By Kerry Phelps Dale

Thousands of miles away in the Land of a Thousand Hills, Maddie Dale met, fell in love and was forever changed in a matter of months. As part of a group of 12 students from 12 different American colleges and universities, Dale landed in Kigali, Rwanda for a four month study abroad program, Post Genocide Restoration and Peace Building, and a six-week independent study and thesis in February.

When Dale was contemplating where she wanted to study for a semester, one of her Africana Studies professors at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York suggested Rwanda. Although it wasn’t a Hamilton College program, it was highly-praised by the professor. “I knew I didn’t want the stereotypical abroad experience in Europe,” said Dale. “I wanted something that would be a challenge for me—getting me out of my comfort zone.”

“I’d been interested in learning more about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi,” said Dale. “I’d taken International Relations classes, mostly in my American Government major. I knew the United State’s side of the story and that made me want to learn more about it. To get the real story.” Dale’s classes in her Africana Studies minor had already informed her in small part to understanding, “socially constructed ethnic identities which happened to play a major role in the conflict in Rwanda.”

Upon arrival in the city of Kigali, Dale met her fellow students, instructors, and advisors as they embarked on a week of acclimation before meeting and going home with their host families. “Throwing yourself into the lifestyle by staying with a host family and learning their language, was a good way to connect with the people,” said Dale.

“Hearing the stories of survivors or perpetrators who are willing to speak about the past to inform you on how far they’ve come and how fast they’re moving forward- It was very emotional, but I don’t think there is a better way to do that than through the experiential learning model,” Dale said of
the program.

“We visited five to seven memorials, ranging from museums to actual killing sites to a mix of both. We also visited farmers and businesses to explore Rwanda’s development since 1994.” In addition to the curriculum about the genocide and the reconciliation efforts, the group learned to speak conversational Kenyarwanda, and were given a choice between an internship or independent study project. She chose the latter and did a research paper titled “Engaging Men: Research on the Effectiveness of a Male Centered Approach to Gender-Based Violence in Rwanda.”

The Rwanda study happened to coincide with the Commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Leaders from around the globe gathered to honor the survivors and learn from the country’s model of reconciliation and reconstruction. The students were fortunate to also attend the Kwibuka 25 Kigali International Conference.

“To see a population capable of overcoming such an atrocity made me hopeful and more aware of situations where peacebuilding is necessary,” said Dale who plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work. “I think those peacebuilding skills and attitudes could be very valuable in family and relationship conflicts, too.”

Dale recalls the most memorable of her Rwandan experiences was a group bus trip to a homegrown women’s cooperative in a village in a southern province of the country. They met in a tiny building with a tin roof, and it began to rain. “It was so loud, we just kept moving in closer to hear. The women had their arms around us, holding our hands.”

The wives of slain Tutsi met with the wives of perpetrators whose husbands were imprisoned. Though both had lost their husbands, the perpetrators’ wives could visit theirs, cook for them, take them gifts. The purpose of the meetings was to affect forgiveness. The group of students witnessed firsthand the power of authentic, grassroots reconciliation. “The strength of these women was so moving. By the end, we were all in tears.”

Dale was not surprised to find how much she loved the Rwandan people and the way they honor each other and their country. She was captivated by the beauty of the diverse landscape, from the farmland blanketing the rolling hills, to the savannahs, to the forests and lakes.

“I made so many friends there and it is such a warm and welcoming country. I know I’ll go back someday.”

This article appeared in the August 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.