January 30, 2014

Our Amazing Group in Rwanda

Tribal dance honoring the cows.
Warrior dancer Noah.
One of 75 happy soccer ball recipients!
Journal writing and reflection at Murambi.
Singing 'Lean on Me' at the goat cooperative.
Goat cooperative gives new hope for HIV-positive women.
Lauren and Milo feed goats.
Jacob and Chris inspire another game.
Truth, Su Jin and Bunnies

This one almost came home with us!

Interviews on site.
Coles little buddy.
Mama, Milo and Nyamata survivor.

Our traveling troupe and beloved translators.

Dream team of chaperones.
Cheri Gaulke, Jeff Mac Intyre and Alethea Tyner Paradis

January 28, 2014

Photos from Rwanda

Milo and Noah help serve lunch at Aspire.
Mike, kids and bubbles.
Paul hugs a survivor.
Justin Carr would be proud.
Lauren gets cornrows.
Sampson goes native.
Katherine and Noah's new friends.

African Dance Class.
Su Jin, Lauren and Sampson the brave.

Imani plays paddy-cake with a local girl.
Happy teachers!  Cheri Gaulke and Alethea Tyner Paradis

January 27, 2014

Day One in Rwanda

We arrive in Kigali under cover of darkness, and awake the next morning to a stunning view of ochre earth hills adorned with verdant green.

All the students are healthy, rested, enthusiastic for our explorations ahead.

Our first excursion is to the Kigali genocide museum.  Students questions are thoughtful, their observations sincerely revealing of active inquiry.  Noah remarks that the propaganda cartoons on display are in the French language, making the connection between the Franco-phone society and France's support of the Hutu majority.  Jacob connects the exhibition comparing the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Armenia, Sudan, and the Holocaust to his own personal history.  He recalls when his grandfather, a survivor, emotionally broke down at an Israeli exhibit which depicted a killer that he knew personally.  "I wish I had talked to my grandfather about his experiences before he died."  Lauren is taking copious journal notes, deeply immersed in thought.  Su Jin sits silently captivated in the lotus position in front of the photo exhibits on church massacres.  Katherine is moved by the 'children's room," an exhibit detailing the deliberate targeting to Tutsi children during the genocide so as to eradicate the next generation.

At the Learning Center.

While the visit to the museum is sobering, the students transform the moment into a journalistic opportunity: interviewing the on site program director, they ask intelligent questions, imploring Mr. Bonheur Pacifique to share his insights about the ways in which he hopes the genocide museum will prevent further atrocities.

Following lunch, the group disperses in two directions: I take students to the market cooperative where they may try their talents at bargaining for handicrafts. Jeff and Cheri take another group to the site of a music video film set. Upon reconvening, we find ourselves together in a little village where the small children are fascinated by our digital cameras. It's a moment of cross cultural unity, where laughter and silliness is the only shared language we need.

Nina and her new Rwandan friends.
Playtime with our digital cameras!
Chris and Jacob give photography lessons.
"Safari Paul" looking stylish.
Kennedy clowning for the crowds.

January 24, 2014

And They're Off! Harvard Westlake Students Travel to Rwanda

Harvard Westlake students gather prior to departure for Rwanda.

Harvard Westlake Upper School students are embarking on a one-of-kind educational trip to Rwanda.  For ten days the group will explore the beauty, healing and fascinating stories of Rwanda, a country preparing to recognize the 20-year anniversary of a genocide which claimed nearly one million lives.

January 22, 2014

Workers of the World, Faint!

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just over two years ago, at the Anful Garments Factory in Kompong Speu Province, a young worker named Chanthul and 250 of her colleagues collapsed in a collective spell of fainting. They had to be hospitalized; the production line shut down.
Two days later, the factory was back up, and the mass faintings struck again. A worker started barking commands in a language that sounded like Chinese and, claiming to speak in the name of an ancestral spirit, demanded offerings of raw chicken. None were forthcoming, and more workers fell down. Peace, and production, resumed only after factory owners staged an elaborate ceremony, offering up copious amounts of food, cigarettes and Coca-Cola to the spirit.
This episode, however bizarre, was not singular. In the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers: One after the other, hundreds of women have fallen to the floor of their factories in a dizzy spell called duol sonlap in the Khmer language. The swooning has been attributed, variously, to heat, anemia, overwork, underventilation, chemical fumes and food poisoning. But according to one group of medical anthropologists and psychologists who have studied the phenomenon, two-thirds of these episodes are associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta.
The mass faintings have paralyzed production, to the consternation of the government, factory owners and international clothing retailers. The United States opened its market to Cambodian exports in the 1990s, and the garment industry in Cambodia has since become a $5 billion-a-year business. According to the country’s Garment Manufacturers Association, there are now over 600 garment factories, most owned by Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, Hong Kong and Singaporean companies. Many were hastily erected on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh and in a few other free-trade zones — on land where people believe neak ta have lived for generations.
Although Theravada Buddhism has been the official religion of Cambodia since the 13th century, it never supplanted the existing pantheon of ancestral spirits, local gods and Brahamanic deities. Perhaps the most important of these is the neak ta, a spirit strongly associated with a specific natural feature — a rock, a tree, a patch of soil. These spirits represent a village-based morality and are inseparable from the land. This connection is so strong that in past times even some kings were seen to be merely renting the land from neak ta.
Like those kings of old, Cambodia’s deeply superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, in power for almost three decades, calls on land and water spirits to curse his enemies. Most Cambodians today, while Buddhist, ply spirits with tea and buns at small altars.
These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.
Early last year, I met a 31-year-old woman called Sreyneang, a worker at Canadia Industrial Park, west of Phnom Penh. She had recently caused dozens of her co-workers to collapse after speaking in the voice of a neak ta. While entranced, she had also assaulted the president of the factory’s government-aligned union, pounding him with her fists and pelting him with insults.
We chatted on the dirt floor of the tiny wooden house where she lived; there was nowhere else to sit. She said she had been feeling ill on the day of the fainting, and that the factory nurse had refused to let her go home. She did not remember most of what had happened next, but a spirit healer later explained that a neak ta had entered her, infuriated that a banyan tree on the factory site which had been his home for centuries was chopped down, with neither ritual propitiation nor apology, during the construction of the building.
A few months after that event, something similar happened at a sporting-goods factory near the capital that was said to have been haunted ever since it opened in August 2012. Female workers asked their supervisor, a man named Ah Kung, if they could hold a ceremony and offer a chicken to a neak ta angered at being displaced from the site. He refused. Two days later, the spirit entered the body of a young female worker, Sreymom, and claiming, in her voice, to have been “looked down upon,” began shouting in a mixture of Khmer and short, quick syllables her colleagues took to be Chinese. Several dozen other workers lost consciousness and had to be treated at a local clinic.
“When she was possessed, she just pointed around everywhere,” one eyewitness explained afterward. “She said, ‘I want to meet Ah Kung.’ She said, ‘I want to meet him because I lived here a very long time and he never respected me and this is my land.”’ When Ah Kung arrived, the bystander said, “He came out and knelt down in front of her and offered whatever the neak ta asked.”
What the spirit was asking for was respect. He demanded that an altar be built and that ritual offerings be made to him there four times a month. He demanded that the owner roast a pig for him and throw a Khmer New Year party for the workers. The owner complied. The faintings stopped.
In other times and places, ethnographers have also noted seemingly magical manifestations when indigenous populations first confront industrial capitalism. As the manufacture of linen intensified in northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, household spirits began to appear in textile workshops in a more malevolent form. There was the story about the demonic imp Rumpelstiltskin, for example, who helped a young woman spin grotesque amounts of thread, but only in exchange for her firstborn. Other fairy tales sublimated the distress caused by the environmental and social costs of intensified flax production. The anthropologist Michael Taussig has written about Colombian peasants who were newly incorporated into wage labor on sugar cane plantations in the 1970s and reportedly sold their souls to the devil to increase their productivity.
Aihwa Ong, another anthropologist, documented an outbreak of spirit possession in the 1970s among Malaysian women in Japanese-owned electronics factories. These workers often screamed hysterically and attacked their supervisors under the influence of a native spirit called a datuk. Ms. Ong interpreted these acts as a spiritual rebellion against the drudgery of factory life and the rupturing of the women’s longstanding social ties as they migrated from villages to newly established free-trade zones.
She also concluded that the spirit visitations did the women little good because they allowed the factory owners to cast the women’s valid complaints about working conditions as mass hysteria.
In Cambodia, the opposite seems to be true. Like Ms. Ong’s subjects, the vast majority of garment workers here are female and young. Many are the first generation in their families to work outside their native rice-farming communities. They often send a large portion of their wages back home, and feel both lucky to be able to do this and desperate. “The conditions are terrible — very, very bad,” Sreyneang told me as she described working six days a week to eke out $120 a month, without being allowed to take days off even when sick. “The factory has always been really strict.”
Despite efforts to diversify, the garment industry in Cambodia still makes up around 80 percent of the country’s total exports. Because the economy is so vulnerable to instability in the sector, the government has often reacted harshly, even violently, to garment workers’ efforts to unionize or take any collective action to ask for higher wages. During recent demonstrations, on Jan. 2 and 3, striking workers at Canadia Industrial Park and another factory near Phnom Penh were set upon by soldiers and military police; at least four were killed and dozens were injured.
Cambodian workers frequently complain that they are forced to work overtime and threatened when they try to join independent unions rather than one of the many government- or factory-backed unions that have sprung up over the past decade. (For an estimated garment workforce of at least 450,000, by the International Labor Organization’s tally, there are now over 400 unions, according to Solidarity Center, an international labor rights group.) Pro-government and pro-factory unions occupy most of the seats allotted to labor on the national committee that determines wage increases, and their dominance complicates collective bargaining.
In September 2010, when the national minimum wage was $61 per month, some 200,000 workers took to the streets to ask for a raise. It was the largest-ever strike in the garment sector, but after just three days it came to an anticlimactic halt due to police violence and threats against union leaders. Hundreds of the striking workers were illegally fired in retaliation. The minimum wage remained the same.
Then the neak ta appeared. Mass faintings in garment factories increased exponentially in early 2011, just a few months after the mass strike fizzled. Production lines shut down after the workers’ bodies shut down, and spirits bargained with management on the factory floor.
Public sentiment started to shift. During the 2010 strikes, few seemed preoccupied with workers’ rights. Even the foreign media and the Asian Development Bank’s chief economist wondered aloud whether the workers’ demands would hurt the industry. But when the mass faintings began, concern for the workers grew: Were they earning enough to feed themselves? Were they being exposed to dangerous chemicals?
Since then, basic pay for garment workers has risen from $61 to $80 per month, and is set to rise again to $100 in February. Numerous conferences on occupational health and safety have been convened. Individual factories, the consortium of garment producers and mass retailers like H&M have commissioned studies of working conditions in Cambodian factories. Garment workers have started to receive monthly bonuses for health and transportation.
Not all improvements can be attributed to spirit visitations: The country’s six independent unions have been fighting hard for wage increases. And working conditions still leave a great deal to be desired; labor rights advocates say that $160 a month is the minimum workers need to adequately feed and house themselves. But insofar as conditions have gotten better, it is partly because the factory-floor faintings have reframed the debate. The government’s brutal repression of this month’s strike has shown that it will still not tolerate large-scale collective bargaining. But mass swooning is a rare form of group action that can hardly be suppressed.
And now neak ta have been showing up to defend other victims of development. The spirits have appeared at demonstrations and sit-ins organized by the political opposition, which has been contesting the results of elections held in July, which kept Hun Sen’s governing party in power. At protests against urban dispossession in Phnom Penh, traditional animist curses are often levied at state institutions. Salt and chilies are hurled at courthouses, chickens are offered to spirits, mediums summon local gods to mete out justice in land disputes.
Last year, in a slum in Phnom Penh, a demonstration by residents who were being evicted by a wealthy landlord was interrupted when a neak ta possessed an indigent woman who lived under a staircase with her mentally ill husband, both suffering from H.I.V. The woman assaulted a local official who was trying to shut down the protest, forcing him to stand down. Previously, the landlord had cut down an old banyan tree believed to be the neak ta’s home.
“I have been protecting this area for a long time,” the woman shouted, “and I am very angry because the company demolished my house. I am very, very angry.”

January 21, 2014

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core A critical reading of “close reading”

Proponents of the Common Core have likened the struggle to implement it to the Civil Rights Movement.1 As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the height of that movement, we must consider how these standards and the related testing are threatening students' rights to education, not upholding them. As one critical example, the Common Core's strict interpretation of “close reading of a text” dismisses the notion that students' own thoughts and experiences, and how they connect to a text, are integral to reading. Rather, student voices are silenced in their own classrooms, and literacy is reduced to the ability to navigate standardized tests.
April 16th of this year marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”2 King, calling Birmingham “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in America,” helped organize a nonviolent campaign there in early 1963 to address the segregation policies of downtown businesses. While jailed after a demonstration, King responded to an open letter by a group of white Alabama clergymen who expressed disapproval of the Birmingham demonstrations. In King's response, he outlined a moral justification for civil disobedience. Although theNew York Times initially chose not to publish the letter, it has become one of the most iconic and widely published texts of the era. A replica of the letter is on permanent display next to King's jail cell at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a place I visited many times as a student and as a teacher in Birmingham.
Last year, David Coleman, chief author of the Common Core standards and now president of the College Board, created a video of himself explaining how he would teach a “close reading” of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The video, along with commentary videos by Coleman, Kate Gerson of the Regents Research Fund, and New York State Education Commissioner John King, were all published through EngageNY, a project of the New York State Department of Education.3 Coleman's performance is reminiscent of former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett's nationally televised lesson on The Federalist Papers to a high school class, but Coleman delivers his lesson to teachers charged with implementing his new standards to teach close reading.

A Critical Reading of Close Reading

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author's meaning in the text.
Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”4
King's letter—in which he confronts the clergymen's accusations that the demonstrations in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely” by recontextualizing their meanings according to his worldview—is a paragon of critical reading. Early in the letter he says:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
King proceeds to include the clergymen in a deep discussion of the imperatives and strategic approach of nonviolent direct action—tying it to a common text, the Bible; the experience of African Americans in Birmingham and throughout the South; and philosophers ranging from Socrates to Paul Tillich.
In the video, Coleman reads the above paragraph from King aloud and then dives into his own play-by-play analysis of King's argumentation. He asserts that reading instruction has overemphasized personal connections to texts at the expense of understanding the author's meaning, assuming the two are diametrically opposed: “We cannot hear King if we jump too quickly to ‘What do you think?’ . . . It's so tempting to go beyond the letter, but first we must honor and revere the letter.” To be clear, no one is arguing against trying to hear an author, simply that reading devoid of one's own thoughts and realities—or the broader social context—is impossible. Understanding what you read and your own world are, to borrow from King, “caught within an inescapable network of mutuality.” A curriculum that de-emphasizes students' worlds is one that obstructs their making sense of the word. For Freire, such obstruction is an act of oppression.
What would happen, I wondered, if I were to attempt a close reading of Coleman's video? Would it be possible to dismiss my own thoughts from the four corners of the text? How would the attempt affect my “reading” of his lesson? How can I see David Coleman speaking about instruction and not be reminded that he represents both the Common Core and the College Board, positions of power in national curriculum and standardized assessment? How can I forget that he was a founding board member of StudentsFirst with Michelle Rhee, who advocates the use of standardized tests to judge teacher quality? As he grins at the camera, how can I forget him saying, “People really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think” in regard to student personal narrative writing? How can I dismiss the fact that Coleman had a former career as a business consultant, but he has never been a teacher? Although these connections from outside the frame should not overshadow the picture itself, do we understand Coleman's text at all without understanding its context?
“What's at stake here,” Coleman argues, “in this kind of patient teaching is letting kids [who] have a very wide range of ability into the hard work of reading a text closely, carefully, and well.” A close reading of Coleman here would acknowledge his argument for more careful, text-based analysis of writing. A critical reading of Coleman, however, would also ask who is producing the text, the voices that are left out, and the power dynamics established by those exclusions. Coleman says his lesson is “one model in alignment with the [Common Core] standards in literacy; there can and should be several others.” But then he immediately moves to “attacking the three most popular ways” of introducing a reading lesson, including building background and context: “What about letting King establish the agenda of what he thinks is important . . . as opposed to our own prefatory judgments?” But it is Coleman who, distrustful of teachers and students, is casting judgment. It is Coleman's solo voice in the video, positioning himself as the arbiter of curricular decisions in classrooms.

A Straight Line to Testing

Paragraph by paragraph, Coleman argues how King's letter should be read and what questions a teacher may ask students. Although there is an illusion that these questions may arise and be discussed organically—“What question might you ask about this first paragraph?”—Coleman asks and answers his own questions definitively, insisting that discussion questions be “text-dependent.” Coleman claims that, according to his own research, 80 percent of questions students are asked are answerable without direct reference to the text. In a previous speech, he elaborates: “Think about it, right? You're reading a text and you talk about the background of the text, or what it reminds you of, or what you think about it, or all sorts of surrounding issues—kids are genius at this—because anything to avoid confronting the difficult words before them is money.”5
Text-dependent questions, for Coleman, hold everyone accountable to what's within the four corners of the text. What he does not say, however, is that they also make for better standardized test questions. Coleman has made it clear that, as president of the College Board, he intends to align the SAT and AP tests to Common Core standards. He also stated explicitly in recommendations to curriculum publishers that because “80 to 90 percent of the reading standards require text-dependent analysis, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”6
To force a discussion of King's letter to remain “text dependent” may make it easier to test, but it also forces out its entire social and historical context. Imagine students reading King's letter and not talking about how Jim Crow functioned in Birmingham, or how children their age, two weeks after the letter was written, skipped school to participate in the Children's Crusade, leading to an agreement to desegregate downtown businesses and giving momentum to the rest of the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine not addressing how, 50 years later, some schools are no less segregated now than they were then. For the sake of testing students on comprehension in the narrowest sense, what understandings about the world we live in are being forced out of the classroom? In his “model” lesson, Coleman reveals no interest, no curiosity, about the specific social conditions of Birmingham or the strategic choices facing civil rights leaders at the time—choices that students need to learn about to locate “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in context and thus better understand the issues of race and power today.

Insiders and Outsiders

The story beyond the four corners of Coleman's video is one of a man whose agenda is served by teachers following a curriculum that requires students to read in a way assessable through standardized tests he oversees and profits from. This unprecedented level of power within U.S. public education, while not mentioned in his video, cannot and should not be ignored. The ultimate hypocrisy lies in how Coleman uses King's letter to prop up his own message—anathema to the very ideals King promoted. King's letter, written in the margins of newspapers and on scraps of toilet paper while he was in jail for exercising his freedom of speech, is a demand that the voices of demonstrators no longer be marginalized:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. . . . We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.”
King's critical response to being called an untimely extremist, the extent to which he does not stay within the four corners of the clergymen's text, is precisely what makes his letter so powerful.
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘Wait,’” King suggests. Why must students postpone the chance to have their voices included in the curriculum? Student voices and the stuff of their lives are already being silenced by mandated scripts and high-stakes tests. Too many students in schools today already feel what King describes as “a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’” If not so intent on close reading, Coleman might connect the sense of isolation students experience in school today to King's impassioned explanation for why the demonstrators “find it difficult to wait.” Instead, Coleman asks, “Why not let King set the agenda?” as if allowing students space to make connections to the text is somehow against King. In fact, Coleman's agenda most resembles King's description of “the white moderate . . . more devoted to order than justice.” King did “set the agenda,” and the agenda is racial equality and social justice, not a model for test-friendly reading instruction.
There is a grand irony in the last few minutes of the video when Coleman praises King for not just responding to what was in the clergymen's letter, “but pointing out how critical is what's not in the letter.” Why then, is it problematic to let students do the same, to let their world inform their reading? It was at this point that I wondered: What if King had done only a close reading of the letter from the Southern clergymen he was addressing? What if he did not allow his own reading of the world to inform his understanding of the white clergymen's words? What leadership and wisdom would have been lost? Would he have been more sympathetic to their concern about “outside agitators” meddling with Birmingham's affairs? It was King's understanding of the world that led him to state, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Critical literacy argues that students' sense of their own realities should never be treated as outside the meaning of a text. To do so is to infringe on their rights to literacy. In other words, literacy is a civil and human right; having your own experiences, knowledge, and opinions valued is a right as well. Despite praise for King's rhetoric, Coleman promotes a system that creates outsiders of students in their own classrooms.  


  1. King, John. “Our Feet May Be Tired but Our Souls Are Rested,” speech published at EngageNY.org. Available at engageny.org/resource/our-feet-may-be-tired-but-our-souls-are-rested, Nov. 12, 2013.
  2. King, Martin L. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” April 16, 1963. Available at mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/resources/article/annotated_letter_from_birmingham.
  3. Coleman, David. “Middle School ELA Curriculum Video: Close Reading of a Text: MLK ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’,” EngageNY.org. Available at engageny.org/resource/middle-school-ela-curriculum-video-close-reading-of-a-text-mlk-letter-from-birmingham-jail, Dec. 5, 2012.
  4. Freire, Paulo, and Macedo, Donaldo. “Literacy, Reading the Word and the World,” in The Paulo Freire Reader. Continuum, 1998.
  5. Coleman, David. “Bringing the Common Core to Life” speech. Available atusny.nysed.gov/rttt/docs/bringingthecommoncoretolife/fulltranscript.pdf, April 28, 2011.
  6. Coleman, David and Susan Pimentel. Revised Publishers' Criteria for the Common CoreState Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12. Available atcorestandards.org/assets/Publishers_Criteria_for_3-12.pdf, April 12, 2012.


January 15, 2014

What Rwanda Did Right

Nineteen years after the genocide, Rwanda is one of the least corrupt countries in Africa. How did it happen?

I almost didn’t see the roadblock in time to stop. It was early afternoon, but it was dark as dusk in the rainforest, with low inky clouds hovering over the treetops, releasing a wild downpour. The windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. It was hard enough to make out the road ahead, and the roadblock was understated—just a narrow line of rope strung a few feet above the pavement—as if it were intended to be invisible. This was in southwestern Rwanda, in May 1995, one year after the genocide in which nearly a million people were massacred by their fellow citizens in a hundred days. After the slaughter, most of the army and militias of the genocidal regime had fled to neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), which is where I was heading with my friend Annick on a reporting trip. I hadn’t really felt how alone we were there until Annick remarked, “Yah, it’s a roadblock,” as if, in her stolid Dutch way, she’d been making a leisurely study of the rope that I hadn’t yet noticed. “Yah,” she said. “I really think it’s good to stop so they don’t shoot us.”
The scene was pretty much the distillation of the popular Western image of third world terror: As I hit the breaks, a half dozen men emerged from the trees on either side of us, gaunt figures moving slowly and silently, dressed like outlaws from a Clint Eastwood western in dark, dripping slouch hats and ankle-length coats but with Kalashnikovs. It was unnerving, but I knew from experience that in a typical military police state, there was a ritual to de-escalating such encounters, a drawn-out negotiation at the end of which you would hand over a pack of cigarettes or a couple dollars’ worth of local banknotes and they would let you pass. Your hostage crisis had just become a tollbooth. What made life in such a system most oppressive was not the possibility of violence so much as the certainty of corruption.
Although I had been in Rwanda for only a few weeks when I came to the roadblock in Nyungwe, I also knew that things tended to work differently there. During the genocide, roadblocks had functioned throughout the country as killing stations, where people slated for death were collected and butchered. Yet if these men with guns weren’t infiltrators but soldiers of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF)—the rebel movement that brought the genocide to an end and has run the country since—I was almost looking forward to seeing how they’d conduct themselves. The RPF was ruthless when it deployed violence, but it was also known for ruthless discipline, and as the new leadership established control, it promised that the bribery and corruption that defined so much of the public’s interaction with officialdom throughout central Africa would be a thing of the past in Rwanda.
A finger tapped at my window, and I opened it. A soldier leaned into the car and asked for our passports. The other men stood at the edge of the forest watching. They could’ve done anything they wanted with us; that was understood. And they had nothing. They were unpaid, barely supplied with food and sleeping rough under lean-tos made of jungle foliage. We had cameras, computers and cash, and we had a carton full of food, a case of bottled water, whiskey, cigarettes—and a decent shortwave radio.
The soldier with our passports poked through my luggage. When he opened Annick’s bag, she said, “It’s not very nice to go through a lady’s things.” He stepped back and said,“Sorry.” There were more questions: where we were going, where we were coming from, if we were married, why not, if Annick was married to someone else, why not. Then he gave us back our passports. “It’s okay,” he said, and the rope was lowered.
By contrast, at the crossing into Zaire the next day, I had to pay at least six bribes. The entry procedure was an assembly line of graft. Each predatory official—the immigration man, the customs man, the policeman, the military man, the motor vehicle man and the public health man—sat in his own little shack and demanded a payoff: $10, $20. The customs man was efficient: Instead of inspecting our car or our luggage, he flipped open a briefcase on his desk and shifted it so that we could see a big handgun inside. He took our money and got out his rubber stamp and sent us on to the motor vehicle man.
“Spare tire?” the motor vehicle man asked. I showed him the spare tire. “Just one?” he said.“Oh, that’s very serious. This is a country of laws. You can’t just come in here and trample them.” And so on. The two-spare-tire law didn’t exist, of course; but as he developed the fictional device, he came to believe in it and worked himself into a frightening state of outrage at my noncompliance. I asked him how much it would cost for a waiver, and he cheered up considerably: “Well, it’s very serious, but I think it can be arranged.”
Nearly 20 years later, the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains a desperately corrupt country, very nearly as bad as when it was Zaire. Rwanda, meanwhile, has shot up the rankings on the world Corruption Perceptions Index of the watchdog group Transparency International to win the title, in 2013, of second-least corrupt country in Africa. It stands ahead not only of its neighbors and most of Asia and South America, but also such European countries as the Czech Republic, Italy and Turkey.
So what is it about Rwanda? The country has established a strong tax base; been ranked one of the most improved countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index since 2006; privatized parastatal industries; and streamlined immigration procedures to facilitate its burgeoning tourism industry and attract investors and skilled employees from around the continent and abroad. At the same time the RPF government has made tremendous strides in reducing extreme poverty and in establishing nearly universal public education and health care. And yet nearly half the population continues to subsist in extreme poverty, and with the exception of a very thin upper-economic crust, the sheer financial need—to say nothing of greed—of Rwandans is no less than it is elsewhere. In fact, there have been a number of high-profile corruption scandals in Rwanda recently, implicating public figures in the pocketing of public resources—including a fund for needy genocide survivors. But we know these stories because they have been investigated, exposed, and the offenders have been held to account. They are told as stories of progress.
Corruption is not always at odds with efficiency—at least in the short term. One of the main reasons people say they give bribes is to expedite transactions. Last summer a Congolese colleague told me he was driving to Rwanda when I was there, and we fixed a time to meet. He arrived three hours late. I expected to hear the usual story about being held up on the Congolese side of the border, but no; with a fistful of dollar bills, he had breezed through there in record time. “It’s knowing I can’t pay off the highway patrol in this country that slowed me down,” he said. “Rwanda’s crazy—it’s too correct!”
I’ve heard similar complaints from Rwandans. They know that the traffic policeman, the court official or the immigration officer would all enjoy the extra income that graft brings their counterparts next door in Tanzania or Uganda. And I’ve heard it suggested that Rwandans are simply governed by greater fear within a more controlling state than their neighbors. But some of the most authoritarian states in history have been among the most brutally corrupt. In fact, corruption breeds fear and runs on it: In a corrupt system you always have to pay some higher extortionist for the protection needed to keep extorting those below you.
Corruption—or the lack of it—is never just a matter of money. It’s also a reflection of the public’s sense of the overall fairness or unfairness of a society, and perhaps above all, it’s a measure of the public trust. Not long ago, the highly respected World Values Survey found, much as Transparency International did, that Rwandans expressed exceptionally high confidence in their police, courts, parliament and other public institutions, and the Gallup organization’s Global States of Mind report found that of all the peoples on earth, Rwandans were the most likely to feel safe. Reading such figures, and considering the individual and social trauma of the genocide, you might wonder whether Rwandans just have a habit of responding with exaggerated enthusiasm to surveys. But there’s one statistic that casts all the rest in a different, more meaningful light: According to the World Values Survey, Rwandans’ extraordinarily high level of trust in public institutions is matched by their extraordinarily low trust of one another. Only 5 percent of Rwandans believe that “most people can be trusted.”
Such extreme distrust of one’s fellow citizens is a powerful indicator of the genocide’s enduring poison. If it were not equaled by extreme trust in the public sphere, there would be nothing to hold the society together. Resisting corruption then becomes what corruption is in societies where the public trust is broken: a survival strategy.

By Philip Gourevitch 
Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His second book on Rwanda will be out next spring from Penguin.

January 9, 2014

The right to the truth: how is Rwanda dealing with the legacies of its past?

November 14 2013: What role can memory and truth play in rebuilding communities in the aftermath of a genocide? In the second post of the series, Katherine Conway writes on the importance of the individual's right to the truth and on what the Gacaca courts have achieved in Rwanda.

Truth plays a crucial role in bringing justice to war-torn communities and in contributing to the reconciliation process. But what do we mean with “truth”?

Similar to memory, justice, and healing, the notion of truth has a multiplicity of definitions. In her article The Right to Truth in International Law: Fact or Fiction”, Yasmin Naqvi writes:
Truth is a concept that is notoriously hard to pin down. It implies objective credibility but also requires subjective understanding. It suggests agreement about factual reality but also space for differinginterpretations. It takes on value in the public sphere while remaining an intensely private matter for the individual, and it is honed on the past but may change our perception of the present and teach lessons about what to do with the future.

Truth is a key concept in the field of transitional justice, an approach that tries to redress victims and achieve justice in times of transitions from conflict or dictatorial regimes. Transitional justice literature outlines the many benefits of truth. First, it is considered to be a vital part of the healing process, enabling a sense of closure. Secondly, the acknowledgement of harm done re-creates a sense of dignity for survivors. Thirdly, truth-seeking mechanisms are key for understanding past atrocities and are intended to be restorative in nature, contributing to the reconciliation process. Additionally, Naqvi points to the benefit to society “collective catharsis” and “collective conscience” against the repetition of acts.

Memory and truth: two overlapping, but different notions

Memory is not inherently truth, and truth does not inevitably lead to an environment that is safe for a multiplicity of memories.
The ability to access and seek understanding of the past is a key element of both memory and truth. Memory and truth are overlapping forces. Yet, they are not interchangeable and one does not necessarily lead to the other. Memory is not inherently truth, and truth does not inevitably lead to an environment that is safe for a multiplicity of memories.
The process of engaging with memory and searching for elements of truth can be extremely difficult for individuals and societies. In several post-conflict contexts, truth and memory have both been products of historical inquiry, community dialogue, and other reconciliation efforts. According to the International centre for Transitional justice (ICTJ ) “truth and memory are not just a matter of state policy…they are also the responsibilities of any society striving for security, equality, and peace.”
In the case of Rwanda, efforts to understand the truth have been undertaken by a number of actors. Many of these systems deal with “forensic truths”, referring to those which can be proven. On the other hand, memory initiatives have the possibility of addressing “social truths,” which refer to the overlap between truth and memory, as there may be multiple versions of memory and truths within a population.

Gacaca: broad participation in memory and truth

Gacaca created a particularly open, yet controlled, space for understanding what took place during the 1994 genocide.
In 2001, Rwanda set up the Gacaca, community-led courts built on traditional community legal systems. One of the primary intentions behind Gacaca was to air truths about the events of the genocide. The process targeted the community level, since “bigger fish” perpetrators were tried at the ICTR or through the national court system.The meetings were designed to allow victims and eye-witnesses to be heard, and ultimately to decide on a punishment for the perpetrator. Gacaca created a particularly open, yet controlled, space for understanding what took place during the 1994 genocide.
The Rwandan government claims that Gacaca is a mechanism by which the country can rebuild a sense of national unity.  The courts engaged much of the population in a post-genocide rebuilding process and community-level dialogue. Judges and government officials were involved, but, ultimately, the outcome of Gacaca relies on people’s participation, engagement, and trust in the process. 
In his book, The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda, Phil Clark defines three types of truth, which create a helpful framework to analyse Gacaca and other memory initiatives. He points to the legal truth, thepersonal/therapeutic/emotional truth, and finally, the restorative truth. In a general sense the notion of truth telling is that it may provide a sense of healing on the individual and community level through regaining a “sense of belonging”. This “sense of belonging” concerns how the truth is expressed and thus, shaped, to aid in the rebuilding of the social fabric of a society, thus it points to the communal aspects of truth as opposed to the individual.
Gacaca opened the possibility of dialogue on the community level, thus allowing the possibility of truth and memory sharing in public, structured setting. Through his research, Clark views Gacaca as a “central element in moving towards reconciliation.” The individuals Clark interviews report that “much truth has come out and participation is generally high.” Gacaca is one of few spaces for communication and, for some, it is a way to overcome what Clark refers to as “a conspiracy of silence.” Through participating in the proceedings, members of communities that are often disenfranchised, including women, have the ability to participate not only in discussion, but also in the process of rebuilding the social fabric of the community.

To what extent do Gacaca lead to truth?

Although its overall approach was largely considered positive, Gacaca courts have drawn widespread criticism.
Although its overall approach was largely considered positive, Gacaca courts have drawn widespread criticism. According to Clark, the population remains deeply divided about whether Gacaca has assisted in the peace process.These are the main shortcomings of the system that critics have pointed out:
  • There is an inherent problem in having a traumatized population make legal decisions, in a situation where few checks exist on the proceedings.
  • The proceedings are not absent of the power structures that exist within society. Individuals that Clark interviewed claim that Gacaca became another mechanism for elites to control the population and through which the state can impose legal and historical truths.
  • There are concerns about due process and the protection of rights of genocide suspects and that it encourages punishment of Hutus.
  • The culture of silence in Rwanda has created a cultural preference and “requirement” not to discuss the genocide or the truths of what occurred in public. This makes it very difficult for individuals to tell their story. Thus, even if people are required to attend the hearings, they may not engage with truth-telling or reconciliation processes.
  • Gacaca is bound by the time period of crimes (i.e. only 1994) that are discussed and the crimes within the time frame (i.e. only crimes against Tutsis). The process does not openly contend with the crimes that are still within the “veil of secrecy.” While Gacaca did open space for dialogue, it was not successful in creating a space for full versions of the truth or amultiplicity of memories to exist.

The benefits, and re-traumatization, caused by Gacaca are still unclear. Clark states that it is contested as to whether Gacaca had lead to truth. The original intention of Gacaca was to create a space where parties could interact, interpret, and rearticulate personal testimony, thus fulfilling Clark’s category of “truth-shaping.” While Gacaca has indeed provided a space for dialogue, it did not fulfill the realm of “truth shaping,” meaning a sense of communal understanding of what occurred during the genocide due to the ongoing fear of speaking about the genocide in public settings.
Theories of transitional justice posit ways to move forward in the wake of mass atrocities. These mechanisms seek to help individuals, communities, and societies heal, seek justice, and rebuild lives. Access to the truth and memories of the past shape individual’s and society’s understanding, which ultimately serves as a guide as people rebuild and engage in public dialogue. In order to create a healthy memory environment, the ability to share, question and discover must be present for healing to take place.
In June 2012, Gacaca officially ended, closing more than 11,000 community courts. The next steps for the creation of a more complete narrative are unclear, but the opportunity exists for the creation of a historical record, further dialogue, and engagement in the reconciliation process.