Today, we remember those who lost their lives 29 years ago during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
Lasting only 100 days, April 7th, 1994, marked the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide in which over 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed as the international community and UN peacekeepers stood by. Emboldened by state-sponsored propaganda and armed with rudimentary weapons, ordinary Rwandans of Hutu ethnicity were mobilized into killing militias. Scholars have estimated that the rate of killing was four times that of Nazi Germany and carried out by 175,000 to 230,000 Hutus. Much has been written about the causes and courses of this tragic event, as well as commemoration practices in Rwanda. But today, in honor of the lives lost, I would like to share with you how some Rwandans work to prevent future genocide in the land of a thousand hills.
Twenty-nine years after the conclusion of the genocide, there is now a whole new generation of Rwandans born after 1994. Over the course of five months in 2022, I had the privilege to interview history teachers, education experts, and parents in Rwanda to learn how older generations who experienced the violence teach this newer generation about their nation’s history. The teachers I spoke with emphasized the importance of learning and teaching history to younger generations. Many teachers discussed the importance of learning about Rwanda’s history to create a better future, increase knowledge of Rwandan culture, and prevent future violence. For example, one teacher remarked,
“[The] history of Rwanda was characterized by the evils and wrongly taught. So, we studied wrongly; they gave us information that is not true about the history of Rwanda. And for me, I said I must change [that] … and this is my contribution to my country, to change this bad history.”
Before the genocide, schools had been sites of structural violence, where anti-Tutsi propaganda was disseminated and discrimination enforced. And during the genocide, many schools were actual sites of violence. Given this history, teachers understood how easily history may be used and manipulated to mobilize populations into violence. Thus, teachers expressed a commitment to teaching youth about the causes and consequences of genocide.
While in Rwanda, I met with local organizations and individuals dedicated to preventing genocide and promoting peace. I met with PeacEdu Initiative, a local organization that works with communities to foster reconciliation and prevent genocide through peace education. Here, survivors and those who committed genocide crimes come together to learn about genocide and gain new skills.
I was also fortunate to attend trainings where teachers throughout the country volunteered their time to learn about peace and human rights education. Many of these teachers ran peace and human rights clubs during the weekends at their schools. Finally, I spoke with parents, many of whom placed their faith in education to prevent future violence. As one parent stated,
“…we need now to put reconciliation first and foremost. We shouldn’t be stuck in our zones of thinking [that] we are divided or different. But rather, we should learn about the history and get lessons from it which will help bring national unity.”
This parent’s comment reflects the sentiments of many others. In fact, many parents who taught their children about the genocide emphasized the importance of reconciliation and national unity. Holistically, parents aimed to teach their children that national identity must be prioritized over all other identities.
I am encouraged by the commitment of teachers, parents, and local communities in Rwanda to ensure younger generations know about genocide. Today, on a day of sorrow and remembrance, I hope you, too, are inspired by their commitment to foster unity and reconciliation in the hope of a more peaceful future.
Jillian LaBranche is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota in the Sociology Department. She currently holds the National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship. Her doctoral research examines how parents and teachers in Sierra Leone and Rwanda who experienced mass violence educate younger generations about their nation’s sensitive history. She has broad interests in Genocide Studies, Comparative Methods, and Memory Studies.