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Sue Montgomery

Sue Montgomery's Notes From the Field

Feb. 5, 2007 — Keeper of the bones

He spends every single day here, honouring the dead, including his five children and wife, by showing their gruesome remains to countless visitors.


Emmanuel, Keeper of the bones

Emmanuel, a tall, thin 50-year-old with a bullet scar on his bald head that looks as though someone poked their index finger into his skull, recognized me when I showed up this year for my second visit to one of Rwanda’s most horrific memorials.

I was taken aback by his obvious sharp memory, considering he was sloshed during our first encounter. (A state not surprising, when you think about what he does for a living.)

But on my visit this year to the haunting, yet somehow beautiful site of Murambi, where 50,000 Tutsis were murdered in April, 1994, Emmanuel was uncharacteristically lucid, his sad eyes clearer than they were last year.


Murambi Genocide Memorial

He dutifully unlocked each former classroom to reveal the chalk-like skeletons carefully laid out on simple, wooden slats.

There are the tiny forms of infants, tufts of black hair still visible on their skulls. There are men and women, some with skulls cracked from machetes, some missing feet and hands. Some mouths are wide open, as if in mid-scream.

There are no plaques, charts or brochures to help tell the story. The bodies speak for themselves.

Emmanuel, the official keeper of this sacred place, is there to answer questions. But he doesn’t know which among them are his children and wife. And he seems perplexed when I ask him whether he examines the bodies for some kind of recognizable sign that would help him find his loved ones. Doesn’t he want to know who they are?

The only way that would be possible, he said, is through some kind of scientific testing, which he could never afford. So just being there every day, with all the victims regardless who they are, is what is important.

Having visited the site last year, I thought I would be adequately emotionally prepared this time around. But with the first whiff of death, and the sight of a small child, its legs and arms tucked in towards its body, tears welled up in my eyes. I was with two students, both of who lost relatives in the genocide but who had never dared visit such a graphic memorial.

All one could do upon entering the first room was whisper, “Jesus.”

Some of the 800,000 Tutsis who were systematically slaughtered over 100 days by the Hutu militia in 1994 sought refuge at this technical school, set up on a hill, with a stunning view of the lush, green rolling terrain that surrounds it. It’s hard to imagine such a macabre event occurring in such a serene setting.

Following the bloodbath, Emmanuel watched from a tree, as the mutilated bodies of men, women and children – his entire family among them – were tossed en masse into deep holes, then covered with Rwanda’s red earth.

The following year, the bodies were exhumed. Those that hadn’t completely decomposed were covered in lime, preserving them forever in the mangled positions in which they landed in their mass graves. For others, only the skulls and large bones could be salvaged.

In a final act of humiliation, the militia had stripped naked anyone wearing clothing that could still be used. But they left others dressed in their blood-soaked rags.

Following exhumation, those mere scraps of material were carefully removed and now hang on two blue ropes stretched across a cavernous, airy room – a pitiful reminder of just how poor, and therefore helpless, the victims were.

^Top

Jan. 31, 2007 — Let us pray, part II

My very religious student, Astrida, wasn’t giving up on converting me.

The Evangelical students group was holding their regular prayer session Tuesday night at 10 p.m. at the university and would I like to come along? It won’t change my mind, I told her, but promised to think about it.

That night, after a couple of beer, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to drag along my friend Léopold to the prayer session.

We walked up the winding, tree-lined road into the campus, past the library, past the residences and basketball courts to the massive gymnasium, toward the singing. Three guitarists, a drummer and keyboardist were banging out a rollicking African hymn, while four women swayed back and forth, their eyes closed, singing at the top of their lungs, despite the microphones held to their mouths.

About 30 students stood before them, their arms in the air, singing along, injecting the odd Hallelujah! or Hosannah! into the song.

This I could handle, I thought, because, despite the slight distortion of the music blaring from the speakers, the beat was actually quite infectious and I began to clap along.

Just then, a man dressed in a black leather jacket, patent leather pointed shoes, white dress shirt and black slacks appeared at the front, and out came the Fire and Brimstone. Since it was in Kinyrawanda, I thought I could bear it, but then the young student sitting next to me leaned in close and began simultaneously translating into my ear.

The man at the front was talking about building churches on rock or sand, knowing where you’re coming from before you can know where you’re going and finding the time to pray. He closed his eyes, he raised a fist in the air, he jumped around the floor, and got the crowd so whipped into a frenzy that everyone around me began sobbing. They shot their arms in the air, closed their eyes, and nodded in agreement with the preacher.

We were told to hold hands – hold tighter! – and praise the Lord! There were more Hallelujahs and Hosannahs. The student behind me spoke non-stop in a monotone so rapid, I couldn’t tell what he was saying.

A male student approached the front to be “saved”, and there were more Amens! I feared there would be no escape and that perhaps Astrida had identified me to the preacher - the only Umuzungu (white person) there - as being the devil incarnate, in need of major salvation.

I stood, turned and bolted to the back of the room, where Léopold, a Rwandan who works for the World Food Program and considers himself an atheist, had a pained look on his face. Just then, my cell phone began ringing. I desperately dug through my purse to silence it and saw that it was Astrida. I hadn’t seen her all evening and here she was phoning me from within this gathering. Had she been watching me all along? Had she noticed I was about to escape without so much as an Amen, brother!!!?

I turned again to leave, and there she was, asking me what I thought. “Interesting” was all I could manage, adding that I had to get home.

Léopold and I walked the few kilometers to our neighbourhood by the light of the moon, criticizing the scene we’d just witnessed. As we entered the city centre, I noticed a young woman, walking barefoot, wrapped in a swath of African cloth. “Ask her what her story is,” I told Léopold.

She was 19, and since her parents died four years ago, her brothers went to live in Tanzania and she with an elderly woman. But that woman has recently died, so the girl left her village in search of a job.

“Where are you going tonight?” Léopold asked her.

Nowhere in particular, she said. “I’m just going to keep walking.”

I briefly considered inviting her home for the night, momentarily fearing that her appearance was somehow connected to the night’s event, you know, like a sign or something. If I didn’t help her, would I be struck down? Would locusts infest our home? Would there be floods?

Léopold cautioned against any kind of hospitality, saying the young woman would no doubt rob me blind. So I watched as she headed north along the main road to Kigali, until her black and yellow shawl disappeared into the night.

“Why doesn’t God look after people like her?” Léopold ask, without a hint of sarcasm.

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Jan. 31, 2007 — Let us pray....

As our bus pulled out of the university campus and onto the busy highway, one student suggested we pray before embarking on our class field trip.

I diplomatically told Astrida to go ahead, but that praying wasn’t really my thing. That, of course, opened the doors to a discussion about God and religion – a topic so close to people’s hearts here, that I would rather avoid it for fear they think I am Satan.

As we bounced along the winding road, narrowly missing goats, cows, people and other vehicles, our discussion inevitably wound its way to the genocide – an event that seems to colour almost everything here.

Astrida was nine years old when the genocide happened, and living in the capital Kigali with her parents and three siblings. Her parents managed to hide the children in a Hutu-run orphanage, where their mother also hid, but in a room separate from the children.

Their father went off to fight with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebels fighting a government that was systematically exterminating the minority Tutsis.

“We were 300 children in an orphanage built for 100,” she told me, recounting the terror they felt during those 100 days back in April, 1994. “There wasn’t enough food, especially for the babies, so many, many died.”

Even though she knew her mother was in the same building, Astrida was forbidden to be with her, for fear Interahamwe, the main Hutu militia, would discover her and kill her.

At the end of their three months in hiding, Astrida’s family, gaunt and weak, was reunited, but found that their house had been destroyed and many of their neighbours killed – mostly by other neighbours.

When she finished telling me her story, I asked her how she could believe in a God who would let such an atrocity happen? Her response was that she had been spared, and that was something to be thankful for. Hard to argue with that, but what about the million who didn’t survive?

And what about those who slaughtered them? There were Catholic priests, nuns and brothers among them. How can one accept that?

The Lord shows us the way, Astrida explained calmly, and some people chose the wrong way.

It’s an aspect of this society I just don’t get. How can so many people – and the numbers are growing – be so religious. Sometimes I think it’s a way of avoiding having to deal with the horror of the genocide head on. Perhaps it’s easier to bury oneself in religion, saying God acts in strange ways, even letting people massacre neighbours and friends, rather than dealing with the unimaginable.

My sense is that there are many, many people here who are deeply psychologically scarred, but there is no outlet for that pain. Men, especially, are very reluctant to talk about their feelings. And the women I talk to tell their genocide stories with as much emotion as they would tell me what they did on the weekend.

I have yet to see anyone cry.

My friend Providence returned to Rwanda in July, 1994, with two siblings after visiting relatives in the Congo to find that her parents and four siblings had been murdered. For her, the whole experience seems to have become a benchmark for other life crises.

Recently, she was frustrated at not being able to get a spot in residence and was worried about where she’d live.

“Oh well,” she shrugged. “I survived the genocide, I can survive this.”

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Jan. 30, 2007 — Please send chocolate

What I wouldn’t do right now for a piece of good-quality, dark chocolate.

It’s not that I haven’t been eating well here, and I suppose it’s time to reveal my dark little secret about that. I have a cook.

Jean is a scrawny little vegetarian, father of six, whose first wife was murdered – apparently by a brother in an inheritance dispute. He has remarried, but wouldn’t dream of cooking at home. As long as he’s paid to do it, it’s acceptable for a man to lift a frying pan; otherwise, the kitchen is a woman’s domain.

He has a stack of well-thumbed, and falling apart cookbooks. Every morning, he arrives by bike, dons his flowered apron and Birkenstock knock-offs, and sits on an upside down plastic Fanta case, studying the yellowed pages. As African music blares from a small transistor radio in our bright but basic kitchen, he happily chops, grates, and stirs, creating simple, healthy and delicious meals.

Once a week he heads off to the local market and returns with a handful of sweet onions, tiny heads of garlic whose potent cloves are no bigger than slivered almonds, misshapen plum tomatoes, eggplant the size of softballs, a round of local Gouda-like cheese, 10 just-laid eggs, sweet, tender lettuce, carrots and green beans.

I’m struck by the small quantities – he buys exactly what he needs. There is no Cosco-type shopping mentality here, where you stock up on things, whether you need them or not. You buy what you can afford, and exactly what you need. (There is absolutely no credit here - everyone pays cash - and there certainly is no waste).

Jean has used his small cache of flour to make vegetarian pizza, quiche and a pineapple upside down cake. He’s made the best tuna pasta salad I’ve ever tasted. Irish potatoes, as they call them here, figure often in his repertoire. Today it was a type of Rosti, another day he roasted them, and yet another day they were fried into crisp, delicious frites.

The avocados are massive and as creamy as butter. Tiny bananas, juicy papaya, and sour passion fruit have more taste than anything in our Canadian supermarkets this time of year, or any time, for that matter.

I’ve told Jean many times that I would like to eat Rwandan food, and he responds with a type of green pea cooked in tomato sauce, or beige kidney beans, served with rice or potatoes. For breakfast, I drink delicious, strong Rwandan coffee, mixed with powder milk.

Every once in awhile I eat out, wanting a taste of local colour. My favourite restaurant is called Patisserie Iris. When you walk through the door, it’s as if you’ve walked into someone’s house. There is a single table, with a television (always showing TV Rwanda - the one and only channel here) hanging from the wall. In the adjoining room another table is covered with large aluminum pots, each one filled with various Rwandan dishes – plantain, the leaves of cassava, pounded into something resembling pureed spinach, a goat dish and roasted potatoes. There’s more, but those are the things I recognize. Customers point to what they want and expressionless women in white lab coats comply.

There are three tables covered in plastic cloths in a third room, and a lab-coated woman delivers a plate of hot dog buns to the table. There is a tiny eye-drop bottle containing a yellow liquid, which can accurately be described as fire. There are also canisters of toothpicks so flimsy, they get caught in your teeth, alongside the tough goat meat.

I suppose one of the upsides of underdevelopment is that the likes of McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Pizza aren’t here. In fact, there is no fast food at all, and I’m sure that’s why you never, or rarely, see a fat Rwandan.

Of course, one of the downsides of that underdevelopment is you can’t get good, dark, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate.

^Top

Jan. 29, 2007 — Story telling

I’m now into my third, and final week of teaching, and am finding it difficult to gauge what kind of impact I’ve had, if any.


Eugene conducting interviews

They have a saying here in Kinyarawanda that goes, “like a dog watching a movie.” It’s used to describe someone who is looking at you, but not understanding anything you say. That’s often the impression I get from my students.

And I can’t tell if they are just painfully shy, afraid, asleep, or just behaving normally – afterall, professors here tend to just stand at the front of the room and lecture. Students, for the most part, remain quiet.

I greet my crew every morning in our classroom - a tiny, rundown affair about the size of a walk-in closet in Canada, trying to convey the elements of a good news story, then send them off in search of one. (The classroom we finally ended up in, after many moves, is just big enough for 11 chairs, some with writing tables attached, a small teacher’s desk, and black board. Rarely is there any chalk).

I introduced our last assignment by telling them about the negative image the West has about Rwanda; that everyone equates it with genocide, danger and insecurity. My family and friends were nervous when I said I was coming here, and almost all asked whether it was safe.

So my students’ mission was to go out and find a story that would shed a different light on their country. And despite their blank expressions, as if they were dogs watching a movie, I was pleasantly surprised by what they came up with.

One student, Richard, wrote a great piece about a student who chatted on line with a guy who claimed to live in France. Their chats became more frequent, until finally the man offered to come to Rwanda to meet his new online friend. As it turned out, he had been on the campus all along. (This whole on-line dating phenomenon here is worthy of a separate blog entry, since all my students seem to be doing it, chatting with people all over the world, and reinventing themselves in the process. As one student told me, “it’s all lies.”)

Another student, Emmanuel, wrote about a Rwandan musician, who is rising up the charts here, but is also studying at the university in financial management. There were stories about street kids and here’s the lead from a story about a recreational soccer team:

After work and to avoid drinking in pubs, 76 seniors associated to ‘Intwari’ (heroes) football club, play football every Sunday, helping them to unify Butare society after 1994 genocide.

Jean-Claude is working on a piece about safe sex on campus (there are dispensers everywhere with free condoms, but no sooner are the dispensers filled, than the condoms disappear). And Astrida, my only female student, is profiling a Polish woman here who is teaching Rwandans classical guitar.

Bernard is looking into the increase of evangelical churches since the genocide and Germain into the latest trend of aerobics classes, Rwandan style.

The features are slowly landing in my e-mail inbox (the idea of a deadline doesn’t seem to be sinking in) and there are some gems. As you can see from the example above, the writing needs polishing, but isn’t bad, considering this is their second, and for some, third language.

The main thing is, they know a story when they see one, and despite their at times blank stares, there is a passion there to go after the story and tell it to the world.

^Top

Jan. 29, 2007 — Can't see the forest for the fees

Imagine, one of my students said to me, his big brown eyes looking straight into mine, we have NEVER been to this amazing place and it’s right in our own country. Imagine.

To say that my students – a group ranging in age from 23 to 35 – were awestruck by the magic of Nyungwe would not be an exaggeration.

It is a protected rain forest measuring 1,040 square kilometers in the southwest of the country that is one of the most peaceful, enchanted places I have ever been. It is home to mahogany trees estimated to be four times as old as Canada. Five people can hold hands and encircle one trunk. There are countless medicinal plants, including one used to decrease the size of women’s breasts, although our guide couldn’t tell us why that would be necessary. Three types of primates live here, including chimpanzees, that are almost impossible to spot among the thick, green plant life.

We decided to go there as a class, to try to do some stories about the environment and tourism, and the university picked up the tab. Otherwise, the students could never afford to go on their limited budgets.

Our bus pulled out of the campus parking lot at 8 a.m., more or less, which is a huge accomplishment in itself. We made a quick pit stop at the local supermarket for water, cookies, peanuts and bananas and were off along the well-paved, but winding road to the forest.

I’ve made it a policy here not to look out the front window of vehicles while traveling. It’s better for the blood pressure, I’m sure, as cows, goats, people, and oncoming trucks are missed by a hair. Instead, I look sideways, taking in the colourful rural scenery – the women bent over at the waist, tilling the land by hand, the mud huts, the crowds gathered under a tiny overhang to get out of the sun or a downpour.

A steady stream of people moved along the edge of the road and I wondered where they were headed, or where they’d been. There were women balancing loads of potatoes or onions on their heads, babies strapped to their backs. Men, soaked in sweat, pushed bicycles loaded down with charcoal or wood, up an incline, while scrawny boys desperately tried to balance a rickety wooden wheelbarrow, its front wheel more like a wobbly square. Barefoot children in school uniforms stopped running and waved as our bus sped past them.

Out in the lush green tea plantations, women picked leaves and placed them in the baskets strapped to their backs.

There is a bustle here, a sense that things are happening, but with an extraordinary output of energy. It reminds me a bit of the Myth of Sisyphus, where a man is condemned by the gods to push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down again.

We stopped to buy roasted corn from roadside stands, and were swarmed by people simply curious to look in our bus.

Once at the park reception, we met our guide Edward, who led us on a 3.8-kilometre hike along a well-kept path, up steep slopes and down muddy inclines. Every few metres he would stop at a tree, or plant and give us its name and use, if it had one, in traditional medicine. We drank from a cold, clean waterfall and marveled at ferns so large, they seemed from the time of dinosaurs.

I wondered how a group of Canadian students would react to such a trip. I’m not sure, but I’d guess they wouldn’t be all that impressed, wanting instead to text message their friends.

This group didn’t stop laughing and talking from the time we headed out on our hike, until we arrived back three and a half hours later. They took hundreds of photos with the three digital cameras we had with us. They interviewed a couple of American tourists in the park, as well as an environmentalist from the Sierra Club who had pitched a tent in one of the campsites.

They helped push the slow pokes up hills. They did a crazy jig when red ants started crawling up their pant legs, their laughter echoing through the valley.

On the way back to campus in the bus, everyone was soaked from a late afternoon downpour and exhausted from the walk but thrilled at having finally visited this precious place that up until then seemed reserved for Western tourists.

Amazing. Wonderful. Fantastic. Imagine that we’d never been here before, they kept saying. Imagine.

^Top

Jan. 27, 2007 — Bad hair days

It was Friday night and things were hopping at the Royal Hair Salon.

Adolph, originally from the Congo, was concentrating on his latest head of hair, as women sat on chairs and benches lining the walls of the tiny room, patiently waiting their turn.

He massaged handfuls of some kind of goopy gel into the woman’s jet black hair, then secured rollers in place with long, plastic pins. The woman was set under the large, oval-shaped bonnet of a hair dryer, and the knob turned to high. She pressed her hands to her bare ears, trying to protect them from the searing heat. Glistening beads of sweat began forming on her brow.

A soccer match between Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire blared from the radio in one corner, while Jacques sat on the floor in another, clipping the toe nails of a woman in a chair, preparing them for a coating of bright pink polish.

I had been suffering severe bad hair since arriving here, the heat and humidity playing havoc with my curls, turning them into a big ball of frizz. One of my students convinced me to have my hair braided with hair extensions to bring the unruly mess under control.

I hesitated, picturing those ridiculous sunburned Canadians returning home from some southern vacation, their hair braided with beads, à la Bo Derrick.

But the hair had to be reined in, so I relented.

The young woman charged with the task skillfully divided my wiry mop into sections and, beginning on one side of my head, close to my ear, began weaving fake hair in with my own. “You don’t have Umuzungu hair,” she commented, but I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad.

Her fingers nimbly twisted and turned the strands of hair, making braids that hugged my skull all the way to my neck, then fell loose past my shoulders.

The woman under the hair dryer was finally released from her torture and returned to a seat in front of a mirror. Adolph pulled out the curlers, then, applying gel so thick and black, it resembled tar, combed the hair straight. He then twisted it into a bun and pinned it on top of the woman’s head. One by one, every woman in the salon underwent the same transformation - their kinky hair straightened to resemble a white woman’s, while there I sat, my head turning into an African work of art.

The women all gave me the thumbs up, politely saying I looked “smart.”

Three and a half hours later, I left the Royal Hair Salon, my head aching and my face feeling stretched taut. I think it looks ridiculous, but the frizz is finally under control, at least for the time I’m here.

^Top

Jan. 25, 2007 — Running for his life

One of the hardest things about living in this town is trying to be invisible. It’s impossible to walk from our house to the university – about a 45 minute trip – without being stared at, smiled at or hearing “Umuzungu!” (White person!)

And if you think you’re a spectacle when you’re just walking, minding your own business, try exercising in public. Last year when I was here, I tried swimming at the only pool in town – at the Credo Hotel.

I was often the only one in the pool and inevitably, would draw a crowd of nearby construction workers, motorcycle taxi drivers or hotel employees. And believe me, they weren’t there to ogle. It was more curiosity about the rare sight of someone who is actually able to swim. In this land-locked country, no one has the opportunity to learn, so I quickly became the designated teacher – with mixed results.

This year, I packed my running shoes, thinking that perhaps someone jogging along the back roads would be less conspicuous. Well, yes, in a way, because at least I can run past the stares, instead of being confined to one spot, like a seal in a zoo. But every once in a while, a group of kids, or just an individual, runs along side me, egging me on to go faster, or to give them a high five.

One evening, while on my usual run along the pot-holed red dirt roads, I suddenly noticed a little boy, running along beside me. He was barefoot, wore dirty, calf-length pants, and a scruffy navy ski jacket. I guessed he was about five years old.

I asked him my usual questions, and the only things I know in Kinyarwanda: What’s your name; how old are you? My name is Sue. How are you?

He scurried along, keeping up with me every step of the way, and I was shocked to hear he was 12. In a low gravelly voice that belied his age, he said he was hungry, and when I said I didn’t have anything to give him, I expected him to drop out of the race. But he kept on, undeterred by my silence.

We ran together for a good two kilometers, when I decided it was time to get home before the sun plunked behind the horizon, as it does every day at about 6. He ran alongside me right to our gate.

I called my friend Providence to translate and it turned out my little running buddy was an orphan. He lived on the street with his three siblings, getting help once in a while from former neighbours.

Usually, I politely turn away the single moms, the kids and the handicapped who zero in on me daily, asking for a bit of money or food. I have to, because I know that helping one will only open the flood gates, and I can't possibly help them all.

But this little fellow had wormed his way into my heart and was too sweet to send into the night, so I invited him in and gave him a huge bowl of rice, vegetables and meat. He ignored the spoon I placed in front of him, and instead devoured the meal with his hand. He drank a large glass of water and ate two bananas.

Then he politely thanked me, washed his hands thoroughly, including under his nails, wished me goodnight, and left.

I wondered if what I’d done had been the right thing. Either I was going to find a mob of homeless kids outside my gate the next morning, or I’d raised this little guy’s hopes, without being able to follow through. Where, I wondered, would his next meal come from?

To my surprise and admitted disappointment, I haven’t seen him since, but his smile will stay with me forever.

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Jan. 22, 2007 — To catch a thief

My peaceful Saturday morning at home was shattered by the sound of a woman screaming.

It was followed by a man yelling. Then another, and another. Was someone being raped?

I ran out to the gate, opened the door and saw a crowd gathered in a tight circle. In the middle of it, a man crouched on the soaking wet dirt road, covering his head with his arms. People were yelling at him, and took turns giving him swift kicks in the ribs and slapping him across his head.

What I was witnessing was the local system of justice. The man had scammed another of all his money by telling him there had been a bank robbery and the police were looking for the thieves. If they caught the man with lots of money in his pockets, they would arrest him, he told his victim.

Alarmed, the victim, who was from neighbouring Burundi, said that yes, he did have lots of money – 125,000 Rwandan francs (about $250) but what should he do?

The thief pulled a wad of paper wrapped in a 5,000 franc note out of his pocket and told the man to give him his money, that he’d wrap it in the same manner and show him how to conceal it. When the victim agreed, the thief quickly swapped the two bundles, handing the bogus one back to the Burundian.

No sooner had the thief taken off, than the victim’s wife realized the scam and started screaming.

Rwandans are quick to react when someone is wronged, so a man selling paintings outside my gate stuck out his foot and tripped the thief as he scurried past.

Workers building a fence across the street jumped into the fray and began beating the man. A car that drove past stopped, reversed, and its occupants got out and joined in. As word spread quickly down the street, others began running towards the action, until there was a crowd of about 20 demanding the man fess up. What made the scene all the more alarming was the participants’ apparent glee – they were all laughing as the man lay there bleeding.

Fearing they would kill him, I ran towards them, still in my pyjamas, yelling to stop. Suddenly a woman raised her hands in the air and said, “Umuzungu! Human rights!” as if I was about to spoil their fun by invoking some silly international covenent.

Why didn’t they just call the police, I asked naively. They laughed, saying the police would take days to get there and even if they did arrest the man, he’d spend just a day or two in jail, then be released. What kind of justice is that? they asked.

Wouldn’t you stop a thief the same way in Canada, my cook, Jean, asked me later, incredulous at my answer that it’s actually against the law to beat someone like that, even if he is a thief.

But how else would you get the money back? he asked.

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Jan. 19, 2007 — Exorcising the demons

Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” seemed like the perfect song to be jumping around to after a somber day spent in a village court, listening to grim testimony about the genocide.

We were about 30 people – all blacks except me and another “umuzungu” - in a small room, lit by only one, dim fluorescent ceiling light. Distorted African and Western music blared from a large tape machine on the cement floor, as each person took his turn leading the group in an aerobics class – Rwandan style.

Unlike our reserved classes in Canada, here there was much whistling, whooping and clapping. We ran in circles, we jumped on one leg, then the other, we joined sweaty arms with our neighbour and twirled around square-dance style. We joined hands and danced in a large circle. There was no apparent routine, the only goal was to move vigorously.

It was as if all the demons that had emerged in that packed town hall earlier in the day were now being exorcised. And there was a feeling that in some small way, this central African country was finally beginning to shake off the ghosts of its horrific past.

The whole town had been shut down earlier, as everyone (in theory) headed to the gacaca, or grassroots, the traditional court system that is now being used to ease the burden of the regular courts in prosecuting thousands accused in the 1994 genocide.

Nine “judges” – respected members of the community chosen by the population – sat at a wooden table at the front of a cavernous hall, packed with about 500 people. The accused, a Catholic brother among them, sat in the front row of chairs; the witnesses waited outside in the blazing sun until called.

The chairman, speaking into a microphone hooked up to a small blow horn, announced a minute of silence for the victims – over a million Tutsis who were systematically slaughtered in a three-month period by the Hutus.

He then went over the guidelines that the audience has heard every Wednesday since the gacacas began two years ago.

“Everyone is free to give his or her opinion, you just have to raise your hand,” he began. “But you may not frighten people and you must tell the truth.

“For the accused, this is a time to tell the truth and repent.”

I had gone with my 11 journalism students from the National University of Rwanda and told them writing about the proceedings would be that day’s assignment.

For them, the court is old news, something that seems to be dragging on forever. And, they told me, few of the witnesses ever say anything anyway – they’re too afraid of reprisals or that they, too, will be condemned.

As one witness after another ducked questions from the clearly skeptical judges, the crowd grew increasingly frustrated, tsk-tsking and sighing deeply. Murmurs rippled through the room. I could see that my students were right. But, I told them, that’s one of the roles of a journalist – to look beyond what’s not happening in order to find out what is.

Not long after a Catholic nun finished her testimony – which was clearly unsatisfactory to the crowd - and returned to her seat among the audience, she broke down sobbing and had to be escorted out. Some people mumbled that it was because she hadn’t told the truth, and her conscience had got the better of her.

Later, as I brainstormed with my students about the story, they came up with several different angles to the day’s events, including “how much longer will we have to go through this before we can move on?”

That evening in the “gym”, as I breathlessly did jumping jacks, I looked around the room, devoid of mirrors, fancy equipment and expensive sound systems. My fellow participants weren’t wearing the latest work-out wear: some were in bare feet, some wore regular shoes, and most wore plain old shorts and a T-shirt. But they were having more fun than I’ve ever seen during a workout in a Canadian gym.

Maybe, I thought, this is the story.

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Jan. 17, 2007 — Classes? What classes?

I was quickly reminded of the virtue of patience when I showed up Monday morning at my classroom – a dark, dank room with peeling paint on the walls and a few rickety chairs scattered around – to find a woman up to her ankles in soapy water, mopping the cement floor.

This was day one of my fourth year advanced print reporting class, but no one resembling a student was anywhere in sight. I told the woman I’d come back later and went in a feeble search for students among the 9,300-strong population on campus. Several phone calls and about an hour later, I was standing on a clean floor, facing just five students, who stared at me blankly.

I couldn’t hear a word they said, nor could they hear me, I’m sure, thanks to the jack hammers outside the window. I sent them off to find someone to profile and to warn the six no-shows that I’d deduct marks if they didn’t show up the next day. What I failed to say was, “if they failed to show up the next day ON TIME.”

Slowly, but surely on Tuesday, they did all eventually make it to the classroom. Once everyone was accounted for – that took up the first hour and a half - we got down to the business of journalism.

Why did they want to do it? Their answers were refreshing and honest, and from a cynical journalist’s perspective, somewhat naive. One wants to do international reporting, to explain the problems of Africa to the rest of the world. Another wants to help rebuild Rwanda through educating the masses. All want to restore the reputation the media had before it turned into a catalyst for genocide. They are all passionate about the craft and eager to learn and, it turned out, had legitimate excuses for not showing up for class. A couple had been doing internships at the state television station, one is the editor of the student newspaper, and the rest work at the student radio station, Radio Salus.

The majority of them would rather work in TV or radio rather than print, I think because they are crazy about the technology. (I am still in awe of the technological abilities of these students, most of whom come from villages where people are still tilling the land with wooden hoes. The contrast is astounding. One student in third year, Eugene, carries around photos on his flash disk of the cows some lucky family will receive some day as a dowry.)

The profiles I had assigned the previous day returned with mixed results. I have to keep in mind that for most of my students, English is their second or even third language, so I have to cut them some slack. But grammar and spelling errors aside, I love the content, which gives me real insight into what is going on in their heads. They write with innocence about love, relationships and family, but almost all mention the atrocity of the genocide which somehow, miraculously, didn’t turn them into angry, vengeful beings.

Here is an excerpt from one student’s work: “He plans to get married anytime even tomorrow now he has no girlfriend because he didn’t find the time to create the relationship with girls, and he thinks it will not be difficult for him even if he has never experienced.

“He has not much criteria to select the lover, only the one who will be faithful to him, he is still waiting for her even today if he find her he can take. He plans to have 2 children any sex and he wishes them to become one journalist another scientist.

“And the thing which made him sad during all his life is the Genocide in Rwanda and its consequences that he is still suffering.”

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Jan. 13, 2007 — Nothing is simple

I have spent the past two days - the entire time since my arrival in this stunningly beautiful country - trying to find a means of communication. I'm writing this from an Internet cafe as some guy dressed in a blue lab coat with the word CONFIANCE emblazoned across the back dismantles a computer.

In Kigali yesterday, just hours after my plane touched down and I was adjusting to the hot, humid air, I found myself leaving my Gazette issued cell phone with some guy named Chris. He assured me he could configure the phone with a local number without actually making changes to the phone. I left it in his capable hands (his words) and arranged for one of my students to pick it up later, as I was heading south to Butare, my home for the next few weeks. I spent a long, wakeful night in our four-bedroom house in Butare, as torrents of rain pounded the roof so hard, I was sure a cascade would break through and drown me in my sleep. I was completely cut off from the rest of the world - no TV, radio or Internet - so if the world was ending, I wasn't aware of it. And if, in fact, the roof were to collapse under the weight of the downpour, I'd be unable to call for help, since my phone still remains in Kigali in Chris's "capable hands."

When I picked up the receiver of the house phone, a recorded voice told me it had been disconnected due to non-payment. I was totally alone. By Saturday morning, 24 hours after my arrival, I couldn't stand the silence any longer and started rummaging through the house. Surely one of the former teachers had left behind a cell phone. I found one hidden away in a desk drawer, but it didn't work.

A start, I thought, as I set out on foot in search of the nearest cell phone store.

It consisted of a space the size of a large closet and the owner, a guy in a leather cowboy hat, touched his tongue to the phone's battery and announced it was dead. He then dragged a large bag out from behind a curtain, and dumped the contents on the floor. Out spilled phones and batteries of all kinds, but not the one I needed, apparently. He rifled through the pile, then left his shop in my care while he disappeared down the main street, returning about 15 minutes later with battery in hand. The phone now had power, but I still needed to buy time cards. On to another shop, where they had cards, but no change.

The saleswoman disappeared to another shop and returned, change in hand. I felt free, at last. The first call I made was to my student in Kigali, the one in charge of picking up my Gazette phone from Chris. No go, Providence announced. Turns out, Chris's hands aren't as capable as he claimed.

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January 12, 2007 —The Umuzungu strikes again

I'd forgotten what it was like to be the Umuzungu! Riding a motorcycle taxi to the university this afternoon, I heard that familiar sound of children's voices yelling excitedly Umuzungu (white person!!) and pointing in my direction as I whizzed by, the too-big helmet slipping down over my eyes.

I'm back for the second time but this semester will teach print reporting to the fourth year students. This country is even more lush and green than I'd remembered, but apparently, there has been more rain than usual (more whacky weather). And the people walking along the edge of the road more numerous than I recall. Men stroll in pairs clutching bunches of shoes for sale, women carry bags of potatoes on their heads and one man carries stacks of painstakingly straightened sheets of recycled metal. Then there are the "public phones" - people holding what look like a regular house phones, that don't appear to be connected to anything. I'd forgotten, too, the warm way they greet each other - three kisses to the cheeks, followed by a gentle tapping of foreheads and a handshake.

Plastic bags are now banned in Rwanda and as I entered the airport in Kigali, I had to exchange mine carrying duty free purchases from Nairobi for more environmentally friendly reusable cloth bags for which I had to pay US$4 for one. Then at the grocery store, they charged me 400 francs for my paper bags. Pretty impressive. If a country like Rwanda can do this, why can't Canada?

It was lovely to see two students as well as feel a blast of hot, humid air greet me at the airport. One student, Solange, immediately took me under her wing, ordering our driver all over town as we tried to deal with the basics. First order of business, a cell phone. I'd brought mine from home and after several inquiries in numerous shops, found some guy named Chris who assured us he could reconfigure it with a Rwandan number. We left it with him (he swears it's in capable hands) and headed south to Butare, arranging for another student to pick it up when ready and bring it to Butare with her later that day. (Chris also said that for $300, I could get wireless internet. It's such a juxtaposition - here's a completely underdeveloped country where people are still breaking their backs working their fields with wooden hoes and yet they've gone wireless.)

Here it is the next day, Saturday, and I'm still incommunicado.

The rain came down so hard last night, it sounded like the engines of a huge airplane revving up. It pounded the roof until I was sure it would break through. I was alone in this huge four-bedroom house, save for a couple of determined mosquitos. Not great sleeping conditions.

Strange to be completely cut off from the world on this first Saturday morning in Butare. I have no phone, no television or radio and no internet. I'm hoping one of my students, Providence, who was to arrive last night from Kigali, will show up. She is supposed to have picked up my phone before leaving the capital. Without that, I have no way of reaching anyone, not even her to find out where the hell she is.

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February 28, 2006 — Gorillas in the hail

After four hours of climbing straight up, through a bamboo forest that thickened into stinging nettles, dense underbrush and prickly raspberry bushes, we reached a clearing and there they were.

I could only stare in wonder, my stomach doing flip-flops, at the majestic black creatures in front of me. The mountain gorillas have to be one of the most spectacular sights in the world and I was standing just metres away from them.

Our 28-year-old guide, Francis, has been working in the park in northern Rwanda for seven years. He’d skillfully led us to the Susa group - the largest of five groups of gorillas in the Volcano Mountains bordering Uganda, and the one that was made famous by Diane Fossy.

The day had begun at 6 a.m., when we were picked up by a driver at our hotel in Ruhengeri – the town closest to the park. We drove along what is called a road, but is actually a rocky trail, to the park headquarters. There, dozens of tourists, dressed in the latest Tilley wear, and Gortex jackets, videotaped one another, the view, the guides and the locals. My colleague, Sylvia, and I were put into a group with six Germans – my worst nightmare, having spent two years in that country only to discover they aren’t exactly a barrel of laughs.

Francis warned them that the hike was extremely strenuous and anyone with health problems should perhaps consider switching to a group taking an easier trek. Aging and overweight, they all stubbornly stayed put. This doesn’t bode well, I thought.

Then, at 9:30. we finally headed off, through locals’ fields and cattle herds. Minutes into the hike, the German in front of me was huffing and puffing, his face the colour of porridge. (Meanwhile, I was reviewing CPR in my head, sure he was about to keel over). and a couple of hours later, conceded defeat. Two others chimed in that they, too, couldn’t go on. And Sylvia, who had eaten something rotten the night before, sadly decided to turn back as well. She was dizzy, felt like vomiting and simply had no strength, despite being in excellent shape.

So Francis sent the group back with a couple of porters and the rest of us continued on.

It was rough going, and I noticed that the Rwandan in front of me who was carrying one of the German’s packs, wore mismatched shoes and no socks. Yet he practically skipped up the mountain, his hands in his pockets for warmth.

Francis kept in constant contact via walkie-talkie with the trackers, who stay with the gorillas at all times, in order to direct the tourist groups to them. But what directions they give to the guides is beyond me – we were literally in the middle of nowhere, not following any set path. Or so it seemed to me, at least.

When we reached the summit, dark clouds moved in, thunder rumbled, and it began to hail. The gorillas ran for cover in the thick underbrush and so did we. We waited out the storm, then the tracker hacked through the thickets with a machete, until we came upon a group of 27 gorillas, including four of the rare silver backs. We also saw the first set of twin mountain gorillas ever to survive – they are now 20 months old and extremely cute and playful.

As we stood about four feet from the group, our guide making low, pig-like grunts to reassure the animals we meant no harm, one suddenly stood up, beat his chest then charged towards us, ripping a tree out of the ground and throwing it at us. Terrified, I ran as best I could. Remember, some of these gorillas weigh 200 Kg. Laughing, Francis assured me the gorilla wasn’t aggressive, he was just trying to warm up in the freezing temperatures. He repeated this “warming-up” ritual three more times, but I never quite overcame my fear and kept my distance.

As the sky cleared even more, the entire group headed back out into the open meadow. We followed and, standing in the middle of the field, we were suddenly surrounded by the gorgeous beasts. Some stood and beat their chests. The babies approached in curiosity, then twirled around in circles, tumbling and doing summersaults like a couple of bear cubs. I’d been viewing the gorillas through my camera, trying to capture their incredible personalities. Then, realizing it was pointless – there is no way to do them justice – I put the camera away and just observed, trying to sear the wonderful images into my memory.

They are a key part of tourism in Rwanda, and bring in much needed hard currency. And although the fee may seem steep ($375 US) we were told much of that goes back into the local community in the way of health and education projects. The park is well managed, in that there is a limited number of permits issued each day. And the tourists who flock here provide jobs to porters, guides, trackers, drivers and the hotel and restaurant employees in the area. In fact, the park is about to add to its roster of 12 guides due to increased demand.

After spending an hour silently watching, we headed back down the steep incline, arriving back at 6 p.m. When asked how it was, I didn’t have the adequate words to answer.

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February 28, 2006 — Field trip royale

For our last reporting assignment, I’d left it up to the students what they would like to do.

Half decided they wanted to go to Nyanza, which used to be the heart of Rwanda and home to its monarchy, and the other half opted for Gikongoro, an area of the country severely hit by food shortages. Neither place was very far from Butare, but none of the students had ever been to either, so a field trip like this was a pretty big deal.

We gathered at the university at 8:00 – the students were surprisingly punctual, for a change, although we did have to pick up a few stragglers on the way out of town. We had hoped to travel in two separate vehicles, but, as often happens here, that wasn’t possible for some mysterious reason. So we all piled into one bus, supplied by the university. It was comfortable, and everyone had a seat, but its constant rattling and shaking was a bit disconcerting (although none of the students seemed to even notice).

Before long, they were singing Rwandan songs, clapping, and taking photos of one another. They laughed and joked – something that never ceases to amaze me, given the horrible things most of them experienced as teenagers. My colleague, Roger Bird, who is usually pretty reserved, brought down the house with his rendition of The Shape I’m in, by The Band.

We reached the king’s palace, and they were like kids released in an amusement park. We toured a replica of the royal compound of huts – an example of sheer genius and ingenuity. The main hut was massive, made of straw and supported by wooden poles.

Inside, there were beautiful baskets in which the king kept his treasures, as well as exquisitely carved gourds used for holding either milk or banana beer. The students fired questions at the guide and diligently took notes, before moving on to the more modern royal house, built in 1932. The king lived here until his death, then his wife moved to Butare in 1964. She was killed there during the genocide, and the royal palace, which was by that time turned into a museum, was looted. Our guide explained they are still trying to recuperate the furniture and other items that were taken during that dark period of history.

We had to practically force the students back into the bus for the trip to Gikongoro, not too far away. We stopped at the Dallas Restaurant, and I think the staff was a bit overwhelmed to see 25 students approaching their doors with two umuzungu (whites). But, as is usually the case here, they rose to the occasion, with not the slightest hint of stress. Before long, we were seated at one long table, and plates full of spaghetti, fries, rice, kidney beans, spinach and some unknown chunks of meat began arriving. The food was devoured, washed down with Fanta, which is cheaper than bottled water, and we were back on the road.

Our next destination was the market, which, as my students reported in their articles, had more beggars than customers or merchants. I had invited a representative from the UN’s World Food Program to join us, and give an overview of the situation. He said the organization feels there is a severe famine in the area, due to drought, but the Rwandan government refuses to see it that way. Without a request from the government for help, there is nothing the WFP can do, he said.

Even my students, who have no doubt seen their fair share of misery and suffering, were touched by what they found when talking to people in the market. Many said children had already died from hunger. Large crowds gathered and surrounded the students. Speaking all at once, their hands outstretched and dressed in rags, they told their tales as the students madly took notes.

Once back in the bus, we were mobbed by people desperate for even a few francs. I could tell from my students’ faces that this had been an eye-opener for them, and it showed in the articles they later produced. Full of colourful description and quotes, it was clear they’d felt empathy for their fellow Rwandans. And many expressed the hope they could somehow get the message out to the rest of the country; in fact, one later turned the story into a radio piece for the campus station.

In many ways, it was a turning point. The students, who are used to learning only in a stuffy classroom, had picked up first-hand the power of the written and spoken word. It was as if a light had gone on, and they suddenly recognized their potential for having a positive impact on their country.

Exhausted at the end of a grueling day, they still managed to sing all the way home.

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February 23, 2006 — An electrifying lead

Well, it seems we can’t get everything in synch in this house. Tonight we actually have electricity, so I can write to my heart’s content, but our phone has been disconnected, because of non-payment, so I can’t send any e-mail until I get to the university tomorrow.

As usual, I’m not exactly sure what happened. The housekeeper, Annie, said she went to the phone company to get the bill, but they told her someone else picked it up. No idea who that was, nor did the phone company. So we decided we’d go tomorrow to sort it out, but obviously are too late….

It’s been that kind of day. My colleague, Roger Bird, and I caught the 6 a.m. bus for the two-hour trip north to Kigali for our weekly stint at the New Times, where we exchange ideas with journalists and offer a bit of coaching. We walked into their bleak, basement office, only to be met with blank stares from some guy at the front desk. “Can I help you?” he asked, not masking the fact he had no intention of helping us.

I explained we come every week to work with the journalists. He said all the staff were in a general meeting. I told him we’d travelled that morning from Butare and he should go find someone in editorial and tell them we were there.

He sauntered off, and returned two seconds later to say all the staff were in a general meeting. I explained we had been invited by the publisher, like we were every Wednesday, and could he please go find someone in charge. He left and came back to inform us everyone was in a general meeting and could we come back in an hour.

Then someone else showed us to a dark, dingy and hot office with no working computer, and assured us the meeting would be over “very soon.” We decided our time would be better spent in town stocking up on dark chocolate. (There is none in Butare). A full hour later, we returned to find the meeting still in progress. So Roger, sick with a cold, headed across the street to the Novotel in search of a quiet corner to nurse his fever. I sat down on the newspaper’s steps, as a steady stream of people walked past me, and mentioned in passing that there was a general meeting going on, but it should end soon.

Finally, at about 11, it ended and I was allowed in the newsroom. The journalists I had met the week before were extremely apologetic, explaining they’d been in a general meeting, had no idea I’d been waiting and offered me tea.

Then one woman said she was working on a special section about international women’s day and proceeded to interview me. She asked if she could take my picture with my camera (we then downloaded it). The woman working on the children’s page asked if I had photos of my kids, so I pulled out their school pictures. She asked if they could publish them this Friday, then asked me to write a message to go along with them.

The business editor handed me a tape recorder and asked me to listen to an interview he’d done with the minister of energy about a planned gas project up in Lake Kivu, which would possibly solve the constant electricity problem in the country. The minister said he thought it would be done by mid 2007. So I asked the editor what he thought the lead was, and after thinking for what seemed like an eternity, said “The project is going according to plan.”

I told him that if I were a Rwandan, I wouldn’t even know what the plan is, nor would I care. I’d just want to know when the hell I was going to get electricity on a regular basis. (I’m not even a Rwandan, and I want to know this). I suggested the lead could be, “Rwandans won’t have any more blackouts as of the middle of next year, the minister of energy promised this week.” Simple, and to the point.

The editor looked at me for a long moment, then said, “That is brilliant.”

I’ve often been told here that Rwandans often tell you what they think you want to hear. Perhaps. But this was a heck of a lot better than hearing about a general meeting – again.

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February 23, 2006 — 'It’s hard to be a journalist'

I wasn’t completely sure about the wisdom of taking my students, almost all of whom lost relatives in the genocide, to visit a prison where the alleged and convicted killers were doing time.

But I was assured by the director of the journalism school it would be fine and the students were keen to go on a field trip away from the university, regardless of the destination. (They told me that most of their learning consists of an authoritative professor standing menacingly in front of the class, droning on about theories, so a visit to hell would’ve been welcomed).

So after brainstorming about what questions we’d ask the prisoners, guards and administration, we piled into a mini-bus taxi, with students sitting on others’ knees, and headed off singing to the prison located at one end of town. CBC television reporter David McGuffin, who is based in Nairobi, tagged along, as he was working on a story about Rwanda Initiative and what we Canadians were doing.

As soon as we arrived at the gates of the red-brick building, the director, dressed in a rumpled green suit and speaking on his cell phone, approached on foot from a different direction. He said he’d been warned of our visit, then immediately eyed the CBC camera and insisted that nothing be filmed – a good first lesson for our students in the art of negotiating footage. Once he was assured of our motives, we set off on our tour with guard Olivier keeping close tabs on us.

We came across hundreds of male prisoners, all dressed in pink pyjama-like short-sleeved shirts and shorts, which varied from crisply ironed, to torn and faded. There are about 10,000 here in all, 365 of them women. And almost all have been found guilty in the local community courts, called gacaccas, or are still awaiting trial on charges of genocide. These aren’t the organizers behind the 1994 slaughter of close to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus – they are being tried in the International Criminal Court of Rwanda in Tanzania. Rather, these were the underlings, who carried out the orders in the rampage that lasted 100 days.
My class was concentrating on those who worked in the prison farm – a vast operation of fish ponds, cattle and crops that stretches across a vibrant green valley below the prison building. About 1,000 prisoners, mainly those with degrees in agronomy and animal science, are chosen to work on the farm. Their produce is sold at local markets in Butare, with the proceeds going to the government department in charge of prisons. In return for their 10-hour days, seven days a week, the prisoners receive soap and sugar.

Although I couldn’t understand the questions they were asking the prisoners (they were all in Kinyrwanda), I could see the students were keen to talk to them, with small groups gathering around one inmate at a time. I was thrilled. They were enthusiastic and were, I imagined, getting great stories with lots of details about these guys’ personal lives. I couldn’t wait till they wrote them, so I could read about these sinister individuals.

But when I asked for a synopsis of what kind of information they were getting, I was disappointed. No one had asked what to me, at least, was the most important question – why was each prisoner here? What had he done? When I asked the students why they hadn’t asked, they said they didn’t want to shame the prisoners by posing what they thought was a personal question. I explained that was part of being a journalist. Sometimes we had to ask difficult questions, and if the person chose not to answer, fine. But we have to ask. (Later, reading their stories, I learned a couple of things: 1) it wasn’t going to be easy to get across this point of asking tough questions, and 2) for all the talk of openness and reconcilation here about the past, there is still an awful lot hidden below the surface.

Almost all the articles the students wrote didn’t even mention the genocide. Very few talked about the prisoners themselves.

Instead, they focused on how much milk the cows produced, what kind of fish grew in the ponds, and lots of blather from the director. (In my mind, they had missed the story completely).

As the morning went on, some, to their credit, hesitantly posed the taboo personal question, and in most cases, got the answer “I don’t know why I’m here. I didn’t do anything.” But that quote didn’t appear in one article.

At the end of the morning, our guard/guide, Olivier, insisted on viewing the footage CBC had shot. The cameraman, a Rwandan, did some pretty slick negotiating and manoeveuring so they got out of there with tape intact. As my students watched what at times was a heated back and forth, some shook their heads, and said, “It’s hard to be a journalist. No one wants to give you information.”

Right, but all the more reason to become one.

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February 22, 2006 — A visit to the New Times

The sun was just rising to a cacophony of bird calls when the Volcano bus pulled off to the side of the road and I climbed in. The radio speakers blared out a mix of news in Kinyarwanda, great East African tunes, and static — perfect background noise for the two-hour colourful, and at times, hair-raising, trip to the capital, Kigali.

Before long, I had a seven-month-old baby (I guessed three months) in my lap, and was talking with the two passengers sitting behind me, who insisted on an early-morning language lesson in Kinyarwanda.

By the time we pulled into Kigali, I had mastered the phrase, "Kinyarwanda is very difficult."

I headed off to the New Times, an English-language newspaper located in a dark and dingy basement of an insurance office. My colleague, Roger Bird, and I had been asked by the publisher, a very bright, 27-year-old Rwandan, who has studied and practised journalism in Delhi, Cardiff and Hamburg, to do some coaching with his staff. Most haven't had any professional training, and it shows in the final product.

I asked one of the editors to maybe just announce that I was at everyone's disposal, and if they'd like me to give them some suggestions, I would be happy to. The last thing I wanted was to look like some know-it-all white person waltzing in to tell them how to do their jobs.

But it seems there is no such thing as a casual announcement here, so the next thing I knew, all the journalists were dragging chairs to the middle of the room, and placing them in class-room like rows. They sat, notebooks and pens in hand, staring expectantly at me.

So I did a brief introduction of myself, being sure to focus on my marital status (married) and number of children (two), since those are two very important topics in this family-oriented society. They wanted to see pictures, which, of course, I'd forgotten in Butare in my early morning rush to catch the bus. Next week, I promised.

Then the discussion turned to journalism. "What do you do if you're intimidated by people for something you wrote?" one wanted to know.

I explained that intimidation in Canada usually came in the form of very strongly worded e-mails, which can cause a chill, but nothing like an armed person coming to your door, perhaps. I told them the story about Journal de Montreal journalist Michel Auger being shot several times after writing pieces about the Hell's Angels, and said that was the most serious incident of intimidation I'd ever heard of in Canada. Their faces remained expressionless, unimpressed by a clearly ho-hum journalist survival story. (By comparison, about 48 journalists were killed here during the genocide, and many more fled).

But when I asked them what would happen if they were to write critical, well-researched and balanced pieces, none of them could tell me. The publisher agreed that there is a lot of self-censorship going on at the paper, which will change slowly. But there is no doubt that there is a long way to go in terms of training, and education.

The public, said one staffer, simply doesn't understand the role of the media, given that radio and print media encouraged Hutus to slaughter the Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. As a result, there isn't a lot of trust in the media right now, and people tend to fear talking to journalists. Some even demand money in return for an interview.

Then one reporter asked if it would be ethical to remove your byline from a sensitive story, in order to protect your identity, and thus, your life. It's something I'd never even considered doing, because it simply wouldn't be necessary in Canada, we enjoy such freedom and protection. They seemed a bit surprised when I explained that journalists in Canada usually only remove their bylines as a form of protest – if they are unhappy with an editing job, or as a form of labour pressure tactics.

Eventually, the classroom setting broke up, and journalists returned to their writing (they share a handful of computers). I spent the rest of the morning looking over their shoulders and helped edit at least two stories about Valentines Day (this was the day after the event, for publication the following weekend).

Later, while having lunch with the publisher, he explained that a big advertiser had said they'd buy space in the paper, if it was written into the contract that the New Times wouldn't write anything negative about the company. The publisher replied that that couldn't be done, but if they were to write anything critical, they'd certainly call the company for comment. The company wanted that written into the contract. The publisher refused, knowing full well he could lose an important source of revenue.

He eventually sealed the deal, but it was indicative of the kind of uphill battle the media face here.

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February 20, 2006 — One person's story

The beauty of teaching here in February, as opposed to Canada, is I can take the students outside, sit in the shade of a huge tree, and brainstorm as a soft breeze keeps us cool.

What a way to get the creative juices flowing.

The students here can be extremely shy and reserved – expecially the women – but once they get going, they’re filled with some wonderful ideas.

The day’s assignment was to find some good stories in this sleepy town of Butare, and before long, the group had compiled a list of 14 possibilities, as well as the stakeholders to be interviewed for each.

My students then broke into pairs and chose one idea and set off to find an interesting angle. What struck me, though, is that the ideas they chose to follow up weren’t the ones I would have chosen. For example, I thought it would be interesting to go to the hospital and find out what the situation is with malaria since I am forever running into people who have it. More people die of it here than AIDS, which is shocking when you consider how preventable it is. I wondered what, if anything, is being done here in terms of prevention, And if the answer is “not much,” the question then becomes why not?

But one person’s story idea is another’s everyday life, I suppose, because not one student chose to do it. Instead, they opted for things like the working conditions of mini-bus taxi drivers, the growing popularity on campus of weightlifting, and a feature about a fruit processing business that can’t keep up with the demand from Europe for its organic products.

This was the first practical experience the students had ever had. Much of the education here consists of sitting in a classroom, listening to a professor drone on about theory (according to at least one student). That, of course, is no way to teach journalism, which one learns simply by doing over and over again. So they were pretty excited about playing reporter. One even borrowed my camera to help illustrate his story, so I now have more pictures of motorcycle taxis than I’ll ever need.

And they came back with some fabulous angles. The weightlifting story focused on how women are now taking up the sport, which is fascinating, given that women are largely still seen and not heard here. The students covering the taxi drivers discovered that the police are fining them massive amounts for picking up passengers at unauthorized stops.

The drivers complained that the official stops are too far apart, meaning they end up driving long distances with empty seats, which amounts to lost revenue. What was fishy about the whole thing is that the police are also in charge of determining and marking the stops. The students also discovered that if a passenger loses his or her bag on the bus, the driver has to compensate him or her, according to list of belongings supplied by the passenger. Needless to say, they end up not earning much at the end of the day.

The students spoke to the drivers, their union, and passengers. They also approached the police for their version of the story, but were stonewalled. (I told them the exact same thing happens to me all the time in Montreal).

But I told them not to worry about it. People are forever refusing to comment on things in hopes that you won’t do the story without their input, I explained. All you have to do is say they refused to comment and you’re covered.

My students weren’t so sure about that. They didn’t want to write anything that would upset the police - and this was just an exercise, not even for publication! They sort of backed into the story, skirting around the fact that the drivers felt harrassed by police.

When I suggested that should be the lead, they were very nervous about saying the police were making anyone’s life miserable. I tried to explain that they weren’t the ones saying this, the drivers were, and it was OK to report that. They were still skeptical.

It illustrated one of the biggest hurdles the media have to overcome here. I think there is a lot of self-censorship, which clearly stems from a violent history during which people were killed simply for who they were, let alone what they said.

My students can recite chapter and verse about the role of the media, how a free press is the cornerstone of democracy, how they want to improve reporting and access to information in their country, which is slowly emerging from its past. But in practice, the situation is much more complex and difficult. It’s going to take some courageous journalists to push the envelope ever so slightly, and see what the fallout will be. Perhaps there will be no serious consquences, prompting others to follow suit.

Petit à petit, as they are so fond of saying here. Little by little.

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February 14, 2006 — Memorial

Rain has finally started to fall here, making Rwandans wonder if they will finally get relief from the drought that is choking the country and causing food prices to climb.

Every afternoon, low-lying dark clouds move in and the temperature drops, then the downpour begins.

On one of these dreary and slightly depressing afternoons, Sylvia and I visited one of the country’s most hauntingly powerful genocide memorials. We pulled off the road at Murambi, and saw the technical school perched on a hill off in the distance. In that very building and on its surroundings 12 years ago, some 50,000 Rwandans took refuge, hoping their lives would be saved from the vicious interahamwe. Instead, grenades were lobbed through the windows of 64 rooms crammed with terrified people. The mutlilated bodies were then pitched into mass graves.

I wasn’t prepared for what I would see when the caretaker of the site turned the key in the lock and swung open the door. There, spread lovingly on low-lying wooden slates were the skeletons of the brutally murdered, exhumed and preserved for the world to see. The caretaker, whose wife and five children had been slaughtered, opened room after room full of plaster-like figures, their horrified expressions frozen in time on cracked skulls. One held both hands clasped together in front of her face, as if in prayer. A tiny figure of a baby still wore a medallion of the Virgin Mary on a tiny piece of string around its neck. An adult figure wore a wedding band. Soft black tufts of hair clung to some skulls. Legs were missing feet.

For the first time since arriving here, the enormity of the genocide hit me and the tears came. My students have all been affected in some way by the genocide – either forced to flee or having lost many relatives, including parents and siblings. And while their stories have touched me, they are somehow easier to digest individually, than to view this extraordinary number of bodies captured in such an obvious state of terror.

In another room, filthy rags that were once the clothes of the victims (the interahamwe took anything that was of any worth) hung on six clothes lines in a cavernous, cement room. I wondered how many survivors had searched through them, desperate for a sign of a missing relative.

What astounds me now, is the ability of humans to move beyond this evil period of history. People, at least on the surface, appear to be happy and living in peace and are genuinely hopeful for the future. But every once in awhile, a hint of the damage leaks through. The local man accompanying us on our visit to the memorial, for example, reeked of alcohol but didn’t appear drunk. Yet there was something vacant about him, as if some part of him had shut down. It’s a wonder there isn’t an entire population just like him.

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February 13, 2006 — Forest of ghosts

Groggy after just a few hours sleep (we’d hosted a party for our students the night before), Sylvia and I climbed out of bed at 5 a.m. Sunday, threw raincoats, water and a few snacks into a backpack and headed off to Nyungwe Forest National Park with our driver Ibrahim.

The two-hour drive was stunning, along a winding road with views of terraced hillsides and deep green tea plants. We saw the usual array of people, including little kids, transporting everything from tables to massive sacs of tea on their heads. At one point, we passed a transport truck, actually, more like a tangle of trees and metal, off the side of the road. A teenager walking nearby explained that the accident had claimed the lives of three people and seriously injured one. I wondered who would even have rescued the survivor, and once rescued, where would he or she be taken for care and how? There are hardly any vehicles here, let alone an ambulance.

As soon as we entered the park – a protected rainforest of 1,012 square kilometres - we saw mountain monkeys and a golden cat, something resembling a cross between a lynx and a leopard.

Our guide, Yedaste Mpakami, was a 30-year-old father of two, who has worked in the park – one of the oldest forests in Africa - for the past six years. The three of us headed out together, along a well-marked path and it soon became clear to Sylvia and I that we could’ve easily done the five-hour hike on our own. But jobs are so scarce in this country, that there tends to be many “job-creation” and “money-generating” initiatives, such as guides in parks. Still, we enjoyed Mpakami’s company, and he told us a lot about the vast range of birds, wildlife, flowers and trees in the forest. We could hear the chimpanzees chatting madly to one another, but weren’t lucky enough to see them through the thick foilage.

Mpakami explained that before the poachers wiped out all the elephants (the last corpse was found in 1999) a particular plant was kept in check by the massive mammals. But lately, with no animals to eat it, it has been choking out other trees, leading researchers to conclude it’s time to reintroduce elepants into the park. They are now looking into whether the elephants are compatible with the climate and if it’s possible for them to thrive in the forest.

At times during the nine-kilometre walk, there were heavy downpours, and afterwards, the mist would move into the valleys, the mountain tips peaking out through it. Majestic mahogany trees, estimated to be about 100 years old, reached straight up to the sky. It’s an exceptionally peaceful place, with a symphony of insect, bird and monkey calls.

In a way, it’s the perfect job for a man dealing with his demons from the genocide.

Mpakami was just 19 when the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus began in 1994. His entire family (five kids, the youngest being 3) were sheltered a church throughout the entire three-month killing spree. He said there were about 1,000 other people who had sought refuge in the same building. But at one point, those carrying out the genocide took Mpakami’s father, and in front of the entire family, cut his throat with a machete. Mpakami said he still wakes up once in a while from nightmares in which he revisits the horror. Now, he hikes almost daily through a place that was also a refuge for many Rwandans, who managed to survive for days on whatever they could scrounge from the forest.

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February 13, 2005 — A Valentines blackout

The electricity gods, it seemed, were against us.

My colleague, Sylvia, and I had invited our students to our house for a Saturday night party, which we billed as a St. Valentine’s Day celebration. We had gone to our local supermarket (run, oddly enough, by two brothers from Lebanon, Omer and Tarek) to order samosas, mini pizzas and meatballs, then visited the local florist for a bouquet of pink, red and white flowers. The florist, it turned out, consisted of a bamboo hut in the middle of a field of beautiful and diverse flowers, including Bird of Paradise. We’d brought our own vase, and two people diligently worked for about 45 minutes, putting together the most wonderful arrangement. We found some interesting wrapping paper to use as a table cloth – silver, covered with hearts and these greetings: “White Animal. You my goodfriend (sic) I wanf (sic) forever with you.” And: “I love you. My little friend is my best gift, the angel gave to me and I love him.”

Pink and red heart-shaped chocolates brought from Canada rounded out the theme. The first guest arrived promptly at the appointed time, 7 p.m. But no sooner had we poured him a drink, than the electricity went out. And the guests just kept on arriving.

Sylvia and I looked at each other and panicked – now what? What’s a party without music? We handled the darkness situation with candles, but the party was pretty quiet without tunes.

Suddenly, Hamsa, the technician from the journalism school, disappeared and returned with a cassette deck from a car, and a handful of tapes. He quickly rigged up a sound system, using a student’s speakers (we had borrowed her stereo for the party), our power pack, which had been bought at Canadian Tire and lugged here from Ottawa by colleagues Roger and Ann, and the car cassette player. Before long, Ugandan, Congolese and Rwandan tunes filled the garden (everyone stayed outside under the full moon) and the dancing took off.

Once in a while, the music would stop mid-song, and I’d see an undeterred Hamsa calmly rethreading wayward tape back into the cassette. To fill the musical void, the students simply started clapping and singing a cappella. And the dancing never stopped.

It was just another example of the improvisation skills that I’ve seen over and over here. I think if we had’ve been in Canada, the party, without electricity, would simply have fizzled out.

At about 11 p.m., some students grew concerned that Sylvia and I, who had planned to go hiking the following morning, might be getting tired. They advised us to set a time to end the party, otherwise the dancing would very likely continue until dawn. So we suggested midnight, then promptly lost track of time. But our students, at one minute to midnight, told us it was time to go. One made a short speech, thanking us and welcoming me to the country (since I was the latest Canadian arrival). One by one, they hugged us and left.

Then our empty, quiet house lit up suddenly with electrically powered lights.

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February 10, 2006 — Sticking to the program

I learned this morning that there is a phrase in Kiryrwandan which means “Whites stick to the program.” (They also only have words for one child and two children, after that, it becomes a generic “many children.”)

I’d shown up at the local pool after promising a group of Rwandans I met while swimming the previous day that I’d return to give them a lesson. Pascal, the maintenance guy/ lifeguard, who had witnessed the whole exchange the day before, smiled at me – the only person in the pool - and said something in Kriyrwandan. Then he translated.

“The white people always stick to the program,” he said, pointing to an imaginary watch on his wrist. “You said you’d be here at 10, and here you are, at 10.

“But when a Rwandan says 10, he might come at 11 or maybe 1.”

I suppose there are advantages to that outlook on life – lower stress levels and fewer heart attacks, for example. Plus, I ended up with the whole pool to myself.

As a write this, some fabulous African music is wafting through the window, coming from a neighbour’s house, or maybe the street. It’s the end of another week – my first teaching at the university and it has been an exercise in thinking outside the box.

Our classroom, which we found booked on our first day, miraculously became available the next day. The teacher who I’d found using it on Day One, despite my name on the schedule, explained casually that he’d needed it that one day only. We were free to use it for the next few weeks, he said. Great, but why didn’t he tell me that in the first place? One never really knows.

But at least I now have a classroom of almost enough working computers for 25 students. We’ve divided the class in two, with my colleague, Roger Bird taking half. Our biggest challenge is to get them to pay attention to us, rather than surf the net, check e-mail and download music, which may be far more interesting than listening to two umuzungu talk about journalism, but not conducive to learning.

I’ve been struck by my students’ enormous computer knowledge, and they laugh at my total incompetence at mastering anything technological. (I had to ask one how to use my cell phone). In the end I’m sure I’ll be learning more from them on the computers, than they learn from me about journalism. What’s striking is the contrast between many of the students’ home life – remote villages where electricity is hit and miss – and their university life, where they are on line, performing technological tasks with great ease.

Their first assignment was to divide up into pairs, interview one another, then write a profile. They spent three hours in front of the computers, diligently banging out their stories, struggling with the English, which for most, is a third language. When I suggested half way through that we take a break and go for coffee, no one wanted to. They plugged away, asking me for advice, helping each other, and, as far as I know, not one gave in to the temptation to surf the net.

They e-mailed me the results, which, while perhaps not Pulitzer Prize winning pieces, earned As for effort. My students are so eager to rebuild the media here – media that was not only complicit in inciting the genocide, but was decimated as journalists were killed or fled the country. They recognize that a free press is the cornerstone of democracy, and without it, Rwanda’s future is bleak.

Most have ambitions to work in radio because that’s the main source of information in the country. Many already have jobs at the campus station, Radio Salus, so getting them interested in print is a bit of a challenge. Still, they take a lot of notes (Thank you Montreal Gazette, for donating 100 notebooks and 200 pens! And Thank you, KLM, for not charging me extra baggage to get them here) and listen intently.

What I learned from their profiles and from speaking with them, is they’re all in their 20s and almost all lost relatives in the 1994 genocide. They like to drink milk, and not beer, (at least that’s what they say), are religious, and very romantic. Here’s a graph from one student’s profile:

For him, journalism is the best. He likes reporting radio stories, presenting radio bulletins and writing news stories in newspapers. When he is not working, Julien has the habit of composing small poems and songs which he may recite and sing for young slender girls in his spare time.

I can hardly wait for the results of the next assignment, which was to break into pairs, then head into town and find a story. But before heading out, we brainstormed about where we could go to find stories and the students came up with an impressive list. But the stories I found most interesting, like visit a hospital to find out the malaria situation, or what’s going on with AIDS education here, weren’t the ones my students chose. They opted for things like a profile of the artists co-operative, a story about the motorcycle taxis, a trip to the market. It’s all about perspective, I guess.

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February 7, 2006 — First day jitters

I am here, and already short an earring.

My colleagues, Sylvia, Roger, Ann, and I decided to head north for the weekend to beautiful Lake Kivu, which resembles the Kawarthas in Ontario but not quite as rocky. The islands are scruffy looking hills, dotted with huts and garden plots and the water is a faint turqoise. During a morning hike, we came across a group of fishermen — likely the same ones we heard singing out on the water the night before — who were washing out their clothes and starting to prepare breakfast. Like most of the people I've come across here, they were immediately friendly and curious, yelling "mizungu!", the word for white person. They hammed it up for our digital cameras, and cracked up over the images. Then one of them pointed out the single hole in his ear, then pointed to my silver earrings. After giving one up, I figured I might as well donate the other as well, but no one else had a pierced ear. So now I share a set of earrings with some young fisherman on the shores of Lake Kivu.

It was a pleasant introduction to Rwanda, after having arrived on Friday afternoon via Amsterdam and Nairobi. Saturday morning, we piled into a vehicle driven by a young Rwandan named Frank and headed north on the well paved (Quebec could take a lesson from this place) but winding road. We took in the awesome views of lush, green hills, and passed countless Rwandans carrying everything from cases of Fanta bottles to huge sacks of potatoes on their heads. Even little children carried what must have been double (or more) their own weight in wood, water or bananas. I can barely get my own kids to carry their knapsacks to the school bus!

There were also scores of bicycles, barrelling a full speed down the hills with passenger(s) sitting lightly on the back, or being pushed, fully loaded with goods, uphill.

We stayed in a Pentecostal retreat, which really had nothing to do with religion, other than the heavenly view. We looked out over the lake, and didn't hear one jet ski or motor boat. The only sound coming across the water were the grunts of the fishermen rowing their large dugouts across the lake, and their singing. Their lamps flickered on the water, in an otherwise pitch-black night.

I couldn't help but hope developers never get their hands on this place.

On Sunday we decided to go to the Catholic church, which was billed as one of the more peaceful, meditative memorials of the genocide. Many Rwandans were massacred after taking refuge in churches around the country, and yet, many of the survivors continue to have a deep faith in God. The large, stone building overlooks the lake, and the congregation sit on low, narrow benches. As light poured through the yellow, green, red and blue stained windows — which aren't of religious icons, but rather plain circles — the choir broke into traditional song, keeping the beat to clapping and a drum. I have no idea what the priest was saying, but he managed to make the congregation laugh a few times. I looked around the crowd and noticed they were mostly young — perhaps under the age of 30. I examined each face, wondering what their story was. Outside, there is a fenced-in, somewhat neglected garden, and at the end of it are the skulls and bones of genocide victims displayed behind glass. How many belonged to those sitting and singing inside the church now?

***

I started teaching my first class today (Tuesday) sort of by accident. There were no classes yesterday due to elections and today I was in our office, when the phone rang and Sylvia said my students were waiting for me in a classroom. I hadn't even met the director of the school yet, and wasn't quite prepared to jump in feet first, but I headed over to the class anyway. It was a cavernous, dark room, so I immediately took the students outside and asked them to take me to a nice spot where we could sit and talk. We headed to the nearby arboritum, and plunked ourselves down in the cool shade. They immediately wanted to know if I was married and did I have any children. Those questions led to a lively discussion about marriage and at what age Canadians tie the knot. They were a bit surprised to learn that Quebecers tend not to marry, and just live together. (We haven't even got to the same-sex debate yet!)

After showing them pictures of my kids decked out in snow gear standing at the top of a ski hill, I divided them into pairs and asked them to interview one another for an hour and we'd meet up in the cafeteria. Having coffee and tea is bit more of a production than ducking into Starbucks for a double double latte latte, so about an hour after sitting down in the caf, we headed off to find computers on which they could write their profiles.

Unfortunately, the only room with computers was taken by a computer science class. So after a bit more chit chat, the students went home, agreeing to return tomorrow morning when we have been promised the computers. We'll see if that actually happens.

They are all very nice and very keen to learn, but sadly, the university lacks the resources to teach properly. So my colleague Roger and I have devised a plan where we'll have two students at a time use our computers while one of us teaches the others about things like what makes a news story? How to use description. How to write a lede. We also plan to take them on several field trips so they can get some hands-on experience interviewing people — something most have never had. One trip involves a visit to a farm where those convicted in connection with the genocide are working. We also want to sit in on one of the community courts now underway to persecute "genocidaires." As I've often said since agreeing to take on this job, I'm bound to learn more than I'm able to teach my students.

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Postings

February 5, 2007 —
Keeper of the bones

January 31, 2007 —
Let us pray, part II

January 31, 2007 —
Let us pray...

January 30, 2007 —
Please send chocolate

January 29, 2007 —
Story telling

January 29, 2007 —
Can't see the forest for the fees

January 27, 2007 —
Bad hair days

January 25, 2007 —
Running for his life

January 22, 2007 —
To catch a thief

January 19, 2007 —
Exorcising the demons

January 17, 2007 —
Classes? What classes?

January 13, 2007 —
Nothing is simple

January 12, 2007 —
The Umuzungu strikes again

February 28, 2006 —
Gorillas in the hail

February 28, 2006 —
Field trip royale

February 23, 2006 —
An electrifying lead

February 23, 2006 —
'It’s hard to be a journalist'

February 22, 2006 —
A visit to the New Times

February 20, 2006 —
One person's story

February 14, 2006 — Memorial

February 13, 2006 — Forest of ghosts

February 13, 2006 —
A Valentines blackout

February 10, 2006 —
Sticking to the program

February 7, 2006 — First day jitters

 

 

 

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