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Rwanda May Lift Ban on Teaching Its Sensitive History


In Rwanda, students may soon learn their national history for the first time since the 1994 genocide. Following the bloody ethnic conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu, the government imposed a moratorium on the teaching of Rwandan history.

Jeanne Baron reports even as the ban is lifted, controversy remains over whose history to teach.

JEANNE BARON reporting:

There is a new dining hall going up in the center of the campus at King David Academy in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The schools pastor, Steven Wagava(ph), says it's a sign of progress.

Mr. STEVEN WAGAVA (Pastor): Rwanda is just recovering. Yes, whatever you see here, Rwanda is just recovering.

BARON: This school, like many others in Rwanda, was built immediately after the genocide ended. Rebuilding the decimated school system was a top priority after the war.

The nation lost most of its teachers to the killings or the prison later. Today Rwanda still has one of the highest teacher/student ratios in Africa. Still, until now there hasn't been money for a dining hall. Classrooms came first for King David's 300 students, who range in the age from 12 to 18.

Wagava says 80 percent of the students are considered orphans. Many lost at least one parent during the genocide and the school is offering counseling.

Mr. WAGAVA: It's in the class, they find those who participated, their parents participated in the killing. You find out who was a victim also in the same class. But this has brought healing into the students.

ELLIOTT: But education officials have been reluctant to test that healing. At King David Academy, students learn English, accounting, math and science. They do not learn about the genocide or factors that led to it. It fact, they don't learn about Rwanda's past at all. In history class, they are learning about America's past.

Unidentified Male (Teacher): (Speaking foreign language)

ELLIOTT: In an unlighted, open air, brick classroom, Gilbert Moogobie(ph) dictates to a row of students in green uniforms.

On this day they are learning how American colonist bristled under British trade policies. But at King David, students will not learn of Rwanda's experience when it was a Belgian colony, or the conditions that set the stage for the genocide. A government dominated by a ethnic group known as the Tutsi has placed a nationwide moratorium on teaching Rwandan history. But as the years go by, educators say the official silence is causing it's own problems.

Mr. INNOCENT MUGESHA(ph) (National University of Rwanda): It is a problem because it creates a gap, and within this gap anybody will tell kids whatever they want, behind their doors, at home, in the bars, in the clubs.

BARON: Innocent Mugesha, of the National University of Rwanda, is part of a team developing the new history curriculum. He says in the absence of a discussion about Rwanda's history, old divisions persist.

Mr. MUGESHA: It's high time people told kids the truth, but truth - this truth also - which truth and who's truth? It's a time to allow some debate.

BARON: Some at the Ministry of Education are supporting a curriculum that is based on evidence and tolerates debate. John Ruvesary(ph) is a senior official with the ministry. He says history classes must confront past controversies, even though, he says, that won't be easy.

Mr. JOHN RUVESARY (Ministry of Education): I think we have to be honest about this. Everybody's nervous, including myself. Otherwise why haven't we taught it for the last 10 years?

BARON: To develop a curriculum, the ministry has joined up with an American nonprofit called Facing History and Ourselves, which offers resources for teaching history in societies emerging from violent civil conflict. Facing History's Karen Murphy says their materials draw on the Holocaust to show that mass violence is not inevitable.

Ms. KAREN MURPHY (Facing History and Ourselves): We have all these rich resources that are filled with individuals making decisions, most often to stand by and do nothing. And those are often points that people can use to talk about what's happening in their own country.

BARON: But experts on Rwanda say Hutu and Tutsi see history through different lenses, and outside the Ministry of Education the Tutsi regime in power is increasingly entrenched in one view of the past. Allison Deforge is with the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch.

Ms. ALLISON DEFORGE (Human Rights Watch): The Tutsi view generally minimizes any oppression done by their group against the Hutu, while the Hutu tend to go in the other direction and to exaggerate the length of time and the extent of Tutsi control and oppression.

BARON: Deforge says creating history lessons that both groups can buy into may well be an impossible task, but education officials continue to train hundreds of teachers to lead discussions on identity, ethnicity and the conditions that led to the genocide. And those teachers have their eyes on the government. The Ministry of Education has promised to unveil a history curriculum when the next school year starts in January. For NPR News, I'm Jeanne Baron. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeanne Baron
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