Students travel to Rwanda to learn about development, recovery from trauma

Most people associate college study-abroad programs with opportunities for exploring the capitals of Europe. More adventurous students might study in Asia or South America. But Rwanda?

That’s where a dozen Indiana University students traveled last month for a School of Public and Environmental Affairs class focusing on post-crisis development and recovery. According to SPEA assistant professor Sameeksha Desai, there may be no better place to learn about the topic.

“Rwanda is interesting for a bunch of reasons,” said Desai, who taught and led the class. “It underwent so much turmoil, and within 20 years they’ve seen a move to security.”

Gashora Girls Academy

IU student Karla Lopez-Owens poses for a photo with students at Gashora Girls Academy, which prepares Rwandan girls for overseas university study.

Americans typically associate Rwanda with one thing: The horrific genocide that tore the central African country apart in 1994. Some 800,000 Rwandans, about 10 percent of the population at the time, were brutally murdered over the course of 100 days in state-orchestrated attacks.

The country seemed about to spiral into chaos. But a new government took over and began to provide stability. It has emphasized security and boosted spending on health, education and infrastructure, leading to substantial economic growth. Perhaps more impressively, the nation instituted justice and reconciliation systems to enable groups that had been deadly enemies to live side by side.

The events of 1994 still loom large, however. “Honestly, just walking down the street you are going to be reminded of the genocide,” said Anne Tinder, an IU student who took part in the class. “Whether you notice there aren’t many middle-aged men, or you see a homeless person who was obviously mutilated, there really are daily reminders.”

The IU course began in Bloomington with classroom lessons on conflict and recovery and on Rwandan history, culture and society. Students then spent 18 days in Rwanda, mostly in the capital city, Kigali.

High points included a visit to Nyamata Church, a genocide memorial where about 10,000 members of the Tutsi minority were killed by Hutu militias and government forces after seeking refuge in April 1994. The church has been preserved as a memorial, with gaping holes in interior walls, bullet marks, bloodstains and piles of clothing worn by victims of the massacre.

Student Karla Lopez-Owens, who graduated this spring from IUPUI and will enroll this fall at the IU McKinney School of Law, said she learned important lessons from the way Rwandans hold onto symbols of the genocide and the civil war that preceded it. Along with genocide memorials, there are signs such as bullet holes and grenade marks on government buildings in Kigali.

“One of the most important things I learned from this trip is that, if we are to move forward in a meaningful way, we mustn’t forget about our history,” Lopez-Owens said. “We mustn’t let our stories collect dust on the shelves of our libraries. We must make a conscious effort to re-open them, to learn from ‘bad governance,’ as hard as it may seem to reconcile with our past.”

From Nyamata Church, students visited a school for girls, a cooperative of female artisans and a program that provides loans for small entrepreneurs, a head-spinning juxtaposition that illustrated Rwanda’s change and contradictions. A packed schedule also included meetings with development and tourism groups and a visit to the Rwandan Parliament’s Committee on the Economy and Trade.

Kigali Memorial Center

Flowers commemorate genocide victims near a mass grave at Rwanda’s Kigali Memorial Center.

Students also learned about Prison Fellowship Rwanda, a program that facilitates forgiveness and reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of the genocide.

“We went to a village where the program operates, and we heard from a woman who lost family members and a man who had been a perpetrator,” Desai said. “To be 5 feet away from a person who said, ‘I killed people and I participated in genocide,’ that was mind-blowing.”

Tinder, a political science and philosophy major from Muncie, Ind., who will be an IU Bloomington junior this fall, said one of the most striking experiences was a visit to Kanembwe, a village where “historically marginalized people” were resettled when their homes were threatened by flooding and deforestation.

“That for me was just extremely impactful,” she said. “The people in the village had been living in the forest until 2009. Really, just the unbelievable shock of their being forced into society was powerful to see. But who knows what, in two generations, that village will be like?”

For all the progress Rwanda has made, it struggles with poverty and lack of basic services. Western-style political freedom is missing. And there is deep uncertainty about what will happen when Paul Kagame ends his second seven-year term as president in 2017. But despite its many problems, Desai said, Rwanda offers remarkable lessons for understanding and managing conflict, recovery and development.

“I told the students before we went, you’re going to meet people who are just like you,” she said. “And then you’re going to realize they’re nothing like you, because they’ve been to hell and back.

“It tells you that, first of all, life has to go on. And second, there’s a real opportunity, and people have amazing resilience to move forward. Peace and stability are things we take for granted, but they’re actually very fragile.”

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