Airborne Peace

Article excerpt

In Rwanda, Radio La Benevolencia uses soap operas to heal ethnic tensions

ON WEDNESDAYS IN Rwanda, just before sundown, the radios come to life. Farmers lay down their tools to gather under shade trees, fan clubs take their usual seats in the bars, and a hush settles over prison courtyards.

Each week, an estimated 85 percent of radio listeners in Rwanda tune their radio dials to the soap opera Musekeweya (New Dawn). Using a Romeo and Juliet plot to symbolize Hutus and Tutsis, the program teaches listeners how to prevent ethnic violence, embrace reconciliation, and heal the wounds of the past

In 1994, radio-borne hate propaganda helped prompt a Hutuled genocide of 75 percent of the ethnic minority Tutsis. Within three months, the genocide wiped out 10 percent of the Rwandan population - some 750,000 victims. Now, Musekeweya is reclaiming the radio to help survivors live together again.

"Musekeweya helped me calm down," says Kennedy Munyangeyo, a 36-year-old filmmaker from Kigali who lost his two brothers, several uncles, and a sister to the genocide. "I used to think that we should react by hating the people who did the genocide, but after ayear of listening to the show, I realize that if someone did a bad thing, the answer is not to react by doing more bad things," he says. "For this country to go forward we need to be honest and free in our spirits and minds."

Created by the Dutch nonprofit Radio La Benevolencija, in conjunction with some of the foremost psychologists, traumatologists, and university researchers in the United States, Musekeweya was first broadcast in 2003 on the government-controlled Radio Rwanda. Local Rwandans write the stories, and a cast of 35 Rwandan actors read the parts in Kinyarwanda, the country's main language. Today, Musekeweya can also be heard on privately owned radio stations in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each week, soap coordinator Aimable Twahirwa receives up to 120 letters from fans. The show is so popular, he says, that parents are naming their children after the characters. And at a recent festival, more than 10,000 fans showed up to meet the actors. "The actors, they are like small gods here," he says.

Yet the listeners are not just worshipful followers. Instead, finds a recent study, they are more likely than non-listeners to stand up to authority and to voice their own opinions. This kind of civic leadership can stop the slide toward genocide, says psychologist Ervin Staub. "Genocide is a societal process," he notes. "It takes not only bad leaders, but also followers and those who stand by and do nothing."


Musekeweya crackled onto the airwaves at a crucial moment in Rwandan history. In the late 19908, 1.5 million of the country's 8 million people were accused of participating in the genocide. The legal system and prisons were not prepared for this influx of cases, so community leaders created some 10,000 village tribunals, or "gacacas." After judgment from a jury of their peers, convicted participants could reduce their punishments through communal labor.

Because the genocide was so vast, convicted war criminals were also the neighbors, coworkers, and in-laws of the innocent "The accused would soon be free and returning to these villages, and it was very traumatizing to everyone who lived there," explains George Weiss, founder of Radio La Benevolencija.

At that time, Staub, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Laurie Pearlman, a traumatologist at the Headington Institute in Pasadena, Calif., had just finished a three-year reconciliation training program in Rwanda. Their seminars reflected Staub's theory of the origins of genocide: It begins with scapegoating, leading to destructive ideology, and then culminates in actual violence. He describes his research in his book Roots of Evil.

"Government and nonprofit leaders at our workshops wanted us to reach a wider audience," says Pearlman. …