Sunday, April 13, 2008

Congolese Band

I really like to sing. I'm not particularly good or much of a performer; plus I get so nervous my hands shake, but for some reason I love getting up in front of people and singing. So, when I found a Congolese band performing outside the Serena Hotel in Gisenyi with a cheap amp and an even cheaper microphone, I was thrilled.

I lean over to Chris and I say, "I should totally sing with them."

The band's tinny amp was blasting various hits from the 70s and 80s.

The four of us had spread our pasty white selves over the lounge chairs on the beach overlooking Lake Kivu. It wasn't long before Chris, with a smirk on his face, strolled casually through the sand towards the band's front man. A few minutes later, the two of them had persuaded me to sing with the band.

"You know Frank Sinatra? That Ain't No Sunshine song? Beatles?"

After a quick google search for the lyrics, I'm called up to the grassy stage. I'm nervous and sing shamefully, but the 30 or so people draped over towels in the sand, applaud and smile. It was all I needed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The bus ride

I’ve taken the bus between Butare and Kigali a few times now. It’s a pleasant two hour ride along a curvy road. Aside from the occasional whimper from an impossibly well-behaved baby, it’s usually a quiet ride: passengers lean their heads on the seats next to theirs and sleep, they read day old newspapers or listen to talk radio played by the driver at a reasonable volume.

I spend a lot of time looking out the window: at the mud brick homes with terracotta roofs and wooden doors, all blending so easily into the hillside that they look like nature somehow built the homes itself; at the people walking purposefully along the sides of the road, many with whom I’m able to exchange a fleeting glance as we pass by; at the fields, the crops and the women who bend over at stab at the clumps of earth with their hoes. There’s a lot to look at. Unlike home, every stretch of this road is plodded by women wrapped in bright, colourful fabrics, by children with yellow plastic containers balanced on their heads and by men pushing bicycles loaded with stuffed burlap sacks. And unlike home, nearly every stitch of land along the way is cultivated.

I like the ride.

The other day I took a different bus, a big 70-seater, blue and white bus with the words the National University of Rwanda painted on the side. I rode the bus to and from Kigali with about 40 journalism students and a handful of lecturers. In this bus, the aisle becomes a spontaneous dance floor for the male students whose voices grow hoarse belting out well-known songs in Kinyarwanda, and whose hands must sting from clapping them together so hard to the beat in unison.

The born-again Christian girls sit in the seats and sing gospel songs in sweet voices. A male student joins the choir, perched on an armrest of a nearby seat and adds a rough harmony. Sometimes the bus suddenly veers off onto the side of the road to appease a student who has a hankering for a snack: cobs of corn roasted over a road-side charcoal grill.

The ride took a bit longer than usual, my ears were ringing and I had to pick the kernels of corn out of my teeth, but as always, the bus ride between Kigali and Butare was a pleasant one.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Teaching and Learning

My students have been teaching me a few words in Kinyarwanda. At the beginning of each class I hand over a piece of chalk to one of the students. He or she then marches up to the blackboard and scratches out a word on the right hand side of the worn board. Then I say it aloud and without fail, unabashedly butcher it. My rough attempts are met with guffaws, and thanks to a few sympathetic students, a scattering of proper pronunciations. It’s fun. We start every class this way and I like it.

Teaching radio is hard enough without dealing with this constant language barrier. Case in point: the first word my students taught me was “buhoro,” Kinyarwanda for “slowly.” It’s pretty clear I talk too fast and my students have trouble following me. I’m starting to learn now, though, and have started checking in more often with the students.

I say, “Sybio?”
They reply, “Nybio.”

“You got it?”
“Yeah, we got it.”

I have about 22 students in the class. We meet three times a week in a big old classroom with a concrete floor, a high ceiling mounted with one fluorescent bulb and dozens of small wooden side desks. Each morning I find the cleaner dousing the floor with buckets of soapy water, mopping up the mud from the day before with a broom wrapped in a stained rag. This morning I jumped over one of the pools on the floor, and as casually as I could, offered up “mybabarila” or “sorry” as I scooted past.

My first day was tough. A small American film crew, carting a camera, a tri-pod and two big smiles, showed up before any of the students. I’d met them a few days earlier and heard about their plans to shoot a documentary about journalism in Rwanda. I knew little else. My students didn’t know anything. I introduced the two filmmakers to blank stares and folded arms. I tried telling a joke. They wouldn’t budge. Not a chuckle, a smile or even a flinch. In the end, the film crew didn’t shoot anything that day.

These days, we all get along. The filmmakers have even been back and shot some footage. Apparently, they’ll be following the students and me around for the next couple of months.

I’m teaching radio production with two brand new marantz recorders, pried out of the careful and hesitant hands of the director over at Radio Salus, my newish Olympus recorder and a studio equipped with two microphones and a mixer. Sure, it’s not quite the recorder-per-student I’d like, but the students don’t seem to mind working in groups, and why should I.

Meanwhile, life in Butare is great. I love the 40 minute walk to school each morning. It’s one long road all the way there, and it’s always jammed with people: some in high heel shoes carefully plucking their way to work, others walking briskly in no shoes at all. Thanks to my students and an especially gregarious and keen project coordinator, I’ve learned a smattering of phrases and words in Kinyarwanda. When I’m feeling confident I’ll toss some out to people passing by – usually it earns me a wide, beautiful white-toothed smile.

Thursday, January 31, 2008


I think Rwanda is a place my mom would like. Girls walk to school in crisp white blouses and blue skirts. Grown men hold hands just because they’re friends. They talk about their faith in God. Worn dirt paths cut through lush, green hillsides. Vested motorcycle drivers hand passengers helmets before leaving the curb. Everyone buckles up the straps. Cars stop at crosswalks to let people saunter across. Plastic bags are illegal.

I spent a few days at a hostel in Johannesburg before I flew to Kigali a couple of weeks ago. Luckily I was away when the lodge was robbed at gunpoint. The owner though, was kicked in the ribs, hit over the head with the butt of a gun and threatened with a long jagged, sharpened piece of steel. The owner then watched the men open my suitcase, and make off with my laptop.

So far, I like Rwanda. In the mornings I walk down Butare’s busy main street and say good morning to people passing by. There are lots of people. Men who struggle to push bicycles loaded with heavy white sacks up the road. University students dressed in shiny shoes and belts. An old man with a hat and a cross around his neck. Women with tubs of sweet bananas balanced on their heads. I don’t know what they think about as they plod along the undulating road. Sometimes I think about what to eat for lunch.

On my first day in Rwanda, a new friend took me to some lovely gardens in Kigali. They’re right outside the Genocide Memorial Centre; so are the mass graves of 250 thousand Rwandans.

Rwanda is new to me. I’ve seen very little of the country and have much to explore and to learn. Even so, I’m here, teaching radio journalism to a class of 22 at the National University of Rwanda. How very lucky I am.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Okay, it's been a long time and this is going to be short. But my documentary from South Africa is finally going to air. Tune into Dispatches on CBC on February 3rd. You can also listen online at Cheers.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Abortions for 35 Bucks

A poster at the taxi rank in Bloemfontein

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Mohau with his dog

A few weeks ago my roommate and I traveled to Lesotho. It’s a tiny country within South Africa’s borders.

Armed with guidebooks and assurances from friends that Lesotho was much safer than South Africa, we caught the overnight bus to Bloemfontein. This is where I finally boarded my first African taxi: a white, beat up and rusted mini bus. There are no bus schedules and few safety standards, but the price is right. Devi and I pulled up to the dusty taxi rank in the morning and found a taxi with “Maseru” in the window. I settled into my seat early and waited. These taxis don‘t leave until they‘re full, and they’re full when people begin filing onto the bus backwards, ass first, jamming their bodies into spaces meant only for a leaning leg. Then the driver throws your suitcase on top of you. Then he turns on the music. Then he turns it up.

Generally, Devi is a very organized person. In fact, I’d say she’s everything I’m not. So I was surprised when she hadn’t taken out enough money for our trip. No problem, she said. I’ll just hit the first bank in Maseru. And that’s when we saw the lineups. Lineups that wrapped around buildings and down streets. They all led to bank machines. Turns out we arrived on pay day in a country where employees aren’t paid by direct deposit.

The next day, Devi and I caught a taxi to Malealea, south of the capital. Our guidebooks pointed us here, along with plenty of vacationing NGO workers and tall Germans corralled on buses with extra big wheels. Malealea is beautiful: a tiny little town in the mountains whose small economy is driven by the tourists here. In fact, the complex where we stayed has been the town’s nucleus since the turn of the century. Only there’s a chain fence around the whole of the property, and the locals are left to stand around at the front gate.

Devi and I hired a guide, a very nice young man named Moeketsi, to take us on an overnight pony trek to a nearby village. Devi took an hour to pack her saddle bag, lining it with a garbage bag and carefully filling it with a rain jacket, extra socks, and a sleeping bag. I packed in five minutes. I threw my unwrapped clothes into the bottom of the grungy old bag, threw on my jean jacket and forgot my sleeping bag altogether.

We left in the morning. The view was beautiful. The ride was not. Horses are huge animals with skinny little ankles, so when our guide took us down narrow, rocky hairpin turns along the side of a cliff, I got off poor Chamomile and guided my horse down the path. Devi, in all her self-assuredness and stick-to-it-ness, stayed on her grand white stallion and bumbled down the path. I don’t care what she says: horses can trip too.

By the afternoon it was hailing: hail that bounced off your head and had our horses’ heads buried deep in their chests. We were only halfway to the village. Too far to continue on, too far to go back. But just five minutes earlier we had passed Hanlsoeu, a little village along the side of the bumpy path. We turned around, and headed back. Once we arrived, Moeketsi ran into a small round hut. Within seconds a woman eagerly stood in the doorway and waved us in. There were lots of women inside: old women, fat women, women lying down, women carrying babies and women dancing to music playing on a ghetto blaster over in the corner. One of the women was the chief - acting on behalf of her husband who was away working in a mine. Without hesitating, Mamothobi said we could stay the night in the house next door. She said the owners would sleep somewhere else. The one room home had a double bed with several blankets and a dining room table with a lace tablecloth.

Devi and I had a lot of visitors that night. By the end, the floor was caked in an inch of mud with all the feet in old oversized shoes tracking in the night’s storm. One 15 year old girl fetched her English homework and together, with half a dozen of her friends crowding in to get a good look, we finished her assignment. Only, I just gave her the answers. In fact, I had half a mind to write her English teacher and tell him his assignment was obviously intended for English speakers and was far too hard and irrelevant for Mapompa Bosiu.

Here are a couple of examples from the test. Choose the correct word:

You may be amazed by children’s ___________to learn a new language. (capability/capacity)

Women gained ____________ to the exclusively male club only quite recently. (admission/admittance)

Mohau took us on a hike