Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Reconciliation in Rwanda: Education, History and the State

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Reconciliation in Rwanda: Education, History and the State

Article excerpt

A group of school buildings about thirty kilometers from Butare, Rwanda's second largest town, was a place of education, then of refuge, then of horror. Today, it is a place of death and remembrance. Murambi was a technical school, with brick-built classrooms and a large hall. During the genocide in 1994, 50,000 to 60,000 people fearing for their lives gathered in these buildings hoping for safety from genocidal militia. Only four survived. Now the classrooms are filled with more than 20,000 bodies exhumed from mass graves, laid out on trestle tables, deathblows visible, and here and there a rosary round a neck and scraps of bright cloth faded by chemicals. The school hall is empty apart from a pile of old, decaying clothes removed from the victims.

Murambi encapsulates the difficulty of Rwanda's past. The country has a history of brutal and cyclical violence. Murambi is a testament to the most recent episode. But the memorialized school buildings also remind us that Rwanda's violent history is itself an issue of contestation: The bodies were exhumed and preserved as evidence so that the crime that occurred there--genocide--can never be denied. The current government in Rwanda is faced with a difficult and daunting question: How does one teach a nation's history when not only the scale and longevity of violence in the past is overwhelming, but the history itself is contested? The government's response has been to remove formal history from all school curricula, arguing that modern national history is potentially too divisive to be taught in a society emerging from decades of ethnic hatred, distrust and prejudice. Instead, the government is focusing much of its time and resources on promoting unity and reconciliation, stressing that Rwandan identity should now be based on national bonds rather than ethnic differences. There is much to unite the Rwandan people: language, culture, religion and ancestral belief. Moreover, despite the formal history-teaching moratorium, this new collective identity does draw upon a historic foundation: The government is emphasizing those periods that are considered to demonstrate a pre-colonial Rwandan unity.

Under the most difficult of circumstances, the Rwandan government has made massive strides in educational reform since the genocide. There is evidence to show that those directly involved--teachers, parents and students--are satisfied with the emphasis placed on merit-based opportunity and ethnic equality. The international community is also highly complimentary of the progress Rwanda has made on this issue. However, most reports written by international donors working in Rwanda either neglect the issue of history in education or support the government's view that, in order to avoid causing instability and upsetting the fragile reconciliation process, teaching history can be indefinitely postponed. Rwandan officials and policymakers have not solicited the views and opinions of local people regarding the teaching of history. (1)

Reconciliation is a process that involves the rebuilding of relations--both individually and collectively. (2) It is not an activity that simply entails "being nicer to each other," but a long-term project that is based on the needs and interests of both groups. (3) Long-lasting, deep and meaningful reconciliation will not occur in Rwanda without reconciliation with history. An open, democratic and participatory debate about a national history curriculum is not only necessary for reconciliation but, if conducted well, could further social reconstruction and cohesion. This paper argues that no matter how honorable the intention, the repression of discussion about divisive and contested moments in Rwandan history, both within and outside the school curriculum, will only serve to create new dynamics of social exclusion. Furthermore, it is contested that the international community is in danger of failing to learn lessons from its own historic failures. …

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