Learning from Rwanda

When you walk down the incredibly clean streets of Kigali, or visit any other Rwandan city or village, and peer into the laughing faces of both children and adults in this small land where everyone seemingly knows each other, you may suddenly stop in your tracks and remember the terror that engulfed this same pleasant land eighteen years ago.

The genocide against the Tutsis, instigated during one hundred days in 1994 by an extremist Hutu sect in the national government, left nearly one million dead. Most of the slaughtered were Tutsis identified by their ID cards but even more by their long time neighbors and family members, including spouses. But also among the victims were moderate Hutus, some with the “wrong” height (Tutsis are stereotyped as being tall and slender but that also describes many Hutus), some who had lost their identification papers, and foreigners who tried to protect the victimized or who just were in the way.

Flag at Kigali Memorial Centre in Gisozi, Rwanda

The Kigali Memorial Centre at Gisozi, Rwanda is a permanent memorial for victims of the genocide of 1994. The Centre is built on a site where over 250,000 people are buried, and is a place where many people who lost loved ones in the genocide go to remember and grieve. Credit: Creative Commons/hoteldephil

Rwanda’s current successes stand in sharp contrast to that recent history. In September 2011, Carnegie Mellon, one of America’s most distinguished universities, announced that it was building the first fully-fledged American university on African soil in collaboration with the Republic of Rwanda. The Carnegie Mellon-Rwanda collaboration is even more evidence that this small Eastern-Central African nation-state of barely over 11 million people has become the country to watch on the continent globally, as it gains global recognition for its leadership in peacekeeping, global business investment, universal health care, anti-government corruption, community service, and gender empowerment (women make up 56 percent of parliament, the highest in the world).

Nevertheless, the memory of past traumas persists. How do you mend a country when intimates killed intimates in such tightly knitted communities? How do you do justice when thousands of people were perpetrators and where you only have so much prison space? How do you do it?

Rwanda is doing it through a largely homegrown restorative justice methodology.

Racially divided countries such as the United States can learn great lessons from Rwanda -- lessons on how to heal the deeply rooted racial segregation present in everyday interpersonal relationships, institutions, communities, and ecologies of separation (inner cities, suburbs, exurbs, rural areas).

To the glee of some westerners and the criticism of others, Rwandans are developing their own style of participatory democracy rooted in their indigenous cultural values. The National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation, a constitutionally mandated government agency -- the only such agency in the world -- is deeply rooted in their indigenous culture. Established in the late 1990s, it coordinates and evaluates restorative justice efforts occurring in various sectors of society such as the gacaca (ga-CHA-cha) grassroots elder-based judicial process.

Stained glass window in Rwandan church

In 1994, 800,000 people were killed in 100 days of systematic slaughter. Many sites around Rwanda now stand as memorials to the genocide. This stained glass window is in a church where 10,000 people were killed. Credit: Creative Commons/configmanager

The gacaca process addresses the need for perpetrators to confess, apologize, if necessary be given prison sentences, and then reintegrate back into communities. Tens of thousands of perpetrators have gone through the gacaca system, which has proved much more effective than the traditional court system. There are numerous other reconciliation efforts being administered through law enforcement, media, businesses, public schools, and local governments. For example, Rwandans are required to do community cleanups in their neighborhoods and villages every last Saturday or be fined -- these efforts not only clean the streets, they also encourage informal conversations and healing among neighbors.

The National Commission coordinates and evaluates these multi-sector restorative justice efforts, feeding this information into the policy-making circles of the national government. As a result, over the years restorative justice has become a core value of Rwandan policy-making, enabling reconciliation efforts to become an integral part of policies addressing the quality of life needs of the Rwandan citizenry. This integration is based on the realization that forgiveness and living together cannot be achieved unless the basic material needs of victims and of repentant perpetrators of genocide are met. A government that takes care of its citizens and rewards them for living together in peace and harmony cannot help but be a nation-state in which people come to value reconciliation and learning how to live together. It becomes a source for the patriotic fervor Rwandans have for their country as shown through standard social-scientific measures of citizenship identity and participation.

The Rwandan approach makes restorative justice an ongoing multisector process embedded in the realistic realization that post-genocide healing never ends; rather, this healing is the lifelong multigenerational endeavor of people to work through their pains of tragic loss informally through living together.

It is not a Western matter of “getting over it and moving on,” which never happens, even in the West, since we are, after all, human. In reality we are fragile and break easily, though we repress and then assume that the pain is gone. Instead, what matters in the Rwandan context is that a terrible mass murder occurred among friends, families, lovers, and between authority figures and those who obediently respected them. This mass murder destroyed every ounce of trust on the most basic level. It is a massive pain that must be worked through each day, rebuilding trust each day through sharing life experiences, including the most terrible ones. The wounds gradually heal each day as victims and perpetrators embrace each other and repeat a phrase that is repeated often in Rwanda, both at public events and in the privacy of the home: “no more genocide, never.”

Making Inter-Racial Restorative Justice Public Policy in Other Countries

The most basic problem in multiracial societies such as Australia, Canada, Brazil, Great Britain, France, India, South Africa, and the United States is that inter-racial restorative justice is not considered to be the responsibility of national governments. At best, multiracial national leaders pass down laws, court decisions, and presidential executive orders that promote affirmative action and anti-discrimination with no effort to answer this core question: How are people supposed to come together and learn how to live together in peace and for the sake of public good after centuries of racialization and segregation? This makes inter-racial restorative justice efforts in such nation-states randomized, uneven in quality, and therefore highly ineffectual in design, implementation, and evaluation. Restorative Justice in the West is certainly not enforced by effective national public policies.

Church sign with quote from genocide survivor

Thousands were killed at this church in Ntarama, Rwanda. The sign, roughly translated from Kinyarwandan, reads: “If you knew me, and if you really knew yourself, then you would not have killed me.” It was said by genocide survivor Felicien Ntagengwa. Credit: Creative Commons/Scott Chacon

In the United States, we have yet to have a president, a Congress, or a Supreme Court supporting the integration of inter-racial restorative justice practices into education, business, government agencies, media, nonprofit organizations, and residential communities.

Our society has yet to embrace the idea that mandatory school curricula must expand beyond reading, writing, and math. Our schools could introduce inter-racial restorative justice to students, educating them to be aware of harm and understand the ideas of accountability (confession and repentance as apology), understanding (forgiveness), reconciliation (symbolic and material), and the possibility of restoring lives through supportive networks, institutions, and communities.

The possibility of living in an America led by a national government with an authentic and effective inter-racial restorative justice perspective is not just a pipe dream. Through American colonial and national history, especially since the 1960s, we have seen and experienced in some places that inter-racial restorative justice does work when designed, practiced, and assessed adequately with the appropriate positive incentives. Americans today are increasingly experiencing moments of restorative justice in their daily lives, whether in desegregating communities or in the public cultures of professional sports and fine and performing arts. Even mass consumerism gives rise to glimpses of healing. As documented in Elijah Anderson’s recently published book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, a growing number of Americans are being exposed to “cosmopolitan canopies” -- spaces such as malls, markets, classrooms, cafes, and workplaces where at least temporarily, race is put aside as people interact before heading home to their often segregated communities. The challenge, of course, is developing civic and private life methodologies that enable cosmopolitan canopies to develop into spaces of sustained intercultural openness, as well as learning spaces. What we need are grassroots nontraditional classrooms that motivate people over time to consciously and unconsciously, bit by bit, change their minds about the racialized “other” and thus transform the segregative environments of where “they are really from” (their families, neighborhoods, faith communities, and close peer networks) into interculturally opening places.

President Obama seriously misstepped in not following through in making his brilliant campaign speech on race, with its basic restorative justice message, into a key cornerstone of his public policy. He could have done so in the earliest days of his administration due to the public enthusiasm about his election, which paradoxically was in large part due to his racialized identity and the public presumption among his constituents that it was time to stop evading race. Instead he squandered the “interracial healer” cultural capital that he had early on. His mistakes included not giving civil rights important mention in his inaugural address, downplaying his Attorney General’s gaffe about Americans being cowards when it comes to racism, rather than using the gaffe to spark a national conversation on racism, and trivializing race by inviting the key parties in the Cambridge racial incident to the White House for beers. With the right wing unleashed and many progressives disillusioned, President Obama has lost the opportunity to be the interracial healer he could have been.

Prison Creative Arts Project piece of African Americans prison jumpsuits working and a white man on a horse

What can the United States learn about inter-racial restorative justice from Rwanda, asks the author? Our government could be proactive “in providing incentives for citizens and residents to learn about forms of dehumanization such as slavery, Jim Crow, and lynchings, which haunt the present and impede the possibility of a healthy societal future.” Credit: {title}Civilized Slavery{/title} by T. Demetrius Clark-Bey, 2010. Prison Creative Arts Project.

Nevertheless, the hope that energized the voters who elected President Obama is not wholly dead. This hope germinated in scattered inter-racial restorative justice practices across the country over the course of the past several decades. It is a hope still embraced by tens of millions of Americans who dream of electing a federal government ready to take the monster of race by its horns -- a monster that dehumanizes all of us -- and systematically and universally destroy it. If our Rwandan brothers and sisters can do it, so can we.

So can we what? We can learn how to develop an American national government that is proactive in eradicating race and in providing incentives for citizens and residents to learn about forms of dehumanization such as slavery, Jim Crow, and lynchings, which haunt the present and impede the possibility of a healthy societal future. We can also learn, as our Rwandan brothers and sisters are finding out, that a national government cannot combat the horrors of dehumanization unless citizens in their families and local communities develop civic values and grassroots awareness, education, and advocacy infrastructures and traditions in which they learn how participatory democracy can bubble up as citizens insist on being allowed to live as one rather than falsely divided into prejudicial, categorical boxes. Especially critical in post-genocide societies is the adage that all politics are local; since it is so imperative for democracy in plural societies to avert additional occurrences of genocide, they must develop the cultural bridges capable of dissolving the social norms that breed multigenerational intergroup hatred, stereotyping, and systemic prejudice. And in place of these social norms, it is imperative for us to create and sustain the forgiveness and the reconciliation essential to create community and assure that culturally different people see each other as human beings worthy of dignity, even if they are “not like me.”

Though Americans have much to learn from Rwandans, of course this is not to say that Rwanda is the perfect state. In Rwanda, there are complex, paradoxical, contradictory, and frustrating issues, just as there are wherever a national leadership is struggling with the monumental challenge of rebuilding a nation, especially after a horrible human catastrophe.


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2 thoughts on “Learning from Rwanda

  1. This article repeats, essentially, the Wikipedia version of the Rwanda Genocide that media outlets all over the world continue to paste into anything they publish on the country. Any attempt to alter this version of the central entry in the Wikipedia triggers a host of edit alerts that warn its protectors that its time to overwhelm dissenters in a Wiki war that can only conclude in no changes to the story.

    Nevertheless there is abundant evidence that it is not true. Some is in the Gersony report, generated by a team led by human rights investigator Robert Gersony in 1994, which described the genocide of Hutu people in southern Rwanda by the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army led by General, now President Paul Kagame. Here’s a summary and analysis of the report, the history of its suppression, and a link to the report itself: http://www.theproxylake.com/2010/09/unearthed-gersony-report/.

    Note also that Mr. John H. Stanfield II identifies here as “a senior consulting sociologist for the National Commission on Unity and Reconciliation in the Republic of Rwanda,” i.e., for the government of Rwanda.

    That sounds very much like a paid position to me, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame is known to pay his public relations consultants very well. Richard Wilson reports that Kagame paid the Racepoint Group, a British PR consulting firm, $50,000/mo., plus some thousands in incidentals http://richardwilsonauthor.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/rwandan-governments-pr-strategy-revealed/. Racepoint Group’s Republic of Rwanda Public Relations Strategic Plan was, in accordance with U.S. law, published by U.S. authorities: http://www.fara.gov/docs/6055-Exhibit-AB-20110812-1.pdf#page=17.

  2. While Ms. Garrison raises important issues for consideration regarding the history of the Rwandan genocide, these issues take nothing away from the core message of Dr. Stanfield. The success of the grass roots ‘Gacaca’ justice practiced by communities throughout Rwanda serves as a powerful model for what Dr. Stanfield calls ‘restorative justice’. Having worked with healing and reconciliation ministries in Rwanda since 2005, my wife and I concur that this is a model that has powerful implication for how we address race relations in the United States. Thank you Dr. Stanfield for holding up this model as a new direction for public policy. I would suggest in addition that we work to build a network of restorative justice; teaching the principles reconciliation in local communities, schools and networks. The greatest success we have seen in Rwanda is not government programs, but the powerful impact of committed individuals determined to do what is necessary to live together in harmony as neighbors.