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Rwanda Genocide's Tough Lessons On 'Othering'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. The nation of Rwanda is marking 20 years since the genocide that claimed more than 800,000 lives. And decades after the killing, survivors on both sides are learning how to forgive and how to be forgiven. But it's a complicated, painful process for everyone involved.


FATUMA NDANGIZA: Much as we are doing reconciliation, we still have peace spoilers. People want to spoil peace. People are still die-hards. Some people who committed genocide - but up to now, they don't feel remorse for what they did.

HEADLEE: That's Fatuma Ndangiza, executive secretary for the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission of Rwanda. She's one of the voices in the new documentary "Coexist," which airs tonight on the PBS World channel. The filmmakers spoke to Rwandan genocide survivors about the reconciliation process.

Now they're bringing the lessons from those experiences to students in the United States. Joining us today is Mishy Lesser. She's the learning director for the Coexist Learning Project and she was in charge of developing the curriculum. We're also joined by Joanie Landrum. She teaches English as a second language at East Hartford High School in Connecticut and she used to this film in a lesson for students. Welcome to both of you.


MISHY LESSER: Thank you.

HEADLEE: So Mishy, what's the aim of the curriculum? What's the main lesson you're trying to teach students? Clearly, it's not algebra.

LESSER: We're trying to give students an opportunity to think about colonialism and genocide as a portal to looking at their own lives and experiences in relation to harming others and being harmed by others - forgiving others and being forgiven - dehumanizing certain individuals or a targeted group or standing up to protect them.

HEADLEE: How do you do that using a lesson from a country in which people look very different? They dress very differently. Not all of them speak English.

LESSER: Before we show the movie, we start by talking to them about genocide and we acknowledge that there's genocide deep in the history of our country - that we're not studying Rwanda to point a finger at another people or at another part of the global community. But rather as a way to learn from their experiences in order to conduct this personal inventory.

So before they even watch the film, we're using certain techniques to allow them to feel both safe and supported, but also willing to open up. And we begin to introduce the concept of othering, which is really all about a particular group of people being targeted and vilified from mistreatment. And there's not a student in our country, in our classrooms - really, all over the U.S. - who hasn't either done this to someone or had it done to them.

HEADLEE: Joanie, I wonder what - what's the hardest thing for students to grasp? Out of all the many lessons you could take away from the Rwandan genocide, what do - really - students have the hardest time understanding?

LANDRUM: My class is made up of students from all over the world and they come here to the United States. The students that I have have been here for three years or less. So they're new arrivals. I think one of the reasons that Mishy wanted to start with my class was because my students do grasp this pretty easily.

They're a marginalized population here at school. They're immediately different, whether they look different - but the fact that they don't speak English perfectly and they have accents when they do speak English - so I think it was fairly easy. And I actually have a couple of students in my class who are from countries in Africa.

But I think that once we watch the movie and then I talk to them about why are we watching this movie and how does this relate to you, they made that connection pretty quickly.

HEADLEE: Let's take a listen to another clip from the film, which kind of relates to this idea of learning how to - how to survive as a marginalized people.


REVEREND PHILBERT KALISA: We teach and spend a lot of time with survivors explaining why forgiveness is a good thing for themselves - not for the offenders, but for their own sake. But once somebody has managed to forgive, you can see that he changes. His heart is transformed. He doesn't look sad. He has a peace.

HEADLEE: That is the voice of a Reverend Philbert Kalisa, founder of the Rwandan reconciliation organization R.E.A.C.H. Mishy, how do you approach, in the curriculum, this idea of forgiveness for one's own mental well-being? That's a pretty complicated topic, even for adults, to understand.

LESSER: The testimony that the film contains is really all across the spectrum of forgiving because otherwise I won't be able to go on to I refuse to forgive. In between those two bookends, you have people who say the most important thing is to ask for forgiveness and apologize counterposed to people who actually do something and they don't just speak those words. You have a former perpetrator who learns that the surviving member of his victim's family is homeless and he builds a home for her and her daughter.

And you see how they reconstitute their relationship in the process of him doing that. I'm so glad that you pulled that clip from our film because as we've worked for the last seven or eight months at East Hartford High School in Connecticut, one of the things that the faculty and staff have taught me is that in youth culture - at least that their school - and it may be more universal than that in our country - forgiveness is seen as a weakness. And what we're setting out to do with this movie is to transform the culture, so that forgiveness is seen as a choice and, potentially, a source of strength for those who've been victimized.

And also as a first step towards upstanding. So we get students trying to reflect on and write about and talk about -sometimes by sitting in circle - the instances that they've noticed where forgiveness was either given or it was denied and how that made them feel. This is all sort of parts of supporting the development of social-emotional literacy.

HEADLEE: Joanie, I wonder - out of all of the responses that you got from students after going through this curriculum and seeing this film, what response really moved you?

LANDRUM: We used the documentary as a prompt for a writing project that we did. I got very unique essays from my students because they were telling me the event that happened to them when they needed to forgive or they needed to be forgiven. And then they were telling me how that made them feel.

And I really kind of pushed them a little bit. I said, don't tell me that you felt sad because I know everybody feels sad. I want you to tell me - what were your physical reactions to that? What were the thoughts going through your head? You know, all of those kinds of things. I was surprised at how well they expressed themselves with this particular prompt.

LESSER: And when being presented with something so extreme as genocide, part of what we hear from students is - I should just stop complaining or I should lighten up when it comes to the grudge that I've been holding or I should be a little bit more understanding at home to my younger siblings.

There's kind of a softening that happens. What was amazing to see with Joanie and her students was just the quality of their personal reflection and then how hard they worked to put that into words in this writing project. It was very impressive.

HEADLEE: Mishy Lesser is the learning director for the Coexist Learning Project. She spoke to us from WGBHTV in Boston. Joanie Landrum teaches English as a second language at East Hartford High School and she showed the documentary "Coexist" to her students as part of a pilot program. She joined us from their classroom. "Coexist" will air tonight on the PBS World channel and it's already available online. Thanks to both of you.

LANDRUM: Thank you.

LESSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.