Playing battleship

Years ago, a journalism professor told me to start interviews like a game of Battleship. You toss out seemingly random questions until one “hits,” and then drive closer to the heart of the story.

Hits, however, can be tough when the interview is conducted through a translator. So this week, when I made contact with a subject’s actual personality, I fought the urge to high-five him.

Ntare, 21, and I were sitting in his backyard, which overlooks hills of banana trees and bean fields in rural Rwanda. I was working on a story about children born after the genocide. He was (understandably) reluctant to share much when the conversation turned from the broader topic to his personal life.

I wanted readers to see him as a three dimensional being – not as a vehicle for sound bites – so I asked about his hobbies. Ntare, who works in construction, thought about it for a few beats. He said that he liked writing.

Me: “About what?”
Him: “The power that comes from pain.”
Me: “Okay, what was the last thing you wrote?”
Him: “A story.”
Me: “what about?”
Him: “the power that comes from pain.”
Me: “…starring who?”
Him: “Me.”
Me: “what kind of story is this?”
Him: “A story that is musical.”

Failing to grasp what he meant, thanks to a language barrier that confused us both, I asked him to recite a few lines.

Ntare blew me away when he started rapping. It turned out that he was writing a song with a friend. They planned to produce it on a laptop and send it to local radio stations. He hoped a DJ would play his “story” so that other young people with similar backgrounds would feel less alone.

A helpful hit, indeed.