Sylvia Thomson's Notes From the Field
March 20, 2006 —
A drive in the country
His name was Veronique but now it’s
Just as I am getting used to Rwanda I realize
the surprises just keep on coming.
Today I was out for a long drive, far off the
main paved road, into the countryside, south of Butare. Solange
and Nicolas were filming a doc about Bernard, an old man –
how old I don’t know, neither did he, although he knows
he was born in the time of Hitler because he heard people
talking about him…that’s the way it goes here…born
in a certain historical period…not too precise. Anyway,
Bernard was run out of the country in 1959 along with many
other Tutsis, whose neighbours wanted them dead. He left on
foot, in the middle of the night, when he was probably around
20 years old with his family. He walked all the way to Burundi.
His and his father’s house were later burned.
He lived there until 1994 when he came back
to resettle at home. Only, home was no longer home. Because
he left the land his father owned and because the house was
burned down, the government took the land for its own. Unless
you had a house or other identifiable structure on your land
you can not reclaim it. Also he had been away too long to
reclaim it. So, when he came back he was moved into a new
community built by some wing of the Rotary club. He can still
work the land but its not his land, he works on a communal
farm owned by someone else.
My students are doing a doc about his life,
his (useless) dream of getting his land back. So they decided
to take Bernard (with his 12-year-old-hat with “seahorse”
written on the ribbon around the brim...so oddly common here)
back to “his” land.
Once we got off the main road to Burundi, we
drove and drove and drove. I am amazed the taxi man kept driving
his little white car. I would have insisted it was too hard
on the vehicule. We crossed wooden bridges I might not have
walked over. We drove over ditches and through huge puddles
and over crevasses and huge rocks in the road. Finally Bernard
told the taxi to pull over. We got out of the car and walked
and walked up a hill dodging cattle with huge pointed and
elegant horns. He greeted people at some of the dung or red
dirt houses. He knew these people, here in the middle of nowhere,
nestled on the side of a stunning hill overlooking a spectacular
valley with a river running through it. The air was crisp.
It was like paradise. A poor paradise.
We got to his land. He stopped. Looked over
it and started telling his story to Nicolas and Solange. He
pointed to the banana trees where his dad’s house used
to stand and to the field of low growth where his house was.
He pointed to the terrasses below – land he says he
owned where he grew onions. People came by to greet him. He
said he would greet everyone nicely but he knew these were
the same people who wanted him dead back in 1959. Indeed,
many of the men came out of nowhere wearing hats, suit jackets
and canes and looked about his age. He too was wearing a hat
and perhaps his best navy, ironed dress pants and proper shoes
and a blazer to go with his sea horse hat.
All his brothers and sisters were killed in
the genocide. He and his wife came back in 1994 to resettle,
reclaim their land but they found the law wasn’t on
their side and they were, instead, given a Rotary club house.
Meanwhile kids and young popped out of nowhere
to look at me and ask me to take their photos while they danced,
posed, held a baby to a very young yet already drooping breast.
Then we headed back down the hill to the taxi
and took a “shortcut” home. Bernard knew the dirt
road back to Butare. No one else in the car had ever been
on any of the roads. At one point we passed a massive Catholic,
red brick seminary, literally in the middle of nowhere and
I was reminded of how much property the Catholic church owns
in this country.
Then we passed a man on the dirt road and Bernard
yelled out something in Kinyarwanda. Then he turned in the
car and started telling Solange and Nicolas the story of the
man we had just passed.
He was born a she, born Veronique. Later in
life she changed into a man, Vincent. He had both sexes apparently
and was the father of around 30 children by different women.
March 9, 2006
— Two per bed
I began teaching a new class yesterday
to the fourth year students. Only seven of them showed up.
Several things might have kept the missing two away:
it was the first class, it was Wednesday so Gacaca was on,
and some other mysterious thing could have kept Sixbert and
Edouard away. I know these students already, from Allan having
them over on my second day in the country. They are a great
group that seems to get along very well, dance well and have
lots of fun.
I launched them into the idea that they will
make reality TV documentaries, following one person through
a day or two, a person whose life is interesting in some way
but who also tells some kind of larger story. This was the
bright idea of an old journalism school classmate of mine
who answered my email question about how I could possibly
get the students to put together their own 15 minute documentary
in a three-week course. We shall see how it pans out.
We watched a documentary about James Orbinsky's
return to Rwanda on the 10th anniversary as a very good example
of following someone doing something interesting. Then we
called it a day.
Four of the students: Egide, Leon, Solange and
Nicolas took me around for an impromptu tour of campus. They
showed me the girls dorm, Viet (named after the country as
it was built during the war between US and Viet Nam), and
pointed out the room where Nicolas and Solange first "met."
Then we went over to Egide's room where we took a bunch of
photos with all of us sitting on his tiny bed which he shares
with Sixbert (I still find it hard to imagine two of them
sleeping in the same tiny, single bed), especially since Egide
is built like a football player. There were two, nearly identical
boom boxes in the room and Bob Marley and Che Guevera posters
on the wall — some things are the same everywhere.
Then we visited Leon and Charles' single room.
They sleep together as well.
We went to Diane's room, she also shares a bed
with a journalism student, Providence.
After the tour of the dorms, Viet, Cambodge
and Titanic (where there are six in bunks per room and condoms
in the washroom), we went over to the faculty of medicine
to watch a concert by a pianist woman from Vancouver who played
a lot of classical and some jazz and a couple of pieces accompanied
by Rwanda drummers. These last pieces were the best received.
March 7, 2006
"Have a safe journey," a few
of my students said, when I told them I was going to Kibungo.
It was as though 'going to Kibungo' were a large
and unchartered journey. Perhaps it is to them.
Or perhaps it's just that people are more conscious
and concerned about each other's trips here than at home.
Or a final option: they were concerned because
of the reputation of Kibungo. You can't double cross a girl
from Kibungo, legend goes, or you might wake up to find yourself
in a tree. Kibungo is the "magic" place in Rwanda
which I gather means that more kinds of witchcraft, voodoo
or what-have-you happens there. A couple of the third year
students are from there. Their classmates tease them that
they don't travel by bus or airplane but rather by some kind
of magic flight. These are the first stories I've heard about
magic — other than the stories from Congo where there
are "urban legends" of humans transformed into cats
and dogs who talk, people who buy and sell thunder and others
who are cured of illness from a long distance.
I was going to do a "needs assessment"
of a small community radio station, Radio Izuba, for Journalists
for Human Rights.
It was my first solo trip in the country so
I had lots of time for my own thoughts.
I took the Volcano, which I am becoming increasingly
fond of for its punctuality and comfort. The only downside
is that sometimes, still, the music is too loud. Today, the
song, Poor Black John, came across the radio. I like the tune
but the lyrics, translated and sung in Kinyarwanda (except
for the refrain 'Poor Black John') are ironic.
As we headed out of town two guys on a motorbike
zipped ahead of us. The man on the back waved his arm at the
bus driver who then pulled over. He jumped off the bike, sweating,
and hopped onto the bus with his ticket. This is what happens
with the punctual Volcano — often.
A white pick up drove past. It had a big, wood
cross sticking up behind the cab. Six people sat on the sides,
in the back, with a coffin, lying draped in purple fabric
in the centre. Purple is the colour of mourning, not black,
here. I was reminded that I was leaving behind the sad stories
of the second year student whose husband just died and the
fourth year student whose little sister had fallen into what
appears to be some kind of religious, psychotic trance. When
I expressed sadness at these stories the reply came, "This
Sitting two seats over was a man with a big
dent in the back of his skull and a long, neat scar running
through it. The man in front of me had six scars on the back
of his neck which looked like raised, long dashes. Every trip
I see people walking along the road on crutches, missing a
leg. There are very evocative, yet healed, wounds everywhere.
The one which sticks most in my head is the beggar in Kigali
who comes around the Volcano looking for money. He sticks
his two arms through the windows, pleading. He has no hands.
Just healed stumps. He is missing one eyeball.
We drive by a semi which obviously ran off the
road by accident. It is bright yellow and perfectly flipped
over onto its back. It's as though a boy were playing with
a yellow toy truck and just dropped it upside down and walked
away. How did it happen? Was anyone hurt? I've seen a number
of trucks which have run off the road in odd looking situations
but I've never seen one so perfectly in tact and completely
flipped on its back.
I made a connection in Kigali and took the time
there to have lunch and hunt down some saline solution (you
can't buy it in Butare). I was walking around town looking
for a pharmacy, ignoring the calls of 'Muzungu!' and 'Sister!'
and occasionally 'She!' (I like this one best), when a man
I passed started talking to me.
"Why are you walking so quickly?"
He had just graduated from University in Butare,
in law, and was looking for a job. He walked me over to a
clinic where I was then pointed to another pharmacy. I walked
there to find they had just sold the last bottle. So they
sent me to another pharmacy which then sent me to an optometrist.
It was 45 minutes later. But, there, sitting on the shelf,
was a lonely bottle. The price, I asked? 20 bucks. For a small
bottle. I said I would shop around, thinking what-the-hell,
'shop around?' That could take hours. But still, I declined
to buy it deciding to take up the hunt the next day, on my
I got on the tiny, bright yellow, Stella bus,
bound for Kibungo. It was midday and hot. The bus was the
size of a minivan and had five rows of seats. We sat four
across. It was not wide enough to fit all our shoulders so
I leant forward and fell asleep on my arms on the back of
the seat in front of me.
As we got close to Kibungo people jumped out
at various stops. Then it was just me and the driver and the
woman in the front seat and I was half way out of the bus
at a stop that looked like it could have been Kibungo, how
was I to know? The driver turned and asked me where I was
going, I'm not sure in what language. I smiled and said Radio
Izuba. He gestured for me to close the door and get back into
the bus. He turned it around, drove for five minutes up a
hill and dropped me right in front of the radio station.
I got off the bus. Was aware I was finally stretching
my legs which had been pressed into the seat in front of me.
Spoke to the secretary. The director, Clement, wasn't there.
He was being sworn in as a new secretary for the district.
I took a little tour of the place. It's really just one studio
in a building which could accommodate more. It's got the latest
computer and editing system. But only one. Everything looks
brand new. USAID stickers on all the gear.
Clement arrived in a big white land rover type
vehicle. He wore pointy black leather shoes, pin stripe pants,
a blue shirt and a short, fat shiny blue tie. He had a big
Nokia cell phone/blackberry type device. And a brand new laptop
in his office.
He was a 33 year old bachelor — something
people in town didn't understand.
We spoke about the radio station at some length.
Most small community radio stations in the country are decentralized
branches of the state owned Radio Rwanda. Radio Izuba, on
the other hand, is a "real community radio," he
said. Radio by and for the people. It organizes 'clubs d'ecoutes'
(listener clubs) to act as link between the community and
the station. It needs more bicycles and radios to set up these
clubs and the 'points d'ecoutes'. It also needs training in
how to use and maintain the equipment as well as in journalism.
None of the journalists there have any professional training.
Some students from the university go there to do their internships.
Then Clement took me to the Umbrella Pine hotel,
reserved by Emmanuel, one of my students who comes from Kibungo.
His uncle, Alfred runs the hotel. It was a mini tropical garden
hotel with bright lights flashing on and off, hanging from
the roof's edge. The clock over the bar was fixed at 11:12.
There was much negotiation between Alfred and Clement. It
seems the rooms were all full. Eventually Alfred gave me a
key to his own room. There was a big, pink-draped bed, a fax
machine, and various posters of Jesus on the walls.
Clement's cell phone rang every five minutes.
People calling to congratulate him on his swearing in? I think,
out of Rwandan politeness, he stayed with me for beer —
he drank Bell, from Uganda – and then fish brochettes
and plantains because I was starving. I told him he didn't
have to stay with me and that I was sorry to hijack his evening
especially the night of his big swearing in. He said it was
no bother and he wasn't Rwandan in that way. He would go in
half an hour.
He spoke about how he went to Uganda as a refugee
in 1959 and then returned in 1995, to the land of milk and
honey, Rwanda. I asked him what it was like to come back afterwards.
He said everyone's scars were fresh then, unlike the healed
over ones I had remarked on, on my bus trip. Some of his sisters
and brothers in Rwanda had been killed. Even his sister who
was married to a prince, and thus thought she would be safe,
was killed. But still he was happy to come "home."
In Uganda he was always treated differently, like a refugee.
At the university which he started, in Butare, in 1995, there
was a lack of teachers. If you can imagine, he told me, some
professors killed their students. And many of the professors
were killed. So the university in 1995 was full of foreign
profs to fill in the gaps.
He stayed with me for three hours.
The next morning hot coffee and cold toast was
waiting for me at a table with a plastic covered giraffe patterned
tablecloth. The server was obviously gay and wore a Celine
Dion T shirt. So we talked a bit about Canada. You can't really
be gay in Rwanda so he left me wondering. It's illegal here
and everyone denies it even exists in any natural way.
I caught the Stella at 9 am and began the long
journey home. I stopped through Kigali, picked up that 20
dollar bottle of saline (people don't wear contacts here),
a bottle of Cinzano, a bar of dark chocolate, capers and some
real bread . . . all from the grocery store beside l'ecole
Belge. All total luxuries which I afforded myself. That along
with lunch at a tiny Indian restaurant, Ice and Spice, which
was amazing on many fronts. It had a large vegetarian menu,
the lassie was awesome, I hadn't had 'ethnic' food since I
arrived here and the spices were very welcome. Plus the candle
the waitress brought over and lit at my little table in the
middle of the day was very cute.
Little things like that keep surprising me,
February 27, 2006 —
Good bye Canadians
My roommates over the past month left,
yesterday, in African style. That is to say, they
thought everything was perfectly planned but then a wrench
was thrown into their plan.
They had organized for a car to pick them up
at 9 am to drive Sue directly to the airport and Roger and
Ann to a hotel (they planned a last day and night in Kigali,
before flying home, the next day).
I hear it didn’t quite work out that way.
By 9:30 am the car hadn’t arrived. At
10:15 I ran into the journalism school director, Jean Pierre
Gatsinzi, at school. He was rushing off to get gas for the
car that was to take them all to the airport. He assured me
he had checked three days in a row to be sure the university
car would be there ready at 9 am for the pickup.
From the story I can patch together from the
driver and Gatsinzi, the promised car never arrived. A pick
up was sent – late and with no gas. And it was raining.
So all the bags in the back would get soaked. Someone ran
off to buy some plastic sheeting to cover the bags. Time was
ticking for Sue’s flight departure.
I hear Roger got mad. And that Sue said something
like “Africa is a constant adventure.” And that
was true to the very end of their stay. You really have to
be able to roll with whatever gets thrown your way to get
along here. There’s no point fighting the seeming disorganization.
The best skill for survival and happiness is adaptability,
making things work when they are broken, finding a second
solution –whatever you call it.
Sue made her flight and Roger and Ann made it
to Kigali, albeit a bit later than they hoped.
I will miss my constant partners. We shared
common experiences and insights over meals, during hilly road
trips, at house parties and while working together in the
computer lab (where we groaned each time the power went out
while the Rwandans sat there, mostly, quietly).
We held a going away party at the house. There
were, of course, many speeches including a tearful goodbye
from Sue. She said she was deeply moved by her students, by
their intelligence and their lively spirit, especially given
the horrible things they had survived in their short lives
and their relative poverty. She said she wished Canadians
could have half the spirit Rwandans have.
Roger and Sue were both given gifts. Roger,
I think, was very touched by the stately, African walking
stick. A very thoughtful gift, I thought, for the elder, PhD,
I would be a bit lonely if it weren’t
for the attention of the students and everyone else who is
concerned about me being alone.
I’m also kind of welcoming the chance
to experience this without other Canadians reinforcing Canadian
ideas and impressions of the place. I’m extending my
stay. Who needs to return to minus 30 wind-chill when there
is so much sun and so much to teach and learn here?
February 25, 2006 —
We barely made the Volcano bus to Kigali.
Volcano, is, I learned from a student’s assignment,
the most efficient, punctual and expensive bus company in
the country. Tickets for the two and a half hour ride cost
Some things here run late:
• the other bus companies.
The tickets we had for the Yahoo bus to Burundi were for 9
am although the bus was to leave at 9 h 30 and eventually
only left after 10h00. It cost five dollars for a cramped,
four and a half hour trip.
• students, who seem
to think class start time is anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes
after the scheduled start.
• and anyone who says they will
be five minutes could really be anywhere from 10
minutes to an hour.
But the Volcano is something you don’t
want to mess with. The two dollar, very comfortable trip to
Kigali leaves on time or leaves you behind.
Sue and I barely made it. The past days have
been nothing short of manic. So much going on at once. But
work was left behind and we were on our way to see a concert
in Kigali and then to the north to visit the gorillas this
I sat beside one of the fourth year students,
Prosper, for part of the ride up. He’s preparing his
“memoire,” the long written assignment the undergrads
complete after their course work is done. His topic? An analysis
of the editorial cartoons that ran in various newspapers leading
up to the genocide.
As I mentioned the past days have been a whirlwind.
I spent time grading final TV reports on the election. As
well as time with Nicolas and Solange, the only declared couple
among the students, to talk about some possible places on
CBC where they could pitch stories. Nicolas is working on
Radio Canada International and Solange on a pitch to CBC’s
The students here have the skills and resources
to put together interesting stories from Rwanda and neighbouring
Burundi, Condo and Uganda, even. I want them to get their
pitches in before I leave, to get the ball rolling.
They can pitch their radio stories to private
and state radio here too but they face some hurdles. When
I suggested one student pitch his story to Radio Rwanda he
said it was impossible, RR would probably ask the student
to pay it to run his story.
Right now the class is working on a special
Business in Butare radio broadcast. Their topics are :
• The motorcycle taxi business.
The small bikes, “the goats,” are competing with
the bigger ones. Both face government regulations which forbid
them from operating on all holidays – there were 10
out of the 28 days of Feb.
• Shema Fruit, the organic
fruit juice and jam company which was founded by Canadian
and Belgium expats as a co-op to help genocide widows associations
(who pick fruit) but then turned into a private business when
the co op failed.
• The business of the Catholic
church. The church has a share in the city market,
gas stations, a micro credit business and much more. This
topic the students didn’t want to tackle, “No
one will talk to you about it….it’s very secretive.”
Sounds like a good story I said. Finally, the class president,
Emmanuel, volunteered. His interview with the local church
has been put off five times.
• The business of traditional
dance. A national dance group works out of the huge
national museum in Butare, and give shows around the world.
Dancers have day jobs doing small jobs at the museum but face
being laid off as the government has announced a 60% cut to
public service (including 415 laid off at the University).
Will the dancers main jobs be cut? Will they survive on the
tiny supplement they are paid for dancing, alone?
• The carpentry business.
Constant electricity outages wreak havoc on the business which
is heavily dependant on electric saws. The business is also
affected by new logging rules and limited wood supply...causing
furniture prices to skyrocket.
We arrived in Kigali at 4 pm to check into the
Beausejour hotel. Sue got into it with the front desk because
they wouldn’t let us sleep in the same bed, instead
charging us more for a room with two single beds that were,
in effect, an inch apart. What if we were married asked Sue?
That’s illegal, here, came the response.
I went out to meet the previous director of
the school of journalism, a young woman, Ines Mpambara, who
did her masters on a Fulbright in Ohio, in development communication.
Roger had told me he thought she was the smartest person he’s
spoken with, in the country.
She now works for the Minister of Health and
is launching public health campaigns like ads encouraging
Rwandans not to shake hands so much…..there’s
much in the way of handholding, shaking, rubbing for various
greetings here. She’s also working on a US grant application
to gets funds to train health beat reporters at various media
outlets. As it stands now, in Rwanda, there are some beat
reporters: environment, reconciliation, and sports. But few
with the health beat. We also spoke about a Bill Gates-funded
project to study the feasibility of creating a sub Saharan
health news service to promote the latest health surveys through
the media. Something I had been talking to the Institute of
Population Health, in Ottawa about, before I left.
Ines had lived in Canada with her family and
decided to return to Rwanda. Her mom was visiting from Montreal
to help her take care of her newborn son. She said Ines is
the only child who decided to return.
We went to the Golden Pen journalism awards
at the brand new Intercontinental Hotel. I felt like the country
mouse gone to the city. Everyone greeted Ines warmly…from
the Minister of Information to heads of news organizations.
There were diplomats, people in suits, canapés
and drinks on silver trays. Hostesses wore white with gold
saris draped over their shoulders. I’m just not sure
how many regular journalists were there. Unfortunately the
speeches were too long and numerous for me to endure so I
I met Solange and Sue at the Franco Rwanda Cultural
Centre for a concert by Sur La Terre, a very popular music
group. Solange was going to do some interviews about the music
and pitch a piece to Global Village about the group and its
funny, modern, and traditional music about having fun and
avoiding AIDS. Solange interviewed Minani, the lead singer
and introduced me to him. Turned out, he said, he had spent
some time in Canada. In Montreal, in fact, he said. Oh, did
you play at the Jazz Fest, I asked. No, came the reply, we
were at Parc Safari for four weeks.
Weird. On many levels.
February 24, 2006 —
Everyone wants something
Does anyone here like me? Or
do people befriend me because, in the end, they want something
from me? When they look at me do they see nothing but dollar
The constant approaches for money have got me
down. Does everyone who asks really need it? Are stories being
made up to get cash from the Muzungu? Is everyone working
I suppose it’s like Allan said in
an email. “Now you know what it must feel like to be
a millionaire here at home.”
February 21, 2006 —
My mom’s doll
Sue and I had a bunch of kid stuff to
give away and a new friend, Leopold, who works a the World
Food Program, found a good place to drop the gifts.
He took us to a section of the Butare hospital
where malnourished kids come, often with their moms, for a
month at a time, to get re-nourished. As there is a draught
and a near famine in parts of the country now, there were
plenty of kids here.
The first thing I noticed were the blond eyelashes.
Then the blond hair. Black kids’ hair loses its pigment
when there aren’t enough vitamins or minerals. Then
I noticed a tiny kid with an iv receptor taped to its forehead.
Leopold explained that the vein in the forehead is the only
one big enough to take the injection in many malnourished
kids…so they get their food that way.
When we arrived trucking a big suitcase on wheels
behind us, the woman started to sit in rows on the benches
in the courtyard, quietly looking forward as though a speech
were about to begin. This I supposed is the custom when white
people arrive with gifts. Leopold jumped into action explaining
in Kinyarwanda that we were from Canada and how Sue had brought
a stack of her kids clothes to give away.
Then we started dishing out the clothes and
toys so that everyone got something. I gave a young boy a
Scooby Doo book which Allan’s son gave him before he
left. To give to a kid in Rwanda. I took a photo of the boy
holding it, to send to Allan.
I had another special gift to give away. My
mom had given me an old doll with a sack full of clothes handmade
by her great aunt. She asked me to give this to a special
girl, here. I found a young girl with a baby strapped to her
back and gave the one foot tall doll to her. There was much
excitement about the doll and the bag of clothes was quickly
being unpacked by many hands. One woman held up a hand knit
wool sweater, in curiousity. I thought they simply liked the
doll but then quickly realized they were picking through the
doll clothes for clothes that would fit their children.
February 19, 2006 —
Sue and I didn’t know what to
do this weekend but decided on a trip to neighbouring, sister-country
Burundi, at the last moment.
We took a five-dollar, crammed Yahoo bus. There
was a live chicken under a woman’s seat in the back.
Thoughts of the first case of bird flu in Rwanda did cross
We weren’t sure exactly what would happen
at the border. Turns out we had to get off the bus and line
up at Rwanda customs to exit the country. Then we walked across
a bridge, past a barrier to a second window where we lined
up to deal the Burundi officials and pay them 20 dollars for
a visa. One woman clearly thought nothing of the lines and
thought she should be first…..so she simply went to
the head of the line and reached her arm over and around us
all to stick her document in the official’s face. Good
thing I have long arms, too. I am getting into the shove-my-way-to-the-front
way of thinking – that, despite rumblings in line behind
us that the Muzungus were going to hold up the process for
everyone on the bus. We didn’t.
Bujumbura looked very run down, like a country
coming out of war – not that I have a clue what that
looks like from any real experience. The UN was everywhere
in its huge white Land Rovers and transport vehicles. It has
so much money. And seemingly, not so much to do. I met one
of the UN soldiers, a short man from Paraguay, in the Havana
night club that night. When I asked him what exactly he did
with the UN he answered, nothing, adding he shouldn’t
be telling that to a journalist. It was interesting to watch
the UN guys at the bar with the young Burundi women. There
is some resent by the Burundi men on this front as they can’t
compete with the coveted UN salaries.
We stayed at a beach resort, Saga Plage, across
from UN HQ. I can only describe it as an African hotel…with
little curtained off salons with low wooden chairs, colourful
embroidered fabrics separating it from bed room…and
TV...Finally!!! I turned it on. The Burundi news cast featured
a woman reading scripts with a beach scene backdrop, including
palm tree. It was on a lake. You could see Congo across the
way. But apparently you aren’t supposed to swim too
far out because there is a crocodile, Mister Gustav, in the
water. We did go swimming on the Monday morning. We were alone
on the beach when suddenly a swarm of students came up to
the shore of the water and started asking us all kinds of
questions. It was surreal.
Other than them I met two men from Zimbabwe
visiting for a football match of CAPS International, on the
club circuit. They were owner and manager. One worked for
or owned Central Africa Pharmaceutical society…hence
the name of the team. They were wearing black, pressed pants,
shirts, shiny belt buckles. We talked a bit about Rwanda and
how beautiful and resorty it is at Lake Kivu, in Kibuye.
I’ve also got to mention our encounter
with Elvis, the taxi driver. He was our driver slash bodyguard
all weekend. He was happier, he said, that I bought him a
loaf of bread one night for his kids and gave him a tiny sack
of homegrown Burundi peanuts than with the 20 dollar tip at
the end of the weekend. I believed him. He wore a very nice
Timberland shirt. Which he bought in Kenya. He tried to explain
the situation with the FNL (front national de liberation)
to me : still armed and occasional uprisings, hence the UN
and the midnight curfew. The UN is good to stop the war, he
said, but bad for stealing all the women away from the Burundi
men. The woman like their money.
February 14, 2006 —
There’s a thin layer of red dust
on everything here but the students keep their sneakers ultra
white. It’s the style, I learned, the hard
way. Yesterday, when I went to grab my running gear my shoes
were nowhere in sight. The housekeeper, Annie, had them in
the washing machine…they had a bit of mud on them from
a hike, on Sunday, in the national forest, in Nyungwe, and
she assumed I would like mine ultra white, as well.
Today when I came home the shoes were dry and
as white as the day they came out of the box. Could she have
used shoe polish on them?
I took them out for run tonight along the red
dirt road — which is now two shades darker and less
dusty because of the rain. It was drizzling so I thought I
might not come across as many people, as many stares. The
looks are friendly and I am getting used to them but still,
it’s nice to be a tiny bit anonymous. Last time I went
for a run in Taba, our neighbourhood, kids were coming home
from school in their royal blue uniforms and there was a constant
stream of “bonjour”s from them. Every now and
then I would come across a white person. A woman from the
UNHCR house walking her dog, another woman in hippy clothes
heading presumably to CARE or one of the other NGO or religion-based
charity houses in this neighbourhood. When I see a white person
my instinct is to say “hi, where are you from? What
are you doing here?” but their instinct is, most often,
to not make eye contact with me and keep on walking. Weird.
Perhaps they have been here a long time.
Sometimes I catch a child’s glance —
usually in a smaller village — and it’s like the
kid has never seen a white person before. There’s a
look of awe. The mom’s usually stop and point me out
to the kids and watch as I walk by. They are stunned.
A boy on a bike tagged along tonight, on the
other side of the divided, bumpy, rocky dirt road. He yelled
“courage, courage,” from time to time, in French.
We split at the main road. On my way back, two school boys
ran alongside me. One limping. Both with school backpacks.
The smaller one said “Comment ca va?” in very
The company was welcome, friendly. I really
am never alone, here. Sometimes when we drive through the
country (with Roger, Ann and Sue) we stop to take pictures
in the middle of nowhere, overlooking a tea plantation or
a spectacular valley, and then a bunch of kids just pop up
over the edge of the road and come running at us, smiling
and laughing….out of nowhere.
It happened this weekend on the way back from
the forest. One kid was wearing only a floor-length sweatshirt
with the way-too-long sleeves pushed up. He had the cutest,
heart-tugging smile. I loved him in a second despite the dirt
on his face and body. Something about him made tears swell
in my eyes. He was so happy and didn’t have any of the
latest gizmos kids at home whine and plead for.
After the forest and the kid stop, we went to,
Marambi, a genocide memorial which houses hundreds of the
bodies from 1994. They lie -- coated in white lime -- on low
racks, in room after room, of sparse, cinder-block buildings.
A few have hair still stuck on their scalps. One held up a
hand with a now too big wedding ring on it. There were babies
and children missing parts of their skulls. Some had no feet.
Many of them look flattened, crushed.
I took photos.
There’s also a building with two clothes
lines ladden with the clothes people wore when they were killed.
There are no fine clothes on the line as they were taken by
the killers. It’s really a clothes line of rags.
Beside the buildings is a huge, deep pit where
the bodies were exhumed. I assume some of the bodies look
so flattened because of the weight of the bodies that were
piled on top of them.
We were guided around the site by two men. Both
seemed drunk. They creeped me out. One answered questions
but never made eye contact. One had what I swear is a bullet
hole in his forehead. When he greeted us he lifted his baseball
cap, exposing it, to say hello. His wife and entire family
was killed in front of him, in 1994.
How do these guys do this job?
Later that night, at home, I cried about the
bodies at the memorial, the photos in my camera.
Still later, when the power went out, Sue and
I plugged her computer into our Canadian Tire battery pack,
by candle light. We downloaded the photos of the day : the
forest, the cute boy in the long sweatshirt and the shots
Perhaps because of the weak power supply the
photos popped up on her computer in jumbled order. The boy
with the knock-out smile came up right in the middle of the
Marambi shots, in fact, right beside a shot of a dead, lime-covered
baby, lying on a rack.
I went to bed troubled that night.
February 10, 2006 —
Road trip to Kigali
“Is there press freedom in Rwanda?”
“Is there access to information?”
My student, Jean Claude, peppered one of the
journalists we met in Kigali.
We made the trip to visit an international TV
production house, the government-backed Radio Rwanda and the
private City Radio.
The journalist explained his answers.
He had recently produced a story about a cholera
outbreak. He described the steps he took to cover. To begin,
he called the authority, the Minister of Health. He asked
for information and numbers of people affected. He was shut
down from the start -- given no information; the Minister
refused, completely, to talk to journalists. So he visited
the affected area, collected his own statistics as best he
could and reported on them and the story as he saw it.
The day the story aired the Health Ministry
called to scold him. It held a press conference that night
to release its figures. They didn’t jive with his.
Doing journalism here baffles me. How do you
get the facts? For a simple question like the price of a private
drive from Butare to Lake Kivu, I might get five different
answers if I asked five people. And all answers with the authority
of the truth. Who can a journalist rely on for unbiased, fact-based
opinion? Does the journalist have to do all the primary work
of say Stats Can and the Health Ministry before being able
to make a report? And if so, how can a journalist possibly
report on breaking news?
My students tell me that, for example, when
covering an election issue such as the tax policy of the various
candidates you can’t do what you might do in Canada:
call up the smartest, most unpartisan tax lawyers/economists/professors
in the country and drill them for their research and analysis.
Everyone has an agenda. And many government authorities simply
won’t talk to you. The agenda bit is, of course, true
in Canada too and this is a good lesson, in that regard.
When we arrived at Radio Rwanda, right behind
the US embassy, we had to wait at the gate for 20 minutes
or so in the scorching sun, fork over each of our identity
cards (including my passport) to guards with machine guns
and unfriendly faces, and then pass by the gate one by one
as our names were read off our identity cards.
The place was like a bunker. But the students
were fascinated by the equipment and how everything worked.
One said it would be an honour to work at the nation’s
radio station. Another said he would never want to work at
a place like because you would be under the arm of government.
One student said if you watch Radio Rwanda, TV Rwanda and
read the New Times you will get exactly the same stories :
mostly press-release, unquestioning, government-messaged stories.
There was lots of the good old-fashioned tape
and razor blades as well as a digital editing system. The
remote truck was interesting. Apparently there were three
such trucks before “the war” (the word people
use for the genocide) but the government made off with two
of them to spread hate messages and Radio Rwanda hasn’t
seen them since. RTLM and Radio Rwanda were used during “the
City Radio was cool. The few people working
there looked like they belonged on Queen Street West or something.
It’s a small operation but all digital. Lots of music
and sports and some news.
We drove back home as the sun set in shades
of red, grey and blue. Up and down and up and down along the
best-paved, hilly road in the country. This is not the country
of a ‘mille collines,’ it seems, but more like
the country of a million hills, says Roger and Ann and its
true. We made a couple of pit stops for students to get goat
brochettes on sticks and banana beer and water. One student
sat beside me in the front seat so I would have someone to
talk to on the trip home. He told me his life story of growing
up in Uganda after his parents left during an earlier Tutsi
backlash, in 1959. He said everyone is Rwandan now and he
believes the more people mix marriages the better for the
country, the world. I asked him about the Catholic church
and the genocide. He said it was hard to understand how some
of the priests were involved in the genocide but that it was
the individuals and not the church (or the religion) who were
February 8, 2006 —
The University of Rwanda
You drive up a gentle hill lined with
extremely tall trees — some eucalyptus, others a variety
on Canada's pines — as you approach the main quad of
the University of Rwanda . . . passing an on-campus genocide
The main building is an old, Belgian, white-washed
quad with pinky-red painted doors, banisters and trim. The
campus lawns are dotted with lush poinsettia trees in bloom
and other flowering plants. The paths are red soil. Many of
the students wear freshly pressed shirts and pants. There
is an air of relaxed formality but no baseball caps or sunglasses
or mugs of hot coffee.
Thick white columns line the outdoor hallway
on the second of the two-storey building. Wood chairs, with
attached armrest desks, sit in rows in the rooms; the classrooms
have windows laced with flowery curtains which open to the
It's very picturesque. And it borders a huge
old-growth arboretum which you can spot monkeys in, occasionally,
if you are up early in the morning for a jog . . . the popular
jog time is 5:30 a.m . . . I haven't quite made it, myself.
The university had thought of lighting the arboretum paths
at night but the students protested; couples finding it more
romantic without the electric light.
The journalism department consists of a few
offices for the director, secretary and professors. There
is a TV/radio room on the other side of campus with not a
single functioning TV editing system (they edit with Adobe
6 when they can get ahold of a computer with a video card).
There are three Hi 8 cameras and one Mini DV . . . but no
tape. So that was the first order of the day: buying tape
Radio might be better equipped as a new campus
radio station, Salus, was launched in the last year (although
I heard the four tape editing systems dropped down to one
when the systems broke down and the station plays music much
of the day).
On my first day, a student asked if I had brought
cameras for the class to use as well as computers with video
cards for them to edit with. Unfortunately, my answer was
I predict a few technical hurdles ahead.
From what I can tell, though I'm dealing with
some very resourceful students who adapt quickly and can help
overcome the hurdles.
The students seem very bright, dedicated to
making a difference in Rwanda, passionate about journalism
and quite a bit older than your average Canadian undergrad.
Oh, yes, and they are 80 to 90 % male. As are the journalism
teachers. Not surprising, then, that the first questions tossed
my way in class were "What is it like to be a lady journalist?"
and "Are you married?"
February 6, 2006 —
Elections here and there
Monday, I was told, was another one
of those surprise holidays which meant class would be cancelled.
You never know, week to week, which days the
university will be closed for holidays. Although, one constant
is that Gacaca, the ongoing community trials about the genocide,
take place on Wednesdays. Sometimes the students go to present
I broached the subject with the students on
Friday, trying to plan ahead, for the next week’s TV
reporting field trip, script writing and editing. They said
Monday was a holiday because of the local elections but that
they wanted to cover it as their field trip. I admired them
for giving up their holiday to work…and for a political
story to boot. So, I found myself, once again, rejigging the
course plan. (The classes only vaguely resemble the outline
I handed the students the first day. There has been a ton
of improv. And I simply can’t cram everything I want
to teach for radio and TV production into three surprise-holiday-riddled
I took the class outside for the rest of class.
We are jammed into a tiny TV studio which overheats me, daily.
The students chose a spot in the shade under a tree. There,
we brainstormed election story ideas. I asked them to come
up with different focuses. They got excited, talking about
the various “angles”: the voting system where
voters literally line up behind the candidate of their choice
-- to be counted, the campaign, an important issue and the
problem some voters face in simply being able to walk the
long distance to the voting station. A fourth year student,
Solange, walked by, saw us sitting under the tree, and took
photos. She said she wanted to send the photo to the website
but didn’t want to give everyone the impression that
in Rwanda university courses are held outside under trees.
Then we went over logistics. We decided the
students should have some kind of signed letter from the university
in case anyone asked them why they were filming. (A letter
seems to grease the way for getting resident fees for park
entries and inviting foreign journalists into the country
– in fact, there’s a stamped, signed, sealed letter
On Monday they shot their stories and came
back to class for us to look at the pictures and interviews
(all in Kinyarwanda). I was surprised to see rows of people
lined up, about two metres behind each candidate. The candidates
stood on school soccer pitches or in stadiums so there was
plenty of room for the long lines. They looked straight ahead
and were forbidden to turn around. They were not to know who
voted for them. It was 30 some odd degrees on Monday and the
voters had to wait in line sometimes for four or five hours
to be counted. There was no shade.
Still, the voter turnout was over 70 %.
The next day, I showed them tape I brought from
home of the election debate and the kinds of stories CBC spun
out of it.
The students loved watching the debate. They
laughed at Gilles Duceppe’s English. They listened intently
to Jack Layton. They said he was confident and said good things.
And besides, piped up Astrida, the one woman in class, “He
is handsome.” They watched Harper attack Martin and
when the camera went to a wider shot showing Martin’s
body language, they laughed spontaneously. Some things are
apparent, even in Rwanda. They were intrigued by all the talk
of scandal and investigations.
In the end, one student said, “We vote
for Jack Layton. Why didn’t Canadians elect him?”
February 3, 2006 —
On the first day of class I had my third
year students interview each other and dream up radio and
TV treatments for how they would do a profile of each other.
Here are snippets from their homework, mostly in their own
words, with a couple of additions by me.
Because we were an odd number in class one student,
Richard, interviewed me. I thought it fair to include what
he wrote about me…it’s here at the end.
1. Germaine Uwahiriwe, 24,
was born in Kigali, Rwanda, and has three brothers. He wants
to change the history of hate media in Rwanda by advocating
for a peaceful world. He also wants to create a good image
for Rwanda that was tarnished by the 1994 Genocide. One of
his goals is to broadcast youth programs to educate the young
ones about culture and how to adapt to new global changes
carefully. His role model is the BBC because of its world
2. Emmanuel Nuwamanya, aka
Emmy or Mercedes, 26, was born in a four children family in
Uganda. He grew up there until 1994 when his parents came
back to Rwanda. Since his childhood he developed a strong
passion for journalism due to the inspiration he got from
some famous journalists like Tim Sebastian of BBC. When he
arrived in Rwanda, some other factors strengthened his love
for journalism including: Rwandan media industry in need of
professional people to get back trust lost during the 1994
genocide. He wants to start his own broadcast media once he
gets experience and the means.
3. Jean de Dieu Bagirishya,
23, still remains with pains due to 1994 genocide which took
a big size of his family. He likes sports, society "being
with his", and likes his country and ready to die for
it when necessary. His motto is ‘courage, simplicity
and time management.’ He works as a producer at the
campus radio station, Radio Salus, presenting sports, children's
program and Salus top ten. He is doing journalism by accident
even if he is interested in it. He would rather prefer being
a journalist by profession with short courses ; but not doing
it as a university subject. He likes the music, “We
be burning,” by Sean Paul.
4. Emmanuel Mungwarakarama,
33, aka Manu, was born in Kibungo, Rwanda. He is the fourth
born in a family of 8 children. He speaks Kinyarwanda, Swahili,
French and English. He had also done 3 workshops on cinematography.
He likes watching TV especially football matches in which
Chelsea is involved. He doesn’t like: Disobedience,
injustice and time wasting. Nelson Mandela is his inspirational
hero. He likes the traditional melody of Rujindiri
5. Bernard Mutijima, 23, has
9 brothers and sisters living all over the world (France,
Belgium, Rwanda). He was born in Mutara, Rwanda. His nickname
is “Bubu.” His father was an architect before
he was killed in 1990 as a suspected sympathizer. He likes
country music. His goal is to produce film and TV documentaries.
He made a documentary for GBVs (gender based violence).
6. Jean Claude Ndengeyingoma,
aka Ngomajec, 25, grew up in Kigali, Rwanda. He has two sisters
living in Ottawa. Journalism was in his ambition since his
minority age (childhood). He chose journalism not only because
of being the voice of voiceless but also as a good profession
that contributes in informing people. On this point, he emphasizes
that the most dangerous people is the one that is not informed.
His admired Radio station is Salus because of novelty that
it started with. Concerning leisure, he likes football, swimming,
music, traveling and sharing glass (drinking) with colleagues.
7. Jean de Dieu Tuyishime,
25, has chosen to study Journalism with the ambition of promoting
professional journalism in Rwanda because of the bad image
that some media have given to Rwandan journalism after 1994
Genocide. He was born in Kibungo, Rwanda. For him the radio
is the first medium that is very popular in Rwanda. His favorite
media in the world, is the BBC on Radio and CNN on Television,
he also criticize the VOA, because it glorifies the US government
and he finds that not to be as balanced as it should be. He
has his likes out of journalism, this is to say that as other
single men some times he needs the time of leisure. He loves
traditional music, dancing and singing. He is also good at
acting drama. He is looking forward to becoming a professional
8. Placide Magambo, the self
proclaimed “king” of the class, works at Radio
Salus and missed the first class because he was in northerrn
Rwanda covering an environmental conference.
9. Astrida Uwera, the only
girl in the class, is called “the queen,” by Placide.
She missed the first day of class, as well. But from what
I gather her father was from Butare, where the university
is, and that’s how she got her name. Butare was named
“Astrida” by the Belgians (after Queen Astrid)
before reverting to its original name in 1962. She wants to
work in TV.
10. Richard Kwizera, 24, was
born in Uganda to Rwanda parents who fled the country in the
1959 revolution. His parents told him Rwanda was the land
of milk and honey. So he dreamed, along with his parents,
of returning to this magical land. When they did return in
1995, he looked in the river for milk and honey but there
was none. It took him some time to adjust to the new country.
But now he loves it. He’s had a passion for journalism
since he was in 2nd grade and now wants to use the media to
construct society. He sometimes writes for The New Times and
is a member of Never Again, Rwanda chapter. He is a Seventh
Day adventist and wants to spread to the word of God on campus.
11. Jean Pierre Nixitanga,
23, was born in the centre of Rwanda, the last of nine children
in his middle class family. His wish is to become an excellent
news gatherer and reporter; but, the most interesting thing
about him is that he doesn’t believe in himself so he
is planning also to emphasize on a technical side of his future
profession. In his leisure time he likes to watch movies,
listening music especially Hip Hop, chatting with friends
in large communicating. He is gifted with great video camera
skills and, so far, has the best grades in class.
Finally, here’s what Richard had to say
about me :
“Being committed to each other in Canada
is more valuable than marriage” says Sylvia Thomson
who was born and raised in Montreal in an Anglophone family.
Sylvia, 39, and not yet married but has a boyfriend
admits that people in Canada can just live together given
the fact that they are committed to each other.
“In Canada, you can live with your boyfriend
or girlfriend for any period just in case you feel dedicated
to each other”, she adds.
Sylvia, whose parents divorced while she was
16 only says that she has no plans of getting married soon.
Despite having a boyfriend, she also likes humble,
honest, intelligent, creative and inspiring people.
“I like such kind of people in case they
are truly motivated and keen on doing something”, she
reveals. She however hates liars.
February 2, 2006 —
Religion in Rwanda
My flight from Nairobi to Rwanda was
full of red baseball-capped Canadians. The group
of 15 or so, from the New Life Community Church in Calgary
(Pentecostal), came here on a mission to help put electricity
into a church in Kigali and do other charitable work. Some
of them plan to return here in April for what they called
"Hope Rwanda," (an international aide gathering
which I presume will have a religious bent). It will run for
100 days just as the genocide did. When I asked one of them
how "Hope Rwanda" came to be she said God spoke
to Rwandan president Kagame through a religious text and he
decided, right there, to help orchestrate the event.
I soon found there's a lot of religion going
on in this country, let alone the imported kind.
• I pass by a turquoise painted mosque
on the way to university and hear the call to prayer amplified
across the valley at night.
• A Muslim driver refused to take our
empty beer bottles in his car to return them to the shop.
• There are many Catholics.
• On campus, at least one of my students
is a Seventh Day Adventist and prays with a group at the school
stadium on Friday nights and on the Sabbath.
• There's a schedule of a university "Evangelical
Campaign" for February posted on the bulletin board beside
the journalism class schedule. Some of the sessions are "Biblical
view of healing and reconciliation and Gacaca courts,"
"Jesus and HIV/AIDS pandemic," "The National
University of Rwanda, The light and salvation of Rwanda,"
and finally "Jesus and intellectuals, the basis of national
• One of the people who works at the house
where we are staying gave me a Jehovah's witness booklet today
and asked for a donation.
I'm not sure if this is anything new for
Rwanda or where it came from exactly but religion is strikingly
more omnipresent than at home.
2006 — Nairobi note
Last night, after
23 hours of travel, I arrived in Kenya in an anti-histamine
and fatigue-induced haze.
The day I left Ottawa
it was mild, sunny and beautifully snow-covered. I woke up
with a full-fledged sinus cold, ran around the house cramming
last items (including Tylenol extra strength sinus medication)
into two humongous and heavy bags -- which spilled over into
a third bag at the last moment. "You're definitely going
to have to pay extra baggage you know," said my bus driver,
at the airport. KLM graciously let me off the hook once I
told them the bags were crammed full of stuff to give away
and heavy journalism training books for the Rwanda Initiative.
The flights were long
and sniffy and painful but I met some interesting people :
the guys from NYC coming to climb Kilimanjaro, the German
who just became a Kenyan citizen and ran a quinine business,
the Kenyan who had been studying in DC and wanted to work
for a big international banking institution to make lots of
money. The ones who had been to Rwanda, or knew people who
had, said it was a beautiful country.
I felt awful and disoriented
when I arrived in Nairobi, in a near trance, last night. After
a good sleep and a shower I feel much better. I ate a huge
breakfast (including paw paw juice) this morning, on an outdoor
terasse, with flowers blooming everywhere. I watched people
waiting on the road side. When a bus came along it was bright
yellow and green with the words "Citi Hoppa" emblazoned
on it (if only OC Transpo could go with it).
In a couple of hours
I will head back to the airport for the final leg of the trip,
from Nairobi to Kigali. Then the adventure really begins.
I haven't taught a class since I was a masters student in
the early '90s. So figuring out class plans and delivering
them will be tricky — not to mention making sure the
material is relevant to the Rwandan students and Rwandan media.
I've brought several Canadian Broadcasting Corporation training
guides for radio and tv production as well as a Carleton University
journalism class curriculum (thanks Kanina) and video and
audio of stories aired on the CBC. I've also got a couple
of ideas for Rwandan students to do projects for CBC radio.
I wonder how all this will pan out and whether I have prepared
I also worry about simply
living in Rwanda. What will it be like? Will I get malaria?
Will I like the food? Will I miss home? Will it be o.k. to
go for runs, alone, on the street? Before leaving home I had
some fitful evenings of sleep worrying about all these questions.
I've been thinking of coming here and been bugging Allan for
eons to please take me on his project so I know I definitely
want to do this. Still, it's a challenge.
One last comment: At
home I spent several evenings saying good bye to friends and
family. They reacted to my plans in different ways : some
really felt like they needed to see me before I left as though
I would never come home, some surprised me by saying they
were jealous, others said things such as 'have fun in Rwanda,
if that's possible,' and several thought the experience would