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By Esther Smith (Student writer). April 1, 2013 - 10:18 am
Widely known for being the location of a horrific genocide that took the lives of one million people in one hundred days, Rwanda is hardly the “norm” for a study abroad experience.
The stigma is that the country is still grotesquely violent and dangerous.
Fueled by fears derived almost entirely from the movie Hotel Rwanda, many of my friends, family, and colleagues expressed significant concerns about my study abroad choice, fearing that the events of 1994 would reoccur and that I would not return.
Stereotypes or misgivings like these played a significant role in my inspiration to travel to both Rwanda and Uganda through a program that focused on post-genocide restoration and peace building.
I wanted to explore the nuances of the country’s political history, learn the language so I could speak to residents, and share the stories I was blessed to hear.
Because my greatest passion is human rights advocacy, I desperately yearned for the opportunity to witness the relationships between victims and perpetrators, government and citizens, and between the international community and Rwanda.
Although my time there was short and limited, I experienced a country filled with fascinating contradictions regarding reconciliation, democracy, economic development, and religious participation.
Rwanda has a rich cultural heritage that includes a uniform language, shared religions, an ethic of community service, and beautiful, traditional arts.
I was always astounded by the incredible friendliness of new acquaintances and their generosity when I desperately needed directions or a translator.
I continue to be constantly challenged by my experiences there—by the people I met and the places I visited.
Emotionally and intellectually, it is difficult to comprehend the capacity of human beings to perpetrate such violence, especially when I realize that those same individuals still reside in the country and I may interact with them at any given time.
Concepts of morality and judgment became increasingly blurred.
Between guided tours of genocide memorials, where hundreds of bodies were on display, and my personal independent research, where I interviewed convicted genocide perpetrators, I didn’t always know what I believed.
Although I find that realization uncomfortable and unsettling, it is also a powerful and important concept.
We travel to explore the unknown and we study abroad to embrace the differences through academia.
Truly, I cannot imagine a more fulfilling or challenging experience than my time in Eastern Africa.