‘You can go beyond’

Good news seems so hard to come by, and sometimes you fear to believe in it when you read it.  Let me begin by recalling the opening of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, the winner of the 1998 Guardian First Book Award that bore testimony to the Rwandan genocide:

In the province of Kibungo, in eastern Rwanda, in the swamp-and pastureland near the Tanzanian border, there’s a rocky hill called Nyarubuye with a church where many Tutsis were slaughtered in mid-April of 1994. A year after the killing I went to Nyarubuye with two Canadian military officers. We flew in a United Nations helicopter, travelling low over the hills in the morning mists, with the banana trees like green starbursts dense over the slopes. The uncut grass blew back as we dropped into the centre of the parish schoolyard. A lone soldier materialized with his Kalashnikov, and shook our hands with stiff, shy formality. The Canadians presented the paperwork for our visit, and I stepped up into the open doorway of a classroom.

At least fifty mostly decomposed cadavers covered the floor, wadded in clothing, their belongings strewn about and smashed. Macheted skulls had rolled here and there. The dead looked like pictures of the dead. They did not smell. They did not buzz with flies. They had been killed thirteen months earlier, and they hadn’t been moved. Skin stuck here and there over the bones, many of which lay scattered away from the bodies, dismembered by the killers, or by scavengers-birds, dogs, bugs.

The more complete figures looked a lot like people, which they were once. A woman in a cloth wrap printed with flowers lay near the door. Her fleshless hip bones were high and her legs slightly spread, and a child’s skeleton extended between them. Her torso was hollowed out. Her ribs and spinal column poked through the rotting cloth. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was open: a strange image-half agony, half repose.

I had never been among the dead before. What to do? Look? Yes. I wanted to see them, I suppose; I had come to see them – the dead had been left unburied at Nyarubuye for memorial purposes – and there they were, so intimately exposed. I didn’t need to see them. I already knew, and believed, what bad happened in Rwanda. Yet looking at the buildings and the bodies, and hearing the silence of the place, with the grand Italianate basilica standing there deserted, and beds of exquisite, decadent, death-fertilized flowers blooming over the corpses, it was still strangely unimaginable. I mean one still had to imagine it.

Those dead Rwandans will be with me forever, I expect. That was why I had felt compelled to come to Nyarubuye: to be stuck with them – not with their experience, but with the experience of looking at them. They had been killed there, and they were dead there. What else could you really see at first?

Now today I read in The Observer that Rwanda has a plan to prevent a return to the genocide of 1994 by connecting its children to the outside world with their own laptops. The gizmo in question is an object 10 inches square, green, white and rubberised, inscribed with the logo of an X and a filled-in O:

The Rwandan government intends to provide 100,000 Rwandan children between the ages of nine and 12 with one of these gadgets, and has a vision not only of the transformation of an impoverished agrarian society into one of the most advanced in Africa, but also of technology as a tool that will help exorcise the country’s lingering ghosts. The genocide that took place in this country in 1994 deprived many of these children of uncles, aunts, grandparents. During 100 days of killing, 800,000 minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in service of so-called ‘Hutu Power’, documented so chillingly in Gourevitch’s book.

The XO machines are supplied by One Laptop Per Child (1.4 million have already been delivered to children in 35 countries including Haiti, Afghanistan, Brazil and Uruguay). The organisation’s mission statement is to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children via a rugged low-cost, low-power laptop. Rwanda, with its shortages of electricity and lower internet connectivity are driving One Laptop Per Child to develop even cheaper and tougher machines with ever lower power consumption. The next generation of computers will be usable even where there is no mains power at all. At the heart of their programme is the idea of ‘joyful, playful and innovatory’ learning.

The Rwandan government wants to encourage rapid economic development by educating these children to be computer-literate. But there is also a notion that these laptops might help to vaccinate a society still in painful recovery from its genocidal past by opening up the rest of the world to a new generation. David Cavallo, the project director for One Laptop Per Child, talks about Jean Piaget, the educational psychologist who believed education to be ‘capable of saving our societies from possible collapse’. It is an ex-student of Piaget’s, Seymour Papert, mathematician and education and technology theorist, who is the inspiration for the XO. Papert was a political refugee from apartheid South Africa who fled to England and finally America where he became one of the founders of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Papert has long argued that children in all societies can master computing and, by doing so, transform how they learn throughout their lives, inside and outside the classroom and, consequently alter societies. He is a longstanding enemy of what he sees as the tyranny of formal education systems which he believes equip children only to master set syllabuses. Papert believes that computers can enable children to learn how to learn for themselves through playful problem-solving and that this will lead to their becoming better-rounded human beings.

Peter Beaumont, the author of the Observer feature, tells of being driven by Samuel Dusengiyumva, a 28-year-old consultant with One Laptop Per Child, to the genocide memorial in Nyamata, the church where 10,000 Rwandans were blasted with grenades then hacked to death in April 1994 – the place where Philip Gourevitch opens his book. Dusengiyumva tells Beaumont what schooling was like before the genocide and after, and how lack of education contributed to mass murder. He is a firm believer in what the XO can do, in particular its promise for opening up a society that was once lethally closed:

You know the problem with having a poor education is that you are not given the faculties to cross-check information, not given access to information. Our society, before the genocide, was not open. Now I can go on the internet. I can check what I am being told. I can make my own analysis.  I remember a text that I learned at school. It said you go to school to learn how to learn. If you can enable people in society… with computers… you release the human potential. You can go beyond.

An ordinary place: the church at Nyamata turned into a memorial, left mostly untouched after the massacre in April 1994.
And central Kigali behind

Philip Gourevitch concludes his account of the genocide with this:

I cannot count the times, since I first began visiting Rwanda three years ago, that I’ve been asked, ‘Is there any hope for that place?” If there is hope for Rwanda [it comes] with [this] story. On April 30, 1997 – almost a year ago as I write – Rwandan television showed footage of a man who confessed to having been among a party of genocidaires who had killed seventeen schoolgirls and a sixty-two-year-old Belgian nun at a boarding school in Gisenyi two nights earlier. It was the second such attack on a school in a month; the first time, sixteen students were killed and twenty injured in Kibuye. The prisoner on television explained that the massacre was part of a Hutu Power ‘liberation’ campaign. …During their attack on the school in Gisenyi, as in the earlier attack on the school in Kibuye, the students, teenage girls who had been roused from their sleep, were ordered to separate themselves – Hutus from Tutsis. But the students had refused. At both schools, the girls said they were simply Rwandans, so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately.

Rwandans have no need – no room in their corpse-crowded imaginations – for more martyrs. None of us does. But mightn’t we all take some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls who could have chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?

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