Blake Mitchell: Science, Society, and Service-Learning in Rwanda

As I walk down the bustling city streets of Kigali, I am coming face to face with individuals who twenty-five years ago held a machete in their hands hacking their neighbors to death. I am shaking the same hands that were once dripping with innocent blood. I have really wrestled with this conundrum. Were people seeking refuge in this very room? Was someone standing outside my very door, machete in hand, waiting for their next victim? Everywhere I look I am plagued with the thoughts that not too long ago someone was likely viciously murdered in this very spot. The amount of forgiveness each Rwandan has had to display to one another is hard for me to fathom. I really do not know if I could summon up so much forgiveness. I’m sure hurt and anger still remain in the hearts of many Rwandans, but the forgiveness is there. It may be sometimes clouded by other emotions that come with grief, but it is there.

In partnership with UCA Study Abroad, I spent a month of my summer in Rwanda learning about issues such as the colonial creation of race, modernity, material culture, literature, environmentalism and society, and the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I participated in projects that addressed quality education, environmental conservation, and social entrepreneurship.

Visiting the Rwandan 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi memorials was personally one of the most impactful and emotional events of the entire trip. The harrowing images seen at these memorials will forever be engrained in my memory. It is hard to define the emotions I felt: sadness, anger, remorse. This was worse than the scariest horror film you’ve seen. Seeing the countless number of caskets stuffed full of an even greater countless number of women, men, and children murdered was utterly gut-wrenching. Many of these skeletons remain unidentified, leaving countless of surviving family members still searching. Yet thanks to science, many victims have been identified. Our readings and discussions focused on how science can be used to bring social justice. Clea Koff, a forensic anthropologist who worked to unearth evidence in Rwanda, authored a book that details her experiences. She highlights how bones can talk. The bones tell a story that has furthered our understanding of the 1994 genocide and the grueling inner workings of the genocide. Science – most importantly raw data and evidence – can speak volumes. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, the use of forensic science brought forth justice for those murdered in the genocide.

Most of the people I encountered and interacted with while in Rwanda have been affected by the genocide in some way. Each Rwandan has a unique story about their experiences, both past and present, with the genocide. Our group was lucky to have the opportunity to speak with Manzi Gaudence Uwera, a survivor of the genocide. Manzi’s entire family was slaughtered in the genocide leaving her as the lone survivor. As the story unfolded she fidgeted with the silver chain necklace around her neck, stumbling over her words, while we stared back with tear-filled eyes. Manzi brought a message of forgiveness and reconciliation. The most evocative part of her story was when she told us how her brother and sister “were begging [to their killers] for forgiveness of something they didn’t even know.” As I was hearing her tell her story I was burdened with one question: how could you ever forgive anyone who murdered your family? Fortunately, the use of science helped bring justice to Manzi as she recently found her brother and sister in 2017. Her grieving process is still ongoing but her attempt at forgiveness and reconciliation is evident.

The larger theme that we often discussed was the connection between genocide and dehumanization. This concept of dehumanization was reoccurring in many of our experiences. The act of dehumanization was fundamental for the genocide. Our readings and discussions revealed how dehumanization is the key aspect of all genocides. At each genocide memorial we saw the haunting effects of dehumanization and how dehumanization is fabricated. Colonization promotes and normalizes dehumanization which often results in tragedies such as genocides.

The detrimental effects of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi still taint Rwanda. People are still searching for their loved ones; still waiting for that moment when they can begin to heal. Young adults are still struggling to redefine their self-definition without their mom and dad. Communities are still working so diligently to rebuild what was demolished during the genocide. It is an ongoing process defined by the terms of unity and reconciliation. But the silver lining of it all is that through and through the people are always smiling – such happy people.