Beyond genocide -- a student encounters Rwanda

 Hannah Frantz '13

Childhood family experiences and inescapable reminders of a country's troubled past combined to create a life-changing experience for a Gettysburg College student during a semester in Rwanda.

"The universities that my parents worked for had several Rwandan students, some of whom my dad helped recruit. These students spent significant time at my home, and I became good friends with them. In fact, my clearest memories are of our tiny dining room table crowded with African men for Thanksgiving," said Hannah Frantz '13. "Those relationships and memories are always in the back of my mind as I considered spending time abroad."

"When I looked at study abroad programs, I realized that I wanted to go somewhere where I knew I would be challenged with a new language and new experiences," said Frantz. "I want to walk away from this experience feeling like I've gotten to become part of a culture."

While the English major recognized that Rwanda may not be one of the most common study abroad locations, it's clear that many experiences came together to lead her there.

Upon arriving in Rwanda, Frantz quickly realized that she was in for a challenging yet rewarding experience that would forever change the way she looks at the world.

Living with a host family that includes a mother, five children, two or more adopted children, and four or five cousins was eye-opening for Frantz, an only child who was used to her own space.

"The house has no running water and not enough beds, so I take cold bucket showers and share a bed with my host sister," she said. "They are incredibly kind and welcoming people. In the Rwandan family, everything is shared. It was an adjustment for me to get used to my clothes or shoes disappearing for a couple days and then resurfacing, but it's really wonderful of my family to accept me and want me to be a part of the family."

The language barrier has also been a struggle, as Frantz's host siblings speak English, but her host mother does not.

"One of my four classes while I'm here is an intensive language study of Kinyarwanda. It is probably the hardest thing I've ever had to learn," said Frantz.

In addition to her Kinyarwanda class, Frantz is also taking a peace-building seminar on the challenges of rebuilding a post-genocide society, a field study seminar on how to conduct research, and an independent study, which includes a month of living on her own, away from her host family while completing a research project.

Frantz will research the implications of studying literature in Rwanda. She will study the challenges associated with the scarcity of reading and studying books there. She will work with the National University of Rwanda in Butare, and get an apartment near the university.

Another part of her program that has had a significant impact on Frantz is the field visit aspect of her seminar.

While her program is based in Kigali, Frantz and her fellow students have spent a week in Butare, where they met with members of the University and rescuers from the genocide. They also spent two weeks in Gulu, Uganda where they looked at the conflict in Northern Uganda as a point of comparison to Rwanda.

Additionally, Frantz and her classmates visited a refugee camp (which houses Rwandans who fled the country), reconciliation village (where victims and perpetrators of the genocide live together), TIG (a service organization where perpetrators of the genocide serve their sentence), and much more.

"The visits are a key component to our learning experience, I believe. And it's also very important to get a lot of perspectives," said Frantz.

Perhaps the most impactful and hardest experience for Frantz came during a somber visit to the Murambi genocide memorial near Butare. During the genocide, Murambi, a nearly completed technical school, was said to be a refuge for Tutsi families. Instead, when the families arrived, the Hutu militia was waiting for them. Fifty thousand Tutsis were killed there. The bodies were dumped into mass graves. When they were uncovered years later, many of the bodies had been preserved, and remain that way so visitors to the school can personally see the atrocities committed.

"We walked through the rooms that housed the bodies, and I held it together until I reached the room where they kept the bodies of thousands of babies that had been killed. As I walked out of the room, I looked onto a scene that is permanently burned to the inside of my eyelids," said Frantz. "There was a beautiful sunset over the hills surrounding Butare, and there were children playing and laughing outside. I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling of anger as I thought about the lives of all of those children that had been cut short, but at the same time I had to realize that this is how Rwanda has to go on. While the past will always be with them, Rwandans look to the present and future, with hopes they will never again have to endure something so horrible."

She continued, "I can honestly say that this was the experience that I learned the most from in Rwanda. This experience abroad has shown me that I'm here to question humanity and what it means to be a human in an increasingly inhumane world. So this experience is what Rwanda means to me."

It was not only Frantz's childhood experiences and her desire to immerse herself in a new culture that led her to Rwanda, but also her penchant for service.

After considering some of her experiences at Gettysburg College's Center for Public Service (CPS), including an immersion project to León, Nicaragua during her sophomore year, Frantz knew that she wanted to take advantage of one of the many abroad programs that include a homestay with a family, thereby taking her further out of her comfort zone and fully immersing herself in a culture.

Though she had her sights set on a program in Africa through the School for International Training (SIT), it was a conversation with her boss and mentor at CPS that helped her decide on Rwanda once and for all.

"I went to Kim Davidson [associate director of CPS] and told her that while I really wanted to go to Rwanda, I was toying around with instead going to South Africa, a program which could be more easily tailored to suit the needs of my major," said Frantz, who works at CPS and is a program coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters. "Kim told me if I wanted to go to Rwanda, I should, and that I may never get another chance to go to the place of my dreams and study. I worked with Off-Campus Studies to make my desire to study in Rwanda a reality."

"CPS inspired me to open my mind and think critically, which has been a key component to my study abroad learning experience in Rwanda," said Frantz. "At the end of the experience, I'll be able to say that I better understand the way Rwandans live and interact, and the challenges they face. I believe that I will come back with a greater emotional capacity than I had before. Rwanda is an emotional rollercoaster. It's like walking through a concentration camp, only you walk on that ground every single day. That's certainly emotionally trying. However, I'm learning something new about myself every day. Being forced out of your comfort zone is incredibly rewarding."

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Nikki Rhoads, assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Posted: Mon, 7 Nov 2011

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