This month marks the 20th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. It is a time to look back, but also a time to look forward. With nearly half of Rwanda’s population under the age of 15, Rwanda’s youth are crucial to the country’s future. President Paul Kagame called young people “the new Rwanda” in his recent commemoration speech. The government vests them with great hope and responsibility and has made schooling a top priority. Education is considered crucial not only for the country’s development goals, but for promoting unity and reconciliation. Indeed, the government has called schooling a “structure to neutralize the ideology of genocide” and the country’s main genocide memorial in Kigali closes with the statement that “education has become our way forward.”
My book, “From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda,” argues that formal schooling – which we very dominantly tend to think about, not only in Rwanda, but globally, as a tool for building peace – often actually underlies conflict. Based on in-depth qualitative field work in Rwanda in 2006 and 2009, I argue that in both the colonial period and in the years leading up to the genocide, who had best access to schools (first Tutsi, then Hutu), what was taught (especially in history class), as well as pedagogy and classroom practices contributed to collectivizing and stigmatizing groups, and promoting inequality between Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans. All of these factors – collectivization, stigmatization and inequality – are widely recognized to have provided part of the foundation for conflict in Rwanda’s past.
Today, primary school net enrollment rates stand at an impressive 98 percent. Secondary enrollment rates lag far behind – in the past they’ve been among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa and there is still only about a 30 percent gross enrollment rate – but they too are the highest they have ever been. These achievements are to be celebrated. At the same time, what’s going on in schools matters perhaps more than ever before. According to the experiences of my interviewees, there are a number of ways in which Rwanda’s education system reflects and amplifies an exclusivist state.
For example, despite being ostensibly ethnicity-blind, the way that history is being reintroduced to schools by the minority Tutsi-led government marginalizes much of the majority Hutu population. In terms of the narrative of the war and genocide, Tutsi victims and survivors deserve respect and acknowledgement; Recognizing and commemorating victims and crimes may be crucial steps in reconciliation, transitional justice, to counter denial, and to prevent future atrocities. Yet Hutus whom I met over the course of my research felt excluded from mourning and justice; according to a report on genocide ideology issued by the Senate of Rwanda in 2006, saying that there are “unpunished RPF [government] crimes” may be equated with negation of the genocide. Some Tutsis too felt that their government, many members of which were in exile in Uganda when the genocide began, is using their memories of the genocide as a political tool. Despite nods in curricular material toward critical thinking, discussion is not permitted outside the bounds of the government-approved narrative.
Another issue that merits monitoring is the switch to English as the language of instruction, announced in 2008 and scheduled to have taken full effect in 2011. With a history of teaching in French (and Kinyarwanda), English-language education is said to be for the improvement of international trade and commerce, especially as Rwanda joined the English-speaking East African community and even Commonwealth. It also likely reflects the Rwandan government’s desire to distance itself from France, accused of having armed and trained génocidaires. Less publicly recognized, but not lost on many of the Rwandans I interviewed, the move also reflects the importance of Rwandan Tutsi English speakers, who form the core of the government. Samuelson and Freedman report that in one case, refusal to teach in English was interpreted as “genocide ideology.” With poor English language teaching – according to reports, the total English-language education for some teachers amounts to 20 days – language policies are contributing to divisions among French- and English-speaking Rwandans that mirror former ethnic identities, but also cut across them, with French-speaking Hutus and Tutsis finding common grievance.
Schooling mirrors the government in power, but also amplifies its structures and messages. The case of Rwanda reminds us that not just any schooling builds peace. This is an important reminder to donors, policy-makers, students and teachers.