In 1994, the central African nation of Rwanda became synonymous globally with genocide. Though the Hutu versus Tutsi violence was said to have lasted from April 7 to July 15, in just the first six weeks of the tragedy, nearly one million human beings (roughly 800,000) were either murdered or missing.
Fast-forward roughly 30 years and Rwanda is known the world over as one of the globe’s most prosperous, safe and economically energized democracies on the planet. How was this nation that was once the poster child for internal strife able to become a nation healed even as other nations across the globe (the U.S. and countless European nations included) have grown more divided by the day?
Local activist, author and minister P.K. McCary spoke with the Defender about her time spent in Rwanda as part of a contingent sent by the organization United Religions Initiative to journey on an international mission to see what lessons formerly war-torn nations have for the U.S. in dealing with its centuries-old racial divide.
LESSON 1: BE OPEN, HONEST & TRANSPARENT
McCary says Rwanda learned from and improved upon the South African, post-apartheid Truth & Reconciliation Commission model that prioritized individuals from both sides of that conflict coming forward and telling the good, the bad and the ugly of their stories.
“I know change can happen,” said McCary. “I had lost hope. I think that that’s probably the one thing that Rwanda did for me – restore hope. First, they told the truth. They didn’t sugarcoat the ugliness of their past history. A lot of people had to reunite, and it took some longer than others. And some are in prison, and some are trying to rehabilitate to be in community together. I’ve met these people and they’re the magic of it.”
LESSON 2: COURAGEOUSLY CALL OUT INJUSTICE
Rwandans realized that for restorative justice to work they had to courageously confront their past sins as a nation; a move McCary says the U.S. has yet to make.
“The people of Rwanda basically are the Exonerated Five [the five falsely convicted and imprisoned NY teens who were finally found to be innocent] a thousand times over. Because a million people lost their lives or went missing. You can’t even begin to fathom the brutality and trauma they had to overcome.,” shared McCary.
LESSON 3: BE WILLING TO PUT IN THE WORK
“The people of Rwanda have a vaccine for internal country strife, and it’s not a vaccine you shoot up. It’s a vaccine that you take into your heart and you have to be willing to work for it.”
McCary said the reason why Rwanda is a global example of societal resurrection is because their people were willing to put in the work; work that focused not on revenge, but restorative justice – justice that allows individuals who did past wrongs to make right, move forward and fully return to participation in society.
LESSON 4: LEARN FROM PAST EFFORTS (SANKOFA)
For McCary, the African principle of “Sankofa,” taking lessons from the past and applying them in the present to move forward successfully, has always been important to her life’s work as an activist, spiritualist and social change agent. She said that the “Sankofa” principle was and still is foundational to Rwanda’s ongoing rise from the ashes of near total societal destruction due to national divisions. And Rwandans are not only learning from their own past.
“Rwanda’s working with those in South Africa and learning their tools. I call it the tool chest of restorative justice. In South Africa, their Truth and Reconciliation Commission was pretty successful. So, the Rwandans aren’t re-inventing the wheel. What they’re doing more than anything is building it more and doing more cross-cultural things,” shared McCary.
LESSON 5: WORK WITH THE FUTURE IN MIND
McCary said one of the most profound things Rwandans did to complete the ultimate comeback story was implement a lesson central to indigenous nations in the Americas.
“The Iroquois nation law prior to 1776 was the ‘Law of the Seventh Generation.’ You didn’t just make an agreement without thinking about its impact seven generations into the future. We should know enough from our past to know how actions we take today can negatively impact the future. We shouldn’t have the problems we have because they’ve already been taught that, you know, you don’t put oil and chemicals in the water. And I know one thing for sure; banning books is just gonna make people ignorant. And don’t we have enough ignorant people right now? We can make decisions today that make sure our children and communities are creating more libraries that are making sure people have a place for their children to play safely and learn. That takes thinking about the future. I often talk about planting trees that I will never sit under. What I’m talking about is implementing the things that I think will make a difference beyond my years. This has been the approach of Rwandans. It needs to be ours, as well.”