Skip to main content
article icon

Back to the drawing board

Features | Published in TES Newspaper on 10 April, 2009 | By: Nick Morrison

The Rwandan genocide that left one tenth of the population dead began 15 years ago this week. Education is seen as key to ensuring that such an atrocity is never repeated

Even without the subdued lighting, the museum’s glass cabinets would have had a chilling air, given their contents. As it is, the neatly formed rows of skulls, thigh bones and, further along, lower arm bones take on a spectral quality in the yellowish glow.

A space has been cleared among the skulls for a pile of trinkets, a pipe and a toddler’s sandal. Next door, cabinets display more of the victims’ belongings, among them a child’s hooded top, a baby’s shirt and jacket, and a Superman duvet cover. Nearby is a chain used to tie a couple together, before they were thrown into a pit and buried alive.

There is an unusual stillness to the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda’s capital. The museum, run by the Aegis Trust, a UK-based charity, explores the causes of the 1994 genocide, in which an estimated one million people - about one in 10 of the population - died in a 100-day frenzy that started 15 years ago this week.

Education is seen as a key to ensuring that such an event is never repeated. “Illiteracy and poverty were contributing factors,” says Fatuma Ndangiza, executive secretary of Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. She says ignorance among the population made it easier for the leaders of the Hutu militia, the interahamwe, to spread propaganda over the radio and incite hatred towards the Tutsi minority.

Next to the museum’s display cases are boards recounting the fate of others: the 2,000 who took shelter in a church, before the priest ordered it to be bulldozed with them still inside; the people who had their tendons cut so they couldn’t run away from being raped and clubbed or hacked to death with a machete; those thrown into latrine pits and then pelted with rocks.

A gallery upstairs shows photographs of some of the child victims: a four- year-old girl who was stabbed in the eyes; the sisters, aged six and seven, who died when a grenade was thrown into their shower; the two-year- old girl who was dashed against a wall, still holding her doll.

A few miles south of Kigali, in Nyamata, is the scene of one of the most notorious episodes of the genocide. Almost 7,000 people took refuge in the church, only to be killed as interahamwe threw in grenades and then macheted and bludgeoned the survivors to death. Small children were hurled against walls, smashing their skulls. Another 4,000 people were butchered outside the church.

Now the bench pews are piled high with the clothes of the victims. Rows and rows of skulls fill the shelves of a crypt at the back of the church, many showing the fractures made by machetes. Next to them are banks of coffins, each containing the bones of about 30 people. One coffin holds a mother who died when the militia stuck a spear into her vagina, pushed it up through her body and out of her head. Her three-month-old baby is buried with her.

“What happened was linked to lack of education,” says Mamadou Kante, director of Plan Rwanda, a child-centred development organisation that has been working in Rwanda for two years. “If you are not educated, you are open to every idea you hear on the radio or on television. Education is the basis of development.”

For Rwandans, improving education has two sides: there is what happens inside schools, and there is getting children to school. Children start school at six, and although primary attendance rates are high, at about 94 per cent, enrolment at secondary level falls to 14 per cent. This is despite the Government making the first nine years of education, Primary 1-6 and Senior 1-3, free for everyone. The problem is particularly acute among girls in rural areas.

As well as cultural reasons - girls are more likely to be expected to stay at home to look after relatives, and parents often see education as less important for girls - there are also personal considerations. Poor sanitation can be a strong disincentive to go to school, particularly for girls who are starting their periods.

At Ruhuha Primary, in Gatsibo district in Rwanda’s East Province, new toilets are a priority. The school has 1,257 pupils on roll but just four alcoves in its toilet block - two for boys and two for girls. About 40 yards away, the foundations are already in place for a new toilet block, whose 12 cubicles will feed into a septic tank, instead of relying on peat to cover the waste. “It may not seem enough, but at least it will solve the problem on some level,” says Robert Manishimwe, the headteacher.

Ruhuha Primary operates a shift system - half the pupils go to school in the morning, half in the afternoon - and has four children to a desk, 50 to a classroom, but the six classrooms are not enough. Hundreds of children have their lessons outdoors.

“Whenever it rains you have to take shelter under the trees and the classes stop,” says George Rubani, who is 14 but still in Primary 5. He is far from unusual when so many children have only fitful access to education.

Plan Rwanda is funding not only the toilet block, but also six more classrooms, doubling the size of the school. Its total investment at the school will be 123 million Rwandan francs, about £150,000 (at the time of going to press).

Although no one would deny that there are still tensions in Rwanda, today it appears a relatively peaceful country. The Government, led by a former general whose Rwandan Patriotic Front seized Kigali to end the genocide in July 1994, has made strenuous efforts to heal the divisions: all discriminatory behaviour has been banned and it is now illegal even to ask if someone is Hutu or Tutsi. But Mrs Ndangiza is convinced only education can cement these measures.

“Today Rwanda is peaceful, but we want this peace to be sustainable,” she says. “Education is critical to integrate peace and reconciliation in the system. We need to continue educating our citizens about the need for peace.”

With 44 per cent of the population under 15 years old, schools have been a particular focus for attempts to promote reconciliation. Both primary and secondary pupils have civic education lessons, including looking at the roots of the genocide and how it developed, as well as classes on conflict resolution. Never Again clubs, which are part of the extra-curricular activities at many secondary schools, give pupils an opportunity to talk about what happened and how to stop a recurrence.

There is recognition that teachers played a part in spreading genocide ideology. The lessons of the genocide are part of teacher training courses, and teachers have to go on an ingando, a retreat where the participants talk about peace and reconciliation. Teachers found to be spreading genocide ideology are dismissed, as are those who refuse to go on an ingando.

At the Rwandan Ministry of Education, Claver Yisa Kamana, director of planning policy, writes two words on a sheet of paper: uburezi, meaning education and uburozi, meaning poison. “These people were not giving our children the first one, they were giving them the second one,” he says.

In Gatsibo district, Nelson Mbaraga, head of Mustard Seed Primary, is helping set up an alliance of Teachers Against Genocide Ideology. He says some teachers still ask if children are Hutu or Tutsi. “Teachers were at the forefront of spreading indoctrination. Racial segregation started in teachers’ minds,” he says.

At Kiziguro School, a 704-pupil secondary 15 minutes’ drive from Ruhuha, some of the disincentives to go to school are about to be demolished. The windowless 10m2 blocks that each hold 20 beds - space for 40 pupils - will soon be superfluous. A few metres away, a dormitory for 600 girls, complete with indoor toilets and washing facilities, is taking shape. Plan Rwanda is funding the cost of 174 million Rwandan francs (about £212,000).

“We will be living in a decent house and we will have enough lights,” says Joyce Mukamurera, 19, a Senior 6 pupil.

Isidore Karinijabo, the headteacher, says the dormitory will help the school to expand. “I want to have as many kids here as I’m able to feed,” he says.

A dining room is next on his agenda, so that lunchtimes are not disrupted during the four months of the two rainy seasons.

Resources of all kinds, both human and equipment, are in short supply. Computer science is compulsory for secondary pupils, but at Kiziguro School there are only 10 computers and three don’t work. In a typical class, 10 pupils share each computer.

Everyone in Rwanda has their own idea of what should be the priority in education. For Mr Yisa Kamana, at the Ministry of Education, it is training more teachers. For Isaac Mugabe, 19, a Senior 6 pupil at Kiziguro School, it is equipment for the science laboratory. For Mr Karinijabo, his headteacher, it is qualified science teachers. For Boniface Muddu, headteacher of Nyabikiri Primary in Gatsibo, it is English textbooks, ahead of Rwanda’s switch from teaching French to English in September. For Oliver Mbabazi, headteacher of Bihinga Girls’ School in Gatsibo, bringing electricity to her school is top of the list. For Fuliwah Muhongerwa, 16, a pupil at Ruhuha Primary, it is a playground so that children don’t have to play in the dirt.

It is hard to find anyone in Rwanda who doesn’t see education as a national priority, not only to develop the skills the Government hopes will drive forward the economy, but also to ensure there is no repeat of the genocide. Schools have rarely had such life-and-death expectations on their shoulders

www.plan-uk.org

Education in Rwanda

Primary

  • Pupil enrolment - 94%
  • Primary drop-out rate - 14%
  • Pupil to teacher ratio - 65:1
  • Average class size - 71
  • Teacher’s salary - £34pm

Secondary

  • Pupil enrolment - 14%
  • Pupil to teacher ratio - 30:1
  • Pupil to qualified teacher ratio - 49:1
  • Teacher’s salary - £68pm (diploma), £137pm (graduate)

Source: Rwandan Ministry of Education.


Subscribe to the magazine

as yet unrated

Add your comment

Subscribe to the magazine
Join TES for free now

Join TES for free now

Four great reasons to join today...

1. Be part of the largest network of teachers in the world – over 2m members
2. Download over 600,000 free teaching resources
3. Get a personalized email of the most relevant resources for you delivered to your inbox.
4. Find out first about the latest jobs in education