Becoming Rwandan: Education, Reconciliation, and the Making of a Post-Genocide Citizen


 Presenter (s) S. Garnett Russell, Teachers College, Columbia University

Becoming Rwandan explores the understudied role of education in facilitating peacebuilding and transitional justice in societies that have experienced violent conflict. The literature on peacebuilding efforts generally focuses on rebuilding a country’s political structures and economy and ensuring its longer-term stability. Largely neglected by scholars is the role that education plays in addressing past conflict as part of a broader reconciliation and justice process. Government-run schools are often assumed to be politically neutral institutions. However, education is inherently political and almost invariably seeks to promote the broader values and vision of the state. Indeed, with the power to influence the beliefs, expectations, and identities of citizens, educational systems are central to the state-building process. But while this power can be harnessed to achieve a wide range of outcomes, it can sometimes be hard to control and can produce unintended consequences.

Drawing on the case of post-genocide Rwanda, this book examines how the Rwandan state has attempted to use education to address the violent past and to build a peaceful society. Since the 1994 genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead, the regime in Kigali has viewed the education system as a powerful tool with which to address the legacy of conflict and foster reconciliation. This book, however, reveals that that tool has been harder to wield than the regime in Kigali expected. By exploring how national education policies are actually implemented at the local level in Rwanda, this book uncovers major tensions and contradictions between policymakers’ intentions and the reality on the ground.

In addition to highlighting tensions that arise when a government seeks to manipulate and limit historical understanding and identity, Becoming Rwandan interrogates preconceptions about the global transmission of norms and power and the limitations of education in shaping national identity. The book shows how international norms, such as those enshrined in human rights conventions, are used (and misused) and translated (and mistranslated) as they move from the global to the national and then the local level in non-Western and post-conflict contexts. These translation problems have not gone unrecognized by scholars and human rights advocates, but their perspective has often been that of governments and multilateral institutions: from the top looking down. Most of the literature on peacebuilding and transitional justice neglects the perspective of local actors on the ground. Becoming Rwandan presents evidence of how teachers and students, including both survivors of the genocide and children of perpetrators, understand peacebuilding efforts and interpret human rights principles. Just as the Rwandan state is not a passive recipient of global norms, nor are its citizens; what they learn at school may be dictated by the state, but how they interpret and apply those lessons is a process over which they have at least some control.

Drawing on empirical data gathered from more than 500 students through questionnaires, classroom observations, and over 100 student interviews, as well as 20 interviews with teachers, during eleven months of field work in three districts of Rwanda, this book demonstrates the ways in which local actors, including teachers and students, respond to global and national discourses and shift the intent and meaning of these broader models. Thus, even though the official Rwandan discourse of citizenship, human rights, and reconciliation is pervasive in policy and curricular documents, my research reveals a dearth of genuine reconciliation, trust, and open discussions in schools among these different groups.

Leave a Reply