When people learn that Network for Africa works in Rwanda they often ask, “Have they got over the genocide?” or “Have they healed yet?”
Yet, 150 years on from the US Civil War there is still controversy about “tribal symbols” like flags and statues. How many Americans still hold onto the stereotype that all Southerners are racists? Why is it that an Irish teenager can describe some obscure skirmish several hundred years ago as if it was fought last week? And why do so many people in Britain, Russia and China still have prickly feelings towards the Germans or Japanese?
If the answers to these questions are complex, why do we expect Africans to forgive and forget so quickly?
The UN has chosen today to remember victims of genocide. At Network for Africa we celebrate the courage and resilience of the Rwandans we know who continue to define themselves as survivors, not victims. While mourning those who were murdered in 1994 they, and we, focus our efforts on helping rebuild this beautiful African nation.
Nevertheless, some of us yearn for feel-good closure in Rwanda because we feel ashamed the West did nothing, knowing full well the genocide was about to happen, and continued to do nothing during 100 days of killing.
We Westerners also like to think problems can be fixed. It makes us uneasy to admit some pain is too dreadful to fade, or that many memories will linger long after the last commercial break. We want quick solutions, and prefer not to have to dig through too many layers of complexity to understand the issues involved. Hence our fondness for dismissing other nations’ conflicts as ‘tribal.’
Some charities exploit this eagerness to ‘fix’ Rwanda’s psychological scars in order to raise money in the West by promising projects that will ‘heal.’ But in our experience helping people to manage their trauma is far more realistic than claiming that survivors can forgive and forget.
The former child soldiers with whom we work in northern Uganda will never recover completely from the ‘kill or be killed’ initiation forced upon them by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. However, our counsellors teach them some useful techniques to control the frequency and devastating power of their traumatic flashbacks, thereby unblocking their capacity to acquire new skills and rejoin society.
Many people who live in countries emerging from conflict spend much of their day trying to provide the next meal for their families. They worry that climate disruption means another year of drought on their farms. They fear that their children will die of malaria. Forgiving the unrepentant person who killed your parents may be a laudable aim to someone who has lived with peace and prosperity in the West all their lives. However, it is a secondary consideration when you are always hungry and tired. That’s why we focus so much on training people to develop sustainable livelihoods so that parents can feed and educate their children. Let’s hope we have the humility not to expect Rwandans to turn over the page of history when we have proved so inadequate at doing so.
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