The Public Humanist

Othering: Lessons from Rwanda for Our Schools

Coexist Poster 2014Twenty years ago Rwanda collapsed amidst a hundred-day genocidal rampage by its majority Hutu population against the less numerous Tutsi. The quick ferocity of the slaughter stunned and shocked the world, though not enough to prevent it. The seeds of hatred had been planted decades before, fed by colonial Belgian overlords who deliberately promoted othering of one group, the majority Hutu, by the more-favored and socially dominant Tutsi. But this dynamic shifted dramatically and when Belgium exited Rwanda in 1962, it supported a Hutu for president. With the majority Hutu now in charge, years of pent-up resentment and anger were unleashed as genocide ideology. Schools, broadcast media, newspapers, and political rallies provided a platform for promoting fear, distrust, and disdain of the Tutsi, who were repeatedly scapegoated. This toxic hatred brewed for more than three decades until the assassination of Rwanda’s Hutu president sparked the genocide in which well over half-a-million Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were killed. The invading Tutsi army, which put an end to the genocide, massacred Hutu civilians as it took control of the country. This little-known fact contributes to social unrest in Rwanda today where Hutu feel there has been no recognition of their suffering but rather only blame for their culpability as perpetrators of genocide.

Today, Rwanda is a nation of survivors and perpetrators, living side-by-side. As Africa’s most densely populated country, victims of the genocide and those who committed horrific acts of murder and physical violence are almost forced to engage because of government-mandated reconciliation, especially since the release from prison of tens of thousands of genocide offenders starting in 2004. As they return to communities where they killed and raped, the government strongly encourages victims to choose forgiveness and reconciliation over a tense, unresolved coexistence that does not seek to repair relationships that were broken. And it summons perpetrators to make amends or, at the very least, go through the motions of apology. This ambitious and highly controversial program of official reconciliation inspired the recently-broadcast public television documentary Coexist, which profiles the struggles of Rwandans to face their wounded past and resolve deep social tension for a better future. It also inspired an in-school program focused on mitigating the too-common practice of othering here in the United States.

For American students, who face their own daily confrontations with conflict and the temptations of revenge, the experiences of Rwandans offer a much-needed opportunity to explore important lessons about violence, forgiveness, reconciliation, and upstanding. Upstanding is the practice of speaking up and stepping in when harm is done to others. It defies the all-too-common practice of bystanding, whereby individuals fail to speak up or step in to prevent harm to others, thereby enabling perpetrators to abuse their power. With Coexist as its framework, we developed an extensive four-lesson curriculum to present an overview of the history of the genocide and testimony by Rwandans about life in a post-genocide society. A yearlong pilot program began in the fall of 2013 with a group of faculty and students at East Hartford High School in Connecticut.

What we’ve discovered through bringing stories from the Rwanda genocide to these and other students and their teachers is that both groups deeply appreciate the opportunity to interrogate Rwandan history as a portal to examining our own social history and the ways we treat one another in our schools. Given a chance to consider the morality or immortality of bystanding, they want to know more about upstanding. When contrasting empathy and compassion with scapegoating and blame, they want to learn how to cultivate it as a practice. They thirst to understand the origins of hatred in human behavior, in historical events, and in the small and large dramas that happen at school. They grasp the meaning of such concepts as ‘routinization of cruelty’ and ‘dehumanization’ and ‘rehumanization,’ and wonder whether forced reconciliation can lead to true reconciliation.

Many of the students – and teachers as well as staff — in our workshops struggle courageously and openly with their own tendency to judge and devalue others, and recognize that they sometimes think about retaliation when they feel wronged. They see forgiveness as a choice that they want to embrace but admit it is hard to put into practice. There are bountiful teachable moments when discussing the themes and issues presented by the Rwanda genocide.

Coexist introduces viewers to the difficulties of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda today, and the individuals in the film show that many Rwandans have much to teach the world about the nature of personal and social healing, approaches to reconciliation, and how to repair shattered relationships. As Coexist shows, not everyone reconciles, and forgiveness—if it develops—takes years. And two decades after a catastrophic genocide that the world did nothing to stop, we have much to learn by studying their experiences and listening to the stories of both victims and perpetrators as chronicled in Coexist. By better understanding how othering makes such violence possible, we are finding new ways to coexist together and create more peaceable schools, in which upstanding and compassion become more the norm than the exception.

Mishy Lesser, Ed.D. is the learning director of Coexist, an award-winning documentary film about post-genocide Rwanda that aims to teach young people about genocide, forgiveness, and upstanding. She authored the four-lesson Coexist Teacher’s Guide that accompanies the film. For more information about the Coexist Learning Project go to

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