means that they are well on their way.

We visited other projects aimed at adults. One involved women learning about credit. Two others were about an intriguing combination of human rights and literacy for members of the Twa community, a poor and neglected minority in Rwanda. In each situation, we would enter a hall, or a church or a schoolroom that was already full of people. The moderator would introduce us (we would get a round of applause, for what I don't exactly know) and then we would settle in to listen to the proceedings. After a time, the CARE project manager would intervene and invite the students to ask their questions. This meant the student would have to stand up and address an entire room of strangers, making a speech, in effect, to 50 or 100 people.

I think of myself in such situation, the university student I once was, doing my best to hide and hoping somebody else would speak up. Hell, I think of the grown-up me doing the same thing. But the members of the 4th year journalism class had no hesitation. Astrida, Jean Pierre, Emmanuel M, Jean de Dieu B, Placide, Germain, all stood up at various times and addressed the room, posed their questions with both confidence and sincerity. I don't know where else I have seen poise like this in a group of young people.

I also liked their ability to reduce the social distance that journalists are too quick to put between themselves and the people they deal with professionally. When we entered a schoolhouse where a literacy project was in session, one of the participants said we needed to be welcomed with song and dance. She got up, shucked her jacket, began singing and dancing. Within seconds, the students were clapping in rhythm, Jean de Dieu T and Placide were up and dancing with the participants, others joined in the song.

For one who has, over the years, spent a fair bit of time with the other Canadian journalists, standing at the back of the room, hands in pockets and snickering at whatever was going on, this was a revelation. I want these kids to be able to write better, but I am also beginning to see that there is much more to them. That helps me believe that the future of Rwandan journalism might be in capable hands.

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Feb. 24, 2007 — Taking accessibility for granted

In Canadian newsrooms we are used to big-time infrastructure. We take for granted that the internet will be working, that we can print out whatever we want on that one across the room, that we can walk it over to the photocopier and run off a dozen copies.

We also take it for granted that the newspaper will be around. We can probably get 12 if we need them off the pile, and certainly can get one. If we're at home, we can go to the store.

It's not that things are more primitive here. All those things are available. It's just that they are not necessary available at the time you thought they would be, which also happens to coincide with the time that you need them.

In the School of Journalism and Communication at the National University of Rwanda there is one printer, that we know about. It is in the office of the secretaries to the director. To get something printed, you save it from your computer onto a flash drive and take the drive into the office and look hopeful. The one photocopier is there too.

(A slight added complication is that if you come from the world of CanWest, where the Mac is king, you have to translate your files into something the PC in the director's office can read. The Mac pretends it doesn't mind doing but this has little tricks, like failing to register changes you thought you had saved, to let you know that it is not happy at its work.)

This is the set-up for a class on editorial writing. I have already told the class how an editorial board works (somewhere, Peter Calamai is snorting) and my idea is that today I will break my 11-member class into two or three editorial boards to discuss the stories of the day, decide which ones are worthy of editorial comment, who will write those editorials and what those editorials will say.

First I will need the number-one item of journalism infrastructure: the newspaper. Easy? Well, not so fast. The tons of copies of the daily newspaper that float around our schools of journalism don't float around the school of journalism at the National University of Rwanda. The New Times, Rwanda's only English-language newspaper, and only daily, makes infrequent appearances in Butare, for reasons that I don't understand, since it has a news bureau here. Where we usually get it is at Matar, the grocery store operated by Tariq, a friendly but long-suffering Lebanese. The availability of The New Times, which is published in Kigali, two hours down the road, is not at all guaranteed.

This day, like others, I stop on my walk home at Matar, where, if he doesn't have today's New Times — a good bet — he will at least have the day before's and we can use that for our editorial board discussions. I go into the store, check the pile of newspapers beside the cash register and see nothing that resembles a New Times published within the last month. Tariq, who knows in a general way how much we need newspapers, shakes his head sorrowfully.

Now what? How can we have editorial board without the newspaper? How can we, as an editorial board, view stories with alarm without stories? I toss and turn over this and around four in the morning decide that the only hope is the Internet. If old infrastructure won't help, the new will have to do it.

The students wouldn't be surprised at this conclusion. Because of the difficulty of access to mid-level technology — printers, photocopiers, faxes — they do everything at the highest level — the Internet. Hardly any students have their own computers, but there are computer labs and, if they are too crowded, which they can be, Internet cafes. They file their assignments over the Net and get their marked assignments back the same way. If you are looking for the famous paperless office that we all talked about back in the Seventies, this would be a good place to start.

Class is at 9. I get to our shared office where there is a slow high-speed connection at 7:45, and go immediately to the New Times site, download a digest of the important national stories, shift over to Google News and add a Condoleeza Rice story from the Washington Post, an Iran story from BBC and, in the hopes that someone will write about it, an end-of-the-world story from ABC about an asteroid possibly crashing into the earth in 2036.

I copy all this into an e-mail, send it to the class e-mail address and then translate this from my exotic Mac language, copy it also onto the flash drive and, in a bow to old technology, take the drive into the office, look hopeful, say "imprimer?", get it printed out, then photocopied 12 times. All done in half an hour. Now that's journalism.

With the news digests in hand, we break into two editorial boards and decide which stories our editorial writers will choose. There is quite a bit of discussion, which makes me happy. To my dismay, nobody takes the asteroid.

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Feb. 16, 2007 — Serious fun: the buzz of student life

Students at the National University of Rwanda don't live as comfortably as those at home. A couple of my students, asked to write columns on a topic of their own choosing, chose the economic plight of the student, one of them noting that many are doubling up in residence quarters meant for one.

Yet university life here has all the crackle and laughter of university life anywhere. This week features student elections and there is a real buzz on the campus. Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, the quadrangle below the office where we work was teeming with students, who marched and sang and chanted for the candidate of their choice. The unique local angle was the use of umbrellas. Demonstrators would carry umbrellas to which were taped slogans and likenesses of the candidate. Loudspeakers boomed with speeches being made all over the campus. It looked like serious fun.

A week ago we attended a party thrown to welcome the new first year students in the School of Journalism and Communications. It didn't seem to have much to do with us, who teach older grades, but it was made clear that our presence would be appreciated.

We got there an hour after it was supposed to start and were, as it turned out, early. We took a seat in the garden near the pool behind the Hotel Credo. We chatted with a couple of the senior students and the director of the school, J. P. Gatsinzi. Students eventually drifted in, including Sam Mandela, a real live wire of a third-year student who seemed to be running the show.

In the space near the bar, many plastic chairs were lined up, audience style. Eventually we were called in from the garden to sit. Sam made a speech, welcoming everybody. Drinks were brought to all of us, probably 50 of us, one at a time. Orange Fanta is my drink of choice these days. I think I have had my lifetime quota in the two-plus weeks I have been here. I chatted with a second-year student next to me who made a point of telling me, as others have, that this is a new Rwanda, no more Hutu and Tutsi, and so on.

We were all trapped in our audience-style chairs, waiting to be an audience. Sam was promising food, which some of the skeptical faculty didn't think was actually going to arrive, but it did, arriving, in fact, just as we were about leave, having ordered a taxi. Those of us with the proper antennae (that would be my wife Nancy and my Carleton colleague Shelley Robinson) intercepted some signals that we should say. By this time, Sam was insisting that I say a few words into the microphone. This is the second gathering at which I've been asked to speak for no apparent reason. I should have been ready but instead delivered another version of glad-to-be-here.

It turned out that we would indeed be glad we had stayed because there followed quite a memorable hour or so of speeches, skits, poems, songs, all done either by or in honor of the first-year students. Each of them was asked to come to mic and say a few words and they all did, showing much more poise than Canadian kids would in such circumstances. (One of the topics of each short address concerned whether or not the student was single.) One read a long poem, which he then presented to the director. Written in Kinyarwanda, it was apparently about journalism and how proud the first years were to be in it, and how they saw it as their duty to help the nation through journalism and so on.

There were several speeches of this sort, the idealism and sense of duty very striking to me and moving, particularly when I think of how that seems to have gone out of our journalists back home. I was also impressed by the family feeling of the gathering, a genuine welcoming of the new students by the older ones, nobody vibing them, nobody playing bigshot.

Despite the formality of the seating arrangement, there was an underlying informality, a constant buzz of conversation, even when somebody had the microphone. It didn't seem rude, just the way things are done.

We were all impressed and touched by the evening. If we needed a sense of purpose, here it was.

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Feb. 9, 2007 — Everything is illuminated

Our living room in the house we share is large and dark. It has a high ceiling and one feeble light hanging from a high ceiling. It's a typical Third World living room. There is one electrical outlet in the room, but only one. We Canadians, with our laptops and other gadgets spend way too much time shopping for extension cords and multi-socketed devices somehow combining various shapes of pins and prongs that make our gadgets run.

These are not in copious supply, but we have found some deep in the confusion of the Butare market. When we bring them back, we find that they seem to have been made in some country where the pins and prongs and holes for pins and prongs were put in more or less at random.

We shove it all together, ignore the occasional spark, hope for the best and think: This is what Borat's living room must be like. When we are serious about our reading, and we are, given the absence of TV and the unsuccessful hunt for playing cards, we put on one of those modern-day miner's helmets from Mountain Equipment Co-op. How does anybody read around here, you ask.

It goes without saying that bedside reading in this house is a book called The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, edited by Allan Thompson. It is unsettling to read it here, partly for the obvious reasons (eerily accentuated by the fact that it seems so peaceful and calm) and partly in how it suggests the difficulty of bringing good journalism to this country.

I go on at some length about this in my Ottawa Citizen column, filed for Sunday's paper. On a lighter note — a note about light — I wonder how those great newspapers of tomorrow, even if they can be produced, can be read in a society with a shortage of illumination.

I think the note of hope — the ray of light, if you will — is the Internet, to which my students are addicted, to the point of having to round them up in the computer lab to get them to come to class in the morning. The Internet brings them good journalism if they look for it, and of course the computer screen has its own light.

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Feb. 5, 2007 — A mutual education

This was my first day of teaching and it had its pluses and minuses. Considering all of the horror stories I had heard and read about others' first days, my first day with the fourth-year students was not all that bad.

When I got to the classroom I wanted, no one else was in it. Plus.

Six students didn't show up. Minus.

Five students did. Plus.

Four of the students asked questions. Plus.

None of the students talked on their phones. Another plus.

And the jackhammering outside stopped from time to time.

The biggest challenge isn't the material — opinion writing — which I think I know. The biggest challenge is finding ways to communicate what I know to people who have different terms of reference and lack some of the vocabulary of journalism.

It means talking without jargon. I handed out some samples of different types of opinion writing and while they were looking at it, one student asked me: "What is mainstream?"

The column in question mentioned the mainstream media, but it's not a concept that carries across many oceans. How to explain it? I tried drawing a picture of a river on the blackboard. A river drawn by me is two lines running down the board. That's the main stream, I said, and then drew some other lines coming off to the side. That's — well, what was that? That's alternative media, I said, and hoped for the best.

Just because the terms do not travel well doesn't mean that the students have not thought matters through in their own words. In the middle of a discussion about the differences between editorials and columns, a student raised his hand.

"What pronoun do you use in a column and in an editorial?" he asked.

Why didn't I put it that way myself? In a column, you use "I", I said. In an editorial, you use "we."

Another student listened to me talking about editorials being anonymous, while columns carry the writer's name. Then he asked about a certain African publication in French that had an editorial that was signed. Oh right, I said. The signed editorial. The French do that. I said this in English to a group of francophone Africans. It's anyone's guess who's going to learn more out of this process, the students or the teacher.

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Feb. 1, 2007 — The writing on the floor

We found out about the student newspaper meeting in an unusual way. Shelley Robinson was showing me where the journalism classrooms are and we saw a notice of the meeting written in chalk on the polished cement floor outside the building.

The meeting of the staff of The New Butarean was to begin at 5:30 and is already under way when we get there. There are 20 people, two of them women, in a large dark room, with a single neon light on the ceiling at the back, and a blackboard at the front. The students are well-dressed, better so than the Canadians, the men in dress slacks and shirts.

Two editors are at the front, leading the discussion. They begin by welcoming everybody, in English, explaining that this is the 48th issue of The New Butarean, which began in 2001. It is typeset and photocopied, eight pages in both English and French. Then it is pinned up on bulletin boards.

They editors go through the most recent issue, Jan. 26, page by page. The next edition will have the same format. Editors the world over are dedicated to consistency of format. The first three pages are news — "what's taking place on the campus," it is explained. Pages 4 and 5 are opinion, including Microtrottoir, four short man-in-the street interviews (some of the articles are in French). Page six is a personality page, in which a prominent person is asked 10 questions. Page 7 is culture, with maybe something from the internet to fill a hole if there is one. Page 8 is sports and leisure.

Although we are there totally unofficially, Shelley and I are asked to comment on what we have seen of The Butarean so far. We weasel out a bit by making little speeches introducing ourselves. Our names are put on the board and mine is, for a time, Charlie Golden.

The discussion switches into Kinyarwandan while the group discusses story ideas. These are then written on the board in English.

The first story idea is "Meal cards delay," as much a "what's-taking-place-on-campus" story as you're going to find anywhere.

Story idea number three: "Some department has not yet started class for a month." Much animated discussion follows this one.

On it goes, up to number 11, more stories than there will be room for in The New Butarean. One of them is called "announcing the election," referring to the upcoming student elctions, and someone says "I don't think you can write a story about a campaign when there is no campaign" — which only goes to show that he has not yet seen much Canadian political journalism.

Story idea number two is "The National Heroes celebration." National Heroes Day is the next day. The editor writes "celebration" with the French accents and the assembled quickly point out the error, but it raises an interesting point about language. These students speak Kinyarwanda first. Most of them speak French second and English third. Yet they are studying journnalism in English, putting out a newspaper in English and having a lot of their story meeting in English too.

There are all kinds of heroes.

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Jan. 24, 2007 — How many people get to worry about having too much?

This morning, two days before we leave for Rwanda, I caught myself wondering if I’d be able to get peanut butter in Butare. It’s a classic example of First World thinking: instead of preparing to make do with what’s available, you try to replicate your experience at home.

For me, part of the preparation process for living in Rwanda is to get myself into the right frame of mind. That means starting to look at a country in terms of what it offers, rather than what it doesn’t.

In a funny way, it means writing, for my own benefit, the piece that I would normally write on my return. That’s the one that talks about how easy life is in Canada, compared with other places, and how we take for granted features of life, large and small, that people in other places would be eternally granted for. I’ve written variations on that piece several times in the last 15 years or so for the Ottawa Citizen after travels to the Third World with my wife, Nancy, who worked, until her recent retirement, for CARE Canada.

We’ve been in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cambodia, East Timor and Indonesia and seen people trying to cope with extremely difficult conditions. We’ve also seen people who were incredibly cheerful and optimistic, happy and proud to have new way of planting, a well, a tiny loan, some advice on family planning, whatever was on offer. The return to Canada is always a shock — a pleasant one, in the sense of realizing once again how smoothly our society works; a less pleasant shock in the realization that our well-off people don’t have that cheerfulness and optimism.

It is hard to accept people complaining about their sidewalks not being plowed when you have just come from a place where people have neither sidewalks nor water to drink.

I had coffee the other day with a young Rwandan student at Carleton who gave me valuable clues on university life in Butara and a broader perspective on Rwanda. The two things people want most, she said, are peace and food. Well, we have both and complain about the placement of our cable TV channels.

It is in this light that I am forcing myself to look at the alarming number of requests from people both here and there to carry this and that to Butare on their behalf. I am worried that we will have too much. And then I remember: How many people get to worry about having too much?

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Postings

March 30, 2007 — Attendance follies continued

March 21, 2007 — Observing the observed

March 14, 2007 — Baby on board

February 27, 2007 — The other part . . .

February 24, 2007 — Taking accessibility for granted

February 16, 2007 — Serious fun: the buzz of student life

February 9, 2007 — Everything is illuminated

February 5, 2007 — A mutual education

February 1, 2007 — The writing on the floor

January 24, 2007 — How many people get to worry about having too much?

 

 

 

 
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