Teaching Difficult Histories: Rwanda's Post-Genocide Experience

Twenty years on, how does Rwanda learn from its past?

On a cloudy morning in early April, hundreds of people dressed in muted grays and whites took to the center of Amahoro Stadium in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. Within minutes, they were sprawled on the grass, crumpled and still, seemingly lifeless.

Every year during the month of April, Rwanda remembers its dead, and this reenactment—part of the 20th anniversary commemoration of the genocide, in which up to one million ethnic Tutsi and numbers of moderate Hutu were murdered in just three months—hit particularly hard. Some in the audience of 30,000 were so stricken by memories of massacred family and friends that they had to be carried from their seats.

The full performance sketched out Rwanda's modern history in quick succession. It traced colonial times, noted the UN's desertion ahead of the slaughter, and lauded President Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) for saving the day and bringing the country—now one of the region's fastest-growing economies—back to life.

Claims of an "Official Narrative"

The show reflected what some call the "official narrative" of the past, a broadly accepted account that roots the causes of the genocide in the colonial period. Some allege that this historical account downplays certain realities, including the murder of many thousands of Hutu, and favors what some describe as a "univocal narrative" that is managed by the ruling RPF.

By international legal definition, genocide refers to "the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." In Rwanda's case, this took the form of the targeted extermination of Tutsi—which was carried out with extreme brutality.

But Elisabeth King, in her recent book, From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda, raises the implications of the "stigmatisation and devaluation of Hutu suffering." As one Hutu woman told her: "'I lost three-quarters of my family during the war ... But we [Hutu] don't have any right to say that we lost people.'"

"We have victims of the genocide who are commemorated, and we have victims of crimes against humanity who are silenced," said Paul Rusesabagina, whose experiences as a manager of a luxury Kigali hotel, when he helped save more than a thousand people by sheltering them, inspired the film Hotel Rwanda.

Rusesabagina lives outside Rwanda now—he's afraid to go back. The Rwandan government has accused him of profiting from his heroism and of distorting his own account of the past. But Rusesabagina has claimed that his deepening criticism of the ruling party made him the subject of a smear campaign. "My story created a Hutu hero, and that is not what the government wants," he said.

Colonial Roots

Rwandans—especially the roughly 50 percent who were born after 1994—naturally come to learn about their national tragedy, and the events before and after, from private conversations, public commemorations and civic education, and, crucially, from the school curriculum.

The Rwandan government and others argue that aspects of schooling before 1994 contributed to the genocide. According to John Rutayisire, director general of the Rwanda Education Board, "The curriculum was based on discrimination, divisionism, victimization."

Emphasis on ethnic identities in the classroom, as well as rote learning of a version of history that portrayed the Tutsi as colonizing immigrants to Rwanda, followed a pattern set during the German and Belgian colonial periods. Stereotyped definitions of different ethnicities were promoted, apparently as part of a divide-and-rule policy.

Some of this historical misunderstanding was used to incite the Hutu population to join the slaughter in 1994—for example, appeals to send the Tutsi "back to Ethiopia" by throwing their bodies into a north-flowing river referenced the myth that the Tutsi were "foreigners."

Since the genocide, public discussion of ethnic identity has been outlawed. The preferred historical narrative argues that a fluid system of clans was perverted by the colonial and post-colonial administrations. Thus, the identities "Tutsi" and "Hutu" were artificial—and ultimately catastrophic.


After President Kagame's RPF took control of the country in July 1994, one of its first actions was to reopen primary schools and to undertake an "emergency revision" of the primary and secondary school curricula.

Classification of both teachers and students by ethnicity was abolished, and unity, reconciliation, and a collective '"Rwandanness" were stressed.

Formal teaching of Rwandan history wasn't carried out in primary and secondary schools until at least 2005.

But some officials dispute that a post-genocide moratorium was placed on teaching the subject. Instead they describe circumstances in which the few surviving teachers lacked the materials to teach a complex and highly charged history.

"Rwanda is not unique in not jumping quickly into teaching history—it's very common for a country not to address its violent past," said Karen Murphy, an American academic who has worked in several countries emerging from violence and conflict. "Schools were destroyed and a huge percentage of the teaching population had been killed," she said. "Others were imprisoned."

Hesitant Steps

"Children and parents were really disturbed by the delay, as was the leadership in education," said Sarah Freedman of the University of California, Berkeley.

So a little over a decade ago, the first hesitant steps were taken toward teaching history, with education officials engaging international academics to help develop secondary school materials. Freedman helped coordinate the team, which was led by Rwandan educators and scholars.

Consulting with all constituencies, the group worked to develop a teacher's handbook covering different historical periods. Described as a "participatory" process, the project aims to allow the emergence of "contested interpretations" of historical events, and to encourage dialogue in the classroom. Batches of teachers were trained to use the materials and to facilitate discussion with students.

But eventually the project soured, and while the teaching materials have not been replaced, the Rwanda Education Board cannot confirm when they were last reprinted or distributed. Some foreign experts complained about the introduction of "problematic" materials—including, for example, case studies that they felt were based on "politics" or "rumor."

John Rutayisire, who was then director of the National Curriculum Development Centre, an institution that has since been incorporated into the Rwanda Education Board, said that the Rwandan officials had sought international support to develop a "learner-centered approach, in which students would participate and interact."

At times, he said, there was disagreement between the parties, particularly over the copyright of the materials. "This is our curriculum—it is open to scrutiny by anybody. The handbook, as its title says, was developed by a participatory process. What politics can [there] be in a participatory process?"

He added that "curriculum development is always an unfinished business" and that it would "always be reviewed by the national executive in light of changing circumstances."

Room for Debate?

According to Paul Rusesabagina, "There is a complete rewriting of history. They [the current government] are writing it the way they want it to be taught."

Charles Kabwete Mulinda, a history lecturer at the National University of Rwanda, acknowledges that there is "much" debate about the teaching of national history, but he denies bias.

"Some of the debate is international, some local," he said. "There are certain Rwandans who say that the history of Rwanda we teach does not include all issues. When we scrutinize the content, we find it is representative of the major events."

But with discussion of ethnicity both taboo and illegal in the new Rwanda, frank and open debate about the past is difficult.

Laws against "divisionism" and "genocide ideology" are designed to prevent a repeat of the genocide. Many in Rwanda feel that limits on identity-driven history and politics are necessary to protect against tragedy. But critics argue that these prohibitions allow for a crackdown on dissent by the governing party.

According to a 2005 study by the Kigali-based Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace, a great number of Rwandans desire an "objective and true history."

But achieving consensus on a single "true" history—encompassing identity, contested events in the past, and the nuances of the present—seems unlikely.

"One of the major challenges in Rwanda is that the government in power has always interpreted the history to serve their political needs," said Timothy Longman of Boston University, who worked in Rwanda with Human Rights Watch in the 1990s. "What I would hope for is that Rwanda could have an honest history. Did ethnicity exist? I hope people can look at the facts, debate, and think for themselves."

Curriculum Overhaul

Rwanda's entire school curriculum is now undergoing an overhaul and is due to be relaunched at the beginning of 2016. Whether a formal revision of the history curriculum—one that acknowledges the full breadth of Rwandan experience—will be part of it remains to be seen.

As Charles Kabwete Mulinda said, "What we do know is that history is a selection of events that have taken place in the past. It is not everything that occurs; it is a selection."

What seems certain is that as Rwanda enjoys more economic and development successes, the history it seeks to convey to its young people will play an important part in shaping the country's future.

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