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Class session in Kigali.

Class session in Kigali.

The opportunity to lead an immersive travel course in Rwanda was a dream come true for me, and easily the richest and most challenging teaching experience in my career thus far. I hope to continue refining the class in coming years, but I know that the profundity and sense of emotional community that marked the first time with this remarkable group of students will be forever impressed on my memory.

Five Takeways

First, despite how foreign Rwandans (and indeed Africans) may have seemed to Americans in 1994, Rwandans are not tragic “others” whose so-called tribalism, poverty, or “primitive” life ways led them to some indecipherable miasma of mass violence that we can’t understand from across geographical and cultural oceans. The truth is that while Rwandans lived through some of the most horrific damage humans can inflict on one another, they also exemplify human strength and tenacity amidst forms of intimate and collective trauma that few of us can imagine. We must be careful not to oversimplify, but Europe’s Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide have many things in common: groups of people became defined primarily by frameworks of racial hierarchy; mass propaganda disseminated during periods of uncertainty mobilized systematic oppression against stigmatized groups; political injustice became the norm; and bystander nations refused to act in time to avert the worst. The most obvious difference between the two genocidal campaigns is the weaponry used to take life — machetes and clubs, rather than guns and gas chambers — but genocidal patterns of thinking and action are certainly recognizable to the West. In a very real sense, the West invented them.

Europe played a profound historical role in creating the sociopolitical context that later informed incentives for genocide in Rwanda

The threads connecting Europe to Rwanda run deep. As our central class text, Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers, details, Europe played a profound historical role in creating the sociopolitical context that later informed incentives for genocide in Rwanda. French and German missionaries first imposed European notions of “race” crafted by anthropologists and geographers (in combination with a strange interpretation of the Judeo-Christian Hamitic myth) onto Rwandans’ sociocultural communities. Before German arrival, the terms Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa designated what we today would call economic kin groups—farmers, herders, and hunter-gather communities whose family lines were, more often than not, braided together in a complex clan system deriving, according to legend, from 18 original clans. When Belgium was granted colonial jurisdiction over Rwanda in 1918 it built a modern legal regime that categorized these identities into racial designations ordered hierarchically based on Belgians’ notions of each group’s relative level of “civilization.”

In the Belgian colonial administration of the early to mid-twentieth century, political power, and therefore political identity and basic rights, were allocated accordingly, through law, government, and institutional bureaucracy. The Belgians set up a system that enfranchised and empowered the minority group that Europeans regarded as a superior race that had settled in Rwanda centuries before (Tutsi), while systematically disenfranchising and exploiting the indigenous Hutu and Twa. When the Hutu majority overturned this power structure in the 1959 revolution, the politicization of racialized identities remained, but with the organization of power reversed, such that the Tutsi were subordinated by the Hutu. Regardless of which Rwandans held power, the terms of sociocultural membership would not have carried racial connotations or led to things like the use of racialized legal identities (established via passcards) and unequal education systems without this imported and deeply damaging virus of European racial ideology.

We cannot comprehend the genocide without becoming conversant in the historical context. But, to return to the present, a second thing that will stay with me is that, even after twenty-five years, almost everyone in Rwanda has been impacted by the genocide. More to the point, almost every Rwandan citizen over the age of thirty lives with memories of either the genocide itself or some result of it—losing family members, becoming orphaned, becoming a refugee or returnee, having a loved one in prison, or having oneself participated in, witnessed, or been a victim of murderous violence. As Britta and Lauren explore in their blogs, there are many positions in the genocide context that lie outside an easy black-and-white binary of either victim or perpetrator.

To absorb this while traveling in Rwanda means remembering that nearly every person we meet is living with ghosts. As just one example, Philip, the waiter our group befriended during visits to a lovely Indian restaurant in Kigali, later shared with me on WhatsApp that both of his parents were killed in the genocide when he was five, and he remembers this. Knowing this, each day Philip shows up for work with his bright smile seems to me a heroic endeavor, but how many stories like his will the world never hear? (In her blog post, Austin tells the amazing story of Narcisse, our bus driver, who is an incredible person and survived the genocide as a twelve-year-old.)

Imagine if the vast majority of Americans were living with traumatic memories from a recent catastrophe and our society refused to recognize or even discuss that reality. (Indeed, many of our Native American and African American compatriots experience such silence about the traumas their communities have endured, though most of us in the dominant culture don’t have to think about this.) To refuse to contend with memory is not only a retraumatizing form of individual erasure, but it also fosters dangerous collective amnesia. So my third takeaway is that memory and memorialization are critical to Rwanda’s present and future, because, to paraphrase George Santayana, any community that forgets the past runs a great risk of repeating it.

There are eight national memorials to the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda (six of which we visited), and dozens of smaller memorials in townships and villages where massacres occurred. At these memorials, the nation retells the story of what happened, lays out material evidence, honors the victims lost, and, sometimes, the people who risked their lives to intervene, and reminds visitors of the conditions that led to the genocide. (Posts by Ontario and Blake explore some of the challenges presented by these memorials.) In addition, every year the country commemorates the 100 days of genocide, with gatherings, testimonies, marches and other events starting on April 7th and running through July 4th, the day the genocide was ended by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. As of this writing, the country is commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary with its Kwibuka25 ceremonies. These acts of memorialization anchor a national healing process, work to fight denialism, and honor survivors by refusing to facilitate amnesia in the name of “moving on.”

My fourth takeaway is that as challenging as it is for outsiders to witness Rwanda’s painful story, it is also essential. Visiting memorial sites, listening to survivors (and even perpetrators, as we did at a Reconciliation Village we visited), and hearing from people working to prevent a recurrence of genocidal violence is painful and sometimes taxing. We saw thousands of human skulls and bones and bloody clothing of victims on our travels. We saw windows through which desperate people tried to escape the blows of machetes, and a brick chapel wall upon which the heads of live infants were bashed. We gazed at the remains of a young woman who, as our guide explained, was gang raped in the most unimaginable way while her sister hid in the rafters and witnessed an atrocity she had no power to stop. These memorials are living archives through which artifacts like these are representative of the types of lethal violence and torture that were common during the 100 days of genocide.

Even as we tried to honor the dead by not collapsing into our own reactions, these experiences were overwhelming on so many levels. (Ontario and Tom compellingly describe the emotional and spiritual impact of visiting these sites.) We may not be able to understand how people can slaughter their own neighbors, parishioners, and even family members under the influence of orders and ideology, but we must try. Bearing witness can make us mindful of how easily genocide can erupt under certain conditions, can inspire us to fight to end mass violence in other places, and hopefully enable us to act if, heaven forbid, we see those conditions developing in our own societies. Standing in witness, we gain knowledge and experience that can reverberate far beyond us.

My fifth takeaway is the most difficult to convey because, as became clearer to us over the days in Rwanda, it is politically complex and we as outsiders should be cautious about imposing our judgment on a nation that has endured what Rwanda has. The takeaway is this: there are deep paradoxes entailed in what we might call “governing collective memory” in a country that aspires to be but is not yet a substantive democracy. (Rwanda calls itself a Parliamentary republic, but watchdog organizations note that it has not achieved free and fair elections, and President Paul Kagame’s multiple terms in power indicate that is more accurately a republic with an autocratic executive.) The more memorials we visited, organizations we met with, and Rwandans we got to know, the more we began to notice little silences and gaps between the official memorialization narratives, which focused on the evil deeds of the majority Hutu against the innocent, minority Tutsi, and the more complex stories of people’s experiences in a country long besieged by systems of social inequality and persecution. Rwandans are cautious about how they talk about their country’s darkest days, and they have every right to be enthusiastic about the Kagame government’s official motto that “we are all Rwandans now” and its refrain that ethnic divisions have been transcended. As we listened to the silences, however, we became more attuned to tensions below the surface, fractures that can probably never be resolved, wounds that no version of “unification” can ever heal.

I am not suggesting that democracy as a governing form provides any clear answers to such divides; indeed, democracies may even amplify them as, for example, Americans quarrel viciously about what “America” means and who belongs. Traveling in the Land of a Thousand Hills, the recent reactivation in our own country of our deepest cultural and historical divisions, sometimes with violent results (mass shootings, attacks on immigrants, etc.), became more obvious and more harrowing to us. Again and again in Rwanda we learned that under the right political circumstances, biases and power structures to which citizens might have grown numb or indifferent can ignite into mass violence.

As disconcerting as America’s current hyper-polarization can be, we can perhaps be grateful that, at least while we remain a democracy, our battles and differences have a chance to be contested openly in public arenas rather than driven underground by an official, government-sponsored unity. But this is also why we must understand what, if any, core values (not cultural identities) unite us, and fight for the preservation of democratic norms and institutions that protect those values. At the same time, Rwanda’s government has cracked down on the kind of hate speech, action, and ideology that can lead to genocide, while in the U.S. such extremism has clearly moved from political marginalization into the political mainstream. In this environment, we have as much or more to learn from Rwanda’s experience as Rwanda does from us.

I will be forever grateful for this opportunity, and I urge visitors to this site to read all the students’ and my partner (and class assistant) Anne Pogoriler’s thoughtful blog posts on their own takeaways from this incredible experience.

Dr. Nancy D. Wadsworth

Dr. Nancy D. Wadsworth

Associate Professor

Tuyisenge Narcisse

Austin Clapp
In Narcisse’s story, this truly seems to be what has caused him the most suffering: the feeling of having everything that was once his being ripped away with no ability to control the outcome.

The Catholic Problem in the Rwandan Genocide

Tom Oexeman
As we learned, some of the deadliest massacre sites were Catholic Churches, most notably Ntarama and Nyamata, and partly because their priests abandoned their own parishioners or actively enabled genocidaires.

When People Resist Genocide

Lauren Yehle
With so much emphasis on survivors, it’s difficult to understand what inspired some Hutus to murder and others to resist.


Anne Pogoriler

There were many echoes of the Holocaust in our tour of Rwanda’s more recent trauma.