More than 15 years ago, the African nation of Rwanda experienced a devastating war caused by genocide, and as the country continues to heal, its past, present and future affect North Central College students, faculty and alumni.
Here are stories from an international student, a delegate representing Rwanda at the 2009 Model U.N. and an alumna who is among the first Peace Corps workers welcomed to the country.
1. Etienne Mashuli ’12 has two vivid memories of arriving in the United States in January 2009: the bitter cold, which he’d never experienced before, and his first trip to buy food. “It was very emotional for me to go to the grocery store,” he says. “There’s just so much here.” Over the past year he’s gained a few pounds from eating burgers and lasagna and there’s another change in his life: “For the first time if someone knocks on my door, I’m not afraid.”
Mashuli is North Central’s first student from Rwanda, an African country known for the violence that erupted in 1994 between the Hutus (majority tribe) and Tutsis (minority tribe) and documented in the movie Hotel Rwanda. Mashuli doesn’t talk much about his memories of his childhood but acknowledges the difficulties of living in a refugee camp in Congo. “I lost a part of my life due to the violence—and that’s something I can’t regain,” he says. “Yet it’s shaped who I am.”
A series of positive relationships resulted in Mashuli obtaining an education in Kenya, developing three languages (Kinyarwanda, French and English) and landing in Naperville. “I’ve had sponsors all my life,” he explains. An Australian-Korean man helped him get out of Congo and paid his school fees in Kenya. After returning to Rwanda in 2005, Mashuli translated for missionaries from Village Baptist Church in Aurora, IL, and Pastor Richard Howard helped him apply to North Central. He also met and married an American student volunteering in Rwanda.
Last winter, Mashuli talked with North Central’s Model U.N. team members as they prepared to represent Rwanda. He says that despite positive images in the media, problems remain with poverty and other aspects of the country. “I don’t want to say too much because I still have family there,” he says. “You can’t get too political if you want to help your people.”
An economics major, he has formed a not-for-profit organization called Ubuntu In Action to support education for young people and to foster dialog for healing. “Some of us made it out of the refugee camps and some did not,” he says. “You can’t forget those who died and you can feel guilty that you survived.”
He and his wife envision returning to Rwanda, which is home to nice people, not those remembered from images of the genocide. “It’s hard to understand how nice people can be a part of something that was so bad,” he adds.
2. Peace Corps volunteer Charissa Knighton ’07 is teaching English at Ecole Secondare Munyinya in the Northern Province. Rwanda has changed its education system from six years of education to nine years and its language of teaching from French to English. Education volunteers like Knighton are training teachers in English and in more advanced teaching methods.
Some of Knighton’s impressions: “As friendly as the Rwandans are, we are definitely living in a post-conflict area. The government has worked hard on campaigning for reconciliation and rebuilding, and everyone I have met has subscribed to it. If you listen carefully though, many people are still aching for justice, others are waiting for it to blow over and would rather pretend nothing happened … You will hear people causally mention family members lost in the war … Rwandans are allowed to drop these hints about their past, but you are never allowed to ask … they know you can never really understand or sympathize with them. There are memorials everywhere because almost everywhere is a site of some event or killing field. Every time a new mass grave is discovered, people gather … trying to find a scrap that will identify a missing family member.”
At press time, Knighton was adjusting to her home (with a mud brick kitchen and charcoal stove), preparing for teaching and dealing with unreliable Internet connections. To read her blog, visit http://icereinepontificate.blogspot.com.
3. Rima Gungor ’10 has faced some hard assignments in six years of Model U.N. participation, but nothing tops her role last year as a defense attorney for the International Tribunal for Rwanda. “This was a trial designed for people charged with war crimes during the genocide,” she says. “You’re playing a role that goes against what you believe and it’s even harder than it seems.”
She threw herself into the assignment, developing 12 binders of research after examining international law, the Geneva Convention and other sources. At the simulation in New York City, the trial ran short on time but she was told she could have won. “Researching all sides of a conflict allows for greater understanding and justice,” she says.
At a fund-raiser in Chicago, Gungor met Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who housed more than 1,000 Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the Hutu militia. Gungor has since gotten involved with the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which aims to prevent future genocides and raise awareness about the need for a new truth and reconciliation process. “Listening to him speak was one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had. It’s important to hear his message.”
North Central NOW Winter 2010