Book review by Prof. Paul Rutayisire

This book is both interesting and enlightening. It tackles one of the consequences of the Genocide against the Tutsi that is misunderstood by many Rwandans: the internal or psychological wounds caused by the traumatic events experienced or witnessed during and after the genocide. Such trauma manifests itself in collective and individual life experience. The feelings that resulted among the Rwandans are known: fear, anxiety, bitterness, sorrow, shame, shock, uncertainty, distress, and confusion.

After the genocide a few programs addressed that challenge, if only in a superficial way. These programs aimed at a collective cure leading to peaceful coexistence. They led to a positive outcome but, for the author of this book, their effects would not last long because psychological wounds were not healed.

John Steward recounts his experience as coordinator of a program of peace-building and reconciliation initiated by an international NGO in Rwanda after 1994. It contains moving original testimonies from diverse perspectives (survivor, former perpetrator, former refugees, descendants of the victims of the genocide) that attest to the benefits of this program through radically changing participants’ ideas, attitudes and behaviours with regard to their neighbours, especially those who harmed them or with whom they do not share the same ethnic identity.

That this program was initiated by a foreign civil society organisation and entrusted to a foreigner with little knowledge of the complex history of Rwanda and the local context is surprising. Trained local people, including religious leaders, were already engaged in attempts to rebuild social relations. But they were Rwandans who had suffered the same evils as their fellow-citizens. They were in need themselves. For that reason it is regrettable that they did not attend the healing-purposed workshops. Their resistance to change partly explains the limited response to the great need.

I liked the mindset that marked Steward’s work, the methods used and the precautions taken in the difficult and complex situation. He avoided easy stereotypes such as the ‘legendary mistrust of Rwandans’ or falling into the ethnicity trap. Steward demonstrated the ability and willingness to observe for himself, to listen, to learn on the run and build on existing local dynamics, which has not often been the case in other NGO interventions.

Healing of wounds and granting of forgiveness are the result of workshops organised around the country for individuals and trainers/organisers who extend the program. The approach used was developed by Professor Simon Gasibirege (Personal Development Workshops). The other approaches (Healing the Wounds of Ethnic Conflict, and Healing of Memories) reinforced what was being done and gave greater credibility, especially before distrustful and hesitant audiences.

This choice of the approach developed by Simon Gasibirege was judicious.

At the time, the program was unique in the country; it was innovative, addressing specific questions relating to trauma resulting from genocide, while also attempting to heal individuals and the community. By doing this, he went beyond classical practices of modern psychotherapy, applicable in other contexts, but not in post-genocide Rwanda. For this reason, Gasibirege was misunderstood by many of his psychologist colleagues.

Thanks to the support he did receive Gasibirege’s approach is now popular among organisers of civilian and religious reconciliation programs in Rwanda and in DRCongo and Burundi. Government organisations gradually incorporated its elements within programs and some civil society organisations now give priority to psychological wound healing. It is a significant development.

The restorative justice that was facilitated by the Gacaca jurisdictions paved the way for growth in trauma healing initiatives. The opportunities to ask for and grant forgiveness given by the Gacaca law benefitted both perpetrators and survivors, and became significant moments in social relations. However, the Gacaca jurisdictions neither set up nor used trauma healing tools or approaches.

The healing experiences portrayed in this book address this gap. Their objective is to remove negative forces that block a person who has faced a traumatic event by creating safe spaces that allow free speech, protection as well as confidentiality, to be able to reconcile with oneself and to interact with others, especially with those responsible for the suffering they have experienced. The final result is confession, and the request for, and granting of, forgiveness.

The accounts of the people who followed this process successfully are eloquent. They report situations of violence and extreme suffering as well as unusual courage and generosity. One key lesson is that personal psychological wounds can be healed if there is willingness, suitable support and prayer. This is the only way to reconciliation and sustainable peace in Rwanda.

Beyond the ‘success stories’, the question remains about those who did not choose the way of healing, or became discouraged on the journey and the many who are yet to have the privilege to be accompanied.

While waiting for the seeds sown to bear fruit to the benefit of the entire Rwandan society, we remain without answers as we reflect on the massive trauma undergone and its tragic, trans-generational character. 

Prof. Paul Rutayisire

Professor of Modern African and Rwandan Histories and Director of the Center for Conflict Management at the University of Rwanda,

Kigali, 30 March 2018.

(With thanks to


Born in Adelaide, South Australia Grew up in Java, Indonesia Educated high school and agriculture in Adelaide Theological education in Brisbane Overseas experience in Asia and Africa, North America and Europe

One thought to “Book review by Prof. Paul Rutayisire”

  1. This is a surprising, understanding and affirming review. It is very helpful to have a Rwandan academic giving an insider’s view of the situation and challenges. The inter-generational challenge is very real for the current youth and young adults who were born after 1994. It is not enough for them to learn about what happened by attending one or more of the memorial sites, they need to process what has been passed down to them from parents, kin and neighbors. It can take a long time for an individual to even realise that they carry within them long-term effects.

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