Gyslaine, daughter of Emmanuel Habumuremyi (who helped arrange the trip), holds a doll brought by Keene State students.
Professor Therese Seibert's Sociology 390 students took their study of Rwanda seriously. Last May, they traveled to Africa and learned about resilience, courage, and serendipity.
One of the reasons travel can be such a powerful educational experience is that the learning happens when you least expect it.
Jesse Miller, Winnie Muvunyi, and sociology professor Therese Seibert.
A central component of the trip was a four-day workshop with Rwandan students that was organized by Never Again Rwanda, a genocide prevention agency that teaches about human rights issues, conflict resolution, and advocacy.
"The roots of genocide exist in almost any society," Seibert says. "I want students to have the knowledge and skills they need to challenge racism or any other form of social injustice." She includes this quote from a genocide survivor in the course syllabus: "A genocide is a poisonous bush that grows not from two or three roots, but from a tangle of roots that has moldered underground where no one notices it."
Five-year-olds in Winnie Muvunyi's Alpha School in Kigali.
The workshop and visits to genocide memorials taught the students about the 1994 genocide and helped them analyze the roots of the conflict. But an unexpected encounter on a bus trip brought home the horror of the slaughter and the complicated layers of denial that persist.
Tea fields in the hills of Rwanda.
Seibert says that even though she has visited Rwanda twice, it is still difficult to believe that such atrocities could have occurred here. Almost every Rawandan she has met has been gentle and polite and eager to help. The mountainous landscape is strikingly beautiful, and today the country is one of the safest in Africa to travel in. Sometimes Rwandans themselves will ask her if she can imagine genocide happening in such a "proper" country.
Before leaving Keene, students in Sociology 390 met for eight hours to prepare for their trip. Each chose a topic for a research project that would document an issue facing Rwanda, draw on sociological theory to explain it, and evaluate the policies that address the problem today. While traveling they would gather information, collect pictures, and informally interview people. On their return each would also write a more subjective paper that reflected on the experience: What had they learned? How had the trip affected their life?
The Genocide Memorial was established as a place of meditation and remembrance after the 1994 genocide.
Seibert first traveled to Rwanda in 2007 on a Marion and Jasper Whiting Fellowship to develop the Rwanda: Then and Now curriculum. She met with the Never Again Rwanda workshop leaders and visited genocide memorial sites, the national university, and the museum in Butare. She arranged to bring the KSC group to the Butare Catholic primary school and promised to bring school supplies and books. But she was flexible with the itinerary and remained open to student input and serendipitous adventures.
The view of Kigali from the Genocide Memorial Fountain.
Another student knew a woman in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, whose nephew ran the Cyangugu United Nations transit center for refugees in southwestern Rwanda on the Congo border. The camp houses refugees leaving the Congo for political or economic reasons and also receives Rwandans who sought refuge in neighboring countries during the genocide. Seibert and her student worked to set up a visit to the camp, but they were not sure that it would be safe to go even after they arrived in Rwanda.
At the end of their stay, after spending a day at the Hotel des Mille Collines (featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda), a visit to the National Museum of Rwanda, and a meet-and-greet with students at the National University, Seibert learned that they could safely make the trip to Cyangugu.
"This turned out to be the pivotal moment of the entire trip," she says. "For many of the students this was a life-altering experience."
At Cyangugu the refugees are housed in large tents, with 16 rooms to a tent. The conditions are crowded, and people get by with very little. Because this visit was not planned, the Keene State group had already given away the books and school supplies they had brought to Rwanda. When they asked what they could do to help, the director said that the children seldom were able to leave the camp and suggested a hike.
Several hundred African kids and seven Americans started up the mountain trail at the refugee camp, and soon the sounds of "The Hokey Pokey" and other songs floated back to camp. "The kids sang songs and played – we each had five to ten kids holding our hands and arms," Seibert said. "They wouldn't let go!"
When it was time to leave, the KSC group shed extra clothes and left whatever they could at the camp. In return, they took with them images of the hopeful faces of a new generation, and the resilient courage of the survivors. Everyone had gathered to see them off.
"The parents were so proud," Seibert said. "As we left, their children sang to us."