The Issue - Rwandan schools bear the weight of history

17th January 2014 at 00:00
As education begins to confront the country's recent past, teachers must help their students to understand the horror of the genocide

Imagine there were children in your class whose parents, brothers and sisters had committed genocide, and children whose parents, brothers and sisters had been killed in that genocide. How would you begin to teach those children anything about science or literature or maths, let alone try to address the history and impact of a nation turning on itself, killing around 800,000 citizens in just three months? This is an issue I face every single day as a primary school teacher in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

I was not in Rwanda when the genocide took place in 1994. My parents had been expelled from the country in 1959, so we were in neighbouring Burundi - refugees for more than 30 years. It was only in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, when the Rwandan Patriotic Force came to power, that we were permitted to return to our country. What we found was horror and death. All my uncles, aunts and 80 per cent of my cousins had been killed. Some families were wiped out altogether.

I have been teaching at a primary school in Rwanda since my return. In the years after 1994, tackling the issues of the genocide was at once an essential and impossible task. Teachers across the country themselves struggled to make sense of what had happened, to separate their own personal sorrow and grief for their country from their role as a teacher, so trying to help students to understand was incredibly hard.

For this reason, the genocide was for a long time not officially taught in Rwandan primary schools. Personal issues were dealt with by in-school and out-of-school programmes, yet actually studying the genocide was unheard of. But studying it was essential to coming to terms with what had happened and to helping people deal with those personal issues.

Remembering the killing fields

It was not until 2007 that formal public debate took place about how the issue should be handled in an educational context. The result is that, even now, the genocide is still only lightly discussed in primary schools - teachers have to be very cautious about going too deep into the subject. Discussions are kept informative and take place under the history curriculum for Primary Year Six (P6). Children in this year are generally aged between 11 and 14, and this is considered to be the youngest suitable age to cover the topic.

We introduce students to the history of Rwanda, divided into four main periods: the pre-colonial period; colonisation and the road to independence; independence until 1994; and genocide and the present. These lessons are allotted only four hours of teaching time per year, although it is recommended that P6 students visit genocide memorial centres at least once a year.

In secondary schools, there is more time for studying the genocide. In the lower years, teaching occurs in history classes, but as children get older this expands to politics, economics and geography classes, too. Teachers are restricted to eight hours of teaching at the start of secondary school, but in the older years there is freedom to delve deeper into the topic.

Although the time allocation may be small in both primary and secondary education, the lessons are well resourced and teachers have lots of guidance. The support improves around Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January - which marks genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur and Bosnia, as well as in the concentration camps of the Second World War - and when we commemorate the genocide on 7 April. These events bring new programmes to promote unity and reconciliation, and new testimonies about the genocide, so that we can understand with greater clarity how it was made possible. Meanwhile, more and more education programmes are being designed by politicians, educators and charities that aim to use education to ensure that genocide never happens again.

Twenty years on, teaching students about the genocide may still be emotionally and socially difficult, but the teaching itself is improving: at least now we are directly addressing the issues. When I am teaching, I can see in the faces of my students that they are still living with the aftermath of the genocide, even though they are likely to have experienced it only indirectly, and it stirs up strong feelings in me, too. But despite this, we all know that talking and learning about the genocide is essential for the future of our country, and for coming to terms with what happened.

Jackson Twagirayezu is a teacher at Ecole Primaire du Saint Esprit in Kicukiro District, Kigali, Rwanda. He was speaking as a representative of the Rwandan Youth Information Community Organisation, a UK registered charity that works to support and empower vulnerable young people in Rwanda. Find out more at


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