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The Rwandan Schoolhouse as a Carceral Space

Georgia Parsisson | University of Leicester

‘If you have ten cockroaches in your town and you kill four of them, how many do you have left to kill?’

Dehumanisation is crucial to the establishment of any ‘enemy within’ and is the fourth official stage of genocide. The maths problem above was asked of children in a Rwandan primary school in the 1960s, and was emblematic of the minority Tutsi population being cockroaches – vermin. The pre-genocide government, made up of Hutu extremists, intended to dehumanise the Tutsi people to alienate them from the rest of the Rwandan population. The policy of ethnic segregation was one which appeared in multiple settings across the country: in churches targeting the faithful, in the newspapers targeting the literate, and in schools targeting children.


The preparation of youth for the Genocide Against the Tutsi was a Hutu extremist government decision to integrate the alienation of the Tutsi people into all levels of Rwandan society. This article will look at the how the schoolhouse became a carceral space and was used as a tool of genocide before, during, and after the violence of 1994. Carceral spaces can be defined as places of imprisonment, such as prisons and work camps.

Prisoners in Auschwitz during the liberation by the Red Army in 1945.
Auschwitz is one of the most famous examples of a carceral space in Genocide Studies. Image shows prisoners in Auschwitz during the liberation by the Red Army in 1945. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When thinking of carceral spaces, prisons come to mind with their impenetrable walls and barbed-wire fences. In genocide studies, the theme strongly relates to the concentration camps seen across Nazi Germany and more recently during the Bosnian war. Cases of state-sponsored persecution, particularly in the late 20thcentury, highlight a multitude of carceral spaces across the globe. Perhaps most famously, the images of the Bosnians behind barbed wire in camps in the early 1990s echo images of Holocaust liberation. However, not all carceral spaces have this type of outward appearance.


Before looking into how Rwandan schools classify as carceral spaces, a brief history of the institutes in the country must be discussed. Rwanda is a central African country which was a territory colonised in 1899 as part of German East Africa. Before colonisation, the area known today as Rwanda was a high-functioning society with different levels of community distinguished by job roles. Much of this stayed the same under German rule, with little changing in Rwandan society until the Belgians took over in 1919 after the German loss of the First World War. Once the Belgians took control of the territory, the colonial state became more involved in the everyday workings of society in the country.

Image of Rwanda, green and hilly.
Rwanda is a small central African country. The terrain is largely green and hilly, with marshes in some of the lower areas. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The previous societal levels based on job roles were solidified by Belgian rule, making the boundaries of the following three groups impossible to cross. The Tutsi were those with cattle, including the Mwami or king; these were the richer members of society. The Hutus made up the majority of the population and farmed the land. The Twa, the smallest percentage of the population, had hunter-gatherer roles. All three groups lived alongside one another and were fluid. If a Tutsi lost their cattle, they could be known as a Hutu and if a Hutugained cattle, they could be known as a Tutsi. There was intermarriage between the groups and loosely-defined boundaries. Once the Belgians solidified these categories, they became similar to ethnicities, with no possibility of an individual changing from one to another. Once someone had been marked as one ethnicity, an identity card would be issued stating which group they belonged to.


During the Belgian rule, missionaries became increasingly present throughout society. Alongside their religious teachings came the implementation of schools. As the king and the richer Rwandans had been classified as Tutsis, it was this group which was allowed the most access to these schools and, therefore, to education. The Tutsi minority became Rwanda’s educated elite. However, once the Hutu majority rose up in a revolution in 1959, the new state of Rwanda favoured the Hutu population instead. Many schools were transferred to the state, and caps were put on the number of Tutsi students who could enrol. Even schools still under religious rule began to favour the Hutu students, dividing the groups of society.

A close-up image of Juvénal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s second President
Juvénal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s second President, 1973-1994. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This division escalated further after 1973, when Juvénal Habyarimana staged a coup and became Rwanda’s second president. A Hutu extremist with his own political party – the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (or MRND) – Habyarimana created a school environment which helped lay the foundation for the Tutsi persecution twenty years later. While Rwandan schools were not physical carceral spaces during this period, they became home to an increasingly anti-Tutsi ideology, creating a kind of mental persecution.


‘I was taught in school that I wasn’t a Rwandan – that I was just a foreigner that invaded the country, whose ancestors have done horrific things on Hutus for many, many centuries.’


As Hutu extremism gained more strength throughout the country, the school curriculum showed increasing signs of political propaganda, particularly in history classes. Many Rwandans today testify that stories of former Tutsi queens sacrificing Hutu children each morning were told in schools across the country leading up to the genocide. A former teacher in Rwanda recalled having no choice but to teach the curriculum, which ‘contributed enormously to radicalising ethnic identities’. The lessons pushed Hutu children to fear the possibility of Tutsi rule once more. These fears escalated once a Tutsi rebel force in exile attacked Rwanda in October 1990.


Fighting for their right to return to their home country, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (or RPF) launched a civil war against the Rwandan government, causing fear to spread across Rwanda. Using this panic to control schools, the Hutu extremist government enforced the physical separation of Hutu and Tutsi students in the classroom. Hutu and Tutsi pupils would be told to stand separately in class, ensuring each one knew which students belonged to which group. Looking back, many Tutsis reflect on how this practice affected them – they had stones thrown at them on the way to school, they were laughed at in the classroom and felt ashamed to be Tutsi. One survivor recalled the impact of these measures: ‘our classmates changed their attitudes towards us. We stopped playing together and from that day [when they were told to stand separately] there was a big distance between us’. This type of separation is mentioned in almost all of the testimonies which speak of schools during this period and played an important role in solidifying anti-Tutsi sentiment in Hutu children, some of whom would join in the massacres of 1994.


Rwandan schools remained places of child indoctrination up until the genocide in April 1994. After this date, they were used alongside churches as places of shelter for Tutsi people running from the state-ordered country-wide violence. One such place was the Murambi Technical School, in which up to fifty thousand Rwandans took shelter before being massacred on 21 April 1994. After being told the school would be safe by priests in a nearby church, the Tutsis were promised protection by French soldiers. They were then kept inside without food in what became an overcrowded prison before the French troops withdrew, leaving the site open to attack. Despite being promised sanctuary, the school fell after a Hutu militia overran the Tutsi men protecting the site, leading to the deaths of thousands of individuals.

Murambi School in Rwanda
Murambi School in Rwanda. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This site is of specific importance when looking at Rwandan carceral spaces due to its significance in Rwandan memory today. Known as the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, the former school is one of the six largest centres in Rwanda for commemorating the genocide. The way in which it is used is also highly contested. The current government of Rwanda is made up primarily of individuals who would previously be defined as Tutsi. As of 2000, the President is the former leader of the RPF, who defeated the Hutu extremists. Unlike Western memorials, the approach the Rwandan post-genocide government has taken is to display the bodies of those who perished in the genocide in some of the top memorial locations. Not only were Rwandan schools turned into carceral spaces leading up to and during the genocide, but the politics involved in the memorials some schools have been turned into has allowed the Rwandan government to push a strong narrative onto the memory of the genocide through these spaces.


As discussed by Timothy Longman in his book on memory in post-genocide Rwanda, the positioning of these bodies is not just shocking to the rest of the world, but breaks Rwandan tradition regarding burial. In Rwandan custom, the relationship between the living and the dead is incredibly important. Bodies were most commonly buried on the deceased person’s own land, creating a physical link to the land and an intimate bond with their relatives still living on the plot. By unearthing mass graves and placing these bodies on show, the Rwandan government has created a political statement, condemning not only the Rwandan perpetrators, but also the international community for its inaction. The official narrative is that survivors and families of the dead requested the bodies to remain on display to allow the world to see the horrific fate of their loved ones. However, for many, the memorial is a step too far. Particularly referring to the room which houses the preserved bodies of children – often in the positions they died defending themselves in – many Rwandans and visitors alike believe the bodies have not been given the burial they deserve.


Regardless of personal opinions about such memorials, Rwandan schools still continue to be a key part of the official memory of the genocide. The country-wide curriculum today teaches reconciliation in a multitude of subjects, as well as presenting the official history of the genocide to the next generation of Rwandans. With the memory of the genocide at the forefront of Rwandan politics, many lessons in schools across the country are affected by the official narrative, particularly history lessons. The history of the genocide remains contested between the current government of Rwanda and the Hutus who remain in exile across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By creating a curriculum which focuses on this aspect of the country’s recent history, schools continue to be used to influence the views of the genocide for Rwanda’s next generation.


To conclude, whilst Rwandan schools may not outwardly appear as carceral spaces, the amount of suffering caused by persecution within their walls more than qualifies these schools to come under this broad term. From the suffering caused by government-sponsored lessons before the genocide began, to the hundreds of bodies still on show today, Rwandan schools have played a crucial role in the development of massacres during and memory after the genocide. Particularly for those who were Hutu children in 1994, the role of schools and teachers in the genocide helped legitimise the violence at the time, leading numerous children to participate themselves. Given this history, it is appropriate that one of the six largest memorial sites was chosen to be a school. 2024 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, a genocide which spanned over one hundred days, taking hundreds of thousands of lives. Looking back at a genocide which occurred in most of the world’s living memory, it is important to reflect on the effects mass violence can have. Despite not fitting neatly alongside the camps of the Holocaust or other famous carceral spaces, the Rwandan school as a space highlights the extent of the state-persecuted violence which culminated thirty years ago, in 1994.


Further Reading:

  • Hatzfeld, Jean, Life Laid Bare, The survivors in Rwanda speak (New York: Other Press LLC, 2000)

  • King, Elizabeth, From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

  • Longman, Timothy, Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)

  • Nieftagodien, Noor, ‘Life in South Africa’s Hostels: Carceral Spaces and Places of Refuge’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2017), pp.427-436

  • Totten, Samuel and Rafiki Ubaldo (eds.), We Cannot Forget, Interviews with Survivors of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda (Chicago: Rutgers University Press, 2011)

Georgia Parsisson is a self-funded postgraduate historical researcher at the University of Leicester, working alongside the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Georgia’s thesis focuses on youth perpetration of the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda. She welcomes new connections and conversations around her research or modern history in general on LinkedIn or X.

X @MissParsisson


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