Shelter from the storm

4th April 2008 at 01:00

One man's heroic stand against a tide of genocide in Rwanda is a real show-stopper in class, says James Richardson

There cannot be many classroom activities that shock a class of 14- year-olds into silence. The film Hotel Rwanda is one.

The story follows the desperate attempt by a hotel manager to shelter a thousand Tutsis from the machetes of the government-sponsored Hutu militia through three horrendous months of genocide in 1994.

And it depicts, with devastating effect, the impact the slaughter had on the 800,000 who perished and the two million who survived.

Using the Rwandan genocide to illustrate the importance of history and geography has had a big impact at our school, Sale High in Cheshire. The pupils initially struggled to understand the HutuTutsi conflict. But a wordsort activity - in which pupils have to group words into the correct categories - ensured they grasped the historical, economical and environmental factors leading to genocide. A closer look revealed a combination of colonial divisiveness, a reliance on an agricultural economy and acute over-population.

I encouraged my pupils to examine all geographical and historical evidence in an effort to draw conclusions. You know when a class is motivated and eager to share their thoughts when they need no prompting to begin an extended piece of writing. For many, it provided an opportunity to weave together what they had learnt with their opinions about the horror of what happened.

I highlighted issues of migration, asking the pupils to put themselves in the shoes of a Rwandan refugee and give them options on where to seek asylum. They had to justify their decision based on language, distance from home, welfare and job opportunities.

It never fails to spark debate, particularly when they begin to understand that many immigrants have legitimate claims for asylum in the UK and why countries in Western Europe are so attractive to war-ravaged regions in Africa.

The harrowing backdrop of genocide is a powerful way of persuading them that the humanities are crucial in making sense of the world.

It shows that the humanities classroom can help foster understanding of problems past and the pursuit of solutions to come

James Richardson is head of humanities at Sale High school in Sale, Cheshire.


Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, recalls school life to Madeleine Brettingham

I have a mixed background, with both Hutu and Tutsi parents. I have uncles and aunts and cousins who are both and so, as a child, I felt comfortable around both. But Ndoreraho Zablon, who was my Grade 7 teacher at the Seventh-day Adventist Church School in Gitwe, Rwanda, was a Hutu and so were most of the pupils. This was the late Sixties and I was 14. At the time, the situation in the country was the reverse of what it is today.

The Hutus had taken over from the Tutsis, and were proud to be running the country, as the Tutsis are now. But Ndoreraho never talked about politics in the classroom. This was a missionary school, and people tried to be decent.

Rwanda used to be a Belgian protectorate, and we were taught in French. I used to love languages. I read Moliere in my spare time and appeared in a Shakespeare play. For a while, my aim was to be a teacher, and Ndoreraho was my model.

He always spoke in proverbs and taught us a Rwandan saying: "If you leave your mother-in-law in a room, don't shine a light on her." It means keep your mother-in-law in a sacred place where no harm can come to her. The mother-in-law is a very respected figure in Rwanda.

I became friends with him when I left school at 19 and we are still friends. He left teaching and became an accountant with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where he is a well-known figure. I think it is rare to see a teacher remain so close to his pupils. I learnt a lot from him. I don't think you ever forget these experiences.

Paul Rusesabagina has been internationally honoured for offering more than 1,000 civilians sanctuary in the Hotel des Milles Collines, where he worked as manager, during the Rwandan genocide. His autobiography, An Ordinary Man, was turned into the Oscar-nominated film, Hotel Rwanda.

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