Room for Debate in Rwanda

The first post-genocide generation is growing up. One remarkable organization is teaching them how to argue about politics.

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GITARAMA, Rwanda — Standing on the orange earth of Kacyiru bus station in central Kigali, over a hundred teenage students wait impatiently to get moving. It’s eight o’clock in the morning and already almost 80 degrees. Once everyone has crammed into the buses we head west in convoy, the maze of new high-rise buildings and old bungalows rapidly giving way to rolling hills and mile upon mile of agricultural terraces. Every inch of land appears to be under cultivation. “The land shortage is a big problem,” the student sitting beside me observes.

Our destination is a school near the Cathedral at Gitarama, where local NGO iDebate Rwanda is hosting their second Debate Camp. Participants will receive ten days of intensive training in policy analysis, public speaking and critical thinking. Started in 2012 by a group of Rwandan students, iDebate Rwanda aims to build a national debating community, enabling young leaders to discuss public policy, learn valuable communication skills and access international scholarships.

iDebate’s students come from a range of backgrounds. On the bus I recognize a student from the previous year’s camp, the daughter of a parliamentarian. Beside her sits Maxim, who tells me “my school was going to pay for me to come, but it didn’t work out so I sold my goat. It was worth it — you can’t put a price on the future.” Students pay 25,000 Rwandan francs ($36 USD) to attend.

On the first day we teach how to plan a policy: how to identify stakeholders, focus the ends, explore ways of reaching those ends and the means of paying the bill. As we discuss the development of road infrastructure, a fierce disagreement develops over how to obtain land. Some students argue the overall benefits justify the forced purchase of land; others maintain that the devastating impact on subsistence farmers would cause unacceptable harm. One fourteen-year-old asks how the government can afford to compensate farmers and pay for the road when “interest on World Bank loans is so high.” The camp is not run to answer these questions, but to teach methods for testing the viability of solutions so that the students can find answers themselves.

Debating is practiced worldwide as an intellectual game. Here it is seen in practical terms. One key topic is the issue of youth unemployment. Mekka, an aspiring politician, proposes what becomes the class consensus: “We need to make jobs ourselves. If you have skills, start a business that uses those skills.” These students are nothing if not ambitious. A survey of their aspirations reveals a wide variety of pursuits, from architect to doctor to software engineer and even to pilot. “I will be the CEO of an architectural and construction firm,” writes Stella.

We ask returning students, who attended the first Debate Camp in 2013, what they want to cover while new students go through the core modules. They say they want to learn to apply debating to persuade audiences rather than judges, to negotiate, especially with investors, and most importantly to teach. One of the greatest achievements of the camp is training 25 students to work as debate trainers, so they can go to local schools, establish debate clubs, and share what they’ve learned.

It should not be surprising that these young Rwandans are so self-motivated. Many lost their extended families during the 1994 genocide. Some are already heads of their household. Some grew up in exile. And although most were born three or four years after the genocide, none have escaped its shadow. Jean Michel Habineza, one of the founders of iDebate and the son of Rwanda’s Minister for Sport and Culture, believes that “the biggest victims of genocide were us — the young people — because we are all bearing the consequences of something that we did not create.” He started iDebate in part to break what he views as a pervasive unwillingness to question authority. (In the photo above, Rwandans commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide in April 2014.)

But free speech is cause for suspicion even among iDebate students. As one put it, “people being allowed to speak freely was one of the causes of the 1994 genocide, which was promoted by the media… by the radio.” This is the consensus view. Many fear that free speech will lead to the reemergence of old social divisions between Tutsi and Hutu. Neither is democracy universally supported. “Look at Singapore,” Maxim tells me over lunch. “That is where I admire. If the government did not keep a tight grip here then our progress would not be possible.”

Some topics are not debated at the camp. The international media have reported on the Rwandan government’s jailing of political opponents, support for the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and alleged involvement in political assassinations in South Africa. A few students are keen to talk about these issues, but most look wary when they come up. The possibility of an extended term of office for President Paul Kagame and the banning of the BBC are equally touchy subjects.

Privately, however, such topics are being discussed. It’s hardly possible to turn on the radio in Rwanda without hearing pundits denouncing a BBC documentary for genocide-denial, but from the few probing questions some students ask me it is evident that the documentary is being watched online and people are coming to their own conclusions.

It is nonetheless important to keep in mind that iDebate’s students are an elite. Though not all are well-to-do, they have been fortunate to attend excellent schools with good English language instruction — a privilege most students in Rwanda could hardly dream of. When I ask my class which part of the population they represent, the generally agreed upon figure is the top 4 percent in terms of education, access to government services, and economic opportunities. Meanwhile, World Bank figures for 2011 put 44.9 percent of the population in chronic poverty.

Outside the camp these factors are all too apparent. Away from the cities and off the main roads I see two children, no older than eight, naked and drinking water from a rusted fuel can out of a muddy river. Even those who have access to education often lack opportunities. Near the northern border town of Gesenyi, beneath coffee trees on a peninsular jutting into Lake Kivu I speak to Jalek who is just coming to the end of his studies. “I’m studying economics, but there’s no chance of getting a job here.”

Rwanda faces a myriad of problems and iDebate’s students are a privileged elite, but it’s startling just how acutely aware they are that hold not just their own destiny, but that of their entire country, in their hands. My work with iDebate is over, since the NGO now has a group of dedicated volunteer teachers as the organization expands into rural areas and invites students from other east African countries to join. Rwanda faces a long road to prosperity, but it has no shortage of enthusiastic young leaders, eager to take part in — and shape — the country’s economic transformation.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jack Watling is an academic studying civil conflict policy. Twitter: @Jack_Watling

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