Why – and how – I teach my students about Rwanda

Posted: April 7, 2014 in Global Citizenship, National 5
Tags: , , ,

Today, Monday the 7th of April 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, where up to a million men, women and children were slaughtered in just 100 days.

As countless innocent people were hacked, beaten, stabbed, burned and shot across Rwanda, the west refused to use the term ‘genocide’ in isolation for fear of being forced to intervene, instead referring to ‘acts of genocide‘. Countries like the UK and USA demanded that UN peacekeepers were withdrawn, not reinforced, and then sat back and watched one of the most shameful and shocking events in modern history unfold in front of their eyes.

Put simply, the fact that a minimum of 800’000 lives were extinguished in full view of the international community matters; the west’s abdication of their responsibility to the people of Rwanda (because they simply weren’t considered important enough for us to risk anything for them) matters; the hypocrisy of nations who preach human rights while ignoring human suffering matters; and, most importantly, giving students the opportunity to really understand the world in which they live matters.

Ask the average class of teenagers what they know about the Rwandan genocide and some might be able to tell you, roughly, where Rwanda is; a handful may have seen Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs; one or two might be able to tell you a little about the mass slaughter that occured; however, the vast majority are likely to have no idea what happened during those dark months in 1994.

This – for me – is important, and this year I have made an understanding of the Rwandan genocide, and the wider implications of our responsibilities to the rest of the world, the central plank in my National 5 English course. The two primary critical essay texts – ‘Spiritual Damage‘ and ‘War Photographer‘ – were selected specifically for this purpose, and an ongoing focus on the themes ideas explored in both pieces has ensured that now, at the end of the academic year, the class are in a position to provide complex, insightful and honest responses not just to the texts themselves, but also to the wider issues that they raise.

Unsurprisingly, the primary means of teaching about the genocide has been Fergal Keane’s ‘Spiritual Damage‘, a reflective essay in which he looks back on the emotional and psychological impact of what he witnessed during his time in Rwanda. Keane writes with such power and clarity that an initial response from pupils is guaranteed, and gives students a way to access the big ideas of the text through the experiences of one frightened, damaged, and incredibly brave individual. Some of Keane’s examples in the opening paragraph, where he tells us that “the smell of the dead would drift out across the warm air of the afternoon” and that “in the bushes were rags and bones and withering flesh” provide opportunities not just for complex textual analysis but also for pupils to begin to engage with the horror of what happened in Rwanda years before they were even born.

Over time, however, through analysis of the text, discussion of the ideas and viewing of supporting media (including, but not limited to, the films mentioned previously) the students begin to engage with the topic on a level that many would think impossible for a group of 14 and 15 year olds. I have read critical responses to ‘Spiritual Damage’ in which the personal and intellectual responses go beyond anything I could ever have produced when I was a pupil, and overheard spontaneous conversations about not just the text itself, but also the incomprehensibility of what occurred in that small, beautiful nation two decades ago.

Yes, there is always a risk in hoping that pupils will engage with something which, in all honesty, requires them to demonstrate a level of sensitivity and maturity which is certainly beyond their years, but young people have a limitless capacity to rise to the challenges put in front of them. What teenagers also possess, in my experience, is an inherent and beautifully simple anger at the injustice they see all around them, and that anger is what we must help them to focus if we, as teachers, wish to honestly tell ourselves that we are using our privileged professional position to try to make the world in which we live just a little bit better.

Of course, for some people, the basic question about Rwanda remains the same – why should we care about what happens “in obscure African countries” (or, indeed, in any number of remote nations whose conflicts have no apparent impact on our safe, comfortable lives)? As ever, Keane explains it better than I ever could:

“I will care about what happens in remote African countries because Rwanda has taught me to value life in a way that I never did before. The ragged peasants who died and those who did the killing belong to the same human as I do. This may be a troubling kinship but I cannot reject it.
To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity. I am not worried if this sounds like a  sermon. I do not care if there are those who dismiss it as emotional and simplistic. It is the fruit of witness.”

I urge all of you to read ‘Spiritual Damage‘, to find out about as much as you can about the genocide in Rwanda and to consider teaching your pupils about happened in that ‘obscure African country’.

Remember that what happened in Rwanda was not just another tribal conflict, but a meticulously planned act of deliberate mass murder; remember that the victims of the genocide were exactly the same as you or I, but without the good fortune to be born in the life of privilege that we enjoy; and, most importantly of all, remember the following:


“…if we ignore evil, we become the authors of a guilty silence.”

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