Reflections on Rwanda: Part VII

We drove from Kibuye to Gisenyi. Along the road we made a pit stop to do a tire change. For about an hour we played soccer and volleyball with some young people. I brought a book with images of Calgary. Everyone enjoyed seeing pictures of the prairies, mountains, snow, and city centre.

We had a long drive to la Maison St. Benoit where our accommodations were at the site of a Dominican convent. Upon arrival we kicked a ball around, strolled along the lake, and had lunch before some free time.

During this time I spoke with Sister Francoise. We chatted in French about faith and suffering. She spoke quietly and piously saying that God is always present and that during the genocide, He was present in those who risked their lives (and, in some cases gave their lives) to save people. She and I marveled at how resilient people are and how people can live and flourish after the horrors of genocide. The way she spoke about the miracle of life after genocide inspired me to think about the miracle of life after death, of resurrection.

In the afternoon we went to the Congo border. We observed hundreds of people easily moving between the two countries. Border security is virtually non-existent and passports are not required for residents of the border communities of Gisenyi and Goma. In some areas it’s unclear whether a house is in Rwanda or in the Congo. During the genocide, the place that we visited was one of the main points of exit for people fleeing Rwanda. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) liberated the country, the perpetrators fled the country through Gisenyi and set up refugee camps near Goma. After the refugee camps were set up, the international community intervened swiftly. However, a lot of the people in the refugee camps were perpetrators meaning that aid and relief often reached perpetrators before reaching victims.

Amanda and Faustin

In the evening we learned even more about the spillover effects of the genocide into the Congo, Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Our Rwandan guide and friend Faustin told us his personal story. He was fourteen years old in 1994. He joined the RPF and worked as a driver. When they went into one of the towns that the RPF liberated, there were several small children crying for their mothers. He was able to help one child by taking him to his boss’s wife. She raised him as her own. Faustin remains in touch with this young man whom he considers to be a brother. The young man is now studying in university and was eventually able to find some of his family members who survived.Then, in the evening we went dancing at a club beneath the restaurant. We drank Ugandan gin and danced to “Waka Waka” and “Call me maybe”, our team’s favorite songs. One team member remarked that clubbing felt a bit like emotional whiplash. It was good to go out mid-way through the trip though as we transitioned from despair to hope and from tragedy to optimism.

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Students of the University of Calgary.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part VI

Josephine

In the morning at Kibuye we met an amazing woman named Josephine. She was a rescuer. During the genocide, she found a nine-year-old Tutsi boy named Thomas. Thomas thought he would be killed by a Hutu woman but Josephine gained the boy’s trust. She brought Thomas to her home and introduced him to her sons saying, “This is your brother.”Josephine’s husband was furious with her for risking the family’s lives to save Tutsis. Repeatedly he derided her, evening threatening to turn her in for her defiance. But she said to her husband, “How can you accept for Thomas to be killed? He is a boy just like our son. They are the same age and should have the same future. I will accept to be killed with them but I cannot refuse to save them.”At one point Thomas asked Josephine what his new father had said of him being there. Josephine refused to tell the boy that her husband thought that he was a threat and lied saying only, “The killings will stop soon.”

Numerous times the family escaped death and helped Thomas and several others to survive. Josephine said that her sons were happy to help and enjoyed playing with Thomas. Unfortunately, both of her teenage sons died after being recruited to fight in the Congo. They did not get to know that Thomas survived.

Josephine says that her regret during the genocide is that she did not save more people. She informed us that Thomas is alive and well, completing a university degree in management. “He calls me mom and I call him my son,” concluded Josephine beaming with pride and exuding great joy.

Following the genocide, Josephine was taunted and bullied for saving Tutsis. She recounted an instance where community members took all of her bananas and threw them into the lake. Ultimately, some local authorities had to threaten to arrest those harassing her in order for them to stop. She received little  recognition for her heroic actions. One survivor said, “I will give you a cow because you saved me.”

Josephine’s story was a tremendous example of self-sacrifice, courage, perseverance, and extraordinary  love. After listening to her story, I thought to myself: If the only thing I did on this trip was sit at Josephine’s feet and listen to her story, it was worth traveling across the world.

We are sometimes starved for heroes. On this trip I have gained a better grasp of the wide range of human action, from the capacity for great evil to the capacity for great goodness. Who are your heroes? Can you give examples of extreme vice and extreme virtue? How important is it to have heroes to emulate rather than only tyrants to condemn?

In gratitude for her support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Pat McGowan.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part V

This morning we visited a memorial commemorating an event in 1997 at Nyange School. Three years after the genocide a group of infiltrators came into a school and told the children to divide themselves: Hutus on one side and Tutsis on the other. But these children had learned a lesson from the genocide and refused to be divided. “We are all Rwandans,” they insisted. Angered by the children’s obstinate courage, the infiltrators killed six of the children who had banded together during this incident.

These children who remained steadfast in their resistance to the infiltrators attempt to manipulate them and were slain as a consequence, are rightly remembered as heroes. The memorial is a modest grave behind the school. The school continues to function as a school today. We toured the classrooms and tossed around a Frisbee with the students.

After visiting the school, we went to a memorial site at Bisesero called the “Hill of Resistance”. It was at this site where the Tutsi population sought to defend themselves by strategically assembling atop the hill in order to throw rocks at their attackers. Initially, their defense worked against the killers’ clubs and machetes. However, the Tutsis’ humble efforts were no match for the second onslaught of attacks that included modern weapons and a heightened level of genocidal organization. Approximately 50,000 people were killed at Bisesero. Survivors numbered around 1,000.

We visited a section of the memorial filled with thousands of skulls and bones of victims. It was so bizarre to see these remnants of such horrific abuses against life, while at the same time being able to peer outside at the stunning scenery including beautiful Lake Kivu. It was hard to fathom that the site was a place of mass murder. All that we could see for miles was luscious greenery, the sparkling lake, smiling passers-by, and the brightly coloured sky as the bold sun began to set. The contrast between the locale’s present life and its history of death was stark.

At Bisesero we listened to a survivor named Damascene tell his story. He told us that it was bad leadership that manipulated the population to believe the genocidal ideology of ethnic cleansing. He pointed to us and said solemnly, “It was people who were young like you who they incited to kill.” With so few survivors, Damascene says he is convinced that God saved the few people to be ambassadors tasked with preserving the memory and testimony of the genocide. He urged us to help combat genocide denial and to spread the lessons we have learned. “Genocide can happen anywhere”, he said. So it is essential to learn from one another and to resolve to constantly affirm the message “Never Again.”

Damascene told us that the Tutsis at Bisesero especially wanted not to be slaughtered like animals, but to (at very least) have had the dignity of fighting back against the genocidaires.

Now, people who turned so dramatically against one another during the genocide have returned to being neighbours and in some cases, even friends. How is this possible? What are we to think about victims who fought back in resistance versus those who gathered in one place because they wanted to be killed with their family and friends? Can genocide happen anywhere? What is the best defense against the instigation of genocide? In what ways does the Internet make it less likely or more likely for genocidal ideologies to be propagated and how do we guard against this possibility?

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Matthew Raketti, Chris Tonellato Barnstead, and Jeremy Fraser.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part IV

Today began with a visit to the National Museum of Rwanda in Butare. The museum featured Rwanda’s history, language, geography, topography, and anthropology. We observed traditional dress, housing, and art. Many of the photographs in the exhibits were taken mid-twentieth century by Belgians and Germans. I marvelled at the photographs that were evidently fairly recent, but that seemed to represent such an ancient way of life. We also saw currencies from throughout Rwanda’s history. Currency is a neat token of a country. It reminded me of a first university assignment that involved inquiry into the history of an era through studying an ancient coin.

From the museum we departed to the Murambi Memorial. At this site there was a technical school that had not yet been opened when thousands fled to it during the genocide. The school was on top of a hill. We were led into classrooms filled with tables on which the bodies of victims were laid. These bodies had been preserved using limestone and so we saw bodies frozen in form showing the positions in which they died. Some ofThis image is from a Google Image Search the bodies had their arms crossed, some with their arms in the air, some bodies were sprawled out in utter defeat. There was one room with children and infant victims’ bodies. Sometimes clothing was attached to the preserved corpses. We saw the full bodies of the victims whose families had hurried to the site quickly enough to claim them.

During the genocide French soldiers came, but they had come too late to Murambi. We saw a plaque marking the place where the French soldiers  played volleyball over the mass graves. Not far off from there we saw homes where people live in close proximity to the memorial. Children came running up the hill to greet us. It was quite the juxtaposition to be in a place were such horrific killing had taken place. Whereas now it is aplace so scenic and beautiful, filled with new and innocent life.

From Murambi we traveled to the National University of Rwanda in Butare. We were greeted by Rwandan university student ambassadors who gave us a tour of their campus. The students who we met are studying International Relations, Applied Mathematics, and Computer Science. The campus seemed familiar with an ICT building, sports field, administration buildings (of course), and the campus pub located strategically so that drunk students do not have too far to walk home to their dorms.

Augustine and Amanda

I met one student named Augustine, an international relations student who wants to work in non-governmental organizations. He was a talkative and exuberant young man. He said that he was so pleased that we had come to Rwanda since everything we knew about his country could have been hearsay. I was amazed at this comment because it had been my own reflection a few days earlier that foreign lands are like an unimaginative fiction – accepted and not contested, but only confirmed and believed or disproved and rejected when experienced. I told Augustine this quotation by Saint Augustine: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Augustine took great delight in sharing this quotation with his friends and with the other Canadians in our group.Then, the Rwandan and Canadian students gathered in a circle for some intercultural dialogue. As we drank Fanta and beers we discussed the future of Rwanda and asked questions back and forth to one another. It was so cool to be chatting with other university students. They responded to us saying, “To the question of my neighbour…” or “As my friend was saying…” or “In response to my fellow student…” Sharing the common student experience made for an engaging discussion.

The Canadian team asked what they thought about protectionism versus free markets. A student named Denis responded that Rwanda is open for business and investment. “You are welcome to come to Rwanda to work and to invest,” he said. This surprised some of the Canadian students who expressed concern that foreigners would steal Rwandan jobs. The students insisted that this was not a concern and recognized the globalizing world. The students do, in fact, look to the world in order to develop Rwanda and many of them recognize the increasing importance of technology.

We asked the students if they had any questions about Canada. A computer technology student named Joel said that they cannot know how to improve their university and their country unless they know what they are missing. This startled the Canadians who were too politically correct to vocalize the shortfalls of the National University. “The university is great and we do not come here to tell you what you are missing. Rwandans are capable,” said a member of our group. But they insisted consistently that by alerting them to the shortfalls and highlighting needs for improvement, “that is how you can help us.”

There was some tension between the kinds of questions we asked and the unexpected responses we received. One person from our group suggested that foreign aid should not be given with strings attached. But the Rwandan students discussed corruption and said they see merit in foreign countries attaching strings to the aid they gave.

Another Canadian student asked the students whether they thought that the ethnic tensions in Rwanda have ceased. The students said, “Yes, we are all Rwandese now. We all say ‘never again’ and we consider those who bring up the genocide repeatedly now to be mentally disturbed and in need of counselling. Rwanda is a united country now.” The students hoped that we would see the reasons that they love their country. When I asked Augustine what made him proud to be Rwandese he said that he is proud of the nationalist solidarity in Rwanda now and that it is fundamentally people who make a country.

In the evening we had a good dinner and debrief. I grappled with what the essence of humanity. What does an innocent newborn have in common with a genocidal killer that they are both called human? If the central problem we encounter with genocide is dehumanization, then how do we humanize humanity?

Some said that visiting so many sites with bones and skulls is beginning to seem like gratuitous viewing. It is easier, many agreed, to affirm life and humanity in images of the living than in dead bodies. Yet, some had earlier said that what makes us human is our flesh and bones. Surely this is not the essence of human life itself. Studying genocide inspires a lot of reflection on human nature and the human condition.

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to my uncles André and Paul Lambert.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part III

We travelled to the Bugesara region to visit the Nyamata Memorial and to listen to the testimony of a rescuer. The Nyamata Memorial commemorates the thousands of people who were killed in the Catholic church to which they fled during the genocide. Interestingly, there had been an attack in 1992 when Tutsis had escaped death by fleeing to the church and so this was remembered and it was expected that the church would be a refuge again in 1994, but this was not the case.

We entered the church through a door that had been destroyed using a grenade. Bullet holes were visible all over the roof and walls of the church. On the pews were piles of clothing that belonged to the victims. The altar was draped with a cloth, once white as snow, that had become stained with the victims’ blood.

We descended downstairs inside the church and observed rows of skulls and bones from the ceiling to the floor. There was also a casket draped with a white cloth and with a wooden cross on top. This was to represent all of the rape, the horrific and disgusting violence against women and girls during the genocide. The woman who is buried there was raped repeatedly by numerous genocidaires. She was then killed by the most torturous method that involved piercing a spear through her genitals to her head.

Tomb of Tonia Locatelli

We walked outside of the church and saw the tomb of an Italian nun andhumanitarian named Tonia Locatelli. She is remembered for her bravery and her opposition to ethnic violence in Rwanda. When the systematic killing began, Locatelli gave food and shelter to the persecuted and sought to alert the international media of the horrific events. Her actions did not go unnoticed by the local government and she was killed on the steps of her home.

Then, we proceeded to visit the mass graves and more rows of skulls and bones. It is overwhelming to see so many skulls and bones at these memorial sites all across the country. My heart begins to sink each time we drive up to a memorial site marked by purple and white flags and banners. Each site has a story and it is important to bear in mind the individual lives stolen in the genocide. I try to acknowledge that each skull represents an individual person and to reflect on that individual life. To be distracted from this point by the shear numbers of victims seems to dehumanize and dishonor them. Still, it is incomprehensible that one million people were killed during this genocide, about one in six Rwandans comprising the population at the time.

From there we ventured to the Ntarama Memorial. At this site there is another Catholic church where Tutsis sought refuge but were tortured and killed. There were mass graves inside the church and the clothes of victims scattered on the pews.

Behind the church there was a small building, a children’s Sunday school. There were a few rows of small pews made of clay where the children sat. At the front of the room the brick wall was stained with the blood of  children who had been killed by being thrown against the wall. It was devastating to learn of such brutality against children, especially in the place where they would have learned the faith. Meanwhile, I could hear the laughter of children across the street from the memorial. I sat on the little pews inside the Sunday school imagining that I was a young child learning the ‘Our Father.’ The genocide is the most severe contradiction to every line of that prayer. How many faithful would have prayed, “Deliver us from evil” before being tortured and killed? That  many Rwandans have lost faith seems understandable and that many Rwandans continue to have faith seems remarkable.

In the evening we had dinner followed by a debrief of the day’s activities. Our nightly debriefs are an essential component of the trip. As a team, we share our most immediate reflections and allow ourselves to confront the challenges of the past, present, and future. Sharing these experiences with a diverse group of Canadian students inspires tremendous growth. As we journey together we ask thousands of questions. What are we to make of all that we are learning? What lessons will we take away with us and share with others? How can this education be transformed into action? What can I do to promote peace and respect in my community?

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Georges and Grace Lambert.

Reflections on Rwanda: Part II

Today we made an early departure to  Nyarubuye, a district in the province of Kibungo near the border of Tanzania. It was a four hour drive.  As we drove to the remote area, many people waved to us and children had beaming smiles as they attempted to chase the van to greet us or waved from the sides of the streets.

We arrived to Nyarubuye church. It was here that a terrible massacre occurred and where we would listen to the testimony of a survivor named Ferdinand.

Before that we were guided through the ruined rectory of the church that has since become a memorial. We saw large sticks that were used to torture women and girls while raping them. We saw clothing that been collected from the victims scattered in and around the church during the massacre. We also saw sharp metal tools that were used to torture and kill. There were rows of violently destroyed skulls and piles of bones.

At the end of the room there was a Christ figure, a clay sculpture. The arms had been cut off by those who said that the image resembled a Tutsi. Similarly, the large image of Jesus at the front of the outside of the church had been shot at because the genocidaires said Jesus is a friend of Tutsis. This was all quite shocking to hear and see.

We walked past a row of latrines. There we learned that many bodies of victims had been thrown down there and it was not until last year – eighteen years after the genocide, that the bones were collected and then buried.

We made our way into the Catholic church at Nyarubuye where the massacre occurred. Ferdinand, one of very few survivors, began to share his testimony. He started by insisting that we should not feel bad that he is recounting his traumatic experiences to us, but to remember that this is medicine for him. He thanked us for coming to hear his story and urged us to share his story and the history of the genocide with our friends and families.

It is difficult to recount his two hour testimony in a few paragraphs, but I will do my best. Ferdinand told us that Hutus and Tutsis had lived peacefully in the region together and there were never any problems. However, shortly after Rwanda’s Hutu President Juvenal Habyirimana’s plane had been shot down, the genocide began and quickly escalated.

Many Tutsis in Nyarubuye fled to the church to seek refuge, but the militia quickly arrived and began slaughtering Tutsis. The militia surrounded the church and forced the Hutus and Tutsis into segregated lines.

Ferdinand was at his home but knew that his family had fled to the church and so he went to find them. As it became clear that there was an effort to exterminate Tutsis, many flocked to the church wanting to find their families, even if it meant dying with them.

Ferdinand found his wife and two of his three children. The four of them hid in a washroom in the church for two days after a member of the militia took money from Ferdinand in exchange for guarding where they were. Eventually Ferdinand became separated from his family. A Hutu friend of Ferdinand’s, however, made an attempt to do the family a favor and said to an authority that the Hutu police had insisted that Ferdinand’s wife and two children be kept safe until he came back to give further instructions.

There are many intricate details to Ferdinand’s testimony and he says that the four days that he spent escaping death seems like at least a year. During those days, his wife was raped, his son was thrown into a fire, and his daughter was smashed against a wall. It was overwhelming and heart-wrenching to listen to him tell his story, I was in awe at his resiliency and his courage. He was remarried after the genocide and had one child, but then his wife passed away. After that, he remarried again and now has five children. He lit up when speaking about his children and it was good to hear of the joy in his life that his young children bring to him.

He is an old man now he says. After the genocide, Ferdinand joined the army because he figured it would be safer to serve in the army than to live as a civilian. They told him he was too old, but he eventually persuaded them to let him join.

After hearing Ferdinand’s story while sitting on the pews in the church in which the massacre took place, there was a lot to think about. We saw children playing not far from the mass graves and thought about how many people are missing from the streets and yet how much hope there is for a peaceful future for the bright-eyed, smiley children.

Amanda, Ferdinand, Faustin, Aditya and Jacob

Courageous people like Ferdinand offer examples of the resiliency of the human spirit. Any small sacrifices that are made during this trip are made with a tremendous perspective now. Hearing about Ferdinand’s life inspires reflection on the fragility and sanctity of life. How can we forget for a moment to be thankful for every breath?

Ferdinand’s main message to us was: “Never Again in Rwanda and Never Again Anywhere Else.” Of course we have heard “never again” before and yet genocides continue to happen. This is challenging to confront. How can we truly mean “never again”.

How will the study of genocide influence our lives on campus? Mother Teresa said, “If you want to work for world peace, go home and love your family.” How can right relationships be foundation upon which to build a consistently life-affirming culture?

In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to John and Barbra.

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.

Moderation:
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 mises.ca