Genocide: Lecturers struggle to teach about 1994 history

For more than 15 years, Emmanuel Nkundiye* has been teaching various courses – including history – at the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences.

Although he is comfortable with most of the content he presents in his classes, he finds it distressing to teach history related to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, which was when about a million people, mainly Tutsis, were slaughtered by Hutu militias and extremists in just 100 days.

Rwandans annually observe the tragedy from April to July to mark the 100-day period during which the killings took place. But, during this commemoration phase, genocide ideology, or denial, also appears to be more prevalent, in particular among the youth. In fact, 44 young people were prosecuted in 2022 for it, Dr Jean Damascene Bizimana, the minister of national unity and civic engagement, said earlier this year.

Genocide denial can take many forms, which include stating or indicating that the genocide never happened or distorting the facts about genocide for the purpose of misleading the public.

It also entails claiming that there was a double genocide; committed by both sides against each other or indicates that the genocide was not planned, by minimising its gravity or consequences, downplaying the means by which it was committed or providing wrong statistics about the victims of the genocide.

Perpetuating genocide ideology carries a jail sentence of five to seven years.

Like many other teachers and lecturers, Nkundiye is reluctant to talk freely about the genocide.

“It is a sensitive topic that people shy away from,” he says. Part of the problem, according to him, is terminology related to the genocide, [especially references in Kinyarwanda, the local language], which, if used inappropriately, can be viewed as spreading genocide ideology.

“Some teachers prefer not delving into details, because it involves talking about ethnic groups, which are [references that are] no longer used in Rwanda,” he adds.

Rwanda no longer uses ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ to identify people, as it has been blamed for inciting hatred, causing divisions and discrimination.

Yet, explains Nkundiye it is hard to teach the genocide’s history “without talking about ethnic groups and it is hard to talk about ethnic groups, themselves, because it is a sensitive topic”.


But circumventing sensitive terminology is not the only difficulty for lecturers.

Other factors that hinder the lecturers from offering genocide-related history include the anxiety they feel because the students in front of them may come from families who were victims, while others come from families who were perpetrators. Teachers, themselves, come from families who experienced the genocide.

“We feel like we may offend students and [therefore] we end up restraining ourselves and we offer limited knowledge. We believe that this aspect may improve as time goes on,” he added.

“Sometimes one can feel emotional in front of students. Sometimes one can be judged wrongly for what you say and be held accountable,” he added, describing teachers’ own feelings.

However, despite all the challenges, experts say that lecturers are important in cultivating understanding, empathy, community, “and awareness of history that helps build a better future”.

Ensuring that students are equipped with skills related to exposure to this period in Rwanda’s history could help fight against genocide denial, negation and minimisation of the past, for now and in the future, experts say.

However, according to Nkundiye, teachers need more guidance about “what we could be teaching”, and need enough teaching materials such as books and other materials, Nkundiye added.

‘History is not taught well’

According to Dr Callixte Kabera, the vice-chancellor of the East African University Rwanda, and the president of the organisation overseeing private universities and higher learning institutions, it is very important for universities to offer genocide-related history.

As things stand currently, he does not think that history is taught well in universities.

“I can’t say universities have [found] a way of teaching genocide-related history – except in extracurricular activities, especially in annual commemoration events, where we have public lectures,” he said.

“Genocide history is mainly taught in history departments, which are not many. I think it is time we thought about how we can integrate it into our courses and we will need guidance from authorities,” he added.

He also emphasised the need for university students and lecturers to get interested in carrying out research on the genocide as it can help tell the true story of what happened in Rwanda.

“There is no reason to shy away from teaching or documenting genocide-related history. We need to encourage our respective researchers to carry out deep research on the genocide as our contribution to prevent future genocides,” he said.

A cross-curricular approach

According to Dr Raphael Nkaka, the dean of the history department at the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences, genocide history is learned by students who study history and others learn it in peace and conflict management courses.

“Teaching about the genocide requires more knowledge and skills about the different subjects [related to the genocide],” he said. “Yet we have very few people who master such subjects [related to the genocide] and that may be why some lecturers shy away from teaching about it.

“It is a sophisticated and sensitive topic, but I think we need more trained people who can teach about it … as, currently, more focus on comparative genocide studies,” he added.

Nkaka said that plans are under way to see how genocide-related studies can be incorporated in different courses in social sciences as more students have to acquire such skills.

“We are planning to incorporate it into social science courses in the College of Arts and Social Sciences, so that those graduating from there have required skills about the genocide, especially the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi,” he added.

Deep genocide studies are taught under the University of Rwanda’s Centre for Conflict Management (CCM) which offers a masters in genocide studies and prevention.

However, Nkaka believes the CCM produces only a few students and there is a need to up the output at bachelor degree level.

According to Rwanda’s Minister for Education, Dr Valentina Uwamariya, schools and higher learning institutions should devise new ways of teaching genocide-related courses as one of the strategies to counter denial, negation and minimisation.

“We all know what happened in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. All academic institutions should devise ways to teach students about the genocide history to make sure we tell the world what befell our country,” she said.

“Besides, more research should be conducted and history should be documented to ensure we have enough tools to use while teaching the genocide history and for documentation,” she added.

Memories about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi are preserved in memorial sites where people, including the youth, can visit and see the display of how genocide was planned and executed.

There are also other programmes such as the national Itorero programme, during which Rwandans are taught about Rwandan history, values and promoting the culture of preserving togetherness through Ndi Umunyarwanda, loosely translated as ‘I am Rwanda’, among others.

Students also have clubs where they meet and discuss genocide-related issues, in particular focusing on avoiding a similar occurrence in the future.

However, in formal settings such as schools and universities, many are struggling to teach about the genocide, perhaps because it is still a vivid memory for the majority of Rwandans.

Nkundiye* asked not to be identified. This is not his real name.