In the wake of the 1994 genocide, peace education in Rwanda teaches children from different ethnic backgrounds how to reconcile their differences and empathize with one another.
In classrooms filled with children of both Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities, conflict is frequent. Although many of these children are too young to remember the genocide that claimed the lives of nearly one million Rwandans, primarily Tutsis, they live with the after-effects of the trauma that their families endured.
Many children grew up hearing one-sided or incomplete narratives. Others suffer more tangible losses: the death of a parent, or a family member in jail, and the resulting economic difficulties.
At school, children directly impacted by the genocide often become targets for bullying. Students who receive government compensation meet daily resentment. Classmates scorn genocide orphans who cannot afford clothes. There is no outright fighting; the methods of intimidation are more subtle. Notebooks thrown in toilets, name-calling and anonymous letters filled with threats are not uncommon.
The UK-based NGO International Alert helps to bring students from different ethnic backgrounds together in Peace Clubs. Here, they can better understand the conflict they witness in the classroom and discuss their individual narratives. International Alert supports similar clubs for adults, which bring victims and perpetrators together in conversation. However, those under 24 years old receive a special focus, since they make up 60% of the country’s population.
Peace Club members engage in critical thinking activities. They observe and interpret images with messages that are not always straightforward. Through plays, poems and acted-out scenes they examine prejudices and stereotypes, mapping out the route from conflict to reconciliation. They also learn about people who refused to commit atrocities during the genocide, treating them as role models.
The club is invested in creating strong connections between members and within the greater community. Club members work together through cooperative projects and volunteer to do community service for group members’ parents who are struggling.
A conflict-free classroom relies on empathic students, but also on a peace-centered system of learning. Aegis Trust, the organization that runs the Kigali Genocide Memorial, trains teachers for the best ways to approach and lead discussions about the genocide with their students.
This new peace education in Rwanda is directly in contrast to the old curriculum, which was designed to discriminate and to foster hatred and division among students. Out of fear, many teachers chose not to talk about the genocide at all, leaving the children to draw their own conclusions based on what they heard at home.
Aegis also comes into the classroom to offer day-long courses in peace-building. In the morning, they revisit the country’s history, learning about the ways that hate leads to violence and the necessity of reconciliation. In the afternoons, the students take a trip to the Genocide Memorial, an experience that is so horrifying that it leaves some of them in tears.
The students say that these sessions make a clear difference in the overall attitude of the school. Students, regardless of their ethnicity, began to treat one another with compassion and to support those with physical needs. Anti-genocide clubs formed. The teens and young adults spoke with one another about what they learned.
In 2015, the Rwandan government launched the Peace Education Program, which incorporates peace into every subject taught in the schools. Aegis continues to advise teachers on the best way to overcome suspicion in the classroom. They also try to instill in their students the ability to trust in the future.
Only education can give them that future. As Rwandan Minister of Education Hon. Dr. Vincent Biruta said, “Education is our only hope that atrocities will not happen again.” As a result, peace education in Rwanda continues to open up a much-needed dialogue about past conflict.
– Emilia Otte