In April of 1994, a tiny, little-known country in East-Central Africa, tucked between regional giants like Kenya and the Congo, exploded into a spasm of impossible violence. Hundreds of thousands, if not more, were killed in baroquely grotesque way, for reasons to do with vague ethnic/class differences. It was, at the same time, a horrifying throwback to a sort of ancient violence and a grim capstone to a ravaged century. Mired as we were in a kind of post-Cold War stupor, America and the rest of the world did little to nothing to help (or worse). Shaken and guilty by lack of action, the West has solemnly marked each anniversary with the words “never again”.
If you are a teacher of international studies, the 20th anniversary seems like a great time to teach the lessons of Rwanda to a generation not yet born when the killings started. For them, it is something from that distant country, the past. It is full of important lessons: how normal people can be stoked into unimaginable violence, how leaders can manipulate the masses, how internal politics affects international events, how good people can stand up to brutality (because through it all, there are stories of courage and kindness in the face of madness). But if you have international students, particularly from Africa, you may think it very awkward and uncomfortable. It doesn’t have to be, though. Teaching about an event to students whose lives were affected can be a great lesson in history and perception, and may even help to bring your students closer together.
First, Understand the Topic
This seems to go without saying: you should always have a firm understanding of what you are teaching. But it is doubly true with something as important and searing as this. You certainly don’t want to offend anyone, or say something insensitive. You should make an effort to understand the basics, the root causes, and the aftermath. You should also try to understand multiple points of view. That doesn’t mean false equivalence or setting up a phony debate (“Well, Hutu Power also had some good points,”), but rather understanding why the international community quailed instead of just condemning it. There is an important caveat to this, of course- we can never fully understand. It’s impossible unless you have been in the situation to really grasp it. Unless you have grown up and been raised in a country freighted by memory of loss and guilt, it may be difficult to get into the psychology of your student. Understanding your limitations is more important than trying to barrel past them.
Let your student decide their level of involvement
If you are going to teach Rwanda (or Bosnia or Kosovo or the Sudan or Tibet or any subject where subject matter and students might intersect), it is natural to want the student to speak and to share. This presents some challenges. For one thing, certainly in the case of Rwanda, it is at a tricky time. Your students don’t have any living memory of the genocide, but it is still very close to them (nearly everyone in the country was affected to a degree). They may not want to speak. It may be too hard, or it may be something they just don’t want to think about. This is their right. A workaround is to ask if they want to talk about their country: the one they live in now, not the one in history books and yellowing newspapers. They can share what growing up was like, what the country is like now, traditions, and rituals: the beauty (for Rwanda is truly beautiful) instead of the terror. This will give your students a great perspective- becoming more of a home, than simply a location- so it isn’t just a land of abstract horror. And isn’t that part of teaching, and part of welcoming international students?
Students aren’t defined by the history of their country
Shorthand is human nature. If you hear someone say “I’m from Rwanda,” it is easy to quickly assign them to the “horrible experience” category and start making assumptions from that baseline. And that might be accurate: the violence in such a small country was so widespread, and its legacy so thick and pervasive, that there isn’t anyone in Rwanda not affected. But it is wrong to think that is all they are. Africa, as we’ve talked about before, is rising. Rwanda in particular has seen stunning economic growth. And while the genocide still hovers over everything, particularly the politics, it doesn’t control things.
Your student didn’t come to America to be a lesson; they came for an education, to see more of the world, to make friends, and to learn to be a global citizen. So of course you should teach Rwandan history, and should get their insight, but it would be unfair to place them in one category. Let them decide their involvement, make sure you know the facts (and the way people perceive the facts), but most of all, let your student be the unique and brave person they are. If there is one important lesson from both Rwanda and, more pleasantly, the international student experience, it is that you should never define someone by a simple category.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.