A local solution to a local problem
The power of Rwanda’s forgiveness
Guest post by Debbie Nicol
Silence surrounded me as the story unfolded; I was drowning in a sea of despair. Each and every step I took revealed new information and an ever-daunting, darker and increasingly vile reality. A feeling of disgust engulfed me in the 2004 Ethnic Cleansing Genocide Museum of Rwanda. I calculated this atrocity had occurred twenty years prior – not only within my lifetime, but also within the timeframe of my current expatriate years. Standing in one of the many locations where the government had putrefied one ethnic demographic, neighbors had massacred friends while colleagues tortured, maimed and dismembered fellow workers was making me physically ill.
What followed continues to infiltrate my every waking moment. Once the memorial displays had extricated every last detail of this gut-wrenching, despicable era, glimmers of hope found their way through the cracks. Information boards at the museum changed focus from the depths of despair to the Gacaca Courts and the incredibly positive impact they have had upon healing life, regenerating hope and restoring law and order, all within a very short twenty years.
With little left of societal structure, those remaining in tatters called upon a custom that had been at the very basis of society for hundreds of years. Upon facing disagreement, the local villagers would gather for a meeting under a tree or in a community hall to address the issue, inviting both sides for input. With the genocide resulting in thousands upon thousands captured, and jails spilling over into the streets, it was time for a conscious effort towards reconciliation. Not only was society stretched beyond reality with this number in captivity, but also life as it was known could never have a chance to breathe again while cradling such a social burden.
It was time for Gacaca; a local solution for a local problem. There was no alternative as the international community had turned its back on them. Even had the powerhouse authorities come to the rescue, it would have been with conditions – something Rwanda was not prepared to risk their future with. Taking international financial loans would take a lifetime to pay off and would commit the country to international workers being core to society, leaving their own out of jobs. International help was not snubbed, yet remained peripheral to the conciliation process of Gacaca that had always served them well.
Gradually the mediation process commenced, bringing together accused genocidians and torn, shattered families. Torturers and killers were invited to admit their wrongdoings, reveal details of involvement in the atrocities and ask for forgiveness. In return, slowly and surely, families found inner strength to forgive as many received closure upon hearing where loved ones’ bodies were buried or how they had been treated.
My own naiveté
I was in awe of these people and their history – absolute awe! During a cherished evening with five locals who all willingly recounted the horrors of that time, sharing stories of their desperation to live, I had an epiphany. My world work contribution was starting to take shape. The deep healing that had taken place spurred me on, declaring that Rwanda had what the world needs now. Why had the world not adopted this yet? Why had I not adopted this yet?
My bubble soon burst, hitting the ground with a heavy thud on hearing the words: While that’s a noble intention Deb, it simply will not work! And then it dawned on me. At the core of world conflict is separation, peppered with an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ attitude. With my noble intention, I too had fallen into the trap; just because Gacaca proved to be an amazingly therapeutic and fruitful solution in Rwanda, forging reconnection, hope and dignity for each and every village, does not guarantee it would work elsewhere. Solutions need to come from within, from those who felt the core of the pain, who know the cultural priorities and wish to honor a preferred way of life, all when they are ready. Authority should no longer just cut and paste, as without foundational beliefs and practices supporting a solution, no action will bear fruit.
Viktor Frankl faced untold hardship in the concentration camps of Auschwitz. One of his greatest lessons through those torrid times was the value that meaning gives to each and every person’s life. He describes how everything can be taken away from a human except his dignity and choice in how to respond to challenge. ‘When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence’. That last sentence may be worth a second take.
No matter how responsible the Rwandans have been on a local level and regardless of how thankful they are for current stability and growth, I still have a desire to wave their flag. Yes, there’s bound to be exceptions to this movement; let’s face it, there are exceptions in every society but my flag-bearing is for the well-intended. Surely after such chaos ripped the very essence of Rwandans’ hearts out, it would be time to now sit back and enjoy the fruits of their work? Not at all! A little-known fact is that a large percentage of Rwandans have now taken up peace missions in surrounding countries as they believe that no-one should ever have to experience the same atrocities as they have. They spread the value of the very essence of peace, friendship and, at the right time, forgiveness. They see a greater, brighter and better future and aim to put it up in lights, and are testament to the wisdom of Frankl’s words.
I realize now I should not influence others to adopt the Gacaca way, but rather reconnect to their own roots to facilitate Rwandan-like healing. That will not stop me though from becoming an ambassador for Rwanda’s focus, hunger and craving for dignity and peace. Congratulations Rwanda, my heart sings for you!
Debbie Nicol is the Managing Director of ‘business en motion’; www.businessenmotion.com.