What Rwanda Can Teach Us About Righting Wrongs

We can all be better about taking responsibility for our actions. Here's what we can learn from the Rwandan justice system in righting our wrongs.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had one of those moments, either intentionally or unintentionally, where I’ve done something I shouldn’t have and been left with that gut-wrenching feeling of guilt. Maybe it was because others around me were doing the same thing, or perhaps it was because I was narrow-sighted onto some ulterior motive. As much as I don’t like admitting it, sometimes it’s even been intentional.

When this happens, I usually feel bad for a few hours or days and then become distanced, forget the situation, and move on. It’s how I’ve been conditioned to react.

“I shouldn’t have articulated my frustrations about working with Nicole* in that way,” I thought. “I mean, sure, she often passes along misinformation, and she can’t seem to stay on top of her email correspondence, losing the information that we’ve sent. But did I really have to voice my frustration to Michelle* in that way?”

Sure, I’ll feel bad for a few days about contributing negatively to Nicole’s image in the workplace, but she’ll never know, right?

“Oh, my clumsy self just knocked over and cracked that flower pot. Well, I’ll turn the crack to the back and hope no one notices.” Sure, I may have that gut-wrenching feeling of guilt, but at least I’m not going to be held responsible, right?

It’s not that simple.

Sometimes we have the mentality that responsibility for one’s actions (or lack of actions) is tied to others knowing about it. I’ve been conditioned to avoid blame, believing that I’m only really in the wrong if others know about it. After all, I care what people think about me. And I can’t have them thinking I’d do, say, or not do that.

All the while, we’re led to believe that the guilt that we feel doesn’t actually matter as long as it lives inside us. Sure, we may feel bad for a while, but that’ll eventually go away.

What if, as a culture, our mentality shifted? What if, instead of focusing on external blame or maintaining a face of innocence, we, as a culture, sought reconciliation and restitution?

In Rwanda, a facet of their justice system does just that.

From April 7th to mid-July 1994, possibly as many as a million Tutsis were brutally slaughtered at the hands of the Hutu majority. This left as many as one million people murdered and an additional two million displaced. The genocide had lasting effects on the country, such as orphaned households, a rise in HIV/AIDS as a result of rape, and as many as 130 thousand Hutus who were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Following the genocide, criminals were tried in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, but with so many at fault, the tribunal couldn’t keep up, and the Rwandan prison system became overbooked.

That’s where Gacaca courts come in. Literally meaning “justice on the grass,” Gacaca courts date back to the 17th century, prior to the colonization of Rwanda. In the post-genocide Gacaca courts, victims and perpetrators are brought together, often literally outside, and the perpetrator will admit his/her crime before the community. The victim will then have the opportunity to face the perpetrator, often with forgiveness.

Then comes the sentence, given by a nine-person council called an inyangamugayo. Rather than placing the guilty person in prison, the sentence given often seeks to make things right through restitution. For example, if a son was killed, the perpetrator may be given the sentence of working on that family’s farm, literally taking the place of the son in fostering the family’s livelihood.

The goal isn’t punishment. The goal is restoring a broken nation while healing a small part of the wounds present in the lives of both the killers and their victims.

Of course, the courts aren’t perfect. For example, a perpetrator may admit to a partial or lesser crime in hopes of not being tried for all that he or she did. But it does paint one answer to the question: what might a justice system look like when the goals are reconciliation and restitution rather than accusation and punishment?

And it makes me wonder, what does it look like in my own life to make restitution and healing my goals rather than avoiding blame or maintaining a particular reputation?

For me, this means actively uptalking Nicole in the workplace even if that means I have to keep my frustrations merely as thoughts.

It means going out of my way to find ways to make loving sacrifices for my husband (like mowing the lawn when I’d rather read a book), conditioning myself to give of myself, so that when a challenge does arise, I have exercised my ability to put him first.

It means fostering an attentiveness to times when I may have wronged someone, intentionally or unintentionally, recognizing that my thoughts, actions, or lack of action toward that person are also toward Christ.

It means taking time to discern unique, individual situations and asking the question, “did this bring me closer or further from living as God intends?”

I don’t mean to compare the wrongs I do to the hurt that occurred and still remains in Rwanda.

But the Gacaca courts do invite us to step back and consider: how can we strive toward the genuine healing and reconciliation that God created us to live out — transforming our culture’s mentality from that of blame and punishment to that of reconciliation and peace?

*names changed for privacy

Grotto quote graphic about taking responsibility for actions: "What if, instead of focusing on external blame or maintaining a face of innocence, we, as a culture, sought reconciliation and restitution?"

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