What I Did in Rwanda: How I Used the McKerns Research Grant

12 Apr 2018 8:12 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

By Will Mari, Northwest University 

On a warm June morning in 2017, I found myself standing in a small classroom in the green foothills of Kigali, Rwanda, teaching students about American journalism history. 

I got there partially thanks to the AJHA's generous Joseph McKerns Research Grant, which I received in the fall of 2016. It helped to subsidize what had originally been intended as a fact-finding trip for a research project. That project was supposed to have been an oral-history of the English-speaking newspapers in the land-locked, mountainous east African country. 

When I arrived in mid-May, however, I quickly realized that the very large scope of my project, and the political sensitivities of conducting it before the country’s upcoming elections, made my first idea unlikely, and looked for other ways to spend my time there. 

Fortunately, I was soon contacted through a close colleague, about a summer teaching opportunity for Ejo Youth Echo (EYE), a nonprofit that trains high-school and college students in media work. EYE receives both local, regional and some international funding, including from the German government, and produces programs for the Voice of America. The Cold War history of this latter organization is something I’m intrigued by, especially its role in American media engagement in the developing world during that era, and its connections to local broadcasters and producers such as EYE. 

When the volunteers at EYE asked me to co-teach a summer class on the history of American journalism, and a parallel class on media writing, the timing and connection to my own interest thus worked out well. 

As EYE is also interested in cultivating critical-thinking and media-literacy skills, I focused on retooling my courses in these topics for Rwandan students. I taught about 10-12 students three times a week in the mornings, at EYE’s studio in Kigali, for a month beginning in early June. 

The students, who ranged in age from their late teens through their mid-twenties, about half men and half women, were attentive and engaged, especially with the history part of the class. Several were studying journalism at local colleges and universities. Most of them were also actively volunteering to produce radio content for EYE. 

Truthfully, I learned as much from them as they did from me, if not more. While at first shy, they soon opened up and asked me and my fellow instructor to coffee after we were finished around noon each day, and liked to ask questions about how journalism works, or doesn’t work, in the U.S. We, in turn, asked them about their lives and aspirations, and about how journalism functions in Rwanda and East Africa. As I rode the back of a moto (motorcycle taxi) to the nonprofit’s house-classroom in the mornings, and then in the afternoons afterward, I felt at turns excited and intimidated: teaching students in another culture and through a language barrier helped me learn to slow things down, provide more context, and listen better (something I’m still working on). 

The second half of the course, on the basics of media-writing and AP style, was more challenging. We had the students write basic news and features stories, and practice interviewing techniques. Because many of them were working or attending other classes, or just weren’t used to some of my presumptions about length and number of sources, for example, the results were uneven. If I was to teach the class again, I might either spend more time on shorter, in-class assignments to prepare them for the longer stories, or double-down on the media-law and history-side of the course. I’d also assign more videos to watch, or shorter reading assignments. 

Ultimately, however, I am grateful for the opportunity the McKerns Grant provided: to learn more about how other places “do” their journalism and teach it to the next generation. I also made some valuable future connections for what I hope to be a history of the VOA in the developing world. I should thank Michael Fuhlhage, the AJHA's research chair, for his encouragement to pursue this alternative path for the grant, and the AJHA itself, for affirming the role of media-history and journalism-education around the world.

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Will Mari is an assistant professor at Northwest University (Kirkland, Wash.) and AJHA's Membership co-chair and social-media coordinator

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