A team of top debaters from Rwanda visited the Brookdale campus for two days this week as part of a U.S. tour designed to foster new partnerships and promote a greater understanding of the East African nation.
The iDebate Team, a non-governmental youth organization that uses academic debate to catalyze important discussions among Rwandan students, began their visit with a panel discussion in front of more than 100 Brookdale students and employees in Lincroft on Nov. 3.
While Brookdale doesn’t have a formal debate team, members of the college’s Students for Global Citizenship Club joined the panel to remark on the similarities and differences between the U.S. and Rwanda.
The iDebate Team – featuring five members who range in age from their mid-teens to early twenties – began by discussing the 100-day genocide that ripped through Rwanda in 1994 and killed nearly 1 million people, or a tenth of the country’s population.
“That’s the equivalent of three September 11th tragedies each day, for 100 consecutive days,” said iDebate co-founder and team leader Jean Michel Habineza. “It was neighbor killing neighbor, pastors killing their own congregations. It was so deep, and so personal… The question now is, what about the generation that comes up after?”
Because the genocide was largely ignored by the rest of the world, the Rwandan people have spent the last 20 years attempting to recover from the tragedy and rebuild a national identity, while dealing with daily struggles such as water scarcity, health care and global economic pressures.
Already, Habineza said, great strides are being made. Today, all Rwandans are covered under a national health insurance program and country-wide immunization efforts are making a tremendous differences for citizens young and old.
Rwandans also have greater access to education, including new science and technology programs – such as laptop giveaways – that are preparing young students for in-demand career fields. Along with new fiber optic infrastructure, Habineza said officials aim to transform Rwanda into “the technology hub of East Africa.”
Still, challenges remain. Rwanda is still a land-locked country with few resources, making it expensive and difficult to export goods on the global market. Many Rwandans remain in poverty, as technology eliminates more and more agricultural jobs and shrinks the nation’s largest employment sector.
These and other issues must be addressed by “the post-genocide generation,” Habineza said. And it begins by teaching young Rwandans the power of their own voice.
“This new generation now has access to Twitter, Facebook, and we have access to everything in the world. You realize that it is OK to disagree; it’s OK to have a debate,” Habineza said. “So we are now teaching children how to do that. We are teaching people that the person who disagrees with you is not an enemy.
“But to do that we have to change this culture, and to change a culture takes time,” Habineza added. “It takes a lot of effort. But we are trying to do that with a new generation. We are teaching them that disagreement is fine. That difference is OK. Because it is through the conflict of ideas that better ideas emerge.”
The iDebate Team continued the discussion on Nov. 3, when they met with multiple classes of Brookdale students in the Student Life Center.
The visit is not Brookdale’s only connection between the college and Rwanda; Brookdale Global Citizenship Project co-founder and radiologic technology professor Terry Konn has worked as a teacher and a health advocate in Rwandan schools and villages since 2006. In 2008 and 2013, Konn led a Brookdale study-abroad program to Rwanda where students performed outreach projects in local orphanages, women’s centers, health clinics and schools.
Students for Global Citizenship raised money in 2011 and 2012 to purchase livestock for families in need. This summer the club co-sponsored a Color Fun Run as part of a fundraising effort to build a clean water well in Rwanda.
“The well will give about 40,000 people access to clean water, and allow young children to attend school rather that walk for miles to pick up water,” Konn said.
The panel discussion was sponsored by the Office of Student Life and Activities, the Global Citizenship Project, Students for Global Citizenship, and the International Education Center. Click on the links to learn how you can get involved as a “global citizen.
The visiting members of the iDebate team were: Jean Michel Habineza, Ekisa Monique, Maya Musenga, Jesh Arnold Tugume, and Clemence Mbabazi. Representing Students for Global Citizenship were club president Mona Patel and members Sameerah Wahab and Bailey Falco.
Check out more photos of the panel discussion here.