Field notes from Rwanda

By Charles Gordon
Butare, Rwanda

Teaching writing to university journalism students in Rwanda, you tend to see only a part of the student, the part that struggles to write in English, a third language for most of them. The fourth-year journalism students, 10 men and one woman, are happy to chat away in Kinyarwanda, comfortable in French, but tentative in English. Their written work is full of good ideas and opinions, but the tendency as a teacher is to see only the weaknesses — the misuse of idioms, the odd punctuation, the mishandling of quotations.

But take this same group into the field and you see something else. From the moment they got off the bus at a CARE project in Nyamagabe, in the southern province, the members of the class showed me how little you see when you are focusing only on vocabulary and grammar.

At a primary school where students were learning about agriculture, the university students scrummed the headmistress like Canadian journalists would. But they also showed a touching sensitivity toward the children. Emmanuel N gave a student the last of his cookies. Bernard, standing outside the school, carried on a quiet game of peek-a-boo with some kids looking out the classroom window. Placide knelt down and talked with a small boy.

Despite the horrific experiences many of these university students likely witnessed as children 13 years ago during the genocide, these students showed touching empathy to the younger children. Such kindness surprised me, given what they had endured. I told them a couple of days later that you can’t be a good journalist unless you care about people, which means that they are well on their way.

It puts some of their written work into perspective, too, written work that demonstrates heart-on-the-sleeve patriotism and a determination to put journalism to noble uses. Given the ways in which journalism has been used in Rwanda’s past, this won’t be easy. The difficulty is
compounded by the lack of trained journalists in the country and a certain fearfulness about free expression. The students share that fearfulness, but I couldn’t be too quick to condemn them for that.

The field trip visited other projects aimed at adults. In each situation, we would enter a hall or a church or a schoolroom already full of people. The moderator would introduce us and, after a time, the students would be invited to ask their questions. Each student would have to stand up and address a room full of strangers.

I recall being a university student in a similar situation, doing my best to avoid being noticed. (Hell, I think of “the grown-up me” doing the same thing.) But the fourth-year journalism class had no hesitation. Astrida, Jean Pierre, Emmanuel M, Jean de Dieu B, Placide and Germain stood up and posed their questions with both confidence and sincerity. I have never seen such poise in a group of young people.

I also liked their ability to reduce the distance that journalists are too quick to put between themselves and their sources. At a schoolhouse where a literacy project was in session, one of the participants said our group needed to be welcomed with song and dance. Within seconds, the students were clapping in rhythm. Jean de Dieu T and Placide were up and dancing with the participants. Others joined in the song.

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