Why – and how – I teach my students about the Rwandan Genocide

Originally written in April 2014

Today, Monday the 7th of April 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, where up to a million men, women and children were slaughtered in just 100 days.

As countless innocent people were hacked, beaten, stabbed, burned and shot across Rwanda, the west refused to use the term ‘genocide’ in isolation for fear of being forced to intervene, instead referring to ‘acts of genocide‘. Countries like the UK and USA demanded that UN peacekeepers were withdrawn, not reinforced, and then sat back and watched one of the most shameful and shocking events in modern history unfold in front of their eyes.

Put simply, the fact that a minimum of 800’000 lives were extinguished in full view of the international community matters; the west’s abdication of their responsibility to the people of Rwanda (because they simply weren’t considered important enough for us to risk anything for them) matters; the hypocrisy of nations who preach human rights while ignoring human suffering matters; and, most importantly, giving students the opportunity to really understand the world in which they live matters.

Ask the average class of teenagers what they know about the Rwandan genocide and some might be able to tell you, roughly, where Rwanda is; a handful may have seen Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs; one or two might be able to tell you a little about the mass slaughter that occured; however, the vast majority are likely to have no idea what happened during those dark months in 1994.

This – for me – is important, and this year I have made an understanding of the Rwandan genocide, and the wider implications of our responsibilities to the rest of the world, thecentral plank in my National 5 English course. The two primary critical essay texts – ‘Spiritual Damage‘ and ‘War Photographer‘ – were selected specifically for this purpose, and an ongoing focus on the themes ideas explored in both pieces has ensured that now, at the end of the academic year, the class are in a position to provide complex, insightful and honest responses not just to the texts themselves, but also to the wider issues that they raise.

Unsurprisingly, the primary means of teaching about the genocide has been Fergal Keane’s ‘Spiritual Damage‘, a reflective essay in which he looks back on the emotional and psychological impact of what he witnessed during his time in Rwanda. Keane writes with such power and clarity that an initial response from pupils is guaranteed, and gives students a way to access the big ideas of the text through the experiences of one frightened, damaged, and incredibly brave individual. Some of Keane’s examples in the opening paragraph, where he tells us that “the smell of the dead would drift out across the warm air of the afternoon” and that “in the bushes were rags and bones and withering flesh” provide opportunities not just for complex textual analysis but also for pupils to begin to engage with the horror of what happened in Rwanda years before they were even born.

Over time, however, through analysis of the text, discussion of the ideas and viewing of supporting media (including, but not limited to, the films mentioned previously) the students begin to engage with the topic on a level that many would think impossible for a group of 14 and 15 year olds. I have read critical responses to ‘Spiritual Damage’ in which the personal and intellectual responses go beyond anything I could ever have produced when I was a pupil, and overheard spontaneous conversations about not just the text itself, but also the incomprehensibility of what occurred in that small, beautiful nation two decades ago.

Yes, there is always a risk in hoping that pupils will engage with something which, in all honesty, requires them to demonstrate a level of sensitivity and maturity which is certainly beyond their years, but young people have a limitless capacity to rise to the challenges put in front of them. What teenagers also possess, in my experience, is an inherent and beautifully simple anger at the injustice they see all around them, and that anger is what we must help them to focus if we, as teachers, wish to honestly tell ourselves that we are using our privileged professional position to try to make the world in which we live just a little bit better.

Of course, for some people, the basic question about Rwanda remains the same – why should we care about what happens “in obscure African countries” (or, indeed, in any number of remote nations whose conflicts have no apparent impact on our safe, comfortable lives)? As ever, Keane explains it better than I ever could:

“I will care about what happens in remote African countries because Rwanda has taught me to value life in a way that I never did before. The ragged peasants who died and those who did the killing belong to the same human as I do. This may be a troubling kinship but I cannot reject it.
To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity. I am not worried if this sounds like a sermon. I do not care if there are those who dismiss it as emotional and simplistic. It is the fruit of witness.”

I urge all of you to read ‘Spiritual Damage‘, to find out about as much as you can about the genocide in Rwanda and to consider teaching your pupils about happened in that ‘obscure African country’.

Remember that what happened in Rwanda was not just another tribal conflict, but a meticulously planned act of deliberate mass murder; remember that the victims of the genocide were exactly the same as you or I, but without the good fortune to be born in the life of privilege that we enjoy; and, most importantly of all, remember the following:

“…if we ignore evil, we become the authors of a guilty silence.”

On billionaires, taxpayer money and private schools | Blog

Jim McColl is a billionaire, which is the word we use to describe people who hoard vast amounts of wealth to the detriment of the rest of society. His ‘fortune’ was recently estimated at around £1.07 billion, meaning that if he spent £250’000 (roughly ten times the Scottish annual salary) each year, it would take him more than 4000 years to empty his bank account.

On top of this, and despite being part of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers, McColl no longer lives in Scotland – at least not officially. Instead, he chooses to reside in Monaco, and while I’m sure he’s very fond of the food, weather and fast cars – who wouldn’t be? – I suspect that there might also be some other factors attracting him to live in the world’s most up-market tax haven.

It is, therefore, rather galling to see McColl attack others for the closure of Newlands Junior College (NJC), a move affecting around 25 current students who will now, hopefully, be reintegrated into schools or colleges in the city.

Set up five years ago in Glasgow’s south side, the venture emphasised vocational educational for a small annual cohort of students who had been disengaged from mainstream education. It may have been called a Junior College but it was, in reality, a private school.

Supporters of NJC – from Keir Bloomer to Liz Smith to McColl himself – would have us believe that it has been a roaring success and that the state should now ride to the rescue, but in reality it is just another example of why vanity projects from well-heeled ‘philanthropists’ are never going to be the answer to challenges in education.

Has NJC achieved anything that a college or school given the same resources (funding, cohort size, contacts) could not? It seems unlikely.

Indeed, Alan Sherry – the Principal of Glasgow Kelvin College, responded to a tweet about my writing this column with the following suggestion: “Perhaps you could say that Glasgow Kelvin and Glasgow Clyde colleges already make comprehensive and much larger provision for the same cohort.” He added: “Then suggest the SG gives the money to us to do even more.”

According to The Times, McColl and a number of other “private backers” apparently “contributed £4m to the total £5m cost of the project”, with the Scottish Government handing over more than a million pounds for the scheme and Glasgow City Council providing a further £100’000 a year. They have now, rightly, decided that enough is enough.

If McColl wishes to run a no-fees private school then that is his business, but he should – and quite clearly could – pay for it himself rather than expecting the rest of us to cough up. If, however, he is committed to enhancing the provision of education for all young people, then the solution is even more straightforward: he should start by paying full taxes in Scotland.