Lessons from Rwanda: Teacher to draw on summer visit for NHS course on genocide

  • Kate Todhunter poses with two students from Peace Education Initiative Rwanda, a non-governmental organization that teaches young people about human rights and genocide prevention.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Photos of children murdered during the Rwandan genocide line walls at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Rwanda is sometimes called “the land of a thousand hills” for its rolling terrain.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2018 12:04:25 AM

Correction: A previous version of this story misnamed the Northampton Education Foundation.

NORTHAMPTON — For Northampton High School teacher Kate Todhunter, history is about telling stories. Following a trip to Rwanda in July, Todhunter has countless stories to share with her students in hopes of fostering a greater understanding of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Todhunter has taught a course on modern genocide since 2003. At first, the class focused primarily on the Holocaust, but she increasingly brought in material from other genocides.

Although Todhunter was always interested in teaching the Rwandan genocide, she initially found that there were few resources to further incorporate it into her lessons. But teaching about the genocide felt more like a responsibility than an option.

“The Rwandan genocide was the first one that occurred that I remember,” Todhunter said, recalling that she was recently out of college during the genocide. “I remember seeing the footage on TV. I remember reading about it as it unfolded…. The Rwandan genocide was different because in a sense, it happened on my watch.”

During the genocide, Hutu extremists primarily targeted the Tutsis, an ethnic minority, as well as a number of moderate Hutus. Over the course of 100 days, it is estimated that over 800,000 people were murdered.

Todhunter knew that visiting Rwanda presented an invaluable opportunity to speak directly with survivors of the genocide and learn the country’s history from within.

Todhunter received a $3,000 Northampton Education Foundation that funded her trip — the same type of grant that brought Carl Wilkens, the only American who chose to stay in Rwanda during the genocide, to speak at Northampton High in 2017. Todhunter met with Wilkens again during to her own trip to Rwanda, where she traveled alongside other educators and scholars for 12 days.

In Rwanda, Todhunter found a country that she described as full of both “intense beauty” and “terrible pain.” Some of the most powerful moments of the trip came during conversations with young people — teenage students, the same age as her own pupils at Northampton High, who often had something to teach her, Todhunter said.

For Rwandan youth, there is no hiding from their country’s history; the generation born after the genocide walks the same streets as both survivors and perpetrators, called génocidaires. But Todhunter observed a significant step forward from the ethnic tension of the past in today’s generation.

“All the young people that I met, time and time again, did not describe themselves as Hutu or Tutsis, the two dominant groups in Rwanda,” Todhunter said. “They said time and time again, ‘We are Rwandans.’ And what really resonated with me is this country, it’s in the hands of young people now, and for that I’m really grateful, because the young people I met were really extraordinary.”

One young woman named Bella, a student at Rwanda’s Gashora Girls Academy, told Todhunter that Rwanda died in 1994 and was reborn afterward.

Ultimately, Todhunter was struck by how much she learned not only about Rwanda, but from Rwanda.

“The history I went there to study, a genocide, is a history of hatred,” she said. “And the way that the Rwandan people have been forced to deal with this hatred, I think there’s a lot our society can learn from.”

Todhunter highlighted present-day Rwanda’s emphasis on education and the power of words — “how easily hatred can be normalized.” As a teacher, she encourages her students to recognize these patterns of hatred and understand the importance of breaking them.

Todhunter’s lessons left a lasting impact on her former student Lily Rogers, now a political science major at Yale University. It was Rogers, along with classmate Ariel Bourke, who brought Wilkens to Northampton High, driven by a desire to educate more people on the Rwandan genocide.

“There’s so much that we can learn from the past,” Rogers said. “It’s so important to study these genocides and these horrible things that can happen so we can prevent them from happening.”

With the school year quickly approaching, Todhunter is eager to pass on the knowledge and stories that she gathered in Rwanda to her students.

“When you’re looking at readings and examining photographs and firsthand accounts, the history can create a lot of despair,” Todhunter said. “It’s easy to get lost in that despair. But the experience I had traveling and working in Rwanda this summer has pointed out how even survivors are able to climb out of that despair and have hope, and are moving forward.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com

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