The Complexity of Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Central Africa
Romantic ideas about forgiveness and reconciliation often obscure our understanding of these important human processes.
Many African societies recovering from mass conflict have suffered from their romanticised portrayal as inherently forgiving and reconciliatory. These stereotypes usually come from foreign journalists and academics who perhaps wish to find in Africa virtues they believe have been lost in the West or to counter the opposite cliché of Africa as violent, barbaric, and destitute. The idea that Africans are somehow more forgiving and reconciliatory has also come from some African leaders who prefer quickly moving on from the past to having to address the legacies of violence.
Nevertheless, in places like Rwanda and northern Uganda, many individuals have personally experienced processes of forgiveness and reconciliation. In doing so, they haven’t expressed some innate cultural disposition but rather wrestled with overwhelming feelings of anger, pain and loss--often over lengthy periods--to seek ways to rebuild themselves and their communities. Many individuals have meanwhile found it too difficult to forgive or reconcile-- showing that these processes are neither unconscious nor automatic.
The purpose of this project entitled, “Finding It within Ourselves: Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Rescue in Post-Atrocity Rwanda and Uganda,” is to discover what makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible in communities that have suffered extreme violence. Over the last 20 years, Rwanda and Uganda have experienced genocide and other mass crimes, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, often by their own neighbours, friends and family members. This form of intimate violence--perpetrated by individuals who knew their victims personally – poses particular challenges for rebuilding communities and makes forgiveness and reconciliation remarkable rather than normal.
The project involves interviews in rural and urban Rwanda and Uganda with atrocity perpetrators, victims and individuals who rescued others during conflict. These interviews focus on individuals’ experiences of violence, exploring whether they experienced processes of forgiveness, reconciliation and rescue and the conditions that enabled or stymied these.
This is the first in a series of blogs that will explore the findings of the project, the methods used in the research, and specific stories of individuals in Rwanda and Uganda who continue to grapple with the complex legacies of mass violence.
The initial findings of the project, which will be published in a series of academic and magazine articles, show that a wide range of factors influence people’s decisions to forgive or reconcile. These include mediation by customary and other leaders, interventions from family members, religious conviction and participation in justice-related processes such as the gacaca community courts in Rwanda or local cleansing, reconciliation and compensation rituals in northern Uganda. In most cases, forgiveness is not unconditional but dependent on perpetrators’ confessions, apologies and some form of justice, which often involves compensation. At the same time, some interviewees state that forgiveness and reconciliation are impossible because of the enormity of the crimes in question, insufficient time since the conflict, a lack of justice for perpetrators or more pressing concerns such as making a living and feeding their families. Understanding why some individuals choose not to forgive or reconcile is as important as understanding others’ motivations to do so.
Versions of the radio programme in Kinyarwanda, Luo and English are currently in production and will be broadcast in Rwanda, northern Uganda and internationally in the coming months.
In the stories recorded for the programme, people’s identities are tangled. Some victims became perpetrators, and some perpetrators killed people while rescuing others. Individuals’ post-conflict experiences have also been highly variable. Some victims have participated in government-led justice processes that address culpability for mass crimes, while others have had to pursue accountability on their own. Some former combatants have returned to their home communities via NGO-run reintegration centres, while others have returned unassisted to face an often hostile reception.
In these stories, forgiveness and reconciliation never come easily. They express no hint of romance, only the courage and risk-taking of people willing to confront their anger and find constructive ways to deal with the past. For those who decide to forgive or reconcile, a constant motivation echoes through each of their stories: a desire to live at peace with themselves and those around them.
Dr. Phil Clark (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) serves on the Fetzer Advisory Council for the Social Sciences. He is the co-leader of this project with Dr. Nicola Palmer of King's College London. The main collaborators on this project are Debbie Matthee (Heartlines, South Africa), Daniel Matthee (Pressure Cooker Studios, South Africa), Aimable Twahirwa (Radio La Benevolencija, Rwanda) and Stephen Balmoi (Mega FM, Uganda).