When twelve students embarked on a study-abroad trip to Rwanda last May term, they never imagined how much their lives were about to change.
“In 1994, approximately eight hundred thousand people died in the Rwandan genocide. Neighbors killed neighbors, priests turned against their congregations, and, in some cases, people killed members of their own family. Today, fewer than twenty years later, perpetrators and survivors live and work together. How is this possible?”
—From the course description for Kwizera: Restorative Justice, Healing, and Hope in Rwanda
Twelve Hamline students embarked on a study abroad trip to Rwanda last May to learn about the central African nation’s 1994 genocide and witness firsthand its remarkable progress toward self-healing. After glimpsing the best and the worst of humanity in a two-week period, many of the students described the trip as life-changing.
“I can’t view anything the same after that experience,” said psychology major Carolyn Paulet ’13. “It really just blew apart everything I understood about people in general, especially forgiveness.”
The course, Kwizera: Restorative Justice, Healing, and Hope in Rwanda, was an extension of a first-year seminar entitled Amahoro: Genocide, Justice, and Peace in Rwanda, taught by sociology professor Melissa Embser-Herbert.
In preparation for the trip, the students—most of whom were forming their first memories when the genocide occurred—read books about Rwanda, watched videos, and attended classes.
In Rwanda, Embser-Herbert and Kari Richtsmeier, director of international and off-campus programs, accompanied the students to destinations off the tourist trail, including a boarding school for girls, genocide memorials, and a “peace village” where former enemies live together in community.
Rather than hide a dark mark in their nation’s history, Rwandans want the world to remember the brutality of the genocide so that it isn’t repeated. Signs proclaimed, “We will never forget,” and the students engaged in candid conversations with both perpetrators and survivors. “It was just kind of thrust at you, kind of like whiplash,” said physics and political science major Lauren Allen ’15.
One of the genocide memorial sites the group visited was the shell of a church where thousands of men, women, and children had been massacred. Past twisted metal doors, they waded through a dead sea of blood-stained clothing before descending to a cellar that housed hundreds of skulls, many pierced with bullet holes, lined up like knickknacks on shelves.
The relics of people Paulet would never know haunted her. “You see the clothes, and you start putting the victims into them and you start to see them standing around you,” she said.
At another genocide memorial, snapshots of victims and their families covered the walls. “A lot of the family photos resembled my family photos,” Paulet said. “There was a man and a woman with a birthday cake, and it
was like my mom and dad. And another one looked like my sister when she was a kid playing in the backyard. And there was one I remember that resembled a family member, and it actually had blood on it.”
Rwanda’s troubles began in the late 1800s, when European colonizers created division between the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Tensions grew until 1994, when some eight hundred thousand Rwandans lost their lives in a one hundred-day massacre orchestrated by the government.
Because Rwanda’s prisons couldn’t contain everyone who had committed acts of genocide, the country needed a new way to impart justice and promote reconciliation—restorative justice, where crimes are viewed as harming not only the victims, but also the entire community. Its focus extends beyond retribution to restoring relationships.
In Rwanda, restorative justice has been practiced in a variety of ways, including faith-based reconciliation workshops, prison fellowships, and “gacaca” courts or tribunals, Embser-Herbert said. “For example, in a village, someone would be brought as an alleged perpetrator, and they would have to stand before the village and before the people that they are alleged to have harmed.”
The progress Rwandans have made toward reconciliation and unity in less than two decades serves as an example for the rest of the world, said Richtsmeier, who is working on a Holocaust curriculum in Germany. “If you compare it to the ruin and revival of the Holocaust, what Rwanda has done in a very short amount of time, Germany and Poland and Europe as a whole have not even come close to dealing with fifty-plus years later.”
While much progress has been made, however, everything is not perfect in Rwanda.
“There was an older gentleman who was dancing with the students,” Richtsmeier said. “We asked him: ‘What doesn’t work? What are some of the problems?’ and he talked about alcoholism. He said he drinks too much. A woman also talked about how, because she was so brutally raped, she’s not able to have a relationship.”
Such honesty and openness are key to the restorative justice process. Richtsmeier recalled an unsettling conversation she had with one man. “I don’t even know how our conversation started, but he looked at me and said, ‘I killed eight people.’ I didn’t really even know how to react,” she said. “Then he went on to tell me that, with the exception of one family, he’s reconciled with all of them.”
Perhaps the best example of reconciliation the group witnessed was a village where perpetrators of violence and the families of their victims intentionally lived side by side. Those who had committed the crimes rebuilt the survivors’ homes. Hamline senior Paulet said she left that village a changed person.
“It was so impossible in my mind to witness somebody kill your family and forgive them for it,” she said. “I can’t view anything the same after that.”
Soon after she returned home, Paulet got a tattoo of the word “perspective” to remind herself that no problem is insurmountable. Now, she said, “I’m grateful all the time for everything I have, for everything I have experienced and have not experienced. It’s like my personality entirely shifted. I don’t get upset about little things anymore.”
Salisa Grant ’13 also returned to Hamline with a different outlook on life, she said. “I had been embarking on what
I call a spiritual and emotional journey back to Africa as an African-American person, really trying to figure out who I am as far as roots and life and who I want to be.”
Grant said the highlight of the trip for her was a visit to the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology, where she had an opportunity to chat with some of the boarding students. “We talked about anything from The Hunger Games to their dreams of coming to America and going to college in America to the tattoo of Africa on my arm,” she said.
When the English and women’s studies major returned to Minnesota, she enrolled in Hamline’s Teaching English as a Foreign Language program. “Rwanda was definitely a motivator for me to do that,” she said. “It would be a dream come true for me to go back over there and teach.”
The Rwandan students also made an impression on the trip’s organizers, Embser-Herbert said. “Very soon after we left, Kari [Richtsmeier] and I looked at each other as though we were both having the exact same thought, which was: How can we get some of these students to Hamline?” They’ve been working with the provost’s office to create a full-tuition scholarship for a graduate of Gashora Girls Academy to attend Hamline.
In many ways, the Rwanda study abroad trip epitomizes Hamline’s mission in action, Embser-Herbert said. “The fact that our mission talks about creating global citizenry, doing all the good you can whenever you can, sort of the John Wesley ideals of what Hamline should be, we saw that practiced with the students. . . . I think it really hit home to them that this is what Hamline is about.”
By Julie Carroll
For more stories and photos from the students’ Rwanda trip, visit the class blog.
Changing the world ‘one sewing machine at a time’
Hamline graduate starts nonprofit organization to help women in Rwanda
Just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so does effecting change in the world. That’s a lesson Angela Stalboerger ’12 learned on a study abroad trip to Rwanda last May.
Stalboerger found herself captivated by a group of women making dresses from colorful swaths of fabric at a marketplace in Musanze. She watched one of the women sew as a baby slept peacefully beside her. Questions started materializing in Stalboerger’s mind: Were the women related? What’s it like to be a mother in Rwanda? How did they learn to sew, and were they able to make a good living?
“I was a mother and a wife like them,” said Stalboerger, a nontraditional student whose children are 12, 9, and 6. “I felt a connection and an understanding.”
Through an interpreter, Stalboerger learned details of their lives and shared some of her own. She was shocked to discover that $33 of one woman’s $50 monthly income went toward renting a sewing machine. The cost to purchase a machine, she learned, was $115—the same as Stalboerger’s cell phone bill.
The next day, Stalboerger returned to the marketplace with $115 worth of Rwandan franks that she gave to the woman, who tearfully embraced her. Before leaving Rwanda, she returned to the marketplace once again to give money to a second woman.
When Stalboerger returned home, she started a nonprofit organization called Begin to purchase more sewing machines for women in Rwanda.
What keeps the busy single mother of three motivated to help women half a world away?
“Mothers help mothers. It’s what we do,” Stalboerger explained in the trip blog. “It doesn’t matter where or who we are, we understand the work it takes to care for children and the struggle it can sometimes be.
“Who says a supportive group of fellow moms can’t be global?” she added. “Maybe the world will change one sewing machine at a time.”
To learn more about Begin or to donate to the project, visit Stalboerger’s blog.