Rwandan visitors share benefits of debating

A young generation of four Rwandan debaters made a visit to the University of Miami on Tuesday to share their experiences growing up in a country that was once war-torn by the 1994 Rwandan genocide and seeing it rise from the ashes.

The genocide, fought between two ethnic clans, the Tutsis and Hutus, left Rwanda in a wake of murder and destruction.  Although the victims of the genocide were forced to return to and share the exact grounds with those that killed their families and friends, Rwanda is now a re-born country.

UM Debate hosted the iDebate team, made up of Rwandan high school students, in a public debate in Shoma Hall where the argument, “This House believes aid to Africa is doing more harm than good,” was challenged.

In the spirit of reconciliation, identity and healing, iDebate Rwanda organized the “2016 iDebate Rwanda USA Tour: Voices from a Post Genocide Generation.” The program’s goal is to create a global community and to celebrate the art of civil discourse.

David Steinberg, the director of Debate at UM, took the podium before the discussion to express his appreciation.

“The spirit that this group of people brings with them even after living through the genocide, and their happiness and love for life, will impact everyone here,” he said.

Seventeen-year-old Sharon Bayingana, from the city of Kigali, has been debating with iDebate for a year and a half. She described the interconnectedness of her and her teammates as a result of their shared past.

“Everyone was affected by the genocide somehow,” Bayingana said.

The team’s leader, Amos Furaha, 26, is also from Kigali. He and Bayingana grew up just blocks away from each other. Furaha said he wanted to use the U.S. tour to tell others about the resilience of his people.

His mother and father, in their 30s at the time of the genocide, were living in the northeastern part of Rwanda when they were removed for being Tutsis. Furaha was born in a refugee camp, and although he does not remember growing up in the camp, he realizes how far the country has come since his time there.

“The country has been able to develop,” Furaha said. “It is a history we are aware of. We can’t forget it, but it doesn’t remind us of pain.”

Furaha said working with the organization has given him the opportunity to mentor younger generations but also to learn from them.

“I get to interact with a lot of kids, young people that give me hope to know the future is not in the hands of ignorant people. It is a privilege to be a mentor-leader,” he said.

Angela Kagabo’s tie to the 1994 genocide began with her grandparents, who escaped Rwanda and fled to Burundi, a neighboring  African country. As a result, sixteen-year-old Kagabo’s mother was born in exile from Rwanda. On her father’s side of the family, the effect of the genocide was just as severe. Her father’s father, a Tutsi, was wealthy, which made him a direct target for the Hutus. He fled to Uganda, where her father was eventually born.

More than 20 years later, Kagabo said she still deals with prejudice. She said every time she goes somewhere, people ask if she identifies as Hutu or Tutsi.

“I don’t want to have an identity as either or; I just want to be a Rwandan,” she said.

The political and economic picture in Rwanda, however, is promising. The nation is home to one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, with a GDP growth of 8 percent annually.

Students noted how different the environment and weather in Miami is from their home. Kagabo said she loves Miami so much, she is considering applying for college. Bayingana specifically realized the cultural diversity of  the city and campus.

“We have met Russians, Cubans and Colombians,” Bayingana said.

For Bayingana, Furaha and Kagabo, iDebate is a way of remembering their families’ histories and sharing it with others. The three have been able to expand their horizons in their debate journey by interacting with groups of people they may never have otherwise encountered.

“It is a process of growth because it takes you out of a box,” Bayingana said. “It shows you sides of life and that there is a difference out there. It is not just your life that matters.”

Correction, Sept. 22, 2016: This story originally stated that members of iDebate were survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The students on the team are descendants of survivors, but most were born after the genocide.