Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Strike makes for an interesting first day at UoG
GONDAR, ETHIOPIA—It was an atypical first day of class for the new semester at the University of Gondar (UoG).

What made my first meeting with my Broadcast Writing students unique wasn’t the students or the setting. The students, all young men, were excellent. They seemed inquisitive, and enthusiastically participated in class activities. The journalism department let us meet in their computer lab, which is equipped with new computers and software. It even has a smart board. The lab isn’t hooked to the internet yet, but they’re working on it.

Today, we talked about the elements of news, and what makes a story newsworthy. Later, I’ll introduce peace journalism, and we’ll discuss how to write broadcast and multimedia news in a professional, non-inflammatory way.

Unfortunately, only about half my students were able to make it to class. Normally, I’d be steamed about this. However, those who couldn’t make it had a pretty good excuse.

Since Monday, all motorized transportation has been suspended in Gondar. This means no taxis, buses, or bajajes, small three-wheeled vehicles. All transportation is shut down as part of a larger anti-government strike in the region that has shuttered businesses and schools. Today is the strike’s last day.

Those who couldn’t make it to my UoG class literally couldn’t make it to my class, since they had no way of getting to campus. I’m anticipating a full house at our next class session on Friday.

My big send off
Before heading up to class this morning (literally, up 216 steps and two large hills/mountains), my Fulbright colleague and friend Tim sent me off with a photo shoot. Now, Tim is nothing if not...thorough. He went online, found my CV, and calculated how many years I’ve either attended school or taught—thus the number 49. I’ll take him at his word, though I suddenly feel a million years old.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Strike begins today; All peaceful around university
(Gondar, Ethiopia)—It’s day three of a six-month long state of emergency in Ethiopia, and day one of a three day general strike here in Gondar. During the three day strike, myself and my Fulbright scholar brethren are hunkered down, safely, in our apartment complex.

The anti-government strike has stopped all forms of public transportation, both buses and bajajes, usually ubiquitous three wheeled taxis. I stood and watched the typically busy street just outside our apartment block for about 15 minutes, and could count on one hand the number of motorized vehicles (mostly big trucks) that passed by. Motorized transport seems to have been at least partially replaced by horse drawn carts, which seem much more prevalent than usual.

I’m pleased to report that the numerous donkeys that traverse our street appear undaunted by the strike.

The strike has also closed down most, if not all, retail businesses in Gondar. In my neighborhood, a friend reports that all of our haunts are shuttered, including the tiny TG grocery store and the Red Fox, a hotel/restaurant that serves the best foul (delicious spicy beans) in the hemisphere. 

I walked up 216 steps (see previous post) without stopping because I was curious as to how the strike is affecting the University of Gondar. I had expected the place to be dead, but instead, hundreds of students were making their way to and from class, or their dorms. I chatted with two grad students as they left class. In perfect English, the young men told me that some classes are being held today, while some are cancelled. As for journalism, my department, our classes this week start Wednesday. Will I meet my class then? I should know more tomorrow.

There are a number of unconfirmed reports about a strong police presence around the central market and downtown area, called the piassa. There are also rumors of unrest in these parts of town, but again, these are unconfirmed. I can definitively report that the area in and around our apartment and the university has been calm. I have no reason to believe that it won’t stay that way.

I can't wait to greet my reporting students on Wednesday, or if not, Friday at the latest. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

UPDATE, MONDAY, 19 FEB—Since the post below, the state of emergency has been clarified. It will last six months, and could include a possible four month extension. Protests are banned, as are “publications that incite and sow discord.” Whether this clause will be used to further stifle journalists remains to be seen. So far, the situation hasn't yet impacted the internet.
--For more about the state of emergency:
--For the strong U.S. reaction against the state of emergency:

Despite State of Emergency, I'm Fine
(Gondar, Ethiopia)—First, a brief message to my mom and wife: I’m fine.

That needs to be said, I suppose, when one is residing in a country where there is an official state of emergency, which was declared by the Ethiopian government yesterday. Details about what exactly this might entail, and how long it might last (reports say three or six months) are still to be announced. 

News outlets are reporting that this state of emergency won’t be much different than the recent 13 month state of emergency that ended last August. If this is so, then some civil liberties could be suspended, and the military given more freedom to make arrests. The last state of emergency included periods where the internet was disconnected for the entire country, and other times where only social media were blocked. So far, the internet remains untouched by the authorities, as evidenced by this post.

The state of emergency follows the surprise resignation last week of the prime minister. Mass protests against the government have rocked Ethiopia since 2015.

Here in Gondar, locals have organized a three day protest and strike (stores closed, no transportation, etc.) slated to start on Monday. No one knows how large the protests will be, or how many will participate in the strike.

Seven Americans (Fulbrighters and their families and me) held a conference call with the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa this morning to get updated on the situation. Mostly, the message was that no one really knows the ramifications yet of the state of emergency, so sit tight.

We are certainly in no danger at this point. The compound where we live is extremely safe and well guarded, and our neighbors (other professors and their families, mostly) keep a close eye on us. We will hunker down here during the duration of the strike and protest period, however long that might last. 

Today, my friend and colleague Tim and I had what he called a “guys shopping trip” to stock up on food and beverages in case the local grocery stores do stay closed longer than a few days. We are well provisioned now, having ample supplies of water, pasta, fruit, and of course, beer.

My classes next week at the University of Gondar may or may not be held, depending on how the situation unfolds. I’ll be in touch with my department chair Mustofa.

I was supposed to leave for a two-hour trip to Bahir Dar tomorrow to lecture at the university and meet with journalists. However, after consulting with the embassy, I’ve decided to postpone that trip. The concern wasn’t me getting there, but rather getting home Tuesday afternoon. If there are large protests, roads could be blocked. Better to stay safe at home, with my beer. Once things settle, I plan to go to Bahir Dar in March.

Before you beseech me to come home, please keep in mind that there is no place that is immune from violence, or from protests. The unrest in Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri (in my home state) wasn’t that long ago. Gun violence is everywhere, the Florida school shooting being the latest example. Would I really be safer lecturing in the U.S. than at the University of Gondar or the Gondar Community School, where I’m teaching an intro to journalism class for seventh graders?

Unless things change dramatically, I’m not leaving until May, when I’m scheduled to come home. I have too much left to accomplish here. Currently, I believe that the risk is manageable, and involves nothing more complex than keeping in touch with the embassy and my Ethiopian colleagues, and staying at home with my American colleagues and my beer.

I’ll be fine.

For more about the state of emergency in Ethiopia:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Vertical Gondar Challenges Foolish Flatlander
(Gondar, Ethiopia)—Before I came to Gondar, I heard that it was hilly. As a graduate of the University of Kansas, and long-time professor at Park University, I took this news smugly, since both of my universities are known for their hills. I naively believed my KU and Park experience had prepared me for any vertical collegiate challenge.

I could not have been more incorrect.

First, the hills here aren’t hills, they’re mountains. Gondar itself is up in the mountains, and surrounded by larger mountains. In the city, the highest point is, you guessed it, the University of Gondar (UoG). Thus, approaching from either direction, one takes a nearly vertical tack to reach the university’s main gates. To avoid a coronary, I usually take a bajaj (a small three wheeled vehicle for hire) up to the gates.

Tragically, the gates are only the halfway point. The highest point on Mount UoG is the building housing the journalism department. From the entrance gates, it takes an exhausting 10 minute hike, again seemingly straight up, to reach the journalism building. But wait—there’s more. The journalism department is on the fifth floor, and, you guessed it, there is no elevator.

Steps of Eternal Peril & journalism building (top),
as seem from my apartment
An alternative route is around the back side of campus. One starts with a slight uphill climb along a road being constructed and aside the soccer field. The climb gets more pronounced as one reaches the dorms. Making a left after the dorms, one is left gape-jawed and breathless at the sight of the doom that awaits, which I have dubbed the Steps of Eternal Peril. The sadistic  Steps of Eternal Peril features 216 stairs (I counted) seemingly arrayed at a 90-degree angle. My first stab at the Steps of Eternal Peril, on my first day in Gondar, I had to stop three times on the way up. Now, I’m in reasonably decent shape, and was surprised at having to stop at all. The second attempt, I had to stop only once, halfway. On the third try, I made it 140 steps, 2/3 of the way, without stopping. 

Steps of Eternal Peril, Univ. of Gondar
Even after having conquered the Steps of Eternal Peril, one is still faced with a steep, five minute walk to the journalism building. Then, of course, there’s the stairs up to the fifth floor.

Another issue is the elevation. Gondar’s elevation is 2850 meters (9350 feet), about the same as Bogota, Colombia and Quito, Equador, and only 600 meters lower than Lhasa, Tibet. (The highest point in Missouri, where I live, is 1645 feet). I noticed the altitude immediately as I huffed and puffed my way around campus. Again, being in decent shape, gasping for air has been a new experience for me. Thus, in Gondar, not only does one battle the Steps of Eternal Peril and the staircase up to the fifth floor, but the altitude as well. I’m slowly acclimating, though I still find myself breathless at times.

The good news, of course, is that this is a great place to get in shape. I can almost see the pounds melting off. The Steps of Eternal Peril are the world’s best workout facility. Once I make it to the top without stopping, I’ll work on picking up the pace, and perhaps mount the steps while carrying some weight in a backpack.

At the end of the day, once I’ve hiked around the Matterhorn/UoG campus, I make a leisurely stroll downhill to my apartment, which is located on the fifth floor. Predictably, there is no elevator.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Gondar University Community School
7th graders eager to begin newspaper production
(Gondar, Ethiopia)-The best question, from the only young lady in the class, was indicative of the eagerness of all the students: “When can we get started making our newspaper?”

I understand their impatience, and love their attitude.

The youngsters, 7th graders at the University of Gondar Community School, seemed to understand my response, even though they weren’t thrilled that I was peddling patience. I told them simply that they had to learn some basics of journalism and reporting before they dove into producing a student newspaper, which will be the school’s first. I told my charges they should be able to begin the production process in 4-5 weeks.

Habtie,  helping students
Today, on the first day of our short course, we discussed what makes a story newsworthy, as well as news elements like proximity, prominence, drama, timeliness, and so on. The students also learned a bit about peace journalism. The session finished with an exercise where the students evaluated the newsworthiness of four stories. Based on their responses, I’d say the first class was a success.
These youngsters are all members of the school’s English club, which is ably directed by Peggy Landers, who is teaching English at the community school this year. Peggy and her colleague Habtie helped to organize the journalism course, the first of its kind at the community school.  

In my journalism class next week, I’ll launch into some newswriting basics, and give the students plenty of time to practice their writing. Also next week, and in each subsequent week, I hope I get asked again when production begins on the newspaper.

Budding journalists at the community school, Gondar