Education in multi-ethnic societies Editorial
Stabroek News
March 16, 2004

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In her book Never Again - Educational Reconstruc-tion in Rwanda, Anna Obura, an independent education consultant with experience across Africa traces the efforts in Rwanda to reconstruct the national education system after the 1994 genocide. Quite apart from the logistical problems of obtaining enough books, teachers, and schools, many of which had been destroyed, and the special difficulties posed by households led by children (both parents had been killed) there was the general feeling that the old educational system and in particular the curriculum had failed the nation. As the Minister of Education was to say subsequently: "It is felt that the curriculum was both silent in areas where it should have been eloquent and eloquent where it should have been silent. For instance, there was too much about human differences and too little about human similarities. Too much about collective duty and too little about individual responsibility. Too much about the past and too little about the future. Too much about theory and too little about practice. My Ministry, after it re-established itself after the events of 1994, was very well aware of all these shortcomings and took prompt steps to remedy them."

The Ministry of Education produced a major policy declaration on the new direction of education at an April 1995 Conference on policy and planning of education in Rwanda. It stated that Rwanda would produce:

* citizens free of ethnic, regional, national and religious prejudices;

* citizens committed to human rights and to their obligations to society.

The role of the education sector, it said, was to contribute to national reconciliation by:

* Creating a culture of peace, emphasising positive, non-violent national values; and promoting the universal values of justice, peace, tolerance, respect for others, solidarity and democracy;

* Eliminating negative and positive discrimination; and promoting access to higher levels of education using criteria based solely on student competence.

This led to a Mission Statement of the education system in 1996 which read as follows:

* To prepare a citizen who is free from ethnic, regional, religious and sex discrimination;

* To prepare a citizen who is aware of human rights and responsible to society;

* To promote a culture of peace and emphasise national and universal values such as justice, peace, tolerance, solidarity and democracy;

* To promote a culture based on genuine Rwandese culture, free from violence;

* To promote freedom of formulation and expression of opinion.

What is of great interest, apart from the bold planning and experimentation to cope with the numerous issues that arose like what language to teach in, is the concept that the educational system can and should play an important role in framing social attitudes. Consider in this context the fact that history was not being taught in 2002, eight years after the war, because of the difficulty of handling the subject in the classroom given the disastrous inheritance. It is worth quoting the author at some length on this:

"The crux of the matter is that there have been no history textbooks written or published since 1994 and it is not proving easy at all to tackle the problem of writing those textbooks, or translating into pedagogical terms, for children, what history learning ought to be today in Rwanda. Syllabuses tend to be lists of topics, which are of no direct assistance to primary teachers, who are searching for guidance on how to conduct their lessons without access to the findings of history research.

"Rwandans have wanted to understand the genocide and to explain it to themselves, in order to prevent another genocide. They say that to eradicate the culture of hatred in Rwandan society, they must trace the genesis of the genocide: 'Recognition of the genesis of the antagonism must be at the heart of our processes for managing and resolving our conflicts, for the sustainable development of our peoples' (Shyaka, 2002: 143). For many, that source is the perception of socio-identity (SI) dynamics and culture in Rwanda (Ntaganda, 2002:111), which in turn has its roots in the version of history promulgated by colonial regimes prior to 1994 and continued in a similar vein by post-independence regimes. Historians are calling the colonial and post-independence versions of Rwandan history and culture a set of myths - since they have reason to consider that the perceptions or myths are not substantiated by historical evidence.

"Eugene Ntaganda (2002: 104) notes that four explanations are commonly cited for the events of 1994:

* the strong sense of ethnic identity and group psychology in Rwanda;

* traditional excessive obedience to authority;

* strict conformity to group norms;

* the political ideology which legitimized ethnicity as the foundation or keystone of official social and institutional structures under post-colonial regimes; and also, during the colonial regime, 1926 to 1962.

"Increasingly, observers are accusing the post-colonial power elites, rather than the people, of planning and orchestrating violence leading up to 1994: 'I support the view that the elites in power are responsible for the recurring massacres in Rwanda,' and of deliberately using ethnicity as a political instrument. This was practiced first by the Belgians, 'manipulation of ethnicity for political reasons' (Shyaka, 2002: 131); and then by the post-independence regimes: 'They tried to manipulate the population for unavowed political purposes.' They do not subscribe to a spontaneous popular uprising or mass anger (colere spontanee) of the Hutu, as some had called it, but place the blame squarely on the political elites (Ntaganda (2002: 103) In the view of Faustin Rutembesa (2002: 99), the aim of contemporary Rwanda historians is to scientifically review the depiction of the history of Rwanda by those same elites: 'One of the tasks which fell to history teachers in particular was to learn objectivity;' to deconstruct it, to understand and re-present the past from a variety of perspectives to the Rwandan public and in schools in order to better understand the negative conceptual constructs of Rwandan society before the genocide. Rutembesa considers that historians have a specific role to play in the reconstruction and the revival of Rwandan society, by contributing constructively to 'The larger, but fundamental debate on the contribution historians can make towards helping people understand the present' (Rutembesa, 2002: 102).

"New historical evidence is indeed pointing to, first, the erroneous content of the pre-1994 perceptions of history and to the unscientific manner in which the myths were constructed. They are generally seen by European and Rwandan intellectuals as the product of the European world view in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which saw Rwanda/Africa and its cultures through a Eurocentic cultural prism, and a prism particular to those centuries (Prunier, 1995). This world view distorted and also maliciously misrepresented the real dynamics of Rwandan society at the beginning of the colonial period. The political imperative of the colonizers was to ensure domination. It is argued that the strategy they chose to achieve this, the 'divide and rule' principle, was taken to extraordinary lengths, in Rwanda. Shyaka (2002: 131) feels that the explosive nature and the extent of the genocide are directly related to the nature and the extent of the enmity created among socio-identity groups in the past, festering over six or seven decades. It was based on a particularly vicious and simplistic dichotomization of Rwandan society which denied and obliterated the complexity and subtleties of relationships among the socio-identity groups. Imperialists translated experience from one continent to another, the notion of caste and pariah, for example, from India; and notions of racial hierarchy and of socio-economic class hierarchy from Europe. The Batwa became the invisible, outcast, dehumanized, third socio-identity group of colonized Rwanda."

One does not have to wait for a genocide to appreciate the role an educational system can play in a multi-ethnic society. What more challenging ideal can there be for a nation than to prepare a citizen who is free from ethnic, regional, religious and sex discrimination, the first plank of the Rwandan mission statement. Reading, writing and arithmetic are the basic tools of literacy and numeracy that must be the foundation of any worthwhile educational system, but in ethnically divided societies the system has to strive for more than this. In short it has to aim, perhaps through a curriculum that includes the teaching of the values of peace and tolerance and a more enlightened historical perspective, to reconstruct social attitudes. It is a tribute to the Rwandan government led by President Paul Kagame that it was able to respond to the horror of 1994 with such a profound vision of change and reconstruction.