“Who can tell us what the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi was all about?” teacher Josephat Arinetwe asks his pupils as he chalks the question on the blackboard.
The class of Rwandan teenagers stare back at him until, upon further prompting, one mumbles: “the massive killing of people.”
Slowly Arinetwe draws out more details, scrawling on the board the official definition, that the genocide was “the careful and systematic extinction of innocent Tutsis and moderate Hutus who did not concur with the prevailing extremist politics.”
At the leafy highschool in Kigali, a generation born after the genocide is learning both how ethnic divisions led to the slaughter, and how to forget them — a crucial pillar of government efforts to foster unity and reconciliation. “Hutu, Tutsi, Twa...in my class I don’t even know who is who,” said soft-spoken Clarisse Uwineza, 18. “I am just Rwandan.”
It is a sentiment repeated by many of her classmates, who from a young age have had “Rwandanness” drummed into them.
However, some researchers say these students merely parrot what they have been taught to say in history classes that offer a narrow version of the country’s painful past, preventing debates about ethnicity and the genocide.
“There is one official history in the country from which no deviation is permitted,” said Elisabeth King, a researcher who in 2014 authored the book “From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda”.
“While students are being taught that they need to say they are ethnically blind, their lived reality is that ethnicity still structures access to power and sometimes still structures their daily life,” King said.
In the wake of the genocide in which some 800,000 mainly minority Tutsi were killed in 100 days, author Philip Gourevitch described Rwanda — blood-soaked and traumatised to the core — as an “impossible country”. The pragmatic response to this by President Paul Kagame, who is seeking a third term in office on August 4, was: “People are not inherently bad. But they can be made bad, and they can be taught to be good.”
History classes were suspended as the country set about rewriting its past.
“Before the genocide, education highlighted the differences between Rwandans,” said Jean-Damascene Gasanabo, head of the Research and Documentation Center on Genocide.
He said textbooks described Tutsis as “foreign invaders” from Ethiopia while highlighting how to physically distinguish between Hutus and Tutsis.
Teachers would ask Tutsi students to stand up to be identified and counted.
Since the end of the genocide mentioning ethnicity has become taboo.
School textbooks now describe what King calls a factually incorrect “pre-colonial golden age” in which there were no conflicts between Hutu and Tutsi, blaming the very creation of these tribes on missionaries and Belgian colonisers.
The latest overhaul of Rwanda’s curriculum, introduced in 2016, makes genocide studies a cross-disciplinary subject, meaning it is not only taught in history classes but can be introduced as a topic of discussion in other subjects.
It also highlights the use of critical thinking. However, King says this is not possible in a country where “genocide ideology” laws have instilled a climate of fear in which few oppose the official narrative.
“We can’t divorce the education system from a very authoritarian government in a context in which people feel that they can get thrown in jail for saying the wrong thing,” said King.
Under Kagame, Rwanda has been praised for its economic turnaround and stability in the 23 years after the genocide. However, rights groups regularly criticise a lack of freedom of expression and muzzling of the opposition.
King accuses the government of selectively highlighting some communities’ memories of the violence, while repressing those of others.
Any mention of killings of Hutus before, during and after the genocide at the hands of the now ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front whose military campaign brought an end to the killing, is enough to land one in jail.
Opposition figure Victoire Ingabire is currently serving a 15-year jail term for, among other alleged crimes, calling in 2010 for perpetrators of crimes against the Hutu majority also to be pursued. “This means Hutus feel left out of history and people told me they thought this was hindering reconciliation, if they too weren’t allowed to share,” said King.
Fidele Ndayisaba of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) denied that Hutu memories were being ignored and that this was hindering reconciliation.
“You cannot compare the incomparable,” he said, referring to the deaths of Hutus at the hands of the RPF after the genocide.
“No one is stopping families from remembering their own who were killed in one way or the other, but putting them on the same level is to deny the genocide.”
File photo taken on July 14, 1994, shows Rwandan refugees as they cross the Zairean border at Goma to flee the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) troops’ advance on the northwestern town of Gisenyi.