The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda: Looking for Positive Psychological Growth

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was responsible for the deaths of over a million people, tearing apart families and leaving many survivors severely traumatised. Nicki Hitchcott, of the School of Modern Languages, has led a team working in Rwanda to investigate the concept of ‘post traumatic growth’ and how it relates to the genocide. Working with Rwandan therapists, the team has been looking for positive signs of psychological change in people who lived through the genocide. These include a greater sense of personal strength and an increased appreciation for life, often through spiritual, family, or community connections. 

Working with the Genocide Archive of Rwanda based at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the largest archive of materials relating to the 1994 genocide in the world, the research team completed a qualitative analysis of a sample of oral testimonies looking for indicators of social and psychological change. They found that there is evidence of post-traumatic growth in testimonies from both survivors and perpetrators, and that changes in survivors’ autonomy were directly linked to a sense of connectedness to a community.  

The Kigali Genocide Memorial. Image via Nelson Gashagaza, licensed under Creative Commons. 

They also found that a full understanding of post-genocide Rwanda needs to take account of the diverse and often contradictory narratives that have emerged from and about the country since 1994. For example, individuals’ stories can be influenced by the government’s master narrative, which strongly emphasizes reconciliation and forgiveness. This can affect the ways in which post-traumatic recovery is expressed

How the research became embedded in the community

The research team co-produced an edited book of testimonies with colleagues working for the Aegis Trust, an international NGO based in the UK, the US and Rwanda, which manages the Genocide Archive of Rwanda They also employed a local team of translators and transcribers to provide accurate translations for the Genocide Archive, and organised public engagement events with members of the Rwandan community in the UK.  

The research led to a range of activities through a variety of channels. For example, the researchers hosted two workshops with Rwandan therapists, in which they encouraged a focus on positive psychological change (post-traumatic growth) alongside the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD symptoms. Together, the researchers and therapists produced a clinical checklist using the post-traumatic growth model. This has changed how the  psychotherapists and counsellors work with their patients, and therapists have since reported the success of this new approach. One therapist remarked, ‘I understand now how traumatic experience can lead to positive change in the client life. Before I didn’t know about it.’ In total, just under 100 people have received training — about 5% of the total number of therapists working in Rwanda, according to Survivors Fund Rwanda.  

The work of the project team has led to more extensive and accurate documentation of the Genocide against the Tutsi. As a result of their access to a collection of unpublished oral testimonies from survivors and perpetrators, and their careful translation of 26 testimonies totaling 168,000 words, the researchers have increased the volume of linguistically and culturally accurate materials held in the Genocide Archive of Rwanda. Some of those who gave testimony have since died, but the work ensures that their testimonies will live on and remain true to what was originally said. 

These resources have further benefited the Aegis Trust by creating new material for their Peace and Values-Based Education Programme in Rwanda. From 2019 to 2020, the Aegis Rwanda education team used the translations produced to train 234 people, including children, parents, and peace ambassadors, at the Kigali Peace School. The translations of testimonies provided by the project team are now used by Aegis trainers as a starting point for discussions about how to promote peace and reconciliation in Rwanda.  

The significance of the research done by Hitchcott and her team was confirmed in September 2018, when Hitchcott was shortlisted for the inaugural Wellcome/Health Humanities Medal in the category of Best International Research for her work on this project. 

If you want to read more about Prof. Hitchcott’s work in Rwanda, click here to go Rwandan Stories of Change.

This work contributed to the University of St Andrews’ REF 2021 submission.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a system which assesses research at UK Higher Education Institutions by discipline, based on three elements: outputs, impact and environment. This blogpost is based upon an impact case study that contributed to St Andrews’ outstanding results this REF cycle. Visit REF to view the submitted case study in the UKRI’s impact case study database.

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