By Noelle Frampton
Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver
“Rwandans like to look at people,” said our interpreter, Grace, with a little smile. They stared at us, unabashedly, so we stared right back. People from two very different places: the United States and Rwanda, a small country of verdant hills and bloody history in sub-Saharan Africa. I was there for 10 days in November 2010, part of a nine-person team that worked with the NGO World Relief in the rural areas of the western Kibuye district. Through my interactions and interviews with Rwandans, young and old, plus additional months of background research, I learned that reconciliation and hope are possible when people recognize their shared humanity with others. I share my findings in the first-person to express the reflexivity that occurred—the shaping and being shaped—to understand and tell the Rwandan story.
The Impossible Choice for Rwandans
Seventeen years after the most deadly genocide ever to happen in the space of three months, Rwandans still face a choice: Build peace among killers and victims who live beside each other, or fall back into old attitudes of fear, hatred, division and destruction. The horrific tale leading to 1994 shows starkly the ultimate outcome of dehumanizing people based on collective identity—an “us” versus “them” mentality. It can also teach us the reverse side of that coin: That humanizing others requires truly seeing and knowing them.
As I looked into Rwandans’ faces, I saw staring back a mixture of love and hate, hope and despair—an incredibly raw and palpable humanity. Rwandans are so human precisely because they are joyful and hopeful and resilient, while at the same time they are sad and doubtful and broken. I had to face honestly the dialectic that exists in every person—even in me. As I heard the stories of these people from another continent, another culture and another ethnicity, and told my own, I learned that shared humanity can erase the notion of “Other.” And I saw the power of story to reveal truth.
Among the captivating people I met in Rwanda was a young man who is forced to live beside the man who killed his parents and other relatives in 1994. That neighbor refused his offer of forgiveness, and even now turns away so he won’t have to look him in the eyes—day after day. But he still holds out the offer. There was another young man who was tortured and broken as a child when he refused to give up the Tutsis his family was hiding. But he told me with an ear-to-ear grin that he’s expecting better days ahead, and Rwandans must look forward to a shared future instead of back to a divided past.
Forgiveness is a complicated thing in any society. In Rwanda, it is indescribably hard. Stephen Kinzer reports that 99.9 percent of Rwandan children witnessed violence, 90 percent believed they would die and 80 percent lost at least one relative. On top of the issues surrounding genocide—which, of course, are not few—cultural norms favor keeping one’s thoughts and emotions close. Rwanda is a place of secrets; a frozen lake to the foreign observer, a placid surface with unknown churnings beneath.
Only time will tell, I suppose, what lurks beneath Rwanda’s veneer and whether existing structures and institutions are sufficient to promote lasting peace. My time there was too short for me to know that. But I do know that reconciliation in such a place is a long-term project that, in the end, will rely on a series of small choices by individuals.
That we are all humans does not make the differences among us easy to navigate. But Rwandans can teach us that it is worth doing all we can to recognize the humanity of others, in all of its glory and baseness, good and evil, as we recognize our own. It is worth listening and learning and trying to identify truth, in order to install institutions to promote justice. There is right and wrong in the world, and we should struggle through the hard questions necessary to define and build countries that encourage the right. Forgetting will not do; facing is necessary.
Sometimes, however, structures and institutions, and all of the good intentions and foreign aid in the world, fall short. When that happens, the need for mercy surfaces and humanity is tested. The Rwandans are struggling to respond to that test—representing to us all the desperation and hope of living. We should support them in that quest, and realize that it is our own, as well.
Kinzer, S. 2008. A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.)