Why Study Apologetic Rhetoric in Rwanda?

In Apologetic rhetoric, Rwanda on July 30, 2009 at 11:09 am

Recently, I’ve had some people ask me why I’m studying apologetic rhetoric in Rwanda when there are so many examples of apologies in the news every day that are closer to home. In the following paragraphs, I try to describe not only why I’m studying apologies in Rwanda’s gacaca trials, but also why scholars in general should study Rwandan apologetic rhetoric.

Why Rwanda?

For scholars of apologia and apologies, Rwanda offers one of the most unique and important case studies for understanding  the role of apologetic discourse in reconciling communities torn apart by fear, hatred, violence, and even genocide. Fifteen years ago, nearly one million Rwandans (mostly Tutsis) were slaughtered by machetes and other crude weapons in just 100 days, and another two million were displaced into neighboring countries (Lyons, 1994).

To help overcome the deep-rooted hatred that led to the genocide, the Rwandan government instituted the gacaca court system—a community-based model for resolving disputes in pre-colonial Rwanda that was re-established to handle the overwhelming number of genocide-related trials. According to the system today, criminals involved in genocide-related violence and destruction of property can receive an alternative punishment of community service if they offer a truthful confession of their actions, followed by repentance and an apology (National Service of Gacaca, n.d.). Apologies are so crucial to the process of reconciliation in Rwanda that 80 percent of Rwandans would be willing to forgive perpetrators if they, first, confess their crime(s) and, second, ask for forgiveness (Republic of Rwanda, 2003).

Doesn’t Similar Research Already Exist?

Despite the numerous articles that have been published on apologetic rhetoric, little academic research exists that can serve as an approach for analyzing or understanding the apologetic rhetoric in gacaca trials. One reason is simply that the vast majority of academic articles and books have focused specifically on European/American apologetic rhetoric. In fact, my analysis of academic articles published over 40 years, 75 of the 91 articles focused specifically on the apologetic discourse of European/American rhetors.

If few studies have analyzed African examples of apologetic rhetoric, even fewer have sought to actually interview people from African nations in order to understand their views and perspectives on apologetic exchanges. The exception is Rhoda Howard-Hassmann and Anthony Lombardo’s (2008) research on if and how Western powers should apologize to African nations for slavery.

Why Is That a Problem?

The underlying problem with such a lack of divergence and cultural understanding is that it implicitly positions the meanings and uses of apologies as universal—a concept that is “unwarranted given the lack of available data” (Renteln, 2008, p. 73). As a result, we cannot say whether European/American-based theories are adequate for analyzing and evaluating or even understanding apologetic discourse in different geographic regions and diverse cultures.

What’s the End Goal of Your Research?

By studying apologetic rhetoric in Rwanda, we can help broaden our current theories of apologetic exchanges. The result will not only be a foundation for analyzing and understanding the apologetic rhetoric in Rwanda’s gacaca trials, but also for rethinking and researching the role of apologies in reconciling communities that are torn apart by violence, hatred, and human rights violations around the world (and perhaps in our own backyard).

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this post, Emil. Rwanda is one of the most important sites for study of apologetic rhetoric. The history is unprecidented–a kind of mass uprising of genocide, unlike even the Holocaust which was systematic and driven from top down.

    Also, this kind of apologetic rhetoric is ever more a presence in our world. And we need to study it to help it make better, but also to determine its limitations. For example, I see that Zimbabwe is also calling for similar reconciliation even though much of the state sponsored killing is still quite fresh in the culture. Can Mugabe legitimately call for forgiving and forgetting so soon. This is an important question for the global community. I can see your work helping to shed light on that question. You might consider publication or speaking engagements at the UN at some point down the road.

    • Good point, Ken. You bring up an important aspect regarding how much time is enough time before we can begin to reconcile. Some people may think 10-15 years in Rwanda is too soon, while others would argue that beginning the process soon allows the truth to come out and allows those people who were impacted to truly participate in the reconciliation. This is definitely an aspect worth further study and consideration. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Hi Emil.

    Great post. It’s so hard, sometimes, when we’re swimming around in the deep waters of our research, to realize that other people don’t know why we’re in our chosen pool.

    You do a good job explaining to these others why an exotic pool can help with those nearby.

    Looking forward to seeing the results of your research.

    • Thanks Jen. I know you’ve faced similar questions, and I think your blog post a little while back did a great job of discussing why a situation that seems so far away is relevant to us all. It’s an important case to make.

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