Reflections on Rwanda: Part I

At the London-Heathrow airport I joined a group of fifteen Canadian students to embark on the Reflections on Rwanda program, a two week trip to study the 1994 genocide. After eighteen hours in flight and three days of travel, we arrived in Kigali.

The Reflections on Rwanda program is a grassroots, student-initiated, and student-led trip. It was inspired by the March of Remembrance and Hope, a Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland. This is the two year anniversary of my participation in the Holocaust trip and so it is exciting to be commemorating that by traveling on a different, yet related adventure to Africa.

It was an amazing experience standing outside of the airport under the hot sun, in the gentle rain, with a keen sense of the smell of a new place combined with a sense of gratitude, of “happiness doubled by wonder.” Arriving across the world seemed a miraculous accomplishment.

We arrived to le Centre Saint Francois d’Assise where we settled in to our temporary home in Kigali. Then we departed for dinner.  It was a good opportunity to continue the group bonding that we had begun on our lay-over in Ethiopia.

We discussed university life, interprovincial rivalries, pop culture, the environment, demography, books, American politics, and technology – to name only a few topics.

After a restful first night in Rwanda, we woke up and had breakfast at the Centre. Breakfast consisted of coffee, bananas, eggs, and bread with butter and honey. From there we headed to the Commission Nationale du Lutte Contre le Genocide (CNLG).  Ernest provided us with an excellent educational overview of the genocide including the history preceding it and the academic schools of thought that emerged following it. He explained the unique features of the genocide – the rapidity of it, the “atrocities of proximity” and the particular forms of systematic extermination. He also drew parallels between this genocide and others, especially the Holocaust.

Ernest highlighted several scholarly approaches to the genocide and exposed some of the limitations of each account. He encouraged us to recognize the accounts as touching on different aspects and to resist adopting one school of thought to the exclusion of recognizing the context and influence of the others. We also had an opportunity to visit the library at CNLG and to browse hundreds of books and studies related to the genocide.

After lunch we headed to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum. We began our visit with a moment of silence at a mass grave where more than 250,000 victims are buried. Then, we saw a series of gardens. The first represented unity, the second division, and the third reconciliation. Next, we visited the indoor exhibits chronicling the genocide.

We learned that Hutu and Tutsi were initially socio-economic categories designating how many cows someone owned. The colonial introduction of identity cards contributed to the racialization of the once socio-economic categories.

We learned about the use of propaganda in promoting racist ideology, the role of the international community, and we got a glimpse at the  extent of the atrocities committed.

Studying genocide, I find it is important to maintain a vision of the good, the true, the beautiful and what is noble, honourable, and just… in order to grasp why genocide is such sickness and revolt, such dramatic deviation from what human life is about, and from the “vision of another better life” to which we ought to aspire with humility and without the conceit of trying to negate it, reshape it, or transcend it.

There was a room filled with the skulls and bones of victims. Looking at those skulls and bones, I thought about my own skull and my own bones. Then I thought about how these bones and skulls fall short of truly representing the victims. What skulls and bones do emphasize is equality, but what they deemphasize is individuality.  And so I reflected a bit on souls.

Seeing a centre display with rosaries and identity cards among the skulls made me think about the dynamism of the life that once animated those bodies that were so violently destroyed. Life is fragile. People are mysterious. A Holocaust survivor once said that it doesn’t make sense to compare genocidal killers to animals since animals don’t commit genocides.

What does genocide tell us about human nature? How can we account for such diversity in human action? What does it mean to be human? How do we regard human life?

This concludes some hasty and initial reflections of Day 1.

Stay tuned!

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to my parents and to my grandfather.

A few thoughts on conference etiquette

“Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”
– Emily Post

Attending numerous conferences renders one particularly perceptive to the unique kinds of manners and conduct that can be typically observed at such gatherings.

Recently I attended a political conference and inspired by a few observations I made, I would like to share a few thoughts on conference etiquette.

Arrival: When arriving to a conference there is usually a registration desk. Regardless of how much you may expect to be recognized and greeted by name, it is a courtesy to take the initiative to introduce yourself upon arrival. This way you help expedite the registration process and make it easier for those at the registration desk to find your name tag and confirm your attendance on their list.

Dress Code: Sometimes the conference organizers inform attendees of the dress code. If not, it is appropriate to ask the organizers. Otherwise, err on the side of professionalism. Sometimes I like to look at photos of the same conference or event from previous years to get a more exact sense of how people dress for the particular occasion. If you find yourself making excuses to yourself for your attire, chances are that you should change.

Business Cards:
Everyone who attends a conference should bring business cards -enough cards for every conference attendee even. A key purpose of conferences is networking and exchanging business cards is a great way to make connections. When you receive a business card, you should receive it graciously. This may mean taking note of the design or some interesting piece of information on the card and making a comment or offering an affirmation. Then, the card should be respectfully placed in a pocket or cardholder. Cards should not be carelessly left behind on tables, the floor, or the buffet table. At the earliest opportunity, write a note about the individual you met on the back of their card. Perhaps note the key topics of your conversation or the most interesting things you learned from them. Then, when you return home from the conference, send them an email to follow-up and thank them for the pleasure of meeting.

Language: Avoid jargon and acronymns. Both jargon and acronyms can serve to exclude people unfamiliar with the terms and also tend to carelessness in speech. There is a way to explain words that may not be known by everyone rather than patronizingly defining them. By taking the time to explain what you mean, people will be attracted by your inclusiveness and thoughtfulness.

Research: Conference programs are generally released in advance and usually you can predict what kinds of people will be there. It is a good idea to research the panelists, keynote speakers, attendees, and organizations involved. This will make introductions smooth and you can have a solid frame of reference for most conversations.  People are flattered when you recognize their place of work, their research interests, their latest media appearance, and especially anecdotes from their biography. Be careful not to lead on to just how extensive your research has been or to how sharp your memory is. This somtimes comes across as creepy.

House Rules: The recent conference that I attended invoked the “Chatham House Rule.” Essentially, this rule was summarized: “What is said here, stays here.” Curious about the origin and nature of this rule, I did some research.

The Chatham House Rule reads as follows:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

It is important to respect the conference rules because how you honour or dishonour the rules will be a reflection of you. It is especially helpful to know the spirit of the rule so that you can adhere to it accordingly. All of this is especially good to bear in mind in light of new technologies that grant us the opportunity to publish instantly. As the adage goes: “Think before you tweet.”

Questions: At most conferences there is an opportunity to ask questions publicly. In this excellent article How to Ask a Question Peter Wood laments that we seem to have lost the art of asking good questions. He begins his article explaining what happened when the floor was opened for questions at a debate:

“The questioners by and large had no questions. Instead they offered up prolix piles of words that led nowhere in particular. Some sought to show off what they mistook as their own superior knowledge. Others scolded. A few got lost in their own labyrinths. The closest we came to a question was the j’accuse rhetorical jab more or less in the form, ‘Don’t you agree that you are an ignorant buffoon?’

Some of the questioners were deliberately abusing their opportunity. That’s bad manners and an erosion of the civility that is needed for worthwhile public debate. But a good many of the questioners simply didn’t know how to ask a question. They were caught in the fog between wanting to communicate something that seemed to them urgent to declare and the need to ask.”

When asking a question at a conference, I recommend beginning by stating your name and where you are from (city or university or company, for example). Avoid providing an oral resume. Far too often individuals spend two minutes describing how qualified they are to ask the question before finally taking a full minute to ask it. When asking a question, remain standing at the microphone until the question has been answered.  Avoid the most specific references in questions that are outside of the parametres of what has been the focus of discussion. For example, it seems odd when, after a session on the principle of religious liberty or the global financial crisis, people stand up and ask very particular questions about Latvia and Pakistan. Share your personal and niche interests when you mingle, not during question period.

Speakers: When you are the speaker at a conference, arrive early. It is good to arrive early enough to visit with conference participants and perhaps to join them for a meal. Then, it will also be appreciated if you can stay for a short while after to address individual questions and to receive compliments! Making time for participants when you are the speaker in this way will show that you respect your audience and are willing to go above and beyond showing up to speak and collect a fee or honorarium.

Speakers should definitely avoid apologizing during their presentations and confessing to a lack of preparation. A speaker should not say “in conclusion” or “I have only a few minutes remaining” when he is only halfway through his presentation. This makes the audience anticipate a speedy end to the presentation that they would otherwise likely be far more attentive to sit through were the speaker to make no reference to time.

The chair of a panel or the master of ceremonies should always greet the speakers who they invite to the podium with a handshake. It is important for the chair to take this initiative and for the other speakers to respond the gesture. The podium should never be left unattended. Applause should occur consistently before and after each speaker and it is the role of the chair to model this to the audience. Applause should be held until the speaker arrives to the podium to be greeted by the chair. Even when the chair and a speaker are friends, hands should be shaken rather than a hug or any other reception at the podium.

For more resources on public speaking and leadership, check out Toastmasters.

At conferences there tends to be buffet meals, plenty of socials, and lots of occasions to go out for drinks. It is typical to not feel even a bit hungry or thirsty throughout such a conference. However, consider how moderation and a little sacrifice can serve to cultivate discipline that can sharpen your conscientious dealings with others. Intentionally foregoing some of the luxuries at conferences is a good way to stay focused on the purpose of the conference and to be sensitive to others.

Intensity: Conferences are intense experiences. They provide opportunities for tremendous growth personally, professionally, academically, and even spiritually. Aim to strike a balance between total immersion and a bird’s eye view.

Reflection and Goal-setting: After a conference has ended, take the time to reflect on your experiences. Write down your observations, memories, highlights, etc. Then, set goals. What actions do you resolve to take inspired by this conference? Do you intend to attend the same conference again? Are there similar ones that you can attend? What were the highlights? How will you transform your experience into action? How has the conference shaped your character?

Happy conference-going!

The Day I Bought Tomatoes with Toilet Paper

Recently I traveled to Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico on a mission trip. At the beginning of the week, we Canadians had a team-building activity called the Cuernavaca Quest. This quest was a sort of scavenger hunt. We were divided into teams that each received a list of five items to purchase with sixty pesos, the salary of a poor Mexican and a little less than $5.00 CAD. We were also given instructions to shop at only two places: the MEGA Supermarket (a Walmart equivalent) and the People’s Market (a flea market where the poor sell goods at vendor stands). We set out to purchase our five assigned items including: 1 kilo of rice, 1 kilo of green tomatoes, 1 kilo of tortillas, “1-2-3″ cooking oil, and one roll of toilet paper.

My team and I began at the MEGA Supermarket. We searched throughout the store and price-checked the items. Ultimately, we decided that it would be best to purchase the cooking oil and toilet paper there, but that we could get the food items for a better price at the People’s Market. There was one problem though and that was that toilet paper was not sold individually, but only in quantities of at least four rolls. I suggested that we buy the cheapest four-pack and then use the remaining three rolls in excess of what was required to buy another item on our list. My teammates laughed initially, but agreed that it was worth a try. We purchased the four-pack of toilet paper and the “1-2-3″ cooking oil and then set out for the People’s Market.

When we arrived to the market, we found some young women selling tortillas. Our time and money were limited and so we bargained with them. It was mildly difficult to bargain with the poor since we likely appeared as though we could afford the cost. Eventually, we settled for a little less than a kilo of tortillas according to our tortilla budget. Next, we strolled throughout the People’s Market in search of green tomatoes. Almost everywhere the tomatoes were being sold for six pesos. I then insisted that my teammates put away their cameras since it would not likely go over well to haggle while holding digital cameras.

Eventually we came upon a woman selling green tomatoes. We explained that we did not have very much money to spend and would she trade a kilo of tomatoes for two rolls of toilet paper? She shook her head to that offer. I pulled out a third roll of toilet paper, desperate to seal the deal. She lit up and with three rolls, we had a deal! By selling the rolls, we gained money back that we had spent on the four, making the earlier expense cheaper and we acquired another needed item. She was pleased with the exchange because she thought that the value of three rolls of toilet paper was greater than the price of her tomatoes.

The last item that we had to buy was the kilo of rice. We only had ten pesos remaining. Everywhere that we went we found that a kilo of rice was being sold for twelve pesos. We must have had our offers refused at a dozen different kiosks. Finally, we came upon some young men with rice for sale and asked how much. They said, “Eleven pesos.” We were delighted. Would they take ten? Sure. I commended them on their fine business skills and informed them that they had made the sale because of their ability and willingness to be competitive.

My team and I had accomplished the Cuernavaca Quest! I was filled with enthusiasm and pride at our success. The activity, I thought, had been a terrific lesson in capitalism, voluntary trade, subjective valuation, creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship.

Once all of the teams regrouped, we debriefed the quest. The rest of the group thought that they had succeeded at the activity by failing, as if the purpose was to realize that it could not be done and that needs could not be met with the low daily wage. Initially, everyone found our idea creative, but soon became frustrated. They accused me of coming up with a solution that was beyond the abilities of the poor. They argued, “It is very hard to think like that. These people do not have the university education that you do.” I insisted that the poor are even more inventive than I was this day and that they are already doing what I did on a daily basis to support their families. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” I insisted. The group argued that the poor do not have time to think of making a profit, but only of spending their daily sixty pesos. That is no way to break the cycle of poverty, I thought. And the barter system certainly preceded university education.

As Robert Murphy says in this blog, ”When two people engage in a voluntary trade, they both benefit. In other words, they both walk away with the ‘more valuable’ object.”

I will always remember this lesson of the mutually advantageous benefits conferred in a free market because of the day that I bought tomatoes with toilet paper

Originally published on 

Dying with Dignity?

Below is an excerpt from my parents’ Letter from the Editors in the May 2012 issue of The Carillon, the newsletter of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary:

Last month our daughter, Amanda, attended the Dying with Dignity seminar in Calgary. She wanted to, as St. Augustine urges, “hear the other side” of the euthanasia debate. Amanda said that she felt she was observing a contradiction. The seniors were visiting, laughing, discussing and snacking and everything they did seemed to affirm life. Yet, all the while, they were trying to advance the “right to die.” Proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide seem to think that suffering is the greatest evil. Amanda has been reflecting on Socrates’ argument that it is better to suffer evil than to commit it. As Catholics, we unite our suffering with Christ’s sacrifice so that it can be transformed by God’s redemptive power. We agree with Amanda when she says that we ought to ground our public policies in a life-affirming philosophy rather than case-by-case verdicts on questions of convenience. She says that the answer to elder abuse is to eliminate the abuse, not the elder. It is the sanctity of human life, not our utility, that gives ultimate purpose to our lives. Let us recognize the face of Christ in the elderly and celebrate God’s gifts as they enrich our lives and we enrich theirs.

– Monique and Myron Achtman