Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bluegrass concert demonstrates wisdom of cultural exchanges
(GONDAR, ETHIOPIA)—Anyone who doubts the benefits of public diplomacy should have seen one of yesterday’s performances by “Crow and the Canyon,” a bluegrass band brought to Ethiopia on a tour by the U.S. State Department.
In the morning, the band played for about 1,000 delighted students and teachers at the Gondar Community School, where I teach a weekly journalism class. Later, they played a 45-minute set for grateful onlookers in the residential compound where I live at the University of Gondar. The many children in attendance were especially delighted, and showed off their best “swing your partner” country moves while the bank performed.
Do-si-do, at bluegrass concert in Gondar March 14

Aside from uplifting the spirits of the American scholars and their families here in Gondar, the real value of “Crow and the Canyon’s” visit lies in its inestimable benefit in bringing together Americans and Ethiopians. America’s most valuable export is our culture, and what better way to share it than a performance of this quintessentially American art form. The phrase “goodwill tour” may be a cliché, but it is nonetheless valid. The goodwill and good feelings events like this generate will last well beyond the band’s brief stay. 

Note woman upper left, leaning over balcony
In peace journalism, we talk about rejecting “us vs. them” narratives, and putting a human face on “them.” There is no better way to humanize Americans than to show our culture, our music, and yes, even our square dancing. When you recognize someone’s humanity, it’s hard to stereotype them, and even harder to hate them. Better to build goodwill through cultural sharing than clean up the mess created when nations are in conflict.

As an American taxpayer, I think of the money spent on cultural exchanges this way. The biggest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal, which was used against ISIS in Afghanistan and dubbed the mother-of-all-bombs, costs $170,000 each (Business Insider). I did a little figuring, and a one week trip by “Crow’s” five musicians to Ethiopia (airfare, hotel, transport, food) totals, at maximum, about $20,000. Ask yourself: are eight such cultural exchange trips more valuable to our nation, and to the world, than one giant bomb? In fact, I believe just one such exchange does more to enhance our national security, and buttress out international relationships, than a thousand bombs.

After leaving Ethiopia, “Crow and the Canyon” will continue their African tour in Uganda and Tanzania, where they’ll continue to share the very best of what America has to offer.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Is peace journalism more than just good journalism?

(Bahir Dar, Ethiopia)-My third and final day here, I met with about 50 journalists from the Amhara Mass Media Association and about the same number of students at Bahir Dar University about the basics of PJ and its role in reconciliation.
At Amhara Mass Media Assoc.

The BDU session featured a mixed group consisting of undergraduates and master’s and doctoral students. One especially astute graduate student asked: If journalists write objectively and in a balanced fashion, are they automatically peace journalists? I responded that being objective and balanced isn’t enough, and that peace journalists make the extra effort to give peacemakers a voice, to avoid inflammatory language, and to give voice to the voiceless.

Along these same lines, we also discussed if peace journalism is nothing more than just good journalism. As I look back, I’m dissatisfied with my response. I should have said this, or at least made it clearer: Yes, peace journalism is good journalism—balanced, objective, fact-based. However, I believe PJ transcends traditional good journalism because of its emphasis on solutions, reporting proactively, rejecting reporting only for and about elites, and so on.

I loved my stay in Bahir Dar, and will try to squeeze in another visit (either official or recreational) before my stint in Ethiopia is complete in May.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sometimes, the best we can do is to not make things worse

(Bahir Dar, Ethiopia)-As is frequently the case, the most interesting discussions at a conference occur on the sidelines.

After my introduction to peace journalism keynote at the International Conference on Language, Culture, and Communication this week at Bahir Dar University, I had an invigorating discussion with four Ethiopian communications professors about peace journalism. We talked about whether PJ is possible in Ethiopia. (Consensus: It can be implemented here, at least in part). The most interesting point made by an Ethiopian professor was that PJ stops being peaceful when journalists report news that will make people uncomfortable or angry. He used an example of police shooting and killing protesters to illustrate his point. How can we report a story like this without creating anger or sparking a riot, he asked?

My response was unsatisfying to him and to me: Sometimes, the best we can do as journalists is to not exacerbate the situation, to not pour gasoline on an already blazing fire. We all agreed that this police shooting story must be reported, since it’s clearly news. I added that not reporting a story like this would invite rumors and misrepresentations, and could potentially make matters worse.
Here in Ethiopia, this police shooting story is hardly hypothetical, since dozens of anti-government protesters have been killed during the last three years.

Other conference highlights
International conference sessions at BDU included a presentation of political identification in Ethiopia as reflected on Facebook, by far the most popular social medium here. Prof. Tesfaye Zelalem found that Ethiopia’s two biggest political parties use FB to belittle their opponents, thus missing out on an opportunity to engage in reasoned, reciprocal, productive discussions about substantive issues. 

Prof. Feyisa Mulisa presented research about FB which showed, unsurprisingly, that high school students spend much more time on social media for recreation than for academics. He suggested finding a way to better engage students academically on social media.

Dr. Adem Chanie’s research was about how the Ethiopian government entity BOLSA ineffectively communicates to and about their constituency, the disabled. He recommended participatory communication approaches that would better engage the disabled.

Overall, it was an excellent conference, and a fine opportunity to exchange ideas with some fascinating colleagues.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Skeptic finally convinced about the value, and fun, of the journey

Scenery, north central Ethiopia, en route to Bahir Dar

(ON THE ROAD, NORTH CENTRAL ETHIOPIA)—There are a million clichés about embracing the value, or fun, of the journey, never mind the destination. Today, en route from Gondar to Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, I think I finally believe this.

First, there was the spectacular scenery, punctuated by some of the most unusual rock formations I’ve ever seen. This is dry season, and that showed on the parched landscape. Still, the beauty of the mountains and picturesque villages alone made the journey memorable.
North Central Ethiopia. Hey, no snickering.

Secondly, the “half the fun” of getting there today was provided largely by my driver/traveling companion Simegnew, who sported a smile as big as his fashionable sunglasses. Much of the discussion during the 2.5 hour trip centered around languages. Simegnew speaks three local languages, and gave me lessons in all three. I was a pretty slow study, particularly when it came to the days of the week, but he remained patient with me. 

One feature of Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language, is a “flat e” sound that’s not found in English. I told Simegnew it reminded me of a similar sound in Romanian, like in the words caine, maine, and inghetata (dog, tomorrow, ice cream). Curious, he asked about some other Romanian words, and I gladly provided a brief, amateurish lesson. When I got up this morning, I would not have put strong odds on speaking Romanian today.

When we weren’t conversing, I was getting my language lesson via music played, loudly, in four local languages. When he wasn’t explaining what the songs meant, he was singing along, also loudly.

As we parted, I thanked Simegnew for the hospitality, and was tickled to learn that he would be driving me back to Gondar next week.This gives me a few days to brush up on my Amharic and my Romanian.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Conscientious students impress visiting prof
(Gondar –also spelled Gonder—Ethiopia)—I already like my University of Gondar students—specifically, my Broadcast and Multimedia Writing class.
The view from my classroom at Gondar Univ. Yes, wow!
Through my own ignorance, I didn’t realize that today, Friday, March 2, is an Ethiopian national holiday, Adwa Victory Day. (“A time of great national pride and of remembrance of the great victory of Emperor Menelik over an invading Italian army on 2 March, 1896,” according to Thus, my M-W-F class doesn’t meet today. This put me in a bind, since I had wanted to give them an assignment today that they could complete on Monday, when I’ll be away from class in Bahir Dar.
Another view from the journalism dept. at UoG.

On Thursday, I mentioned this to my dedicated department chair, Mustofa Worku. He said he could call a couple of students, and that perhaps I could meet them in the afternoon. The brief meeting was set for 3:00pm Thursday. Since this was late afternoon on the day before a three day weekend, I hoped that maybe 2 or 3 students might show up. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when 20 of the 24 students met me and cheerfully received their assignments.  

If this is indicative of these students' commitment to the class, it’s going to be an outstanding semester indeed.

Assorted Updates
A. Journalism course at Gondar Community School—I continue to meet weekly with about 10 seventh graders. (See post from February). We’re learning the basics of journalism, and they’re eventually going to produce GCS’s first school newspaper. This week, the students took a fact sheet and produced a news story. The results were excellent—very encouraging indeed. Next week, we’ll discuss writing headlines and captions, and in the following weeks, production work will begin on the newspaper. Exciting!

B. Bahir Dar—Next Monday-Wednesday, I’ll be in Bahir Dar, about a two hour car trip from Gondar. I’ll be attending and speaking at a communications conference Monday and Tuesday, and addressing professional journalists and Bahir Dar University students on Wednesday. Stay tuned for updates.