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Strength to live again

Rex Barber • Mar 18, 2013 at 9:24 AM

In 1994, so many men were killed in a genocide in the African nation of Rwanda that the population afterward was around two-thirds female.

Shae Keane, a senior at East Tennessee State University majoring in women’s studies and minoring in international studies, wanted to find out how that dynamic affected people living there now. Nearly two decades later, she found out what women still living there had to say when she spent the fall 2012 semester there through a program designed to study post-genocide restoration and peace building.

Besides staying in Rwanda, Keane and 22 other students from across the United States also spent two weeks in Uganda studying issues related to human rights.

Post-genocide restoration and peace building was the name of this program.

After attending various classes the first few months, Keane ventured out into rural settings to speak to women there, because most research, she said, had focused on urban areas.

“They shared about the continuing challenges, which surprised me how much trauma there still is to address and that is not being addressed in certain communities,” Keane said of what she was told by those she interviewed. “But also shocking to me is the amount of healing that had taken place by people coming together, the use of religion, of dance, of the healing arts. Different things to contribute to healing and the creativity and unity that still flourishes even after a conflict that was so divisive within communities.”

In April 1994, tensions between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations of Rwanda exploded in horrific bloodshed, with an estimated 800,000 people being murdered during a three-month time period.

Keane wondered what people were doing nearly two decades later to heal from the genocide, and what she could discover about Rwanda beyond recent history, which is all most people know.

She wanted to ask rural women how they healed and how they dealt with the fact that 70 percent of the nation was female after the genocide.

“So that was a very interesting social dynamic that I wanted to learn more about,” she said.

She called her research The Strength to Live Again.

“There were several of the women that I would describe as very graceful, just the way they shared about their experiences and the openness and the trust was very beautiful to be able to be someone coming from another country and still being invited to hear what people have to share about the pain in the nation and the suffering that had happened but also the restoration and healing,” Keane said.

Keane has studied abroad before, visiting Ecuador in her first year at ETSU.

“It really sparked my interest for global awareness,” she said of that trip. “I really enjoyed seeing the world through different eyes and living in a community with a different culture, a different language.”

She soon found the realm of peace building.

“Eventually, I wanted to go to a place where there was community healing following conflict,” she said.

Keane was the only student from ETSU to attend the Rwandan semester abroad.

The program consisted of five classes all related to the same topic. Keane got to know the culture and actually learned a little of the native language. All classes were related to post-genocide restoration and peace building. All this entailed a better understanding of the culture, Keane said.

Rwanda is a small nation in the heart of Africa and very hilly, Keane said.

“It’s very beautiful. It’s called ‘the land of 1,000 hills’ a lot of times ... there were rolling hills everywhere we traveled,” she said.

She said it was very welcoming and her host family greatly helped her learning.

The visit to Uganda was brief but she learned about historical conflict and the state of things today in Uganda. She learned about the Lord’s Resistance Army and the civil war there.

“Again it was a very beautiful country, very green.”

She went on safari and saw all the indigenous wildlife.

Keane wants to work in peace building in areas affected by this conflict because of her experiences abroad.

“I think it’s shaped how I want to be in the world, because the areas of study that I’ve had the opportunity to pursue and also experiences have taught me, more than anything, the destruction that a lot of times is caused by the differences or misunderstandings of human beings,” she said.

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