Visiting Rwanda and Examining Peacebuilding through a Trauma Lens

Dear GlobalEd Readers,

As summer in the US winds down and the new school year begins, I want to introduce you to a University of San Diego Kroc School student who accompanied a group of us to Rwanda last May. Riley Pinto is working on a Master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies and has an interest in the intersections of trauma and peacebuilding. The upcoming academic year will afford Riley opportunities to explore this important topic further.

Thanks for reading!

Paula A. Cordeiro

Riley Pinto

As I sat on my return flight to the U.S., I could not help but reflect on the Master of Arts in Peace and Justice Program (MAPJ) and how our 10-day practicum in Rwanda provided me with some new perspectives on what peacebuilding can look like. Author and journalist Philip Gourevitch in his book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families describes how those who are disconnected from genocides should interpret the statistics related to genocide. Gourevitch states that “When it comes to genocide, you already know right from wrong. The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it.”[1] This quote helped remind me why I chose to be a part of the MAPJ program at the Kroc School. I now know that sustainable peace can only be achieved through properly healing the trauma that has been inflicted upon a society combined with social innovations and enterprises that empower communities to make way for a better future.

Why visit Rwanda?

Visiting Rwanda nearly 30 years after the genocide took place was one of the most unique and perplexing experiences of my life so far. I say this because I spent a good deal of time researching the Rwandan genocide, not knowing why I was so intrigued by the details behind it. Before we began one of our first days visiting three different genocide memorials, I thought to myself, “Why am I excited for this day? Why am I excited to see artifacts and be in the very place in which it all took place?” A feeling of guilt came over me, and it still lingered as I sat on my plane returning to a life in which I am so privileged not having to carry the weight of experiences the people in Rwanda did all those years ago. I wanted to find answers to these questions and to figure out how a nation has shifted to create more opportunities for its people. The average person in a Western society might think that genocide, even the terror that took place in Rwanda against the Tutsi people, is not relevant in his/her life and that the concept, while horrific, is rather abstract. When the number of deaths reaches the hundreds of thousands, it tends to become a cold statistic, meaning that the larger the numbers get, the less real and connected people feel to the loss of life.[2]  Those cold statistics played a role in the way I viewed the genocide before our trip and my perception completely changed after my trip to Rwanda.

How has Rwanda worked towards peace?

Throughout the trip I kept returning to the same question: Why and how can this nation look so drastically different less than 30 years after an identity-based genocide? After seeing all the amazing things organizations such as Komera and the Rukundo Foundation’s Sheer Love program are doing for their communities, I could not help but notice what was missing from many conversations:  the deeply rooted trauma and mental health issues. All around the country, we saw countless posters commemorating the 28th anniversary of the genocide saying “Kwibuka 28: Remember, Unite, Renew”. This message of widespread positivity and hope for a brighter future for Rwanda is undoubtedly a very good message. Karen Sherman, former president of the Akilah Institute at Davis College, said it herself when we met with her to discuss her upcoming distillery business in Musanze: “Everyone in Rwanda is on message,” meaning that everyone is on board with doing what they can for the people in Rwanda to prosper.

However, it seemed as if some issues were lost in translation with this promotion of positivity. I first noticed this when Professor Paula Cordeiro noted from her own experiences that she had yet to meet someone from Rwanda who told jokes. She expressed that humor didn’t seem to dominate many interactions or was not inherently a part of the culture. While that may seem like an irrelevant point to the topic of positivity, it got me thinking about why that might be so. Had the people in Rwanda lost the ability to joke with one another? Did they joke before the genocide? Is this one of many results of mental health issues going unaddressed in the country?  Or was it simply lost in translation? According to an article in the Health and Human Rights Journal, mental health challenges have persisted for a large proportion of survivors more than two decades after the genocide. The 2018 Rwanda Mental Health Survey conducted by the Rwanda Biomedical Centre uncovered a high prevalence of multiple disorders both in the population of survivors and in the general population. Some of the most reported were major depressive disorder (found in 35% of genocide survivors and 12% of the general population) and PTSD (found in 27% of genocide survivors and 3.6% of the general population).[3]

A New Perspective

After being immersed in the Rwandan culture and talking with people over the course of our ten-day trip, it is clear that the people have made a great deal of progress. While my questions remain about mental health awareness in Rwanda and how the nation will be impacted once President Paul Kagame ends his term, I am very invested in the outcomes of this nation and its people. We must applaud the people of Rwanda for their progress especially like the people involved in organizations such as Komera and the Rukundo Foundation. One final comment Professor Cordeiro made that has already begun to shape the way I see my place in the field of peacebuilding is to “Find happiness in changing the room versus trying to change the entire world.”

[1] Gourevitch, Philp. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. Picador, 1999.

[2] Wilkens, Carl. I’m Not Leaving. World Outside My Shoes, 2011.

[3] Lordos, A., Ioannou, M., Rutembesa, E., Christoforou, S., Anastasiou, E., & Björgvinsson, T. (2021). Societal Healing in Rwanda: Toward a Multisystemic Framework for Mental Health, Social Cohesion, and Sustainable Livelihoods among Survivors and Perpetrators of the Genocide against the Tutsi. Health and human rights, 23(1), 105–118.