Bolstering Rwandan voices in writing about Rwanda

by Felix M. Ndahinda, Nicola Palmer, Phil Clark, Sandra Shenge and Jason Mosley

5 Dec 2018

African scholars are underrepresented in humanities and social science journals, and Rwanda is no exception. Despite the extensive academic writing on the country, particularly in the wake of the 1994 genocide, very few debates have been driven by Rwandan authors. This blog post explores the ways in which British Academy writing workshops can support endogenous research generation on post-conflict reconstruction in Rwanda when coupled with long-term engagement with domestic scholarly communities.

Post-conflict reconstruction in Rwanda has been an important area of academic inquiry over the past 24 years. Studies from various disciplines in the humanities and social and behavioural sciences have generated heated debates on the contours, historical causes, legacies of, and responses to the devastating genocide that took place in the country in 1994. The catalogue of new books, articles and reports issued each year covering Rwanda keeps growing, with a recent shift in focus from explaining the dynamics of the genocide to inquiries into how the country’s authorities and people are shaping the future in a context where the shadow of the past still looms large.

Yet, as in many other developing contexts, knowledge generated on Rwanda is overwhelmingly dominated by non-Rwandan scholars, particularly by scholars affiliated with institutions from the global North. The possible structural and contextual explanations for this are multi-faceted and disputed. As Tutsi intellectuals and academics opposed to the genocidal regime were actively targeted and murdered in 1994, important intellectual capital was lost. In the wake of the violence, higher education has remained heavily resource-constrained. In addition, Rwandan scholars inevitably confront the wider challenges facing global South epistemologies, captured so vividly in the #RhodesMustFall campaign and the continued calls to decolonise teaching syllabi. These epistemic battles for more African scholarship are coupled with and contradicted by concerns articulated in the international scholarship on knowledge generation in Rwanda. In the current literature scholars have repeatedly argued that Rwandans self-censor their research on politically sensitive topics.

It is in this context that the Aegis Trust established the Research, Policy and Higher Education (RPHE) programme in 2015. Led first by Dr Phil Clark at SOAS and then Dr Felix Ndahinda, the RPHE aims to bolster the social science research environment in Rwanda. The programme has supported and mentored 44 Rwandan researchers, selected through four competitive open funding calls, to produce high quality research papers and policy briefs tackling locally relevant issues. Once selected, these researchers have been supported through an entire research project, from the inception phase through fieldwork, analysis and writing.

In July 2018, a British Academy Writing Workshops grant enabled the RPHE to bring together these researchers with regional and international experts to provide peer review-styled feedback on the content of advanced draft papers, with a view to making them publishable in competitive international journals. Crucially, this workshop built on earlier RPHE work that has seen the organisation of several high level, free of charge capacity-building workshops, open to the general Rwandan public, on research methodologies, dissemination, publication and uptake, as well as seminars bringing together researchers and policy-makers to discuss new research on topical issues.

That the four calls for proposals generated more than 400 applications for the RPHE’s modest grants shows a growing interest in social science research inside Rwanda and the need for financial backing to enable it. Successful applicants are producing critically-minded papers covering topical issues of societal relevance in the post-genocide era, including gender relations, the politics of reconstruction, family and intergenerational legacies of the genocide, identity, the role of education and the media in peacebuilding, trauma and healing, and socio-economic wellbeing. An advisory team of experienced international and local researchers accompanies the authors through their research and writing journey. Working papers and policy briefs are posted on the RPHE’s Genocide Research Hub. The RPHE’s pursues local knowledge production through empowerment of Rwandan actors within a structure designed to preference and reinforce local agency. While international collaborators are involved, the projects are designed and led by Rwandan authors. Framed in that way, the program directly tackles dominant criticisms about academic initiatives and collaborations involving South-North partnerships.

Feedback gathered from the July 2018 workshop shows that the papers by Rwandan authors constitute a very welcome addition to the literature on Rwanda. The proximity of authors to the topics covered and their ability to frame and navigate the research themes and environment in the vernacular enables them to bring new insights on issues such as the place and role of trained lawyers in the Gacaca process, the continuous negotiation of the intersecting Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, survivor, perpetrator and Rwandan identities, the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s ideology over the years and various aspects and outcomes of Rwanda’s assertive gender policies.

In reflecting on the over-arching value of the RPHE and the British Academy workshop, the Rwandan authors who participated drew attention to its role in building connections between Rwandan scholars in addition to connecting them to global North publishing circuits and pan-African research networks. To foreground the establishment of pan-African professional research networks and establish connections to existing nodes of research activity across Africa, keynote addresses during the workshop were delivered by Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Research Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa and Dr Godwin Murunga, Executive Secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal.

Despite real achievements in empowering the local academic community to claim a voice in scholarship on Rwanda and beyond, research produced under the RPHE but also through other relevant local actors such as the University of Rwanda is still dwarfed by knowledge produced on the country by more resourced foreign scholars. ‘Rwanda studies’ remains therefore a field where heated debates about the country’s past, present and future are still largely dominated by non-Rwandans. The constraints on the agency of Rwandan scholars contrasts sharply with the prevailing governance and, increasingly, socially internalised ideology advocated in the post-genocide era, characterised by a strong emphasis on Rwandan-ness and Rwandan agency in shaping the country’s destiny.

The large number of research grant applications received by the RPHE and, more importantly, the content of finalised and developing papers show that Rwandan researchers are willing and able to push boundaries by undertaking research on highly sensitive topics in an environment often described as hostile to critical or dissenting ideas. Writing workshops are key to enabling this work to connect to international publishing circuits. However, it is the long-term and continued work with the growing number of RPHE authors that most enhances the potential of these types of initiatives to genuinely establish and sustain mutually beneficial South-North partnerships

The writing workshop was held on 12 and 13 July 2018. The immediate responses to the workshop were captured in this video.

Felix M. Ndahinda is the Director of Research, Policy and Higher Education (RPHE) Program at the Aegis Trust, and an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Rwanda.

Nicola Palmer is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law, Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London.

Phil Clark is a Reader in Comparative and International Politics, SOAS, University of London.

Sandra Shenge is a Senior Manager of the Research (RPHE) and Impact Unit at the Aegis Trust.

Jason Mosley is a Research Associate, African Studies Centre, Oxford University and the Managing Editor, Journal of Eastern African Studies .


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