Rwanda's story can give hope to the world, says Australian author

The volume of literature on Rwanda is getting bigger by the day, with the latest addition of a book by a scholar who worked in the country for about a decade and thereafter put together experiences of Rwandans he had met and worked with.
Steward explains more about his book during the interview. (Teddy Kamanzi)
Steward explains more about his book during the interview. (Teddy Kamanzi)

The volume of literature on Rwanda is getting bigger by the day, with the latest addition of a book by a scholar who worked in the country for about a decade and thereafter put together experiences of Rwandans he had met and worked with. In From Genocide to Genorosity, John Steward seeks to tell the story of reconciliation and efforts to rebuild the country after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The most unique element about the book compared to other literature on Rwanda by non-Rwandans is that the writer tells the story in the words of Rwandans. The New Times’ Collins Mwai spoke to the author about his new book and experiences in the country.

Below are excerpts;-

What would you say is the main focus of your book, ‘From Genocide To Generosity’?

The book uses the stories of Rwandans to introduce how it was when I first came here in 1997 working with World Vision as the manager of peace and reconciliation department. The first chapters of the book describe the state of affairs when I first got here.

The book is not technical; it is for a general audience in the context of the process of bringing out the grief, talking about their struggles, their changes, emotions and rebuilding relationships and communities. The focus is also on forgiveness.

It is illustrated by stories from victims and perpetrators I met during my time here.

The focus of the book is on recovery after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. In the organisation I was working with then (World Vision) we were offering reconciliation workshops, this documents the stories I heard.

Many people have experienced Rwanda but are yet to write about the country, what particularly led you to writing the book?

My motivation is that there was a wonderful positive story in a world that is falling apart and extremely troubled. It was a story that was inspiring.

I also felt that it was a story of heritage in Rwanda and the book was a commendation of the good work going on in the country. I find it important to share experiences. My father participated in World War II, he came home but he did not want to talk about the war. For 50 years, he kept silent. Only in the last few years of his life did I get to find out what he experienced and that had impact on him that even affected his role as a father. I wanted to share the story of hope as evident in the love of the people.

Steward's book.

What’s your experience with Rwanda to learn enough to write a book on such a significant time of the country?

I stayed here for 16 months beginning 1997, after which I came back for the next nine years every six months a total of 18 times.

I could follow up on the changes, development and progress the county was making. I saw and witnessed all the changes and I began to see that people had changed for the better.

A friend came with me in 2003 and we filmed to make educational material for secondary students. I came back three years ago to show people what we had filmed. The website; www., has been visited by teachers and students from about 190 countries, gets about three million hits per month, the majority by visitors from North America, New Zealand, Great Britain, among others.

The objective was to enable the younger generation know what had happened before and during the genocide.

When I showed the videos to people who we had interviewed, they said the stories could be of more use to people who were not school children. Since I had collected materials over a period of 15 years, I went back and wrote a book.

I note that the book tells the recovery process according to accounts of various people. How did you select your subjects?

In a sense, they selected themselves, when we went to places like Nyamata to film they gathered a group, we sat down under a tree and asked if they wanted to tell us their stories. We went through the protocol informing them that we were gathering educational material and what we would do with the content.

They put their hands up and we filmed.

Having worked here for over 10 years, what would you say was the greatest facilitator to recovery?

One of the greatest facilitators of the reconciliation and recovery process has been Gacaca courts, there is a chapter about the courts in the book.

Such a homegrown initiative has enabled healing and change, really each person needs to understand their personal pain and change where they can.

Various initiatives helped people go through the recovery process.

Over the years, what characteristic of the Rwandan people has stood out to you most?

The most common characteristic of Rwandans is the need to get on with life, the need to survive. Resilience. It certainly got the country to where they are and will lead to much more progress. Another thing about Rwandans is the dignity people have and self-respect.

There are a few bits of literature and documentaries that have gotten the Rwandan story wrong. In the process of writing your book, how did you ensure that you had the true accounts of what happened?

I was fortunate enough to work with people who wanted to go through a healing process, as a practitioner on the ground; I had trust of people who were telling me their stories. I did not go in as an interviewer; I went in as a friendly person looking to learn. I listened to those willing to tell the story.

There are scholars working on the topic who come up with theories every day.

Steward during the interview. (Teddy Kamanzi)

Your book comes at a time we still have people denying the occurrence of the Genocide 21 years later, what’s your take on it?

Denial is a human response to painful events, it is a coping mechanism. In the early stages it’s healthy but it becomes unhealthy down the trail. A way to overcome this is by ensuring that stories on what happened during the Genocide are told. That their voices go beyond those denying.

Denial is used by some parties as an act of convenience and is one of the worst forms of irresponsibility.

Your book has a specific chapter on the justice process, do you think justice has been served?

Not completely. What Rwanda did through Gacaca was a world-first, which may never be replicated elsewhere. It was a magnificent effort that succeeded beyond expectations. Justice has been done at a certain level.

I hope my book can help bring to justice suspects who are living free in various parts of the world be brought to book. In some countries the legal system is tied in knots around the topic. I hope that the book will lead to them questioning the status of matters and efforts to see what changes should be made.

What are your thoughts on the country about the future based on the trend you have observed since 1997?

The country has advanced so much over the years, I hope that this book can give hope to people all across the world who are stuck or are trying to recover from trying times.

The world is in a mess. Some bad things are happening all across the world, the immigration situation and how they are being treated, what I am motivated about is that through Rwanda, the world can see that no matter how trying times have been you can turn around and recover.

Most of the Rwandans I worked with here in previous years in the healing programmes are now reconciliation experts working in countries like South Sudan. I believe the parts of the world undergoing conflict and require healing could use such lessons.


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