Thursday, August 28, 2008

"We don't offer that service"

On Friday, I left the Internews office around noon to go home for lunch. As I walked from our office to the main road, there was a group of six people standing around a man lying on the ground.

When I got to the scene, I asked if the man, whose name I later found out was Adrien, was OK. No response. One of the bystanders went up to the man and poked him a few times to see if he was sleeping. He wasn’t, he was unconscious. The crowd stood there. Some people walked away.

I tried to call 112, the Rwandan equivalent of 911. Even though 112 only applies to the police, I thought that if we could get them here, they could take him to the emergency room at the hospital, only five minutes away by car. 112 wasn’t working. I tried to get through ten times, no answer. I ran back to the office to tell our security guard. He said, “this happens all the time.” No big deal for him.

I ran back to the scene and a security guard from the neighbouring Novotel, one of the top hotels in Kigali, had come over. I asked him repeatedly to call someone to come and help Adrien. He must know someone to call in case of an emergency, he’s a security guard! Adrien then started to regain consciousness, saliva dripping from both sides of his mouth. Eventually he called his supervisor and then moved Adrien to the other side of the street where he thought there was more shade.

I told the security guard I would be right back. I went to the Novotel to get a bottle of water. When I went past the front desk, I got the attention of one of the female staff members who was checking in a guest. I told her there was a very sick man on the street beside the hotel who needed help and I asked if she could call someone to take him to the hospital. With no sense of urgency, as though it happens everyday, she said, “Yes, I will. Thank you.” Then, she went back to checking in her new guest.

When I went back to the scene, Adrien was sitting hunched over, back against a wall. I opened the water, handed it to him, and he drank the whole bottle in 3 gulps. Then, I asked the Novotel security guard where his supervisor was. He pointed to across the street, where I saw the supervisor watching everything transpire. The Novotel is located on the other side of the street, but raised about four metres above the road. I went over and shouted up to him, “can you call an ambulance or someone to take this man to the hospital?” “We don’t offer that service,” he replied.

So I went back to the office and got Valentin, one of our cameramen/editors. I explained everything to him and he came back with me to see what we could do. When we got back to Adrien I got Valentin to translate for me. He asked Adrien what happened and Adrien said that he fell and that he has a brain disorder. He said he has family in the area and that he was going to visit them, but he was so disoriented he had trouble explaining to us exactly where.

Then, a guy (I’m pretty sure he said he was in town from Uganda) came over and stopped to see what was going on. He said, “I help people like this all the time,” and gave him a 2000 RWF bill and went on his way.

Finally, I put my foot down and said, “We have to get this person transport to a hospital right now.” Adrien then told us that his hospital was in Kinamba (?), near the airport. At this point, he was sitting up more than before, still hunched a bit, but was able to hold himself up somewhat. A couple of minutes later, a moto driver came by and agreed to take him to the hospital for 1000 RWF. Probably not the safest modes of transportation of a sick person at the moment, but given the heat (one of the hottest days in the last two months), and the fact that, by that point, he could stand up, we decided to send him on his way.

To this day, I’m still astonished, and angered, by everything that transpired in those 45 minutes (and if you saw me at home right after this incident, my housemates would say I was “livid”). I just couldn’t get my head around it. I know that sometimes there are people that lie on the side of the road here because they are doing manual labour nearby and are taking a nap. And there are even some who might be faking sick to get money. But this was not the case and it was obvious. In a country where I’ve seen nothing but people helping people and people looking out for one another during my time here (something that Rwandans are known for), what made this situation different? Why didn’t any of the 20-30 that passed by in those 45 minutes (as well as during the time before I arrived) try to help Adrien?

That question then led me to think of all those times we hear in the news – all over the world -- of people turning their heads in the other direction when their fellow citizens are in distress. The problem is universal. What propels people to make the conscious decision to cover their eyes to the plight of their fellow citizens?

I don’t know, but maybe you do, so feel free to share you comments below.

Canadian journalists in Rwanda

Click here to listen

Canadian journalists from the Rwanda Initiative are in Rwanda teaching journalism and are filling the shortage of journalism educators. Take a listen to this radio documentary I did on the program, which aired on Rwanda's newest current affairs show,
Amakuru Y’Iwacu, on City Radio, one of the country's most popular radio stations.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Goma city centre © Ryan Hicks

A mere 15 metres of neutral territory and two ramshackle steel barriers on either side separate Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose relations have been strained since the 1990s.

Before entering the DRC, we stop at the Rwandan immigration post to get our exit stamp. We explain why we are leaving (a team from Internews, where I’m currently working, was going to contact some NGOs in the DRC for a film they want to produce, and I tagged along), receive our stamps and then walk to the side of the barrier, show our stamps to the Rwandan official, and then enter neutral territory.

It feels like you are in limbo simply because of what lies on either side of you. Behind you, in the city of Gisenyi, there is a sense of order – the immigration office has computers and the officer swipes your passport, people are going about their business calmly, they’re smiling and seem generally satisfied to be on the Rwandan side of the border.

On the DRC side, in the city of Goma, on the other side of the second steel barrier in front of you, people are walking in a rush, crossing and re-crossing the street, going back and forth between people and vendors. The narrow road is decaying. An empty Blue Sky Intermodal container waits to pass through the gate to Rwanda.

When you walk into the immigration office, the officer takes your passport and logs it, by pen, in a notebook. On the other side of the office is a female officer in front of a window with a tiny opening where four people are sticking their hands through, waving their immigration documents frantically, in an effort to get processed. There’s no organized line, just a crowd, and they seem to really want to cross to the other side where they think the grass is greener.

After the team and I get our documents stamped, Jean Paul, our driver, is told he has to go pay a $15 USD vehicle entry and authorization fee. The DRC officer refuses to give him a receipt, but Jean Paul and Babonne, our cameraman, say that, if we were ever stopped by police officers during our time there, how would we be able to prove that we paid the fee and were authorized to drive our vehicle in the DRC. Not to mention the fact that we don’t really know if they officer is just pocketing the $15 USD. But then the officer told JP and Babonne that he was “the one that decides whether you enter or not,” and that they need to pay the fee without a receipt in return. Five minutes later the fee is paid and we go on our way.

In 2001, a volcano erupted, devastating the city of Goma. And for years, the DRC and its citizens have been embroiled in a bitter civil conflict (largely ignored by Western media).

It shows.

There’s hardly any grass. Patches at best. Roads are marked by potholes…everywhere (imagine worse than Ottawa this past spring). Over the course of four hours, I see no smooth surface outdoors. You can tell that this was once a nice looking colonial city. The lanes of main roads are divided in two, with a raised lane of dirt with patches of grass. Huge roundabouts make up the intersections and also look devastated. People congregate there, lying about, like they are just passing time.

As we go between appointments, we drive through commercial areas. I watch people as they go about running their errands. They look uneasy and “on edge.” When we go to visit the NGO Actionaid, an old woman is wheeling a boy down the rubble road. The boy is sitting in a patio chair that has been placed on a wheelchair because the wheelchair doesn’t have a seat.

On our way to the state broadcaster, we pass huge, empty, and deteriorating buildings. We pass a large empty space, about the size of a football field, made of dirt. About five different games of soccer are going on.

When we drive away, I look out the back of our Land Rover. A boy, who looks to be about six or seven years old, carries a tray on one hand and is runs after us. He points at me with his free hand. Then he makes his thumb and index finger into the form of a gun, points it at the side of his head, and pulls the pretend trigger with his thumb. He performs this sequence five times as we drive away. Pointing at me, shooting at his head. Pointing, shooting, pointing, pointing, shooting, pointing, shooting, pointing, shooting.

We drive back to the border. Check out time. The DRC official logs me into his notebook and I cross into neutral territory where a Chinese shipping container waits to cross into Rwanda. We check back into Rwanda. The immigration is fascinated by the fact that we are journalists. He swipes my passport and we get our documents stamped. I turn around , facing the road leading to Rwanda and a wave of calm hits me. I take a deep breath, realizing that throughout the afternoon in the DRC, my breath had been taken away.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Youth building peace

Just outside the centre of Kigali, Didier Mpatha and a group of young people gather at the Maison des Jeunes (“young people’s house”), in the working class neighbourhood of Kimisagara.

Heza, which means “a good place,” is a two-year-old newspaper and radio project promoting peace and produced for young people, by young people aged 18 to 22. Every month, these young people produce and distribute a newspaper to young people around Rwanda. Each week, they also produce a radio show on Voice of America (104.3 FM).

“Young people are scared to express themselves,” says Mpatha, one of Heza's co-ordinators. He says an authoritarian culture in Rwanda makes it difficult for young people to be able to give their opinions.

Heza is trying to change this.

Readers have direct editorial influence on the newspaper’s content. Each month a team of Heza journalists fan out across the country to distribute their newspaper. When they meet with young people at their partner schools, they receive feedback on the previous issue and discuss which topics are of particular interest to young people at the time.

“We have roundtables and after looking over every article, we have feedback sessions and take questions,” says Mpatha.
When Heza journalists return to their office, they incorporate their audience’s feedback into the next issue. This month’s issue features articles on street children, young people promoting peace, as well as a fictional story about a young Hutu and a young Tutsi falling in love despite their ethnicities.

The common thread throughout the newspaper and radio show is promoting and building peace amongst youth and showing how it is done throughout Rwanda and by young Rwandans, says Mpatha.

Heza is funded by the Cooperation Allemende, a German development NGO. The cost per month of producing a weekly radio show and their monthly newspaper is approximately one million Rwandan francs (less than $1900 CAD per month). Their radio show is broadcast live on Sundays at 5:30 a.m. and is re-broadcast Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and at Saturday at 6 p.m on Voice of America (104.3 FM).