Here is the thing, sometimes it is not easy to say what’s on your mind, so bear with me because this post might be long. What I’m asking you though is to try your best to read it till the end.
Some of you may have done something you inherently believe in. You may have known that what you’re doing is right and has a positive impact. But there is that one moment in time when you FEEL that whatever you’re doing is worth the amount of energy you have invested in it. For me, that moment was in St. Cloud.
I have to admit that when we went to St. Cloud we were all under a tremendous amount of pressure. It was the first time SCSU was hosting the tour, and the host Dr. Dan Wildeson who is the Director of the Center of Holocaust and Genocide studies there had put soooo much work into making it happen. Dan went even so far as inviting Rwanda’s ambassador to the US (although she wasn’t able to come in the end). Dan Wildeson expected so much from us, and all that knowledge kind of turned into a burden for us to do so much more.
So we arrived in Minneapolis on Friday September 23rd and were welcomed by Dan who then took us out to dinner and we got to know the guy. Now I’ll tell you that that didn’t help one bit, and we went back to the hotel feeling more pressure than before. This is why: Dan is quite a character. He is the Gentleman personified. The kind of guy who talks to you and you can quite literally see the intelligence and wisdom his mind holds, even in small talk. He is the kind of guy who listens to you while you speak, with his eyes fixed on you with such intensity that you end up thinking “This man is seeing through me”. So when you meet him the first time, he intimidates you even though it is not at all his intention to do so. At one point during the dinner Angela decided to go all out and ask “What do you expect from us?” and he answered that we had already met some of the expectations when it comes to having a conversation. In my mind I was like “Man at least tell us something”.
So we went back to the hotel and on Monday morning we took a shuttle to St. Cloud and found him waiting at the hotel (oh yeah, this is another thing about him. He defines what being on time means, literally). We settled in and Dan connected us to a group of Rwandese students at SCSU who gave us a tour of the campus. In the evening met with the members of the SCSU Debate Union and their coach Scott Wells to prepare for the debate since we had blended team.
The next morning on Tuesday we had our first class visit. It was an Anti-Semitism in America class, and while all of them knew the Holocaust so few of them knew much about the genocide against the Tutsi. We talked about what exactly they knew about that genocide and then proceeded to give a background to the genocide in Rwanda by pointing out similarities with the Holocaust using Ervin Staub’s stages of the Continuum of Violence. Amos then explained how in a post genocide society dialogue is very important because through it pain is validated and therefore allowed to heal. The class was so amazing and interesting, the students were interactive and very eager to learn more, I came out feeling, like they say in French “Aux Anges!!” The best moment of that day though was when we sat in Chipotle (yeah that is off the list now 😉) for lunch and asked Dan what he thought of that class visit and he responded “If you told me you were leaving right now, I would be totally okay with it. I got my money’s worth”.
That same afternoon we had a debate event on campus which was attended by the university president Dr. Ashish Vaidya , and the Rwandan and Burundian students at SCSU surprised us by doing a traditional dance before the debate took place. The resolved motion was that in the aftermath of genocide, forgiveness is better than justice; and we had blended teams. A Q&A session followed the debate with questions focusing on the merits of either justice or forgiveness
The next day we had two classes. First we went to professor Eddah Mutua’s intercultural communication class. They were having a discussion on Whiteness, how it has come to be normalized in the western world, and how this normalization consequently affects people’s view of other races and ethnicities and the former’s reaction to what happens to the latter. Eventually this observation was broadened to also examine how the perception of the Western world as the civilised world also has an effect (mostly adverse) on how people here react to what happens elsewhere; whether with apathy or a misguided, albeit well intentioned sense of the extent of the help they can offer. Next we went to prof. Marla’s Holocaust Literature class. Marla is the lovely wife of Dr. Dan. In her class we again drew comparisons between the Holocaust and the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. That evening Dan hosted us in his home. I should say that by this time all the intimidation had dissipated. Once you get to know Dan, his wife and their daughter Madeline you immediately feel drawn to them. They irradiate a certain warmth that’s just indescribable. Dan was making jokes and quips about Angela not eating vegetables that got us all cracking ribs. Oh and the food yo!! Dan was the one who cooked for us, and boy did we go for second and third servings! The food was just magical.
Thursday, which was the last and big day of our events in St. Cloud began with two classes of prof. Kikuko Omori’s intercultural communications class. Here we focused the conversation more on the power of forgiveness in rebuilding Rwanda. Professor Omori would show a PowerPoint slide of Rwanda’s geography and scenery, then I don’t know why the conversation would always shift to what kind of food we eatJ. Then she’d show portions of the PBS Frontline documentary “Ghost of Rwanda” and a lecture of Rwanda’s history by a Rwandan survivor. Then we’d discuss more in groups on the nature and causes of genocide and the common agreement at the end of these was that there is more to the Genocide that the movie Hotel Rwanda (the medium by which most had ever come close to knowing about the genocide). The professor would then show a three-minute video on the power of forgiveness (the story of a mother from North Minneapolis who forgave the person who had killed her teenage son, and her forgiving him helped him to understand the gravity of his crime and want to become a better person). Then again in groups we’d explain the process of forgiveness in Rwanda, how the Gacaca courts had played a major role in this process, and how it forgiveness is still a difficultly attainable thing but at least we have made impressive headway.
That evening was, and I suspect that it will remain the best highlight of the tour for me. We were hosted at St. Cloud City Hall for a night of storytelling and African food was served yo (I will write another blog specifically for Jollof rice). We had about 50 people in the hall. The mayor of St. Cloud kicked off the event with a welcoming note. Then Harmonie, Angela and Sharon read powerful stories from the book “Voices from a Post Genocide Generation”. It wasn’t the first time we had read these stories, but I have to say that thanks to Angela, I listened to them with a renewed sense of the emotions and pain with which they were written. After the stories I gave a brief account of Rwanda’s history leading up to the genocide, and its causes. I also talked about the lesser known aftermath of the genocide against the Tutsi, about killers and victims having to live again in the same communities, about different efforts to build a more united society in Rwanda and how, by using debate, the younger generation is learning three important lessons that will help them build a better future:
A Q&A session that followed, and one of the questions that stayed with me was a question that was blunt in nature but really touched the heart of the matter as far as the purpose of the tour was concerned. And I loved the fact that the lady who asked the question did so knowing what she thought of it already but also wanting us to share it with the rest. The question was: “You’re here talking the genocide and its effects and consequences, but why should we care?” And if you think about it, we’re talking to Americans about a Genocide that took place 22 years ago several thousand miles away from their homes. Why should they care? And the answer of course is that the problem us humans have is that we view conflict and violence as resulting from a place and not people’s behavior. And this is the perception that we need to change. Genocide didn’t happen in Rwanda because Rwanda (and Africa) is a land of inherently savage people; if that was the case then it would be very easy to solve that problem. But the reality is that it was a result of complex issues over a long period of time, and human behavior in response to these issues. And if we understand this, we then understand that conflict and mass violence can arise everywhere and can affect everyone. And if we are able to understand this, then we will be able to understand that it is our duty, in whatever small capacity we have, to stand up to explosive rethoric and actions that might lead to violence as best as we can.
The five days I spent in St. Cloud were inarguably some of the best and most meaningful of my life. I left the place on Friday morning feeling reinvigorated. To be honest I didn’t want to leave. I will never forget the experience and knowledge I got from SCSU faculty and debaters alike. I remember writing about the necessity of the US Tour earlier this year; I also remember feeling disillusioned with the convictions in that piece a short time before the tour started. Rwandan and Burundian students at SCSU, members of the St. Cloud community, and most especially Dan Wildeson and his family will always have my sincerest gratitude for making us feel at home in a place so far from home, and allowing me personally to believe even more in the power of the work we at iDebate are doing on this tour and at home.