Here I am, back in Burundi, working at a newspaper. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I really am sorry about that.
You know how it is when you start a new job and for the first week or so, you get home and you barely have enough energy to change into your pajamas? It’s been like that. For a month.
I am assistant chief of the English section. Eleven-hour days. Working under me are one translator (who is also a reporter and a cheerleader) and two interns. While the interns, Pierre (yes, the very same!) and Félicie, are wonderful human beings, Pierre is thoroughly green (about three weeks of experience, definitely rounding into form now but the first few pieces are never easy) and Félicie keeps getting stolen away by the Kirundi desk, where she used to be the health reporter-when I need her to be MY health reporter!
And both are working in their fourth language, which means that it takes them four times as long to put copy together and me four times as long to correct. But I have great respect for them, because if I was writing in my fourth language, Slovenian, I couldn’t get past the lead.
In the interest of protecting personal privacy (because it would be fairly easy to match aliases with real names, real names with real places of work, etc) I’ll have to save a lot of the details for the novella I’ll one day write. I only feel comfortable sketching vague outlines of the people I work with. My direct superior, Jean-Charles, divides his time between the English and the French desk. He’s Québécois, a former Radio-Canada reporter with loads of experience. Like several of his colleagues on the French desk, he’s an old hand who either laughs at death threats or considers them some kind of badge of honour. Doesn’t seem to be bothered by much, and is blunt as a lead pipe. Which is good, because compliments from him are real compliments.
My editor-in-chief is a large, charismatic and intimidating Burundian who I’ll call Damien. If Damien had not become a journalist, he could have made a living as a club bouncer. He expects to be obeyed; Jean-Charles is the only one with the guts to (occasionally) contradict him. At the beginning I thought Damien was incredibly demanding, but I’m beginning to realize that now that the interns have learned to produce passable pieces of web copy in half a day, his objectives (one feature story per week and one piece of web copy per intern per day) don’t seem so draconian at all. He has gone to Europe to see family, and I sincerely hope he is pleased with our progress when he comes back.
Bosco, the translator, is a fatherly middle-aged man, and–although he would accuse me of blasphemy if I told him this– a saint. He encourages us when we’re stressed out, buys us sodas when we’re tired in the middle of the day, and congratulates us enthusiastically on the slightest success. He punctuates our work with stories– sometimes funny, sometimes uplifting–about his extremely intelligent daughter or the miracles he believes have happened to him during his life–like many Burundians, he’s deeply and sincerely religious. He also likes to mock the latest mad thing certain leaders of small neighbouring states that begin with R, and large neighbouring states with significant mineral wealth, have said or done. He also has a mad streak–before we went out to celebrate his birthday, with a couple of guys from the French desk, he leapt onto the conference table (which is nearly three feet off the ground) to prove to one of them that he was still young.
The group at the French desk are very professional and also have to put out a monthly magazine supplement. The ones that I’ve talked to are really friendly, but I don’t know them all. The web desk is run by four nice guys, one of whom always takes out his guitar when there is a lull in the action and serenades the entire newsroom. He’s been able to do a lot of serenading lately, because the website has been down.
The Kirundi desk is composed of Félicie and two guys; all three are very friendly, between the ages of 25 and 35 but look 15. Seated across from them is the assistant section chief, Lise, who is a somewhat maternal middle-aged lady. The whole effect is one of a schoolteacher looking across at her eager students.
The visuals desk is also buckets of fun, presided over by a rasta in his late twenties who is an aspiring musician and the undisputed master of the photo database.
Many of the developments that occur in and around the newsroom are thoroughly mind-bending. Most of them, I need to save for the novella. But a few are postable…
Jean-Charles, a borderline atheist, is planning to run a magazine supplement for the French desk on the influence of churches in Burundi. The team working under him are all fervent believers.
We don’t need to make coffee, run errands or worry about getting ourselves to interviews. We’ve hired people to do that. However, things that you might expect to be left to professionals, such as plumbing and wiring…we’re on our own.
While talking about our internet connection, I taught the interns the expressions “like watching grass grow” and “like watching paint dry.” A question we ask ourselves regularly is, “Would it be faster to email this photo, or to put it on a USB and get the duty chauffeur to physically deliver it to the web guy who is across town?”
On that topic, one time, a week or so ago, we had zero internet for two days. I was hearing rumours of a generalized outage for which the cause was somewhere in Tanzania. So I went down to the provider’s head office to look into it. The PR guy received me, listened politely to my inquiry and then said…
“Could you please send me your questions by e-mail?”