It was my first day teaching. Pastors, electricians, farmers, mothers, and small children filled the primary school classroom—all seated on chairs so tiny the adults could hug their knees without bending. I started the lesson with self-introductions, a task which (given our language constraints) was more theatrical than verbal. Pulling an imaginary bow across a string, I slowly enunciated my love for the violin. Exaggerated huffing, trudging, and brow-wiping defined my recent exploits on Mount Kilimanjaro. The word “university” was understood easily enough, but graphically explaining “politics” with a piece of chalk proved more of a challenge. When I had finished my show, the first student stood up.
“My name is Jumapili. I am 28 years. I have one mother and no father.”
Jumapili had distilled the exercise to its essence. For my Rwandan students, personal identity was twined around the spring of 1994, the systematic killing of a million citizens in the swiftest genocide in modern history. Jumapili’s example set a precedent, and one-by-one, the students spoke softly of their murdered sisters, brothers, children and parents. This was not a classroom of only Tutsi victims, I realized. These were rural, hard-working Rwandans, both Tutsi and Hutu, and genocide had devastated them all. They had gathered in this undersized classroom, united by grief and buoyed by hope, to attempt a new beginning, and I, the cheery-faced undergraduate with the bizarre musical interests and exercise habits, symbolized their ticket to a better life. I hesitated before them, wanting to say I was sorry for their losses and inspired by their determination. I wanted to explain that although I may appear to be their teacher, ours would be a symbiotic relationship of learning and understanding. I wanted to say many things, but the language barrier loomed large between us, so I smiled, then picked up the dry erase board and began the morning phonics lesson.
I had not come to Rwanda to teach English. I had come to set up a library in collaboration with a cousin who was building a secondary school in Rwamagana, Rwanda. Our wishes were complementary: she needed a library and I was fascinated by Rwanda’s reconciliation process and eager to meet her Rwandan husband and children—my new cousins! I spent the spring before my departure acquainting myself with the myriad of forces behind the calm façade of a book shelf. But when I stepped off the plane in Kigali, I was at the mercy of the Rwandan Postal Service: the books I had shipped four months earlier had not arrived. The book delay became a blessing, however, when I was asked to take over teaching my cousin’s community English lessons.
Much that I thought I understood about Rwanda’s history changed over the next eight weeks as I came to know a peaceful people—socially cautious, yet teeming with entrepreneurial spirit. On Independence Day, I watched from the stands at the national stadium as a thousand citizens proudly processed behind a banner that read “The Private Sector.” Twice a week, I called out Kinyarwanda greetings to women as they mobilized for market with babies tied to their backs and heaping baskets of produce balanced on their heads. I learned that the best way to experience Rwanda is not a week-long safari, a night at the famed Mille Collines, or a gorilla trek, but a ride on a crowded mini-bus, a rural wedding that stretches long into the night, and the beautiful ritual that is African tea.
Captivated by Rwanda’s peace and reconciliation process, I spent my free hours devouring books on the subject and found to my surprise that Rwandans were willing to speak about what had happened. I traveled to Arusha, Tanzania to observe the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda where the masterminds of the genocide are put to trial. There I watched a bickering fleet of foreign lawyers and wondered what could have been different if half of the international energy spent cleaning up the genocide had been used to attempt to preempt it. When I returned to Rwanda, where chain-gangs of prisoners lined the road-sides, I attended the traditional Gacaca courts. Sitting cross-legged in a field, the only muzungo in a sea of Rwandans, I watched murderers confess their crimes to the families of their victims and walk free—an indispensable human experiment in restorative, not retributive justice.
Back on campus at Washington and Lee University, I step with purposeful energy. While my own understanding of the peaceful and progressive climate in Rwanda has been informed by having lived there, conversations with my peers indicate that despite the passage of thirteen years, Rwanda’s global identity remains plagued by a simple word-association—genocide. As chairwoman of W&L’s speakers committee, I find myself in a position to sponsor a series of discussions about Rwanda’s healing example, and I am organizing a “Re-imagining Rwanda” forum this spring. President Paul Kagame has been invited to keynote the event, and academics, students, community members, and Rwandan refugees will be included in the dialog.
Rwanda’s example of reconciliation, resilience, and rebuilding offers insight into contemporary conflicts as well as human nature. At Oxford University, I hope to anchor my experiences in Rwanda, Swaziland, and South Africa with a rigorous theoretical foundation by pursuing a Masters in Philosophy in Development Studies.
The books finally arrived three days before I left Rwanda, but the library is far from finished. As campus president of Books for Africa, I relish trips to the storage room to hand-select books to ship to Rwanda. I pull out Dr. Seuss for Francoise, the energetic mother of four, and Chinua Achebe for Jumapili, restless in the monotony of country life. As I flip through the familiar pages, I am overcome with nostalgia for the stories that shaped my childhood and a vicarious excitement for the Rwandan students who will experience the creative power of these books for the first time.