Experience in Rwanda Helps Students Learn About Genocide and Reconciliation

Professor Gerise Herndon led the university's first study abroad experience to Rwanda.

Students spent one month learning about the country, volunteering, and doing internships.

An NWU student draws a picture with Rwandan students.

Students visited a reconciliation village where both genocide survivors and perpetrators live and work together.

Students help build a clinic during a service project.

Ten Nebraska Wesleyan University students closed their textbooks in May but their lessons were far from done.

Even though the school year was over, they needed to study the history and culture of Rwanda, where they were about to travel to for the university’s first faculty-led study abroad experience to Africa.

Gerise Herndon, professor of English and director of the Gender Studies Program, provided students with a list of readings and videos to review before their departure. They learned about Rwanda’s history spanning from pre-colonial times through the 1994 genocide. They learned about the country’s health care system and its near universal coverage, and they learned about gender equity and how its parliament is 64 percent female.

Madison Lee, a junior biology major from Superior, shared her research with her family.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how many people praised Rwanda as one of their favorite places on the planet because of its beautiful hills, safety, and African charm.”

When the group arrived in Rwanda in June, the charm that Lee and others read about came to life.

Herndon said the purpose of the trip was to break down stereotypes about Rwanda natives. She also wanted her students to learn more about the genocide’s effect on the people.

Herndon also wanted students to participate in hands-on learning, which is why she set them up with internships. Lee, for example, interned at Kigali University Teaching Hospital, where she observed and job shadowed doctors.

“In some ways, I was really surprised at how advanced they were compared to my initial expectations,” Lee said. “In other ways, I had to step back and take in how much farther they still have to go to develop an efficient health care system.”

Carlo Bahe, a junior global studies major from Anoka, Minn., spent his internship shadowing three nurses at an HIV/AIDS care and counseling center called “WeAct.” The organization provides both anti-retroviral medication and counseling for its patients. Even though many of the conversations were in Kinyarwanda, one nurse translated for the students so they could better understand the patients and their needs.

“I learned the Rwandan government supplies the anti-retroviral medication, so those who cannot afford the medicine can still receive it,” Bahe said.

When the work day was over, the group explored the beautiful hills of Rwanda and enjoyed — what Bahe said — was the best fruit he has ever tasted.

“Because everyone was so friendly, I never felt afraid or unsafe when exploring the city and I took full advantage of that,” said Lee.  “It didn’t feel like I was in the middle of Africa, thousands of miles and oceans away from my own home.”

 Other highlights included visiting a reconciliation village where both survivors and former perpetrators live and work together, participating in service learning activities, meeting Edward Bamporiki, a famous poet, actor, director and political representative, and joining the staff at the HIV Care and Counseling Center for yoga with HIV-positive women.

As the month-long experience came to and end, Rwandans encouraged NWU students to be their ambassadors, and to share their stories.

“The students made me proud with their ability to listen to genocide survivors, to look at the effects of genocide, to see beyond stereotypes, to be culturally sensitive, to begin relationships with Rwandans,” Herndon said.  “The students gave me confidence that they can be effective intercultural ambassadors and have productive international exchanges.”