NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center




Time spent in Rwanda leaves feelings of accomplishment, wonder, professor says

After six months on the African continent, most of the time spent creating a journalism program at the National University of Rwanda, Steven Pasternack, head of New Mexico State University's journalism and mass communications department, said his feelings about his time there mix a sense of accomplishment with confusion, wonder and appreciation.



Steven Pasternack, head of NMSU's Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, stands in the courtyard of the National University of Rwanda following graduation ceremonies there in December. (photo courtesy of Steven Pasternack)

Pasternack visited Rwanda in July 1998 and March 1999, but this visit -- from July through December 2000 --- was his first extended stay, he said. Funded by a Fulbright grant, he spent his sabbatical period helping to build a journalism program in the country, which is still recovering from a genocidal rampage by members of its Hutu majority. During the genocide 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in just 90 days. Most of the murdered were members of the country's Tutsi minority, but others were Hutus who failed to be "radical" enough in their hatred of Tutsis, he said.

Several members of Rwanda's press helped stir up that hatred, Pasternack said. The former director of the Independent Radio of Rwanda and the managing editor of "Kangura," the most extremist of several Hutu newspapers, are among those being held out of the country in Tanzania and awaiting trial before a United Nations criminal tribunal, he said.

The country's current president, Paul Kagame, the Tutsi leader of a rebel group that took power in 1994, wants to use the press as a force for national reconciliation, but there are few trained journalists in the country. The university needed a program to train professional journalists who would avoid the mistakes of the past, Pasternack said.

"When I got there in July, there were 30 students waiting to enter the journalism program, but there were no courses yet, no equipment and no staff," he added.

Following a conference in August, at which Rwandan government ministers, representatives of several embassies, aid organizations and United Nations agencies discussed what direction the school should take, Pasternack and a faculty of two professors from the Congo and Cameroon had just two weeks to organize a program before their students arrived in September. The effort included not only getting a program approved by the university's senate, but teaching his staff how to lobby for materials and money and deal with contacts in the United States and France, he said.

"People in the United States were sending books, but most of the students couldn't read English," Pasternack said.

After lecturing in Uganda and Eritrea from Sept. 15 to Oct. 20, Pasternack returned to Rwanda to teach two classes in the new journalism department, one on interviewing techniques and one on media and ethics. In one class he had to overcome his students' cultural reluctance to question authority, while in the other he had to nurture an understanding of ethics and press responsibility in students who came from a society where historically the press has been used for political purposes, he said.

"This was not so much a case of teaching '10 Things You Need to Know If Thrown Out of a Public Meeting' like we do here," he said. "I concentrated more on Article 19 of the U.N.'s Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to an opinion."

While in Rwanda, Pasternack stayed in a university guest house in Butare, a southern city close to Rwanda's border with Burundi. One of a handful of non-Africans in the city, he said he was impressed by the difficulty of life for most Rwandans.

"It was eye-opening. You'd see a man pedaling a one-speed bicycle up hill while carrying 150 pounds of potatoes or a woman walking barefoot while carrying chairs or 100 pounds of charcoal on her head," he said.

"I went through culture shock after I'd been there three weeks. I was working one day and realized my laptop computer cost more than most Rwandans would make in their entire lives. When I first arrived I would see things every day that would make my mouth fly open, but by December what had made me gape in July seemed perfectly normal. On Dec. 18 my emotion was that I didn't want to come back," he said.

Pasternack said he will return to Rwanda for a week, from Jan. 26 to Feb. 3, to work with journalists producing a combined radio, television and newspaper campaign against AIDS. An estimated 11 percent of the country's population have tested positive for AIDS and 40 percent are estimated to be HIV positive, he said.

First photo is available at
http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/steven.jpg.
CUTLINE: Steven Pasternack, head of NMSU's Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, stands with the president of Rwanda and the rector of the National University of Rwanda at graduation ceremonies in December. From left to right: Rector Emile Rwamasirabo; President Paul Kagame; Pasternack; and an unnamed professor of engineering from France. (photo courtesy of Steven Pasternack)

Second photo is available at
http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/rwanda.jpg.
CUTLINE: Steven Pasternack, head of NMSU's Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, stands in the courtyard of the National University of Rwanda following graduation ceremonies there in December. (photo courtesy of Steven Pasternack)

For a print of a photo, call (505) 646-3221.

Jack King
Jan. 16, 2001