Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Salters Helps Rwanda Pay it Forward, One Girl at a Time

In late March, E:60 reporter Lisa Salters boarded a plane in Atlanta, transferred in Brussels and 20 hours later landed in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Over the course of the next three days, she would learn many things about the Rwandan people, history and (for better or worse) food. But she was there to teach.

                “A friend of mine is the head communications person for the Nike Foundation, which is sponsoring a project called The Girl Effect,” Salters said. “The project aims to end global (poverty). It does that by equipping young girls through journalism. It tries to teach young girls a skill so that their voices can be heard and they can go work as journalists and pay it forward in their families.

“When I was asked to be a part of this, I said sure. I’ll do anything you need.”

                Salters and two other journalists, ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza and CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux, signed up to teach a class of nine Rwandan students, ranging in age from 14 to 26. The goal was to teach basic principles of journalism, so the students could go on to write for a magazine the Nike Foundation established – think Seventeen magazine for Rwandan girls.

                The students, some of whom spoke a little English, were divided into groups of three; translators were used when necessary. On the first day, they learned about conducting interviews and operating handheld cameras that shoot video (eventually the magazine will have a website on which video will be posted). On the second day they reported from the field, while on the last day they wrote first drafts of stories.

                Salters’ students were assigned to cover a soccer team’s practice on the second day, only this was no ordinary team. It was the only professional men’s team in the country that was coached by a woman – the kind of story you might see on E:60.

                Or so they thought. When Salters and her pupils arrived at practice, they were greeted with a dose of unwelcome news: none of the players, it turned out, were men. Salters used the misinformation to teach a lesson.

“I told the girls, this is what happens in journalism everywhere,” she said. “Information turns out to be untrue. She was, in fact, the coach of a women’s team. So this poor girl, my poor student, her piece was about the female coach of a men’s team. She spent all night coming up with questions. So we had to sit there as practice was going on and come up with a whole new list of questions. Her new piece was just about being a female coach in Rwanda. The coach was still the only female coach in the country.

“The girls were very enthusiastic. When they interviewed that soccer coach – I think I put the fear of God into them. I said look, when you’re out doing a story, you have to become an expert on that story. If we get back and I ask you how old the soccer coach was and you don’t know, I’m not going to be happy.”

Dean Stoyer, Salters’ friend who runs the Nike Foundation office in Rwanda, viewed Salters as a natural teacher. “Lisa's calm encouragement and unwavering support made the girls instantly comfortable,” he said in an email from Kigali. “Lisa truly stepped into the mentoring role, gracefully guiding her students through Socratic questions, allowing the students to discover the information for themselves. Her girls owned it. And it was powerful to watch.”

The days were long, starting at 7 a.m. and finishing after 5 p.m. But Salters, Mendoza and Malveaux still had time to explore Kigali. One day they went to the Reconciliation Village, where the Hutu and Tutsi peoples live side by side. It’s an image that not too long ago seemed impossible. In the spring of 1994, Rwanda garnered international headlines as the Hutus slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis in approximately 100 days.

Salters knows all about the ethnic cleansing that took place in Rwanda. She reported from Kigali in the fall of 1994 for WBAL-TV in Baltimore, where she was a reporter before joining ESPN in 2000.

“But I didn’t really get a sense of how big the scope of the massacre was until now,” Salters said. “I had always thought of it as a civil war. But there wasn’t a war here. It was slaughter, there was no fighting back. But I see now that the Rwandans have tried to move past it.”

At the Reconciliation Village, locals danced for Salters, Mendoza and Malveaux and served up a Rwandan delicacy: grilled goat on a stick.

“I was like, please God do not make me eat this,” Salters said, laughing. “And they bring out these full plates. All these villagers are looking at you and are so happy to serve you. I’m like, ugh, I don’t want this goat. But I took a bite and it wasn’t just goat, it was goat kidney. And so it was the nastiest thing ever and I knew I couldn’t spit it out. I just had that one bite.”

                There were other hardships along the way. The first of the two hotels at which Salters, Mendoza and Malveaux stayed was infested with moths.  But Salters simply rolled with the punches. After all, she has seen much worse. Two years ago, Salters reported from Haiti for an E:60 story about the Haitian under-17 girls’ soccer team. At the time, the country had been rocked by a devastating earthquake.

                “Haiti, that’s kind of what Rwanda reminded me of,” Salters said. “But I got to say, Haiti was much worse. It really kind of put it in perspective, how bad Haiti was. As bad as that hotel in Rwanda was, I was telling people, this is like the Taj Mahal compared to where we stayed Haiti.”

                Salters said she planned on staying in touch with her Rwandan students , all of whom have Facebook accounts. And she hopes to return to Rwanda in six months or a year to continue her role as a teacher.

“It was a quick trip but really cool,” she said. “We were literally teaching these girls how to find their voice. Girls who didn’t have a voice before now feel like they do. Really rewarding.”

-Submitted by David Picker

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