Rwandan Study Tour Leaves Permanent Impression on Webster Students, Faculty

Webster tour group and the Rwanda Minister of Justice

Six Webster University human rights students and four faculty members who recently returned from a study tour in Rwanda minced no words about their trip: It was like being on an emotional roller coaster. The African country’s breathtaking tropical beauty, its friendly people, and its wondrous culture made for pleasant, uplifting memories.  On the down side, however, were Rwanda’s extreme poverty and the country’s haunting reminders of its 1994 genocide, which left 800,000 dead.

The students (Simone Borisov, Tyler Holman, Amy Laxton, Justin Raymundo, Zachary Treadway, and Jeff Wilhite) were participants in a hybrid course, HRTS 3080 Advanced Topics in Human Rights: Connecting across Culture—Rwanda, which combined  six weeks of online study and a two-week tour of the small, landlocked African country.  The course instructors, Professors Elizabeth Sausele and Sarita Cargas, accompanied them, as did two other human rights professors, Lindsey Kingston and Andrea Miller. John Munyarugamba, a genocide survivor and Webster alumnus (B.A. in Political Science, 2010), served as the group’s translator.

Sausele, who previously visited Rwanda three times from 2005-2007, and has since been involved in charitable efforts for the country, said that cultural intelligence—including awareness, knowledge, and communications skills—was emphasized during the online portion of the course and reinforced during the time spent in Rwanda. “Both Sarita and I agree that this is a crucial element of understanding the context of human rights abuses , as well as essential for appropriate responding to human rights abuses,” she said. “If we don’t understand a culture, how can we advocate human rights?”

A storm moves through the Rwandan countryside.

The trip itinerary was designed to allow students to observe the country’s educational system, industry, tourism, urban and rural lifestyles, and government. Participants also visited two genocide memorials, one in the capital city of Kigali and another in Murambi, site of a massacre in which 27,000 Tutsis lost their lives at the hands of Hutu extremists.

A trip highlight was a two-hour audience with Rwanda’s Minister of Justice, The Honorable Tharcisse Karugarama, during which Karugarama discussed the country’s justice system, particularly as it pertained to the genocide. He explained that Rwandans are using their traditional, grassroots style of justice, Gacaca Courts, to bring genocide perpetrators and victims together to expose the truth of what transpired in 1994 and to offer means of reconciliation.

Webster group with John Munyarugamba at his home in Rwanda's Rwamgama District

Later that day, the group visited a farm belonging to John Munyarugamba’s family and witnessed Munyarugamba’s encounters with neighbors who had been responsible for his relatives’ deaths. On one occasion, an intense conversation ended with a neighbor’s apology and John’s offer of forgiveness.

“This day was beyond comprehension,” Sausele said. “The minister explained justice and reconciliation, and then John walked us through it. Sometimes you can’t plan things.”

The Webster visitors found other evidence that tensions within the country were still a reality, particularly in a constant military presence. “It was odd to see military with machine guns on the streets,” Sarita Cargas said. She added that it was “painful to know I was in a land where so much violence took place.”

Amy Laxton & Rwandan children

Their visit to the Murambi Genocide Memorial, formerly a technical school, will remain forever in the minds of students and faculty.  Classrooms now display partly decomposed bodies—preserved with lime—that vividly portray victims’ suffering: faces contorted in pain; skulls shattered; limbs hacked off with machetes.

Amy Laxton said that seeing the rooms filled with skeletons was an overwhelming emotional experience. “I honestly thought that if I entered one more room I would absolutely lose all control of myself,” Laxton said, “so I turned to look at the land around us. The beauty of Rwanda was still there; so were homes of people who continued to live their lives. Taking a few minutes to remember that Rwanda had continued to persevere helped me to realize that although it was difficult and very emotional to be at the Murambi Memorial, it was important to continue on and remember those who lost their lives during the genocide.”

Jeff Wilhite said the memorials were a reality check. “I will forever see them as life-changing in every way imaginable,” he said.

On the up side, Wilhite called the enthusiasm with which Rwandans received the Webster visitors “shocking.”

“It was crazy to me that many Rwandans were so happy and willing to open their doors to us,” he said. “It’s an entirely different lifestyle over there, unlike anything I had witnessed before. People work very hard, usually doing hard manual labor, and are still cheerful, whereas in the states, it seems like many people spend most of their time complaining about their desk jobs.”

Simone Borisov was also impressed by Rwandans’ friendliness and good-naturedness. “I didn’t know what to expect from the trip,” she said, “but what I didn’t expect was the warmth and friendliness of every person we met.”

A visit to the Akilah Institute for Women, which trains its students for work in the hospitality industry, paired each member of the Webster group with several institute students for an hour of talk.  Laxton said her initial nervousness about the conversation soon faded away: The students were anxious to learn about her and to tell her about their hopes and dreams.

“I realized through talking to these young women, many of whom were the same age as I am, that many of the concerns we have in life are the same,” Laxton said. “However, I realized that the women I spoke with associated their own personal success with the good of their community and country. This is one of the lessons that Rwanda taught me, that a concern for the community and for people other than one’s self is important and not detrimental to reaching your own goals.”

Justin Raymundo and Simone Borisov interact with the children of Nkombo.

Although poverty was evident in other areas of Rwanda, a visit to the island of Nkombo introduced the group to destitution. “We witnessed some of the poorest people on earth,” said Cargas. She said that children’s malnutrition was manifested in swollen bellies and discolored hair. Despite their hardships, however, the islanders were hospitable to their American visitors.

“Walking through this island was one of the most profound moments in my human rights education,” said Justin Raymundo. “While I spent years studying extreme poverty, up until that moment, I had never experienced it. It was both heartbreaking and inspiring.”

Raymundo said the inspiring part of the visit to Nkombo was interacting with the children. “They welcomed us with open hearts, excited to practice their English, and for us to attempt Kinyarwanda (obviously worse than their conversation with us in English). We walked the island with children on both hands, singing and dancing with us.”

A stop at the Murangi Training Farm demonstrated how Rwandans are attempting to improve their diets by learning how to expand the nutritional quality of their food by growing organic vegetables. Visits to a tea factory and a primary school gave participants further insights into the Rwandan culture.

Other activities were tourist-oriented. These included shopping, restaurant meals, and a drive and canopy walk through Nyungwe Forest National Park.

“It was a gorgeous country,” said Andrea Miller. Miller said that the Webster group traveled through rural areas for most of their trip, which helped them appreciate Rwanda’s natural setting. Cars were rare in the Rwandan countryside, so they did a lot of walking.

Borisov added that Rwanda had a “really good smell” and the atmosphere was noticeably clean. “They don’t have the pollution that we have,” she said.

Some impressions of Rwanda will never leave the Webster tour group: children walking to school with water jugs on their heads so they could collect water for their families on the way home; fishermen singing as they returned from their workday; dinner at Des Mille Collines Hotel, site of a Tutsi hideout that Americans know through the movie Hotel Rwanda; Rwandans’ excitement to see mzungus (foreigners) and, above all, their constant kindness and hospitality.

Sausele said that before the Webster trip, students’ main touchstone regarding Rwanda was the country’s genocide of two decades ago. While not discounting that defining, devastating period in the country’s history, the study tour attempted to portray Rwanda in its many dimensions.

“My hope was that participants would leave loving the people and country of Rwanda,” she said. “I believe that happened.”

At the Akilah Institute for Women