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About the Seminar

Background on the Class

It took over a decade to become conversant enough in the Rwandan genocide and recovery process for me to feel confident bringing this course to fruition, though in many ways I still feel like a beginner. I was twenty-six years old, in my first year of graduate school, when news of the “troubles” in Rwanda hit American newspapers in April, 1994. I remember talking about it with my roommates, barely comprehending how the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” could denote racial distinctions salient enough to incentivize mass atrocity, since from an American perspective, all indigenous Rwandans were “Black.” (How naïve this was.) The Clinton administration’s obfuscation, linguistic dissembling (they called the killings “genocidal acts,” rather than genocide, to avoid invoking the legal requirement for the UN to intervene), and inadequate response to the crisis added to the confusion over what was happening. Even as I was studying the politics of race and ethnicity at the time, the situation in Rwanda seemed distant and confounding.

In 2008, as a junior professor at the University of Denver, I developed an interdisciplinary Advanced Seminar, Forgiveness in Personal and Political Contexts. The class included a unit on Rwanda’s post-genocide justice and reconciliation process alongside units on Australia’s apology to the Stolen Generations, the Holocaust, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process. Over the years, the Rwanda unit expanded to include more dimensions: an overview of the late-19th and early 20th century colonial regimes that imposed an ill-fitting European racial framework onto Rwandan cultural groups; a deeper dive into what happened during the genocide and the damage done by the international community turning its back; and more nuanced explorations of what Rwandans had been through, and how they were rebuilding their country.

Later, one of my students, Jaser Alsharhan, lived in Rwanda for a year-long study abroad experience, learned Kinyarwanda (which, along with English is the nation’s official language), and conducted impressive research on the reconciliation efforts led by the state. I supervised his Honors Thesis, which expanded his in-country research to include interviews with Rwandan immigrants in Colorado. After graduation, while spending a second year in Rwanda on a Fulbright fellowship, Jaser helped me build the itinerary for this special, travel version of my seminar that would focus primarily on the subjects of history, trauma, memorialization, and healing in Rwanda. I’m grateful to Jaser, the DU Office of Special Programs, and my colleague Elizabeth Sperber, a specialist in African politics, for contributing so much make this class possible.

– Prof. Nancy D. Wadsworth, May, 2019

Class Description

What does it mean to use a framework of “forgiveness,” “healing,” or “reconciliation” to address individual and collective actions that have led to profound injury, conflict, injustice, and even genocide? How can one group—or one individual—find peaceful ways to come to terms with another who through socioeconomic arrangements, ideology, and systematic violence has damaged or destroyed members of his/her community? What does it mean for former perpetrators and oppressors to “reconcile” in meaningful ways with those they have victimized in such profound and permanent ways? How can communities living side by side ever recover from the collective trauma of genocide? It is confounding. Yet such frameworks have been used, sometimes with amazing results, in places as diverse as Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the United States, in settings as small as family relationships, and as large as national conflicts.

 This is a special version of Prof. Wadsworth’s ASEM on Political Forgiveness, designed as a Winter Interterm travel course to Rwanda. There, in 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans (mostly Tutsi) were slaughtered by their (mostly Hutu) neighbors in less than 100 days. We will think critically about how this collective event is officially and unofficially remembered in Rwanda today, and consider how “restorative” frameworks like reconciliation, unity, healing, and community truth-telling (through local hearings known as Gaçaca trials)—as well as the more conventional avenue of retributive justice—have been applied in Rwanda. Before we depart, we will learn about the precolonial and colonial eras in Rwanda, the 1959 revolution, and the social and political dynamics that created the condition for multiple massacres in the 20th century and eventually the genocide. While in country, we will visit a series of memorials around the country, and meet with organizations created to prevent future genocide and create healing in contemporary Rwanda. Alongside that experience, we will read and discuss academic analyses about these processes, and meet with local governmental, academic, and organizational experts. Students will engage in intensive journaling, small group discussion, and larger group discussions and debriefings throughout the process. In the final section of the class we will think more systematically about the various approaches to healing currently being attempted in Rwanda, and each student will produce an analysis of a particular memorial site, organization, or reconciliation/healing process taking place in Rwanda.


Learning Objectives

In this course students will…

  • Interrogate a variety of definitions of and approaches to apology, forgiveness and reconciliation, mostly in the Rwandan context
  • Examine the role of memory, trauma, and recognition in forgiveness processes
  • Discover how idiosyncratic cultural resources like rituals can facilitate and/or hamper forgiveness processes
  • Reflect on productive tensions between forgiveness and retributive justice models
  • Be able to explain the benefits and limitations of forgiveness-based models to prompt individual or cultural shifts
  • Further develop emotional and interpersonal skills and strategies to absorb and integrate emotionally overwhelming subject matter
  • Sharpen analytical skills required to evaluate the limits of reconciliation approaches.
  • Employ personal reflection to leverage theoretical insights
  • Use writing, on a daily basis, to facilitate all the above learning objectives
  • Produce one research-based public writing project by January 15, 2019.

Class in Kigali

Learning about pre-colonial Rwandan life

Required Course Readings

Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (Farrar, Giroux and Strauss, 1998).