Rwanda Study Tour Student Reflections

Students that participated in MAHG’s first trip to Rwanda’s Peace-Building Institute in Kigali during June 2017 share their thoughts about the study tour below.

Initial Impressions, Changing Opinions
By Adrienne Parvin

Everything I thought I knew about Rwanda was wrong. I say this in the best possible way – this country was more beautiful, more peaceful, more cohesive, than I could have ever have imagined. As an American student studying genocide, my expectations were obviously shaped to a certain degree by the horrific imagery that came from the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Though I knew that the country had made strides in its recovery, I believe a piece of me was still expecting the utter chaos that I had seen all too often in my studies. At the very least, I expected some kind of justification for the bewilderment I felt thinking of victims and perpetrators reconciling and living together in close proximity once again. I thought that I would find tangible evidence of the genocide at every turn.

Looking back, I realize this was unbelievably naïve. My experiences in Rwanda showed me that the genocide is not merely a blight on the history of the nation, or a dark chapter that no one in the country was willing to address. Instead, it has become a driving force of societal change. The legacy of the genocide was present, but it was not a hushed, shameful secret. Moreover, the circumstances of the genocide were not up for debate. The genocide was openly acknowledged across the country, visible to some extent in every province we were fortunate enough to visit in our short two weeks. If you were strong enough to ask, anyone would talk to you about it, even when the violence had impacted their lives personally. The terminology used was specific – it was not the Rwandan genocide, rather the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. The pain was still there.

There were many instances that left me stunned and unsure how to carry forward. I remember being jarred by the words of one of the presenters from the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide. In the middle of explaining his role within the organization, he shared with us, in a matter-of- fact tone, that his neighbor had killed both of his parents. The pain was there, thinly veiled, but the weight of his presentation, with an emphasis on making change to better society, overpowered it. Action, peacebuilding, and change were the motivating factors. I did not encounter a single individual who was motivated by hatred or a desire for revenge.

Another example: on our last day of the Peacebuilding Institute, we listened to the stories of three individuals—a survivor, a rescuer, and a perpetrator. The three of them sat together at the front of the room. It seemed so bizarre to me, to listen to the story of a man who had openly admitted to killing Tutsi and been found guilty in the gacaca courts. He wept as he spoke about the guilt he felt once he realized what he had really done. Later, as our group went downstairs in the hotel for lunch, the room was crowded. The man was looking for a seat, so a friend and I gestured to the open seat at our table. We ate lunch in silence; neither my friend nor I spoke any Kinyarwanda, and he spoke little English. Still, I felt the tension thrumming through every minute of our lunch. I wondered if he could tell that I was uncomfortable. I wondered if this was what was going on underneath the surface of daily life. As someone who had not even experienced the genocide, I was amazed at how stable daily life was in a country that had endured something so horrific. Yet all around us, life was carrying on.

These thoughts would come to me now and then, as the imagery I had grown familiar with overlapped with reality. As we visited the Nyamata Memorial, I found that I felt a prickling of anxiety as I saw groups of young men passing by with farming tools slung over their shoulders. It was surreal to stand at the place of a massacre, to see the way that daily life had moved on, to wonder what the experiences of those individuals would have been in 1994. Yet there was nothing inherently threatening about them. They were all smiling, the town remained quiet and peaceful.

Yes, the anxiety was there, but in reflecting on my time in Rwanda, it is not what I remember most. The strangeness was a temporary feeling, the unease of adjusting my mind to consider that the country was not the same as it was just twenty-three years prior.

Reflecting on Rwanda, I think first and foremost about how kind and caring its people are, about the sense of hope that prevails among the youth, and about the beauty of a nation that takes pride in itself. The sense of community there was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Every area we visited was clean – even the streets were swept clean on a daily basis. We saw no litter, no excess waste, no careless disregard for the environment. Furthermore, there was a community, it was present at all hours of the day. Human beings interacting with each other, walking, talking, bartering, laughing. I was amazed by the fact that a group of three or four female tourists could wander the streets, even at night, and feel completely safe. In fact, on multiple occasions complete strangers went out of their way to greet us or to help us get to our destination safely. For the first time in a long time, I felt as though I were in a community where the inhabitants genuinely cared about each other.

The tensions are still there, yes. We discussed on many occasions how difficult it could be to teach younger generations that there is no ethnic divide among Rwandans when their parents still believe in and act as though they exist. We discussed how not everyone in the country is willing to recognize the reality of the genocide—even in Rwanda, there are those who attempt to minimize the scope of the killing, or to deny the totality with which Tutsi were hunted down. Denial exists everywhere after genocide.

But overwhelmingly, it was clear that Rwandans have grown to see themselves as one, unified people. The interests of the country rest in fostering a peaceful future. Memorials and education centers are scattered across the country and maintained reverently; these sites exist, in large part, for the survivors who find great comfort in having somewhere to mourn their lost loved ones. Moreover, they serve as undeniable evidence of what happened. They show us the faces and remains of the victims, they outline the progression from prejudice and hatred to genocide. Perhaps what was most surprising of all was that many of these sites addressed other genocides, like the Holocaust, Cambodia, and the Armenian genocide. In many ways, Rwanda’s progress and openness to fighting genocide was like a breath of fresh air. It was refreshing to find organizations taking action instead of arguing about the details, or to see that a country could own up to its own shortcomings and actually move toward making a brighter future for its people.

Ultimately, what I experienced in Rwanda was a sense of hope, for their country and for the rest of the world. I’m not sure I could ever fully express all the ways that I was changed through this visit. The best I can do is encourage everyone to experience it on their own. It will change you, it will shift your perspective; it is definitely worth it.

Education as a Pathway to Reconciliation
By Amanda Solomon

After participating in the Peace Building Institute hosted by Never Again Rwanda, I can honestly say Rwanda models the power of education in genocide prevention and the promotion of positive peace.

On day 3 of the intensive two-week Institute, Dr. Erasme Rwanamiza, Director of Education at Aegis Trust – Rwanda, spoke with us about the role of education both in the creation of the conditions for genocide and in the prevention of genocide. As he spoke, I was captivated, for I have worked in education as a middle school math teacher and currently work as part of the education team at the Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education in Rockland County, NY.

Dr. Rwanamiza described the development of genocidal ideology in three stages, beginning with hatred, progressing to conflict, and ending in violence. Furthermore, he presented the “Taxonomy of Violence vis-à- vis Peace” with the following visual:

I specifically liked how he balanced the negativity of violence with the positivity of peace in a cohesive graphic. When educating, it is not enough to tell students what not to do,. We must also provide options of what to do;. This is exactly what Dr. Erasme illustrates in his model. When there is no fear or violence, we promote positive peace. Explicitly differentiating between positive and negative peace was intriguing and thought provoking. Just because there is an absence of war or conflict does not mean that people, communities and countries are actively promoting peace. Positive peace is present when people and institutions demonstrate take steps to support and sustain peace-building projects and a more peaceful society.

Dr. Rwanamiza’s focus on education’s role in promoting positive peace in Rwanda was based on his analysis of the role that education played in the genocide, since genocide does not come out of nowhere and people need to be educated to kill. Educating people, through traditional methods or propaganda, is an essential component of the stages of genocide. In Rwanda, the Hutu Power government utilized radio propaganda to educate its people and dehumanize the Tutsis. Furthermore, identifying targeting Tutsis and encouraging genocide were broadcasted daily throughout the country. Less considered, but perhaps even more important, is what happens in education after genocide. Dr. Rwanamiza expressed that we must “deculturate”, dismantle and unlearn the ideology, and then relearn pathways to peace. Otherwise the genocidal patterns and cycles of violence will continue through future generations. This sounds like an extremely daunting task, but he walked us through the complex and dynamic ways in which Rwanda has approached this situation through Peace Education.

As a former US-based public school educator, I was envious that Rwanda implements a NATIONAL peace and values education curriculum. Can you imagine? Every teacher receives training and every student learns from a common curriculum (not “standards”). Naturally, I asked about the elementary age students. What do they learn? The answer – students are taught empathy and ways of peace from a young age and only learn about the genocide in later years. Furthermore, Dr. Rwanamiza emphasized the importance of providing Peace Education to those who  are considered the most influential in the communities. This was evident in my interactions with the Rwandans we met. I was impressed by the kindness and respect with which the Rwandan students carried themselves. Prior to asking the guest lecturers questions, the Rwandans would make a point to thank the presenter for coming. Such a small gesture makes a giant impact.

One aspect of his presentation that was particularly enlightening for me was the drastic differences Dr. Rwanamiza drew between peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding. Peacekeeping occurs when national or multinational forces work with conflicting parties to end violence or prevent returning to violence. Peacemaking is a conciliatory process between conflicting parties in efforts to reach peace dispositions. Peacebuilding is the cornerstone of atrocity prevention and is crucial for the prevention of conflict in general. As such, the process of peacebuilding is essential genocide prevention.

After the lesson, I left feeling motivated and inspired. How can the United States learn from the Rwandan education system? What steps can we take to provide genocide prevention education in a national cohesive manner? I look forward to answering these questions in my upcoming semesters with the MAHG program.