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Education for Rwanda: After the Genocide

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In my previous post, I began a two-part review of an excellent new book by Elisabeth King entitled From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda. That post addressed the role of education in the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

King concludes that education contributed substantially to the social processes of categorization and stigmatization that led to the genocide. Her analysis focuses on unequal access to education, problems in the teaching of history, and education about matters of identity.

I now consider King's analysis of education in Rwanda in the two decades since the genocide. As we will see, once again everything has changed, except what hasn't.

The genocide ended in July 1994 when a Tutsi-dominated army of Rwandan exiles that had been invading from Uganda took control of the country. It was led by Paul Kagame, who has dominated Rwanda ever since and is now its president. The situation was grim in all respects, including education.

The last normal year of schooling was 1990 and schools closed completely during the 1994 genocide. Much of the educational infrastructure was destroyed. Schools themselves were often sites of mass atrocities. About 75 percent of teachers were killed, fled the country, or were imprisoned on genocide charges.

The new regime proclaimed that all Rwandans are Rwandan. It ended the official classification of Rwandans into Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa categories on identity cards and elsewhere and strongly discouraged the public use of these categories.

But how far can government go? To this day, claiming a concern with pervasive "genocide ideology," the government of Rwanda jails its citizens for "divisionism," which King writes is "increasingly a synonym for disagreeing with the government."

The current government is working on a presumption that it can tell Rwandans what to do and that they will do it -- that it can engineer a new reality relatively easily. The logic of the Kagame regime seems to go as follows: tell them to reconcile and the population will do so. Teach them a new history and they will embrace it. Notify them that Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa no longer exist and it will be so.

Schools began reopening in September 1994. Many of the returning children had witnessed deadly violence and many were orphans. Education was expected to serve both economic development and national unity.

Access to education remained inequitable, but in new ways. Whereas Hutu access had been restricted in the colonial period and Tutsi access to secondary and higher education had been restricted by quotas during the post-colonial Republics, there was now no official distinction between Hutu and Tutsi. But the policy of funding education for genocide survivors systematically favors Tutsi over Hutu.

By the fall of 1994, the post-genocide regime "placed a moratorium on teaching history in Rwanda's schools" and "prioritized the rewriting of history books." In 1995, the new government of Rwanda called for "a manual of Rwanda's history" that would (in the government's words) "rehabilitate certain historical truths that had been sacrificed for the sake of ideological manipulation."

In recent years there have been several initiatives to resume the teaching of history. For the most part, however, the moratorium on teaching the history of Rwanda remains in effect 20 years after the genocide. Thus Rwanda's schools no longer teach a history favoring Tutsi, as they did in the colonial era, or a history favoring Hutu, as they did during the Republics. They simply don't teach history at all.

As for identity, students in Rwanda's schools are no longer expected to identify themselves as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. But 20 years after the genocide, Rwandans continue to see themselves and each other in these terms. Requiring everyone to be Rwandan above all else is a major change from requiring everyone to be Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa above all else, but it is equally coercive.

Nevertheless, King reports a broad consensus among Rwandans that Rwanda's schools should teach a single genuine history. As one interviewee suggested, "My idea is that we find a group of researchers that we put together, that they study the real history of the country. Even if it takes years, we'll teach the history that is true."

Education for Rwanda? King makes the case that not just any education will do. Education can promote genocide.

What Rwanda needs, King argues, is education for peace and conflict resolution. Such education requires equal access for all, serious teaching of history, and respect for critical thinking and intellectual freedom, especially regarding history and identity.