This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Of all of the displays in the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, it is one of the least memorable. Humbly settled between panels describing the historical tensions that led to the genocide, it’s largely overshadowed by the stained glass panels and commemorative statues placed in front of and behind it.
The display is a simple glass panel that quotes an African proverb: “A tree can only be straightened when it is young.” Understated as it may be, this small placard is invaluable when it comes to understanding the post-genocide mindset in Rwanda.
In particular, it echoes the Rwandan government’s focus on rehabilitation and development for the country’s youth. To prevent another outbreak of ethnic violence, the country’s autocratic regime—which enjoys friendly relations with Washington—has strived to cultivate a healthy sense of nationalism among young Rwandans, and has instituted an ambitious educational agenda in a bid to offer young people jobs and direction.
But though the government has dedicated itself to a variety of youth-oriented reform projects, it has also instituted propagandistic “national solidarity” camps that peddle militaristic values and obedience to the state. At the same time, the country has cracked down on free speech and political dissidents.
The question remains as to whether its efforts in the twenty years since the genocide have amounted to straightening its citizen saplings or simply stunting their growth, creating a generation of Rwandan bonsais.
Education and Employment
Some of the most significant efforts have been aimed at the country’s education system. These reforms have focused on overcoming the colonial legacy of reserving education for Tutsis—the ethnic group favored by the Belgians, which helped stoke ethnic animosity in the country—as well as developing the sort of “human capital” necessary for young Rwandans to compete on the global job market.
The government has worked at breakneck speed to expand access to quality education. Between 2009 and 2011, the government constructed 9,000 new classrooms and switched the language of instruction from French to English, and it’s currently undertaking a review of the national curriculum. In addition to improving traditional forms of education, the government has also upgraded the vocational training available to students and instituted nationwide courses in entrepreneurship in an effort to decrease the country’s high unemployment rate.
Rwanda’s efforts have not gone unnoticed: in 2012, the government won the Commonwealth’s Education Good Practice Award for its establishment of free and compulsory basic education for all Rwandans for nine years. Suggesting that the program be used as a regional model, the judges determined that the program “represented a qualitative shift in the dynamics of schooling and made a major contribution to national reconciliation.” As a representative for UNICEF in the country noted, “the government has recognized education’s role in creating social cohesion” and has acted accordingly. Representatives from both USAID and UNICEF admitted sheepishly to me that, at times, it is difficult for them to keep pace with the Rwandan government’s reforms.