Peace through education in Kigali

Like other countries in the African Great Lakes region, Rwanda has a dual identity when it comes to conflict. On the one hand, the country has known many forms of conflict and violence. On the other hand, however, Rwandans are deeply invested in the search for solutions to the violent conflicts that have torn apart their country.

Violent post-colonial ethnic conflicts in Rwanda began in 1959, followed by other outbursts in 1965 and 1973. This violence culminated in the 1994 genocide, in which the vast majority of victims were Tutsi. After the 1994 genocide, the new Rwandan government began efforts to rebuild a peaceful society. Government leaders started practical initiatives to strengthen national unity, such as: initiatives for restorative justice (whose practitioners were called Abunzi, or “the restorers”); the repatriation of Rwandan refugees from different countries; the institution of national commissions for peace, unity, reconciliation and the fight against genocide; and peacebuilding lessons in public schools.

Amidst these initiatives promoting peace in Rwanda, the Evangelical Friends Church of Rwanda, with the help of MCC and Change Agents for Peace International (CAPI), established the Friends Peace House (FPH) in 2000. With a strong history of leading peace trainings and uniting people across dividing lines, Friends Peace House, like the country of Rwanda as a whole, now finds itself shifting more towards development projects. Peace and development are not unrelated. The French proverb “pas de pain, pas de paix” (“without bread there is no peace”) illustrates the link between poverty and peace; likewise, without peace there can be no sustainable development.

As part of our peace and development programming, Friends Peace House runs a vocational training center called Mwana Nshuti (“child, my friend”). Commenting on the context of the village where he teaches, one of the Mwana Nshuti instructors remarks that “In my service I have seen that youth lack peace because of joblessness, not war only.” In the past in Rwanda a large amount of violence was committed by unemployed and
uneducated youth in gangs and militias who were easily manipulated to see other ethnic groups as targets for expressing their economic frustration and anger at the discrimination they had endured. Through Mwana Nshuti, Friends Peace House seeks to give value and practical skills to disadvantaged youth, encouraging them to think for themselves so that they are not vulnerable to this kind of manipulation.

The Mwana Nshuti program first began as a response by the Evangelical Friends Church to the large number of orphans (many of whose parents had been killed in the 1994 Rwanda genocide) living around a garbage dump in the Kicukiro neighborhood of Kigali. These children were often called mayibobo (a derogatory term for street children) and were marginalized from society. The name Mwana Nshuti is a deliberate act of honoring the youth, telling street children that “you are not mayibobo, you are mwana nshuti—a child who is my friend”.

Today’s Rwanda is being shaped by a new generation: none of today’s youth saw the genocide firsthand, yet they and other Rwandans live with the genocide’s aftereffects. In 2014 the Rwandan government ran another campaign called Ndi Umunyarwanda (“I am Rwandan”) to reinforce the message that we are all citizens and we choose not to discriminate along ethnic lines. In a recent Mwana Nshuti social studies class, teachers asked students to discuss in groups whether they would marry someone from a different ethnic group. Most students answered yes, because love is more important and we don’t value those distinctions, but some acknowledged it could be difficult for their parents’ generation to accept.

Throughout our lives we are educated by many different people, such as our parents, teachers, pastors and friends. In Mwana Nshuti the teachers seek to be good role models who create an atmosphere of inclusion and trust. As part of these efforts, Mwana Nshuti offered the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) trauma healing training, a program developed by a Rwandan and a Burundian, for its students. This three day training explored the causes and consequences of trauma, loss, grief and mourning, examining what kind of society Rwandans want to see and how they can help create it.

Feedback from an anonymous evaluation survey of students suggests the impact of the initiative. One student shared that “this training helped me discover the grief which was in me.” Another reported that “I appreciated the lessons because they helped me to move from where I was (in grief) and now I am feeling OK.” Still another participant shared that the training “helped rebuild me and also to live peacefully with others wherever I am.” After students complete their practical training at Mwana Nshuti in hairdressing, mechanics or tailoring, FPH tries to place them in co-operatives and train them to work together and do their own projects for development and peace. Mwana Nshuti includes training in entrepreneurship, peaceful conflict resolution and trauma healing and encourages the transfer of this knowledge to the households of origin. The teachers also visit the students at home to get to know them, their situation and their extended families better. On one visit we were looking at an English reader with one student’s five-year-old neighbor who was also visiting. The book contained a picture of one person chasing someone else with a stick. The girl looked up and said, “I saw a movie where people were beating each other with machetes.” We asked her, “Is that good or bad? What do you do when you have a problem?” Her attention had already wriggled away to another picture on the page, but there will be one day when she will learn more of her country’s history and have to grapple with these kinds of questions. The country is moving on and deliberately teaching its youth to be peacemakers on a national and local level. If peace is built by youth, the country can hope for a sustainable peace.

Mwana Nshuti is an MCC Global Family education project. 

Antoine Samvura is the Program Coordinator at Friends Peace House, an organization of the Evangelical Friends Church in Kigali, Rwanda, that works with at-risk youth. Teresa Edge was a participant in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program. For the last two years, she has served as Program Assistant at Friends Peace House.

For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. 

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