Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

How forgiveness went viral in Rwanda

In Justice on May 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm

A few years back I had the privilege of traveling to Rwanda to spend time with a friend with whom I had been collaborating with on a business start up. I met Ndekezi originally in South Africa in 2006, after which he and I both spent some time together in each of our countries.

Through my time and friendship with Ndekezi I learnt a great deal about life in Rwanda, how to start a business there, his passion for peace and love, and the African approach to entrepreneurship. I have also come to observe this in other entrepreneurs I have met from different parts of Africa. While there is no ‘one’ Africa, nor indeed only one approach to entrepreneurship there, I have certainly come to appreciate and respect a very different way of approaching change and ‘doing good’ in other parts of the world.

One particular story that I think captures the essence of the “Rwandan Way” is the process the nation embarked upon post-Genocide. Without going into the full depths of the Genocide story, this event in 1994 was a pivotal point in the history of that country and the world in terms of what we expect of ourselves and our Governments. In 100 days, almost 1,000,000 people (1/8 of the country) were killed . This all happened in a physical space less than half the size of Tasmania.

In the wake of this extraordinary event, Rwanda had numerous challenges. In addition to the ongoing issues of health, food security and a struggling economy, Rwanda was in a position of needing to deal with the 400,000+ suspects or perpetrators of crimes that occurred throughout the Genocide. The scale of the problem was so huge that ‘traditional’ (read: Western) approaches to justice such as imprisonment and conducting trials through a court system were out of the question. The sheer number would have burdened both the courts and the prisons, and crippled the Government and the economy.

The President Paul Kagame instead initiated a process whereby power and leadership for was devolved to local communities. Under Kagame, the Government resurrected a traditional process called “gacaca” (pronounced: Ga-cha-cha). This process was led by local leaders called “People of Integrity”. In a gacaca process there would typically be three to five people who were nominated because they demonstrated qualities of trust, honesty and sensibility. These were not elders in the age sense. Many of the People of Integrity were young people in their twenties or thirties.

In the Gacaca process, victims of crime were given an opportunity to share what had happened to them and their families. It was a process of allowing them to be heard and deal with their grief. The perpetrator was present and was able to hear and experience the impact of their actions on the victims. The perpetrators were also able to speak for themselves. They were required to publicly retell what they had done in detail. They were able to accept responsibility and to seek forgiveness for their crimes.

The People of Integrity were and are able to grant forgiveness to the perpetrators. As part of the process, they sought ways for the perpetrator to demonstrate their acceptance of responsibility. There are powerful stories of men who had committed crimes who have gone on to build houses for their victims’ families, and in many cases living side by side.

The gacaca process has seen over 400,000 suspects processed in the decade following the genocide. This is remarkable when compared to the 40 high-level suspects that were put on trial through the UN International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha in Tanzania. The ICT cost in excess of US$1billion to run. While the nature of the crimes between the two processes are not directly comparable, the outcomes of the process are interesting. Gacaca did more than convict people. It allowed for 11,000+ communities across Rwanda to heal and forgive; it allowed the perpetrators reintegrate back into community; the Government avoided problems associated with detention; and all with such limited monetary resources.

It is important to note that this process was and is not easy. For many of the victims, they have reported the difficulties of facing the people who had killed their families. It is worth reading and learning more about this process and the beautiful country that is Rwanda.

A note also about the use of the word ‘viral’ in describing how forgiveness spread. The use of the term ‘viral’ has become part of the common vernacular in the changemaking world for the fast spread of the idea. 400,000 people in ten years certainly seems quick; yet the process actually took some time. I chose to use the word ‘viral’ instead of ‘scale’, as scale often implies some kind of top-down process of design. Part of the beauty of Gacaca is the way it was owned by the communities, and spread through a devolved and grassroots method.

To learn more about Rwanda and the healing process, the site Rwandan Stories is beautiful. Here are some specific article links directly related to this post:

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  1. […] wrote a piece on the Gacaca process and how forgiveness went viral in Rwanda. This process has been a classic example of how a community can have the courage to face up to the […]

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