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Analyzing Africa

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JACKSON -- How do you live alongside a million murderers?

Reconciliation and forgiveness have been key in Rwanda's struggle to overcome the effects of the 1994 genocide, which killed nearly a million people -- and resulted in a million people being charged with genocide-related crimes.

Every day, victims and survivors in Rwanda face the perpetrators of the crimes.

"For the religious people, it's working really well, because they're able to use their religion ... to get them through a lot of the anger that they feel," said Brynn Muir of Jackson, who spent the last three and a half months studying post-conflict transformation in Rwanda and Uganda. "The reconciliation process is going really well. They're rebuilding at an astounding rate."

Muir's time in Africa was divided between Uganda and Rwanda, but she also visited, briefly, the no-man's-land between Uganda and Sudan, a particularly unsettled part of a generally unstable area.

"I've had a fascination with Africa pretty much since I was a very small child, and it's evolved into more mature stuff over time," Muir said. "I started reading about the Rwandan genocide in middle school."

She was interested in the world hunger problem and governmental issues in Africa, and as a student at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., opted to spend a semester studying abroad in 2009. But the only part of Africa she could visit at that time was South Africa, which was heavily colonized by Europeans and in some ways is unlike the rest of the continent.

"It was interesting to observe the post-apartheid state, but I wasn't a minority (in South Africa)," Muir said. "In Rwanda, they're all screaming at you and touching you, because they want to know if your skin feels the same."

The farther away from the cities she got, the more rare light-skinned people were, and the more attention Muir and her group attracted, mostly positive but generally distracting. One little Ugandan girl who couldn't stop staring seemed to be worried that Muir's whiteness was somehow communicable.

And then there were the dozens of marriage proposals from men who wanted their very own muzungu ("foreigner" or "white person") wives, who kept telling Muir that if she accepted, she would be the favorite wife.

But Muir didn't go to Africa to get married. She went to study some of the darkest chapters in the histories of two nations recovering from war and genocide. While in Uganda and Rwanda, she studied the countries' national and ethnic identities, visited genocide memorials and talked to survivors, victims and aggressors alike.

She collected her findings into a long paper about faith-based forgiveness and reconciliation techniques, attempting to present a solution that could be presented to community leaders.

"A month is not long enough to do any kind of serious research, and I think we all knew that, but for the limited time we were there, we tried to provide solutions," Muir said.

Victims and killers

Talking to victims was difficult, but in some ways, talking to perpetrators was even harder. By then, Muir had grown close to her host families, who spoke openly about the genocide, and she felt protective of them and other victims.

"It was very difficult to go in and talk to the people who had caused this kind of pain and listen to their reasoning and listen to their apologies and believe them and look at them as human beings rather than these mindless killing machines," Muir said. "(They were) people that had had negative influences act upon them. To an extent they could control it, and to an extent, they couldn't."

The history of the conflict in Rwanda could be traced back to European colonization of the country, when the Germans and later the Belgians either arbitrarily created the ethnic divisions in the country or simply made them suddenly critical. The Belgians labeled everyone Hutu, Tutsi or Twa based on a person's nose size, skin color or even the number of cows owned. Between the Catholic Church and the Belgian government, a hierarchy system was created that reinforced the ideas of obedience and respect.

Obedience still bears great weight in the Rwandan culture, Muir said, and plays a major role in why the genocide has not happened again since 1994 -- the current government told everyone to stop.

"Rwanda has recently been criticized for not having freedom of speech. There's this climate of fear, whether it's justified or not, and I think that also applies to what the government has to say about forgiveness and reconciliation," Muir explained. "If you're scared of the government, and it tells you 'you need to forgive these people and you're not going to retaliate against them,' and you really want to, you're not going to do it, because you're scared of them. And this government has shown itself to be something to be frightened of."

The genocide began, after all, at the orders of a Rwandan government and was carried out by simple, ordinary people wielding machetes against their neighbors.

"They made everybody participate, because the mind of the government was 'if we make everybody a murderer, they can't prosecute us,'" Muir said.

That proved not to be the case, as those at the highest levels who organized the genocide were tried in international courts, and those who carried it out were tried at the community levels.

Serious tension still remains between Rwanda's largest two ethnic groups, and serious threats to the peace still exist in the form of extremists in exile and the children of the victims, who did not experience the events but have been scarred nevertheless.

But Muir saw signs of hope everywhere. She visited a shelter full of women whose husbands were murdered during the genocide and women whose husbands had committed the murders. They live cooperatively, and they do not tell their children which fathers were victims and which were killers.

Life in Africa

In Uganda, Muir stayed with host dad Paul Othello, three host siblings and their aunt. In Rwanda, she stayed with Christoff and Paris Rutikanga and five host siblings. While working on her paper, she rented a house in Kigali, Rwanda, with eight Americans.

"I would wake up around 5 a.m. every morning, probably not by my own choice ... everyone's honking and screaming and selling fruit at 5 a.m., and that's fascinating, because they run on Africa time. If you tell people to be somewhere at 3, maybe they'll be there at 6," Muir recalled.

The families had tea time several times a day, with the tea often consisting of hot milk with sugar. In poverty-stricken Uganda, they ate a maize dish called posho. Many dishes featured peanut sauce, plaintains and goat or chicken meat. Passion fruit juice was common and inexpensive.

The temperatures in northern Uganda soared, creating stifling heat, but Rwanda's higher altitude led to pleasant 70-degree days.

And everyone was very friendly -- sometimes too much so. Casual acquaintances in Uganda often hold hands, while Rwandans are typically a bit more reserved.

Instead of nodding to say yes, people raise their eyebrows or say "mm," partly because of the multiplicity of languages spoken in the area. In Uganda, many people speak English, but in Rwanda, English isn't as widely-spoken as French or the dominant language, Kinyarwanda, which Muir learned while she was there.

She also learned about the relative poverty of even rich Africans. Her Ugandan family had a toilet, which was a luxury, and lived on a paved road, also quite rare for Uganda. Muir's Rwandan family lived in a poor part of the city of Kigali and had a microwave, but could not always afford electricity. Even poor families in Rwanda are wealthier than Ugandan families, Muir added.

"I've learned the importance of recognizing that, as a human, you're part of a bigger community than your home nation, and that certain responsibilities come with that citizenship, not the least of which (is) just paying attention," Muir said. "We have a duty to pay attention to things that are happening to people just like us, no matter where those people happen to reside, even if we can't do anything about it."

And now she feels she has been called to Africa.

"It felt like I was coming home when I was leaving south Africa, and this time ... I felt like I was leaving home to come home," Muir said.