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Kanina Holmes,
Assistant Professor,
Carleton University


Kanina Holmes' Notes From the Field

June 12, 2006 — Steps to date: approximately 162,153

The 30-minute miracle

Some veteran American broadcaster once deemed television newscast a 60-minute miracle. Because I am someone who suffers from a form of dyslexia that includes screwing up sayings, expressions, metaphors, proverbs etc. into accidental comedy, it would be wise not to quote me on the above little ditty. But, I know I’m staying true to the author’s idea — that, against many odds — the idiosyncrasies of technology, the arbitrariness of deadlines, not to mention human folly — somehow, TV stations of all sizes and sophistication, are able to produce a daily barrage of news programming.

Amid the panic of packing to return home, (I suffer from another disorder, the symptoms of which include the mysterious expansion of material goods while away from home and the accompanying syndrome of insisting on stuffing suitcases with hernia-inducing quantities of the aforementioned personal possessions), I’d like to take a moment to celebrate some victories accomplished during the past five weeks.

Against many odds, not least of which was a really silly delay in getting the equipment we’d donated out of Rwandan customs that resulted, initially, in lights, cameras, but little action, we squeezed a three-month curriculum into three weeks. Only two of these weeks included hands-on work, learning how to operate cameras, shoot news stories and then, in turn, edit them on non-linear (computer-based) editing software. 

From the get-go, I felt it was important to finish the course with some kind of tangible product. While there were many times when the challenges seemed insurmountable. While students here were familiar with TV news conventions, through watching TV Rwanda and international networks such as BBC World and CNN, about halfway through the course I realized that much of what we teach in television is still culturally specific and that some of those concepts don’t always translate well in other contexts. Perhaps that’s to be tackled, when I get the chance to return to Rwanda.

As keen as most of the students were to learn, I’ve also realized that I was treading on some new turf. I really tried to establish a different dynamic in the classroom. Instead of being an autocratic boss, I aimed instead to be a relatively seasoned, supportive colleague (perhaps even a senior cheerleader at times).

In their written reflections of the course, many of the students said they were shocked when I started calling truants on my cell phone, asking them why they weren’t there and when the rest of the class could expect them to appear.  This even caught me by surprise. It’s not something that I do when I’m teaching at Carleton. But here, given our limited time and my mule-like determination, I just wanted them to show up and be counted.

On the one hand, the students often complained about the lack of professionalism among the current ranks of Rwandan journalists. To be fair, the media, not to mention the country as a whole, is still recovering (if one can even use that term) from the genocide. Many journalists were slaughtered. Some media outlets and, by both direct and indirect association, journalists, were tarnished for their role in printing and broadcasting hate propaganda in the lead up to the civil war. For these reasons, as well as a lack of resources plaguing most developing countries, several of the journalists who work in Rwanda these days never received media training. All this to say, there are obstacles of various dimensions that stand in the way of a more vibrant media sector. The Rwanda Initiative is just one small project to try to constructively address some of the issues.

In our classroom, the battles ranged from trying to get students to show up on time, to language barriers, to bringing home the idea that everyone needed to contribute equally to their team projects (a challenge in Canada too!) and to find a way share five cameras (reduced to three when we needed to dump footage into the computers) among 25 students who were divided into eight news teams.

In the end though, I think we made some breakthroughs. The future starts here and it starts with them. I think they truly understand that now.

Up until the last minute, even though we probably didn’t openly admit it to one another, Robert and I weren’t sure we were going to be able to pull this off. But, somehow, we managed to air the first ever TV news show ever hosted, shot, edited and produced by the National University of Rwanda’s journalism school.

As my new friend Joivin would say, in joyful exclamation: Oooweeee!

The show line up included a story about overcrowding in campus dorms where two students share single beds and rooms can house up to 12 people. There was also a piece about efforts to distribute free condoms on campus to prevent the transmission of HIV and reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. One group set out to discover why Butare had seen an influx of people begging on the streets. Another team profiled a micro-credit project – pigs for profit – designed to help out genocide widows. We had a story about damage to houses from the recent record rains and as well, a piece about the plight of women who face an increase in fees in order to work on campus handwashing students’ clothes. We also included a field interview with a successful candidate in the Miss Campus competition, a young woman whose social campaigning includes a focus on Rwanda’s many orphans.

None of these stories was perfect. TV, like any form of journalism, is always a work in progress. Some of the stories in this newscast weren’t as sharply focused or as well researched as they should have been. The sound levels were uneven and there were too many zooms and pans and jump cuts as well as some tediously long interview clips. In the grander scheme of things though, these technical flaws and editorial oversights pale in light of what these students accomplished.

One of the ideas that we discussed in class (I believe that Andy Clarke also raised this in his lectures) was the notion that journalism is designed to give a voice to the voiceless. For these students, this whole exercise became one of finding their voice. And that voice spoke loudly of a social conscious. All of these stories revolved around various forms of injustices. The fact that the students chose to highlight them in their final project speaks volumes about a dedication to social justice. In light of the challenges they face, it’s a dedication they’ll need to keep burning brightly as they become the journalists they are capable of becoming.

We had a coming out party of sorts – the debut of Rwanda Initiative Television (RITV) – which the director of the School of Journalism and Communication attended, along with a number of students in other years of the program.  At times, you could hear a pin drop in the classroom as the program played (no small feat given the usual din of chatter). Words fail me in describing the looks on some of the faces illuminated by both the TV screen and by pride.

So, instead, I’ll give you a few quotes from the students, discussing how they felt about the class. These excerpts come from their final reports on the TV production course.

“TV production is one of the most important courses I looked forward for. First of all it’s quite curious for me to know how the only TV in Rwanda works: its field works, news editing and presentations. I was like a desert deer at the quest of an oasis. . . . The three week’s lesson meant to me more love and care that these people come with, they did not intend to teach and go. Besides, they were friends indeed as one English proverb says; ‘they brought us equipment which we had for so long had in promises from our university.’ ”

“It is really great that our class has produced a piece made of the two-minute news stories from different groups/teams. This has never been done since the beginning of School of journalism and communication at NUR. The teamwork has characterised our class, without this system of working in team we wouldn’t do/produce any thing.  I hope we will produce great things in the coming years with help of the basics we learned in TV production.”

“I assume not to be mistaken when I hereby declare that TV Production Techniques course has beaten the record amongst the courses I have been taking in this school. . . . The course was tough, but well animated and so much interesting; hence we shared it with our dear friends who came to share with us this course from Canada. Their courage and support shall never be forgotten.”

“TV production course has been, sincerely speaking one of my admirable, my wonderful course I have had since my primary education. This is not a lie, neither an attempt to charm my Teacher. . . . Before we began TV production course, I couldn't imagine how to use a camera or how to produce a TV story. I was looking forward to learn it. . . . Briefly speaking, I learned much during this TV production course. I can now operate a camera, take a good image, determine what kind of shot to use and edit them and get a meaningful story which will attract viewers.”

When we get home (after a little R&R in Europe), we’ll will burn CDs for the students and for the school to showcase. We’ll also post RITV’s debut show on the web site. It’s a humble start — one that I hope we can build on — but a glorious one at that.

If a conventional TV newscast is a 60-minute miracle, here in Rwanda, we produced a 30-minute marvel.

When I started working at Carleton University three years ago, I made the transition from daily journalism to the classroom because I felt that teaching was a kind of calling. I still feel that way. But now I think I see things a bit more clearly. I firmly believe, after spending the past five weeks here in this country, a place that I try to describe as a beautiful and confusing contradiction — after all, how does one reconcile so much affection with the hate that exploded here 12 years ago? — that these students represent the reason why I became a teacher.  For that, I give them my thanks.

For RITV News in Butare, this is Kanina Holmes signing off.  At least for now.

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June 6, 2006 — Another wonder

Whoever decreed there were Seven Wonders of the World had obviously never met Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.

Our encounter with these beasts was fleeting – park authorities wisely limit human contact to just one hour every day with each of the habituated families – but magical.

When I found out that I’d be coming to central Africa to teach this summer, top on my list of “must dos” was seeing these creatures. Up until this point, my relationship with these particular kinds of primates has been ambiguous. When I was about six years old, I had a large stuffed ape named Boss (if I recall correctly, one of my early garage-sale purchases). Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved Boss. But, besides being a beloved confidante, Boss also made me a bit nervous.

He had prime territory in my room, perched way up high on a shelf, looking down on me as I slept. He, on the other hand, never seemed to need sleep. His eyes were ALWAYS open. For a couple of years, I convinced myself that Boss was just being a good watch ape. We were buddies after all. But, all that changed when, during a slumber party, I was exposed to a Sasquatch movie. That film, which included gratuitous scenes of guys dressed up in fake fur popping out of the bushes and startling innocent campers, fundamentally changed my relationship with Boss. Mutual respect morphed into genuine fear on my part. I started having nightmares, imagining my stuffed friend finding a way to migrate from the shelf and onto my bed where his plush would somehow suffocate me.  I just couldn’t take him staring at me anymore. And so, unceremoniously, Boss was banished to the basement. A couple of years after that, I think I auctioned him off in one of our own garage sales.

I wouldn’t say I’ve been plagued with guilt since then, but I have thought of Boss from time to time. That period in my life also marked the start of a mild obsession regarding anything related to do with Big Foot – including The Six Million Dollar Man’s encounters with an alien Sasquatch, the inexplicable urge to seek out some of the world’s worst ape movies, not to mention several frissons and a reluctance to pee anywhere in the woods at night while living in the Yukon due to frightening tales of the Pelly Bush Man.

And so, purchasing a permit -- at $390 U.S., almost as steep as some of the volcanic slopes we climbed -- to visit the mountain gorillas, was a chance for me both to reconcile my tenuous relationship with my old friend Boss. Above all, it was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a glimpse of a special species whose time on this planet is threatened by demand for farmland and idiots who pay poachers for gorilla parts (ashtrays made out of hands, heads for wall hangings). While conservation efforts have been stepped up and poaching has been severely curtailed, there are still unfortunate incidents. As recently as four years ago, gorillas were killed during attempts to kidnap their babies. Gorillas are extremely protective of their young and will pay the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to save a group member. No one is sure who wants the infants or why (any zoo that tried to purchase them would be quickly caught and internationally ostracized). To date, no mountain gorillas have been ever raised in captivity. After seeing their turf, I pray it stays that way.

The gorilla adventure began with us driving along the worst “road” I’ve ever traversed (yes, even rivaling Carling Avenue’s potholes in Ottawa) to get to the area of the park where we’d set off by foot. Thankfully, we had a very skilled chauffeur with a sturdy all-terrain vehicle.

We started the trek by meandering though a bucolic village where women were cultivating potatoes, hoe in hand and babies on board, strapped onto their backs with brightly coloured strips of cloth. Once we got to the park gate, we wove our way through bamboo forests and then up to a verdant plateau that had its share of stinging nettles. Besides our panting (the altitude gives an edge here to even a relatively easy walk), the air was punctuated with various forms of cursing from within our group of six as the nettles pierced through clothing or when hands brushed past the prickly plants in search of something to grab onto during the slippery sections. Besides our two guides, we were also joined by some military/park personnel wearing fatigues and sporting rifles in case we stumbled upon some of the wild buffalo who also call this park home. We didn’t actually see any buffalo, but Kayla (very ungracefully I might add), discovered a large buffalo paddy. 

After about an hour and a half of what was becoming some intense bushwhacking, we were told we were getting very close to our quest, the Amahoro family. This group of 15 gorillas is known for having one of the largest, but also one of the most approachable silverbacks (male leaders).  We left our backpacks in a pile and set off with the guide. At this point, he started making some guttural, grunting noises. I could see some branches swaying close by, and only then realized that it was the gorillas, and not the breeze that was making the vegetation around us stir.

All of a sudden we were about five feet away from the silverback, a potbellied Buddha, contentedly peeling the bark off and munching away on bamboo.  He definitely knew we were there, but he didn’t seem at all disturbed by our appearance. For the next 60 minutes we followed the various members of the family – including a mother with her three-week baby nestled to her bosom -- around a small section of the plateau. There were a few curious stares, but they left us alone in our awe. Everyone who has already blogged about visiting the gorillas has probably already said what I’m about to. At the risk of being repetitive, as well as being subjected to scoffs of anthropomorphism, allow me these next few paragraphs.

To spend time with these creatures, to make contact with their deep, brown, expressive eyes is to get a glimpse into the soul of a kindred spirit. I’m not suggesting that I was tempted to wander up and give any of them a big hug.  It’s just that there were moments when the distant human-ape kinship seemed to evaporate. The lines became even blurrier as we watched three would-be stand-up comics park themselves in front of a tree for a performance that I shall never forget.

The scenario: one coveted moss-covered branch combined with three youngsters – a one-year-old, a three-year-old and a six-year-old gorrilla. The eldest was clearly the schoolyard bully. As the two younger ones crawled up and tried to swing from the branch, he systematically snatched them off and proceeded to wrestle with them on the ground. At one point, he came up behind the three-year old, embracing him and beating the smaller one’s chest, Tarzan style. It didn’t matter that he, clearly, was too big to successfully swing from the branch (he wiped out whenever he tried due to a lack of ground clearance), he just didn’t want anyone else having fun. Despite some squeaks of protest, the two smaller ones soon decided that this was a great game and proceeded to bug the hell out of their elder. For anyone who’s ever had siblings or spent any time in a playground, it’s impossible to not see some very human parallels.

As that magic hour came to a close and as I learned more about these primates, I started thinking about this parallel universe. Now, don’t get me wrong, all is not always peaceful and tranquil in gorilla land. They have their fair share of fighting and pillaging among the various families as one group vies to expand and rival silverbacks lure females over to their turf.  But gorillas, even ones from competing clans, can also share some remarkable bonds. There are many tranquil encounters among groups, the guides also told us. The name of the gorilla family that we encountered, Amahoro, is the Kinyarwanda word for peace. This particularly tight-knit group has seen moments where males will, very nontraditionally, watch over the kids, even those that are of more distant relation. We even heard about a mother trying to save the life of a rejected baby by adopting it.

In the context we’re in, post-genocidal Rwanda (not to mention the many other horrific conflicts currently taking place in the world) it makes me wonder. If mountain gorillas, as a species, are capable of such care and compassion, why do we so often fail in our responsibility to one another, as part of the same human family?

I left my buddy Boss behind almost 30 years ago. Back then, I naively thought that an inanimate stuffed gorilla could do me harm. I’d like to think I’ve left most of that naiveté behind as well. But, I also hope that I and we, in the collective, global village sense, still have enough innocence and capacity for hope that we can learn from example. Even if it’s a lesson taught by a family of gorillas.

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May 28, 2006 — 65,153 steps taken

The 20-hour tour

Gilligan and the skipper may have had a three-hour boating mishap way back when, but their epic pales in comparison to the saga that unfolded here on Saturday.

Like many great adventures, the day began with a prayer. Frank, a third-year student sporting a wildly patterned, stiffly ironed shirt, did the honours.

He managed to hold the attention of approximately 80 of his colleagues at the National University of Rwanda’s journalism school – no small feat given the already rising temperature on the over-crowded bus and the thick air of anticipation of a long-awaited field trip. In a country where many people are deeply religious (mostly Catholic, Anglican and Protestant) and where blessings are both needed and counted, perhaps it’s not so surprising to see such attention paid to prayers for a safe and fun journey. As it turns out, we’d be calling in the chips on this holy entreaty.

We were heading to Akagera, a game park in eastern Rwanda, near the border of Tanzania. It was the journalism school’s annual outing and a day to relax, mix with students from all four years of the undergraduate program. It was also a day to celebrate the end of term (except if you’re one of our students and you get stuck with the demanding Canadian instructors for another week of productive penance).

The previous weekend, I had visited Akagera with Kayla and Amanda, the two Carleton students who are studying here and helping out tremendously as our teaching assistants. We had a great time, but it was an epic in its own right – hours of gut-busting 4x4 travel, an infestation in our vehicle of hungry tsetse and horse flies, not to mention getting stuck in the mud in the middle of a spectacular rainstorm on a patch of Rwanda’s savannah. So, while it was wonderful to again spot zebra, giraffes and antelopes, I wasn’t super keen to repeat the journey less than a week later. (I also have to admit that I’m spoiled. After getting the chance to experience the annual migration of African wildlife across Tanzania’s Serengeti plains several years ago, Akagera, as lovely as it is, doesn’t quite measure up.) At any rate, I got the distinct feeling that some noses would be put out of joint if the Canadian guests didn’t tag along on this university excursion. Besides, I’m here, above all, to spend time with and to get to know the students – whether it’s in a bus or in the classroom. So, off I went, along with Kayla and Robert.

I’ll try to give you the compressed version of what transpired.

We rose at 5:45 a.m. for what we expected to be a 6:45 a.m. departure. After various miscommunications, including waiting by the side of the road in vain for our ride, we ended up eventually boarding the bus at the university at around 8 a.m. The bus, however, didn’t actually leave until around 9 a.m., at which time, with the sun beaming down on the roof, we were experiencing a sort of greenhouse effect, the effects of which were to linger in the bus for the rest of the day.

The delay, (the first of many), we learned, stemmed from the need to negotiate with the police to let the bus pass various cop stops along the highway. The last Saturday of every month is called umuganda. The morning is supposed to be devoted to communal work and house tidying, especially in the villages. All official business basically shuts down until noon. Without permission for the field trip, there were concerns the bus would be halted and everyone hauled out to pick up litter or tackle some farm work with hoes. Now, that also would have been something to blog about!

Letter of permission in hand, off we went. We’d barely left campus when the singing started. Students gustily belted out songs about sexual favours, romance, an educational tune about a person who died after sleeping with a woman with AIDS, drinking songs (one of which was remarkably close to the Canadian road-trip favourite: 100 bottles of beer on the wall). There were religious songs, including a rousing rendition of Amazing Grace. To give vocal chords a break, the bus driver also cranked out canned music, featuring an alarming array of 1980s disco dance tunes and soppy love ballads – think Celine Dion (which, surprisingly, the students all seemed to know the words to). There was dancing in the aisles, hand capping and all round joy in this bus.

We stopped for a bathroom break in Kigali, during which the trip organizer yelled at the women to hurry up. Such a speedy standard was not upheld, however, when we stopped a few minutes later in another part of town to pick up beer and soft drinks for the trip. Some things don’t change, no matter what part of the world you’re in.

As we creaked along (now about four hours into the journey) toward Akagera, we also spent about 20 minutes searching a village for a bottle opener, an essential that someone realized they’d forgotten. The last part of the journey was along a red dirt road. Banana trees and acacia brushed past the bus window. Every few minutes we’d see a cluster of mud huts and some kids waving their arms around and yelling, “chupa!” They wanted us to chuck our used plastic bottles out the window so that they’d have something to carry water in when they went to school. It became a kind of game to look out the back of the bus to see how long it took for someone to emerge from the bushes to snatch the bottles up.

We finally arrived at the game park at around 2:30 p.m. The bus headed straight for Lake Ihema, (the Kinyarwanda word for tent). Local lore has it that the famous Mr. Livingstone camped here during his quest to find the source of the Nile. I was shocked and yes, even appalled, that the bus, which looked like it was constructed during the Vietnam war, actually attempted to travel down the dirt path that was clearly designed for much smaller and agile four-wheel drive vehicles. Kayla was having a near panic attack, worried that the bus would flip. I was more concerned that we’d snap an axel and we would end up camped among the critters for the rest of the weekend. I guess buses are sturdier here.

Finally, we arrived at the lake, greeted by the sight of two elephants grazing on the opposite shore. Closer to our picnic grounds, hippos snorted at us, their snouts and eyes just breaking the surface of the lake. It was all pretty amazing. Despite the chaos of getting to this spot, the food distribution associated with this outing was stellar. Boxed lunches, complete with samosas, pizzas and cupcakes, were passed around. Beer, now very warm, began flowing freely.

But, before returning, with the afternoon sun already starting to fade, we did some sightseeing in the park. One of my students, Patrice, had a funny expression on his face as he headed back to the bus. This was the first time he’d ever seen a giraffe! That probably shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, I still haven’t seen Niagara Falls. With the population here doubling every 20 years, pressure on land is increasing and wild game is becoming more and more scarce. Combine that with the fact that some of these students grew up in Kigali or some of Rwanda’s other larger towns.

It had been a great day. But, there was little to redeem the ride home. It took forever. The beer started taking its toll. Normally shy students started trying to cuddle with the Canadians on board. The singing was no longer in unison, let alone in tune. I fully expected someone to hurl. Mercifully, that didn’t happen. Or, if it did, it was in another part of the bus. After another pit stop for beer – our hosts explained that they needed to drain whatever bottles were left so that they could get their deposit back from the store in Kigali.

At that point, sensing imminent calamity, Kayla and I opted for the more subdued minivan that was transporting the school’s director, some support staff and a handful of students. Both the van and bus drivers had started dipping into the beer supply and I figured that it would be easier to handle a van in case our chauffeur became incapacitated. I also thought the van would be a faster ticket home. No such luck. Out of a sense of responsibility, we ended up tailing the bus (and inhaling bus exhaust) the whole way home. I think I counted eight urinary breaks (another consequence of beer) during the trip back. One guy came out of his hut to admonish the students for peeing on his property.

At last, at 3 a.m. we pulled up to our house. Even our night watchman was sound asleep by then. As we stepped out, the occupants of the minivan appeared anxious. Ever hospitable, they wanted to know if we’d had a good time. I replied, in fatigued French, that it was a great trip, but that it was also the longest student field trip of my life. The chuckles coming from inside the vehicle rivaled the chorus of crickets as the van pulled away into the early-morning light.

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May 26, 2006 — 59,086 Steps

Adventures in TV land

If the best way to learn is by example and that example is sought close to home, I think I underestimated how tough it would be to teach television journalism here in Rwanda. For their first assignment, I asked the class to do a critique of at least two TV newscasts, ideally a local show and at least one international newscast, such as BBC world news, CNN or Euronews.

TV Rwanda (TVR) is the only game in town. It’s a government-operated network based in Kigali. By all appearances – think North American community-access cable broadcasts – TVR lacks resources. In fact, when I first surveyed the students about their thoughts on TV journalism, most of them said they were frustrated by a lack of professionalism and pinpointed their national television news as a sore point.

These students are beginners, but they’re already harsh critics. Mind you, they haven’t actually put together their first news stories yet, so it’s easy to make noise from an armchair. To their credit though, many of the students also recognize how important TVR could be to their careers and, even more important, to journalism in their country. Since the fallout of the 1994 genocide began to settle, Rwanda has taken a backburner on the global stage, including in the international media. There are so many fascinating, stories here. This country has been defined by the genocide and, while its presence is still felt every day and in almost every facet of life, there are other important stories to be told.

A group of my students is working on a story concerning a woman who makes her living washing the clothes. She’s struggling to pay the 4,000-franc fee ($9 Cdn.) to access the students. Apparently someone bought the rights to laundry services and private “contractors” such as this woman, must pay to work here. She earns about 15,000 francs per month (about $35 Canadian). The woman, who was widowed a few years ago, spends another 4,000 francs on accommodation for her and her two children. That leaves about $22 Canadian left to live on, including buying food, paying for school fees etc. She’s just one example of a bigger issue about red tape, equity, government responsibility and, of course, the fundamental question of how people who aren’t educated and formally skilled survive here.

Here’s another example of an important story that’s hitting close to home. Just a few days ago, there was an event on campus concerning the threat to this country’s national language, Kinyarwanda. There’s concern it’s being watered down by the blending of other languages, including French and English. There’s also the issue of slang creeping in. It’s similar to the debates and concerns about the quality of French in Canada. Given though that this is the only country in the world where Kinyarwanda is spoken, these threats could be grave.

As I write this blog, I’m actually listening to this Bantu-based language being used in our classroom (making that the fourth language of instruction, five if you count humour). Emmanuel, a bright, keen third-year journalism student is helping us teach a computer-based, non-linear video editing system. In the two and a half weeks since we arrived, I’ve only managed to learn a few words of greeting. Given the technical nature of what’s happening in class today, having Emmanuel here is a blessing. Robert and I can take sometimes take 20 minutes explaining jump cuts, crossing the axis, time lines, among other TV lingo and concepts. I think we make some inroads. But when Emmanuel utters a few sentences in Kinyarwanda, the light bulbs in this classroom begin to glow.

I thought that life would slow down a bit during our time here. Forget that thought! That’s what happens when you try to squeeze a three-month curriculum into two weeks. We’re halfway through this course and we’ve already come a long way. After a week of theory (forced, in part by the delay in getting our cameras out of customs) during which we discussed yet form of language and media literacy – how to use pictures as opposed to words, we’re well on our way to making TV.

Seeing these 25 souls introduced to cameras and tripods, battery belts and sun guns (the light that goes on top of the camera) is like watching kids in a candy store. At first, some students, especially the women in the class, appeared uninterested in the technical side of things. Explaining how to use a camera can be intimidating. I also think the enthusiasm of the guys in the class may have been a bit overwhelming. In the rush to touch the equipment, there wasn’t much room to maneuver. But, I did my best to encourage the women, who are outnumbered five to one -- the complete opposite to the Carleton male:female journalism ratio – to stand up and be role models.

But, bringing this blog full circle, these students are craving examples of great journalism to help them build a basis for their futures. So far, after reading about half of their newscast critiques, they’re looking for those mentors overseas – for the reporters who work for BBC – instead of here at home. One of the students noted that on the day he watched TV Rwanda for this assignment, the show started 20 minutes late. No wonder I’m having a hard time getting the idea of a deadline to sink in! Other students criticized TVR for the lack of good video footage documenting events that mattered to them, including the plight of poor countries and their ceaseless struggle to catch up, perhaps even get ahead for once.

One of my goals, by the time I leave this fascinating country, is to try to instill in my class the idea that there is so much potential, both for their national TV network, but also within them. If they can take the best of what’s offered by others and make it their own, they’ll be well on their way. The spark of competition – something that will come whenever the first private station establishes itself here – combined with pressure from viewers for better reporting -- will also provide some impetus for TV journalism to flourish.

For now, I’m just trying to plant a few seeds. Now that the students are getting more comfortable with how to use the cameras, how to frame shots, how to spot a TV moment, they’ll start working on their own news reports. They’re giving up a week of previously scheduled holidays to do this. Their dedication (while it does waver some days!) sometimes humbles me. I can’t wait to see what unfolds over the next few days.

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May 22, 2006 — 52,895 steps

2 beep or not 2 beep

We’re now into our second week of classes. So much to do, so much to blog about – it’s a recipe for writer’s block. I thought I’d start to break it down into some of the things I’ve learned so far into this trip, things that are shedding some insight into life here in Rwanda. And, what better place to start this blog than with something dear to my heart: communication.

Cell phones have truly revolutionized they way people interact in Africa. When I last visited Tanzania nine years ago, finding a phone line or even a fax machine that worked was arduous. Here in Butare, Rwanda’s second-largest centre, (albeit still a town with only one main street), vendors walk around with phones, allowing people to make cheap calls on landlines. Their presence was surprising enough, given the state of technology that last time I visited this continent.

In Kigali and most other towns here, it appears that everyone is now hooked up to the cellular system. That includes all my students. But, buying minutes can be expensive and so, while these aspiring journalists are now fully accessible, they’ve found ways around spending scarce funds on pricey cellular minutes.

For one, I think there’s an old-fashioned phone tree that gets initiated whenever I need to communicate with the class. I go through their “chief,” a reasonably official class president — a snappy dresser named Bercar Nzabagerageza (aside: students here have a much more highly developed sense of fashion than most of my students at home). When Bercar gets a message from me, he spreads the word, like wildfire, to the rest of the class. Like last Thursday, when I finally received word from my colleague, Robert, that our equipment had been freed (at a price) from Rwandan customs. I sent a celebratory message to Bercar and everyone in the class arrived the next morning bright eyed about the prospect of getting their hands on the cameras. Perhaps it’s just the old adage, good news travels fast.

Text messaging is also thriving here. At home, at the age of 37, I’m already an old fart because I still use my cell phone as device to simply speak to people. My phone doesn’t have a digital camera. It can’t shoot video. It doesn’t play MP3s. I had no clue about how to text message, although I’m sure my teenage nephew Chris would have had no problem volunteering his expertise. But all that’s changed over here where it costs just about 12 cents to send someone a note by phone. For someone who’s been cursed with verbosity (why say it in two words when you can use five, should be my personal motto) – something I hypocritically preach against to my students, this has been a tough transition. Even for the most nimble fingered, using the keypad to type words can be cumbersome. For someone who likes to use fancy words, it’s a nightmare. Sometimes, I’ll be halfway through pounding out a message when I wonder if I couldn’t have accomplished the task faster by simply calling. But, when in Rwanda, do like the Rwandans do. Perhaps it will teach me some economy of language, a new form of shorthand, or at least new ways to abuse language. What r u doing 2 nite? Y r ur blgs so lng?

Besides the well-worn phone tree concept and text messaging though, there’s another new facet of communicating here. At least it’s new to me. It’s called “beeping.” My cell phone will ring obnoxiously (I can’t figure out how to change the damn ring tone) and I’ll rush to dig it out of my backpack, only to find that the caller has hung up. Argh! This happened a few times before someone filled me in. “You’re being beeped,” I was told. What this means is someone is calling me to let me know they want to talk. But, they want me to call them back so that I’m using my minutes rather than theirs. There’s apparently another kind of beeping as well, at least according to the ever-gregarious Jovin, our new friend and university-supplied driver who has accompanied us on several recent adventures, (more on that later). Jovin says sometimes people just beep each other as a way of saying, “hi, I’m thinking of you.” I imagine that distinguishing what kind of beep you’re getting and whether to respond can be confusing early on in a professional or personal relationship.

As far as my students go though, it’s pretty straightforward and, I guess, inherently fair. After all, I have more money than they do, so I should be the one to respond to their beeps. But I wonder how they feel about the system they have and how they keep it democratic. Wouldn’t you get really annoyed at a friend who constantly tried to escape payment through beeps. Why the beep do u expect me to pay?

Oh well, for now my musing stops. I’ll write more about my students and our adventures in TV land in my next blog. 4 now, got 2 go.

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May 16, 2006 — National University of Rwanda: First day of class

OK, so I’m off and running with this pedometer idea. This is all thanks to an industrious Carleton student and a quick trip to Wal-Mart before her departure for Rwanda. I’ll do my best to fasten this gadget more firmly around my waist to prevent another plumbing calamity (see previous blog).

So, starting today, my first day of class, I’m 8,147 steps into this amazing teaching gig.

Nineteen out of the 25 students showed up, which I think may be some kind of record for first-day attendance for Rwanda Initiative guest lecturers. Given the storm we had last night, I thought there was a good chance students would take the equivalent of a Canadian snow day. Not that you could blame them. The water was streaming down in sheets this morning, making visibility almost nil at times, washing out some nearby roads and filling the streets with red mud. I think the Canadians who came here before us must have blazed quite a trail. There were some stragglers, but the second-year students whom we met today were keen and curious.

Robert and I are teaching this course in three languages: English, French and Swahili. The students seemed kind of shocked to see a white woman speaking to them in the trade language of much of East and Central Africa. But, it certainly helped make some rapid inroads. At home, it can sometimes be a challenge getting Canadian students to participate in class discussion. I approached this cross-cultural experience with some trepidation. Canada and Rwanda are worlds apart. But, to my delight, this group of students is bright and engaged. They really want to understand how to make television, everything from how images are transmitted by satellite to whether or not they should appear on camera. There were some interesting questions about the ethics of “freebies,” — bribes to get people to talk or accepting cash in exchange for publicity. It’s easy for me to stand up and say one should never, ever be on either the giving or receiving end of these transactions. But, Canadian society — including politicians (sponsorship scandal) and the media — is far from perfect. And, the reality of living here in a country where many, many people can’t afford to feed their families and many others die from financially preventable diseases, ethics could arguably take a back seat to survival.

At any rate, the students who sat in front of me today are well aware that the journalistic craft in this country is nascent. To their credit, they’re also aware of their capacity, as one of the first group of young people to be trained professionally, to take a front seat in the evolution of media here. They said they want to do this job because they understand the need for people to be both well informed and to be held accountable for their actions. In short, they told us that they want to help change the world, at least their part of it. How much more noble can this get? I think these students will be teaching the “teacha.”

These students were also quite clear about one thing. They want hands-on experience with cameras and editing equipment and they want it now. “Enough theory,” they stated unequivocally. Now, if only the authorities could hear these cries and release all of the equipment we’re donating from the Rwandan customs office. Then, we can really get to work.

I started the class by reciting a Swahili proverb; haraka, haraka haina baraka. Literally, this means, he/she who hurries has no blessing. It was in response to the students wanting to jump into documentary making before they completed shorter, simpler television projects. Learn to walk before you can run, I told them (committing the journalistic sin of offering up a cliché).

Perhaps it’s hypocritical for me now to get Western ants in my pants about the turtle pace at which things get accomplished here. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to get access to all the gear we brought. There’s just so much to do and time already gallops.

And so, with my pedometer strapped firmly on, forward we go, albeit with baby steps.

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May 10, 2006 — Going with the flow

It’s the start of our first full day here in Butare. The clock on my laptop indicates that it’s 3:11 a.m. back in Ottawa — no wonder I’m still feeling a little groggy.

When they said it was the rainy season here, they weren’t exaggerating. As we drove in from the airport in Kigali last night, flashes of lightening illuminated the otherwise pitch black around us, silhouetting the hills that Rwanda is so known for. The rain started here at the house just as we were heading to bed, building throughout the night. There were times, as I lay there, trying to fall asleep (a challenge that any insomniac will fully appreciate) I wondered if we weren’t in the middle of a herd of stampeding water buffalo. Water bouncing off a clay-tiled roof makes is far from subtle.

There’s no electricity this morning and, while there’s plenty of water — to wash off the soot and smog that we waded through in Nairobi during our layover — none of it is hot. But, I’m not complaining. The reality is, nestled into our bungalow here in the Butare “suburb” of Taba, we’re living in relative luxury.

So, that brings me to the main point I’d like to make this morning (at least before my computer battery dies). Relative luxury, relative wealth, relative health. Everything is relative. This trip, this experience is all about how we relate to the lives of people here and what we learn from being allowed into those lives. In my case, it will most of my experiences will be with my second-year journalism students.

There’s a Swahili proverb, which when literally translated, states that one can only know if a shoe pinches by wearing it. It’s the East African version an old saying that many of us in North America have heard before, the one about how we should only judge a person when we’ve walked in their moccasins. I was so inspired by the Swahili saying and the humility necessary to bring it to life, that I used it in the title of my MA thesis, written back in 1995 out of my year of research in Tanzania. It was called The Shoe That Pinches. The topic was women, gender roles and environmental conservation in Tanzania and the thrust of it was that we need to understand how people define the environment and their lives within it, before we can arrogantly enter the scene with aid and other, often well-intended initiatives.

So, taking this a step (pun intended) further, I came up with what I thought was a pretty clever idea for the five weeks I’ll be spending here in Rwanda.

Just before I left Canada on Sunday, I bought a fancy pedometer. It would measure the number of steps, the distance and calories (a very Western priority!) that I would take while in Africa. I started formulating all these grand plans about how I would use the Swahili proverb to accompany me, to talk about empathy, the sometimes uncomfortable process of self-examination that needs to take place while on the journey and the need to be open to learning from the people we’ll meet along the way. I thought about asking others to wear the pedometer for a day, as a way of measuring and documenting their lives and activities here.

But, you know what they say about the best-laid plans . . .

Yesterday, while we were getting ready to leave Nairobi, I made a bathroom pit stop at our hotel. One learns to appreciate the opportunity to use nice restrooms when one travels in Africa. As I turned around to flush and, at the same time pull up my khakis (the Western pitfall of multi tasking), I saw something land in the toilet bowl. Before I could process what the object was and before I could valiantly try to plunge in to save the day, the hotel’s surprisingly powerful plumbing had swallowed my pedometer into Nairobi’s sewage system.

I dashed off an e-mail to one of the Carleton students who starts her journey here today, requesting the purchase of another pedometer. But, I’m not sure it reached her in time. I just may have to come up with another metaphor for this adventure.

So, for now, I’ll just go with the flow.

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Postings

June 12, 2006 — Steps to date: approximately 162,153

June 6, 2006 — Another wonder

May 28, 2006 — 65,153 steps:
The 20-hour tour

May 26, 2006 — 59,086 steps: Adventures in TV land

May 22, 2006 — 52,895 steps: 2 beep or not 2 beep

May 22, 2006 — 52,895 steps: 2 beep or not 2 beep

May 16, 2006 — First day of class

May 10, 2006 — Going with the flow

 

 

 

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