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Common Threads that Blind & Bind Us

April 22, 2007

All my life, I’ve been struggling against Traveler’s Myopia. It’s a common ailment. We think that globetrotting makes us smart; then, we land in a so-called “exotic” place, and we are surprised to find that the people are so very much like us, with many of the same impulses, dreams, dilemmas and sensitivities.

Last week, I returned from lunch to my classroom at the National University in Butare, and discovered on the blackboard a message of condolences to those Americans whose lives were shattered by the gunman on the campus of Virginia Tech. It stopped me in my tracks.

I’m guessing that one of the 4th year journalism and communications students—I never found out who—had taken the time to write the heartfelt message, in English. (The word “tech” was misspelled—a clue that the author was probably not one of the foreign teachers.)

I’ll be honest. I was initially surprised because, in my bonehead ex-pat fashion, I had imagined that two or three dozen violent deaths in a country far far away wouldn’t really register here. After all, this is genocide country: It’s a rare week when someone doesn’t discover another grave of anonymous Rwandans killed and hastily buried 13 years ago. Surely, I imagine, the survivors here are hardened to this kind of thing.


The students were transfixed by the reports on Sky News and CNN that come in by satellite to the campus TV room; they were shocked by the contents of the gunman’s video diary, fascinated by the tabloid tone of the coverage.

In the Broadcast Writing class that followed, we talked about emotionalism in reporting—good or bad?—and we discussed the propriety of repeatedly airing the “suicide tape.” (Most of the students felt it was a mistake to show the tape over and over again, but they were split fairly evenly on the question of emotionality.)

Later that day, I told the students to organize themselves into teams of two, and to come up with ideas for video stories that they would be producing over the coming week. Once again they set me back on my heels. I expected that at least a handful of story themes would touch on subjects related to Rwanda’s post-genocidal experience. The reconciliation between victims and victimizers, maybe, or the government’s ongoing battle against “genocidal ideology.”

But again I was wrong. The things the students came up with were things that would preoccupy students anywhere, whether the campus is in Butare, Berlin, or Burnaby, B.C. “The cafeteria food is awful,” said one team. “How can we live when bursaries are delayed almost every month?” said another. “There’s a new gymnastics club in town, just for women,” said a third. “Student housing is hopelessly inadequate,” said a fourth. Only one story idea even remotely touched on what happened in 1994. “The local football team has a chance to make first place in the national league for the first time since the genocide,” said Richard, who reports regularly for Rwandan TV.

Why should I have been surprised? They’ve lived half their lives in post-genocidal Rwanda. Like university students everywhere, their careers are in fast-forward. They look ahead, not back. There are immediate things to worry about, things they are in a position to do something about.

Later, over a cold Mutzig beer at the Ibis Hotel, a handful of students joined me and we talked about the highs and lows of working as young broadcast journalists in Rwanda. They were candid about the things that bothered them: an editorial line that was unfailingly pro-government, the long hours, the low pay, the lack of reliable equipment. But by the second round of drinks, the mood shifted. After all, these were young men, they were smart and adaptable, and they believed they could cope with almost anything. No, rather than complain, they wanted to talk about the things they liked about the job, its personal rewards.

“I did a report for the news on holes in the city streets,” one of them said. “Two days later, while walking to work, I saw the work crews on the streets, fixing the holes. I think my story may have made a difference. That made me happy.”

One small story. One small victory. It’s an equation of personal achievement that means the same in any time zone, any country, any hemisphere.

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