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Vol 56 No. 16 | Dec. 2004
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Sheley Reflects on Fulbright Experience in Rwanda

Sheley Fullbright ExperienceThe past still haunts Rwanda, the “land of a thousand hills.” Last summer, the ghosts of 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus brushed against CSULB's Nancy Strow Sheley when she visited that nation in central Africa 10 years after the genocide of 1994.  

Sheley, who holds a joint position in English and Liberal Studies, was selected to receive a Fulbright-Hays Travel Award and joined 12 other educators for a five-week research seminar in Rwanda, from July through August. The project was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the CSU Sacramento Center for Africa Peace and Conflict Resolution, and the Center for Conflict Management at the National University of Rwanda in Butare, near the capital city, Kigali. The project's theme was “Culture, Ethnicity, National Reconciliation and Development in Post-Genocide Rwanda.”  

“Rwanda offered me amazing experiences with the highest of emotional highs and the weight of the lowest of lows,” said Sheley, who joined the university in 2001. “To be in a country traumatized by slaughter and mayhem 10 years before and to be reminded daily of the genocide through memorial sites and people's heart-breaking stories was balanced by the kindnesses and generosity of the Rwandans throughout our trip. People there are hopeful about their future.”

Group Meeting the PresidentSheley's visit included official lectures and visits to public schools, universities, courts, non-governmental agencies, health centers, cultural and historical sites, the U.S. Embassy, private homes, churches, and even a two-and-a-half-hour session with President Paul Kagame.  

“All I expected from the president was a photo opportunity,” she said. “Instead, our 13-member group spent several hours in the presidential cabinet room. Kagame spoke eloquently about Rwanda's past and his hopes for the future. We were able to ask probing questions about politics, agriculture, HIV/AIDS, the situation in the Sudan, and even about the genocide in Rwanda.”

However, it was the reactions of the Rwandan citizens that made the biggest impressions and the strongest connections.  

“Often Rwandans would ask me how I found their country,” Sheley said. “I would respond honestly: ‘I think it's beautiful.' Disbelieving, they would say, ‘But there is so much pain here.'”

That was the most difficult part of the travel, venturing to many of the more than 200 memorial sites.  

“Sometimes, there would be a small plaque commemorating a village's loss. Sometimes, there would be row after row of crosses, numbering in the hundreds,” Sheley paused. “At a former school, the memorial included skulls and bones and clothing remnants of more than 1,000 citizens who were killed and buried in a mass common grave.”

People carry horrific memories with them every day. Even in the schools, children whose parents were murdered sit next to children whose fathers wielded the machetes. The country relies on both the international Tribunal in Arusha and its own formal court system to bring justice, but it also relies on the village-based format, the gacaca, to resolve the genocide crimes on a local level.

“Education is the key to a peaceful future for Rwanda,” said Sheley. The national committee is rewriting the public school curriculum to include a set of life skills to be taught in all academic areas, especially history and civics. Recognizing the critical thinking and knowledge of the country's history, culture, and current problems is necessary to educate caring citizens. These life skills include respect for human rights, especially the rights of children; protection of the environment and wise use of its resources; awareness of HIV/AIDS and compassion for those afflicted; acknowledgement of gender equality and increased participation of women in policy issues; emphasis on civic responsibilities; and the incorporation of conflict resolution skills at all levels of human interaction.  

This Fulbright experience reinforced Sheley's love of learning. “I have never felt as revered as an educator as I did in Rwanda,” she explained. “They know that education can change their country. I visualize myself returning to the Kigali Institute of Education and training teachers. That is another goal.”  

New Times HeadlineLife in Rwanda is not easy, however, and the past and present collide in strange juxtapositions. For example, on the path in the village, a woman dressed in traditional colorful wrapped material holding a hoe heading to the potato field, with a baby tucked tightly to her back and a basket on her head, might be walking next to a young man in suit and tie carrying a computer bag, ready to work in a high-tech office. On a street in Kigali, a five-story glass and concrete building might overshadow a clay and dung hut. In most places, fresh water comes out of bottles, not the pipes; flush toilets are a rarity. The power goes off at four in the afternoon and doesn't return till morning; the computer internet is available, but sluggish; and e-mail falls victim to daily blackouts. Cell phones abound, but transportation, mostly, is by foot.

Sheley is determined to tell as many people as possible about her Rwanda experiences. This fall she is giving programs in the College of Education and for the Center for International Studies. She also will present her findings at the Second Annual Genocide Conference in Sacramento and present a paper at the 30th annual Association for Moral Education Conference in Dana Point.  

“Rwanda has given me numerous opportunities to see and know and learn,” she said. Recently, Sheley attended a private screening of the new film, "Hotel Rwanda" at the MGM Studios in Century City. Based on a personal story of heroics during the genocide of 1994, the movie is set for release this month.

Yet, returning to the states in August was difficult. As Sheley said, “I am now painfully aware of the excesses of food at Ralph's, my foolishly overstuffed closets at home, the congestion on the 405, and the constant rush to get things done by the clock. Worse, I worry that few people really care about Africa.   Rwanda gave me new perspectives on what to value. For that, I am very grateful.”

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