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Heading to Rwanda Part 4: Stumbling into Stories

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So you may be wondering -- "what exactly is this girl doing in Rwanda?" I'll admit -- I've been avoiding the subject.

I am incredibly lucky to be interning at a Rwandan radio station as a reporter and newsreader. But it has been difficult to put my experience into words. Doing journalism here sometimes feels like the complete opposite of doing journalism in Canada.

I have to remind myself to relax on an almost hourly basis. In Canada, I was so used to planning everything, controlling everything, always being prepared. I kept track of time like an army officer. I was attached to my blackberry like it was an extra appendage. Here in Rwanda, that approach doesn't always fly.

For a while, I felt like I was getting nowhere:

I'd search for story ideas for hours and find nothing.
I'd sit through a press conference entirely in Kinyarwanda and then find out my only hope at an English interview had just left the building.
I'd set up three interviews and each would fall through.

I felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel. I don't really know how or when I stopped feeling this way, but the good news is I did. I began to relax as I learned the reasons behind some of the things that were catching me off guard.

For instance, journalists who ask really long questions at press conferences don't just enjoy hearing themselves talk; sometimes it takes longer to express oneself in Kinyarwanda than it does in English. Or when a journalist from a competing station asks you for info or recordings for a story -- they usually aren't trying to scoop you. For the most part, the sense of competition between news outlets is not as intense here as it is elsewhere.

As I get to know people in Rwanda, I become more in touch with the stories surrounding me. I've started appreciating the things I am doing instead of worrying about the things I'm not. I didn't really notice my attitude had changed until halfway through my fifth week on the job.

That Wednesday morning, just before our daily 9 a.m. story meeting, I caught wind of a new development in the Eastern DRC conflict.

I saw a brief story on BBC Africa. Congolese government troops and M23 rebels had agreed to allow rangers in Virunga National Park to go and search for six families of missing mountain gorillas without facing attack. Many of the gorillas hadn't been seen since the conflict escalated in May.

I put in a call to the Park Director, Emmanuel de Merode. As it turned out, de Merode and his staff were not able to launch their search party as planned. They were trapped in their headquarters in the south of the park, waiting for a pause for some fighting that had just broken out. Mortar and gunfire were drawing nearer to them.

Virunga is home to over 200 mountain gorillas, which is about one quarter of the total remaining population in the world. Mr. de Merode told me he had no idea what the condition of the park's gorillas was -- no idea if any had been killed.

The fact that these gorillas might be harmed due to human conflict was upsetting enough. Then Mr. de Merode told me that Virunga has lost more than 130 park rangers in the last 15 years, and 12 in the last year alone. They died, caught in the crossfire, trying to protect Virunga and the animals and innocent people living in the park.

After writing up my script that afternoon, I stepped back, a little stunned.

I felt really privileged to have had the chance to speak to Mr. de Merode. He was in such a chaotic situation, yet he took the time to share his experience with me, so I could share it with Rwandans.

Mountain gorilla visits are a huge tourism generator in the area, and the Virunga gorillas are also often found on the Rwandan side of the border. The fact that both the Congolese government forces and the M23 agreed on letting the rangers search for the gorillas without being attacked, and the fact that the rangers are willing to risk their lives to protect the gorillas, point to the dedication to protecting this endangered species in this part of the world.

That's when it hit me. I may not do a story this interesting every day, but what I'm learning on my down days -- the culture, the geography, the politics -- it informs me for those days when I do stumble upon something bigger.

Maybe I should learn to appreciate "stumbling" a little more.

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P.S.

As a cherry-on-top to that very fulfilling day, I was able to bring Canadian listeners in on the story by tweeting the info to Jeff Douglas, co-host of CBC's As it Happens. You can listen to their interview with Mr. de Merode here.