In the shadow of genocide, a Canadian reporter gains new respect for the art of teaching.
It took 14 years and a trip to Rwanda for me to realize what a terrible student I was. Completing my writing degree at UVic, I was the one falling asleep in nearly every class, the one always asking for extensions, the one openly scoffing at my professors’ common-sense suggestions on how to improve my writing.
It wasn’t until this February, when I stood in front of a class of African students, that I understood just how frustrating teaching can be.
My husband and I were teaching journalism through the Rwanda Initiative, a partnership between Carleton University’s journalism school and the National University of Rwanda. The program sends journalists to Butare, a small town with dusty streets and few sidewalks, to share the fundamentals of our craft.
Though Rwanda is now a relatively peaceful country, genocide remains a factor in almost all aspects of life. In 1994 when I was wandering around Ring Road listening to punk rock on my headphones, several of my students were caught in the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by government militias. Many of the country’s journalists were either killed or complicit in the genocide, so Rwanda’s publications are now run by outsiders or locals with little training. This makes sharing knowledge with the next generation of journalists particularly important.
On my first day, I showed up in brand-new shoes with freshly photocopied course outlines under my arm. My classroom was the size of a small bedroom, with walls of concrete. Paint had chipped off the walls; metal bars covered the small window. I turned around to write my name on the blackboard to discover that not only was there no chalk, there was no blackboard, either. A big, wooden office desk dominated the room but had no chair, so I sat on top of it.
The students—eight of them, all male—were crammed along one wall in rickety desks, and looked at me blankly. They spoke French, Swahili or Kinyarwanda, the local tongue. English was not a first language for any of them. The classroom erupted in chatter every time I paused—not because they were bored, but because they were translating my words into more familiar languages.
At first, my students were not interested in sharing their personal stories. But over our nine weeks in that tiny classroom, I learned several had lost parents during the genocide that killed 800,000 people in 100 days. Others had lived in exile in neighbouring countries. One young man and his family lived for a month in secret rooms hollowed out beneath a house.
In spite of all this, my students were students all the same. One constantly wandered in and out of lectures to make cell phone calls. Another struggled to stay upright as I droned on. One of my best students put more priority on his work for a campus publication than he did in class, as I myself often did while working on the Martlet.
I tried to make the most of those few weeks. At times I wondered whether it was worth leaving my job to travel so far, just to hope one or two of my suggestions would be absorbed. But as I graded assignments at night—sometimes by flashlight, when the power was down—I could see we were connecting.
Though my students often struggled to find the right English words, they quickly recognized the importance of detail. They wrote about the vivid hue of Butare’s rust-red roads and the burning smell of the blue smoke left behind by speeding motorcycle taxis. Machetes, such a powerful symbol of the genocide, became something quite different when one student described the rhythmic whish-whish sound they make when campus workers swing them to trim the grass: “The reaper in his right arm, he beats grasses from right to left and left to right.” Finding one wonderfully crafted sentence, buried amongst the others, made those days worthwhile.
As I type this now, my computer alerts me to new messages from Etienne, a student on the other side of the world.
“Muraho! I mean Hi!” he types. “I’m now putting into practice what I have learnt from you,” he goes on, and then tells me all about his latest story.
Mary Vallis is a reporter at the National Post, and received a National Newspaper Award for her coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. She lives in Toronto.
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