April 7th is one of the few dates anyone in the UK can expect to read much about Rwanda in the news as the world marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. Last night I attended a moving rememberance ceremony in the Chapel of St Mary's Undercroft in the House of Commons to mark Kwibuka 20, the theme of this year's commemoration week. Translated into English, it simply means 'remember'.
The moving accounts of Linda Kalimba from the Rwandan High Commission, which brought many to tears, and some of the charities currently on the ground supporting genocide survivors, stood in stark contrast to most of the press coverage of the anniversary. A quick review brought up a narrow range of stories from the diplomatic spat surrounding the French government's decision to pull out of the commemoration ceremony to comparisons of the Rwanda of 1994 to Central African Republic or Syria today as they questioned the international community's commitment to its pledge of 'Never Again'.
Substantially less was written about what Rwandans themselves are doing to ensure 'Never Again' means exactly that. There is, after all, little point in them turning to the UN or any other power to do it for them - a lesson they learnt the hard way twenty years ago. However, if my brief experience of the young men and women set to lead their country come the 40th anniversary is anything to go by, the future of The Land of a Thousand Hills is in very safe hands.
The wall next to the Head Teacher's office bears a plaque listing the school's core values, the last of which is "we are Gashora girls, destined to greatness".
Four months ago, I had the tremendous privilege of working with 140 of Rwanda's brightest students from over 20 schools, most of them based in the capital, Kigali. They had all converged for a two week debate camp on a campus in nearby Gashora, home of the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology. Founded by American philanthropists, Suzanne Sinegal McGill and Shalisan Foster, and championed by President Paul Kagame for dispelling the myth that science & technology is exclusively a male domain, the school is a special place. The wall next to the Head Teacher's office bears a plaque listing the school's core values, the last of which is "we are Gashora girls, destined to greatness".
The Academy is normally empty during the holidays in December, but for two weeks last December, it was the home of Debate Camp 2013, the first of its kind, and the creation of student-led charity, Idebate Rwanda. The Students were mostly in their final year of high school, some of the lucky few to be enrolled in secondary education. Several were as young as 12, including little Victor, who quickly became the star of the camp following a stunning speech on the importance of education, delivered in a style that can only be described as 'Eminem meets Barack Obama'.
The aim of the camp was hugely ambitious: to give students the tools to change their lives and their communities by teaching them to think critically, speak freely, and solve problems creatively. You might expect a programme like this to be the work of a global NGO, a UN initiative, or at least a government programme. No, the people responsible for this are a team of volunteers in their mid-20s. Jean Michel is a teacher who studied in America and now tirelessly devotes himself to raising the standard of education in his homeland. Samuel is a student at the LSE, and a phenomenal ambassador for the organisation. Christie, Alex, and Arnold work tirelessly on the ground to expand and support the charity's growing network of school debate clubs. Together, they are driven by one goal: 'Never Again'.
The Central London Debating Society team (from left to right): Jordan Anderson, Tony Koutsoumbos, Gwyn Redgers, and Jack Watling
I had been invited, along with a team of my fellow trainers from the Central London Debating Society, to write and deliver the training programme for the inaugural camp. We were each assigned a group of between 25-35 students who we mentored for the duration of our time there, working together for 6 hours a day. We took them through the basics of public speaking and problem solving, using a series of games and interactive exercises, before delving into the worlds of logic and rhetoric. One day they would analyse the speeches of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, the next they would examine the arguments for and against economic and political union in East Africa.
Put simply, a democratic society is a debating society.
It is the firm conviction of Sam and Jean-Michel that debating has an instrumental role to play in Rwanda's transition to a stable democracy and the prevention of another genocide ever taking place. Great progress has already been made through radical reform of the country's economy and its laws, and now charities like Idebate are leading the way on much needed social reforms. Embedding democracy in Rwanda means overcoming the fear of self-expression and the reluctance to question authority, ingrained through decades of unchallenged propaganda. Put simply, a democratic society is a debating society.
It is with great pride, therefore, that I watched my students debate the limits of free speech, the future of Rwanda's economy, and the priorities of its foreign policy, knowing that somewhere among this assortment of gifted and dedicated young people, I could well have been watching the future President of Rwanda. Perhaps it will be Bruce, the 18 year old student on a mission to drive up the number of children being enrolled in Rwanda's growing network of technical schools, known as TVETs, who models himself on Martin Luther King. Maybe it will be Joyce, who is preparing for her final year exams so she can study to be an airline pilot in the UK or North America, and spent Christmas last year volunteering in a shelter for genocide survivors.
Future Presidents of Rwanda in the making? (Joyce and Bruce, second and third from the right in the back row)
The success of Debate Camp 2013 has led to the rapid expansion of the initiative with the first East African debating tournament due to take place this summer. Debate Camp 2014 will follow in December, taking in the poorer communities of the Rwandan countryside and including schools from as far afield as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi. The camps are supported entirely by individual donations and grants from philanthropic organisations. However, the link debating forges between academic development and good governance means there is good reason for governments to get involved too.
One wonders why the world insists on re-visiting Rwanda's violent past when it has such a promising future. To be sure, we must never forget, which is why last night's touching service was so important. Today though, when I think of Rwanda, I think of Joyce, Bruce, and Victor, and celebrate the victory of a bright future over a dark past.