ILC Ideas | Hyppolite Ntigurirwa

In October 2023, the ILC sat down with 2020 Yale World Fellow Hyppolite Ntigurirwa, an artist, activist, and founder of Be the Peace, an organization focusing on the use of art to halt the intergenerational transmission of hate and to promote the power of cross-generational healing. A child survivor of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Hyppolite continues to promote reconciliation and peace throughout Rwanda.

You founded an organization called Be the Peace. That's interesting because, at a time when sort of global peace architecture seems to be collapsing, you proposed this different approach to peace — bottom-up, starting with the individual. Tell us more about that and where it comes from.

This idea is for everyone — for leaders, women, children. Everyone can be the peace. The idea came from my life story, which is surviving the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 when I was seven. I saw the atrocities that were happening in Rwanda in front of us, moving from one refugee camp to another with a distressed family, being a child slave of the killers, and losing so many friends and so many innocent people. Since then, I was traumatized. And growing up, I was thinking, “How can I contribute to a world where no child will see the things I’ve seen at seven years old?”

And I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen people being kind. I’ve seen the worst of humanity, but I’ve also seen the best of humanity in that same tragedy. And I say, they choose. People consciously make decisions of being the peace. The people who rescued Tutsi in the genocide in Rwanda. The people who have forgiven the killers after the genocide. Those are the people I’m looking up to. This is what peace looks like.

You study trust. You're doing a Ph.D. on the topic at Coventry University. Tell us about that — what you've learned about how to build trust and how trust was rebuilt in Rwanda after the genocide.

When you have a community where, just after the genocide, the neighbor has seen a neighbor killing their children, it’s just a traumatic situation where there is mistrust in everyone. If people could not trust each other, you would never see Rwanda becoming a state again. But what I’ve observed over the past three decades, is people working together for one goal: with disagreements, with trauma, but in reconciliation.

I’m a sociologist by training and I was seeing a lot of theories about this, but none were convincing. Then I started reading about the concept of trust, what trust means in relationships and business. I realized trust is key. I started thinking, “If trust is what builds businesses and relationships, what does it mean in conflict and post-conflict settings?”

It’s not a naïve thing, a lack. People consciously build trust. You better understand trust when you look at what it is not. Trust is not the level of fear that is reduced. It’s values and conditions that people choose to cultivate in themselves, in their community, and in their work to make sure that they are preventing violence.

What conditions do leaders need to put in place, with their power, to prevent violent conflict? And what values, conditions and behaviors are needed from leaders, from interpersonal relations, that prevent a return to violence or future violence? You can’t build trust if you undermine the safety of the people. That’s one facet. Greed, that’s another obstacle, a very dangerous enemy of trust. I want to make sure that leaders understand that the way to really counter violence is to consciously build this trust.

What you're saying is kind of radical. You're talking about leaders creating the right conditions, but also saying it's a conscious choice of each one of us to build the trust. Each one of us needs to be a leader, to build trust.

Yes, everyone. I don’t think Rwanda would have been able to build itself from nothing 30 years ago without everyone’s contributions. We’re talking about perpetrators telling the truth, saying, “Okay, I really am going to trust people and confess and trust that they understand, that if I’m punished, it’s good for the future.” It’s something you have to do for the future, not necessarily for us now, but for the generations to come. It’s kind of a seed you’re hoping will feed someone.

Your organization, Be the Peace, works to end intergenerational trauma. Tell us a bit more about the work you do.

We have been bringing people together, looking at those conditions and values that were lost because of violence and in the process of bringing people to hate each other. We draw on the traditional basket of values to help the people come together. For example, we give cows to families of survivors and perpetrators and even their descendants, people who have finished their sentences for genocide crime. And we ask them – I mean, they choose – to work together. They work together to raise these cows, one shared cow by survivors and perpetrators and their families. In Rwanda, traditionally if we can give someone a cow, it’s a pact for friendship. And they understand that and they choose it. They take turns in milking cows, because in Rwanda, if you give milk to someone, it’s a sign of no betrayal. When they take turns in milking cows, they sit together and talk, they denounce the hate that has been done.

And we have also created a microfinance scheme. The idea is that whoever creates a project works in groups, and these groups are made up by Rwandans of different backgrounds. They start out borrowing very little money, as little as $100. And now some people can even borrow to $1,000, because they have made a profit within their groups and they save.

It’s about creating those conditions for the conversations about what has to be done and how the hate should not transmit from one generation to another.

And we also do arts and storytelling. Storytelling is a form of helping people to tell their stories because many stories have not been told and many people have not been able to tell their story. We use storytelling as a form of therapy, you could say.

I know that every five-year anniversary of the genocide, you do a special art project to commemorate the date. Tell us about what you've done in the past and what you're planning in the future.

In 2019, the 25th anniversary of the genocide, with my growing interest in ideas of trust and in connecting humans to nature, I took a walk all across the country, walking for every day that the genocide took place. I didn’t ask for food until people offered to feed us, I didn’t ask for shelter until we were given shelter. I wasn’t alone. I was with people who joined for a day or days or weeks. A person came to take photos and we walked together.

Back in 1994, I couldn’t even walk during the day because of what I looked like, because I was supposed to be killed. Now I asked, “Can I walk this path in peace?” In the genocide, if you knocked on the door of someone and said, “I need haven, I need to hide,” you were lucky if they didn’t kill you. I wanted to know what it was like in 2019.

I didn’t encounter any hate, and I walked for 100 days. I met people who rescued Tutsis in the genocide. I met people who have forgiven the killers. I met people who confessed for their crimes in the genocide. I was writing down their stories and getting their stories in writing on social media and really making aware that even though there was a horrible genocide, now you can walk, you can sleep in somebody’s home without knowing who they are.

In 2024, for the 30th anniversary, I will do a 100-day performance.  A hundred days in darkness. The goal is to invite people to light up the light from within, because that’s what inspires me, the people who light the world from within. They are not looking for other light. And that’s the idea with Be the Peace. We say peace is what you give, not what you ask others to give you. We’ll tell these stories and invite people who have really been examples. And people would be invited to come and listen to the stories where we’ll be in the dark.

We’ll also take walks in the night. In the genocide, the daylight wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The darkness was better because that’s when you could move. But it could also be bad because you could be caught without noticing.

The light only exists in us and if we’re looking for light or peace and joy — we have it. We only have to light it from within, not anywhere else. And that would be my message. People are welcome to come and join for a night or a day, though we won’t know if it’s night or day, it’ll be dark.

Rwanda is held up as a successful example of truth and reconciliation. I wonder if the two are sometimes in tension or contradiction. What is the balance between truth and reconciliation?

The balance is found when you have a true intention, because most of the time we’re stuck where we have been or where we are but we don’t think about where we’re going.

If truth and reconciliation are being done to build a better future for everyone, if the conflicting parties are thinking about what they want their legacy to be, what they want to give to the next generation, then truth and reconciliation don’t need to balance out because that is the balance. Where do we want to go? What country do we want?

That’s what Rwanda has been able to do, by seeing itself as one. Not with the naïveté of saying, “Oh, forget about what I have done or forget about what I suffered.” No. But despite knowing that happened, what can we give to our kids? What country, what progress do we want to give to the next generation? And I think sometimes we’re too invested in the present and in the past that we forget about the future.

So anything we do, it should start with where we are going. Because I think the goal, the aim, the direction is really more important than what is today or how hard the journey is.

You’ve dedicated your life to correcting this trauma, building on a foundation of trauma and ensuring that future generations aren't defined by it. I suppose that having faced trauma at such an early age, you can never truly escape it. But you've chosen to return to it every single day in your work. Isn't that so oppressive? Don't you ever just want to run away from it all and do something else?

It’s an irony how much we forget about the power of joy and the power of love. What oppresses people the most is to deal with hate by hating, to solve violence by violence. That’s what hurts the most. But when you are aware of the beauty and the power of love and the power of joy, then it’s the easiest life you can ever live. It’s the most joyous life you can live. And I wish we were able to really understand and taste the power of love.