This reading group guide for God Sleeps in Rwanda includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joseph Sebarenzi. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Joseph Sebarenzi’s first encounter with the horrors of ethnic violence was as a young boy growing up in Rwanda, hiding under his neighbor’s bed from Hutu men who were trying to force their way in to kill him and his family. As years of uneasy peace passed, Joseph became witness to escalating animosity and unrest in his homeland. Living in Canada in 1994, he found himself unable to do anything to stop the murder of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis, including most of his family. In the aftermath of the tragedy, rather than become consumed by his rage and despair, Sebarenzi made the courageous decision to return to Rwanda and serve his country in its time of need. But as Speaker of Parliament, he soon found that even with Tutsis in power, government corruption and human rights pervaded, making true reconciliation impossible. Today, exiled to the United States, Sebarenzi writes of his life, and of the lessons he’s learned about humanity, fear, true faith, and the healing power of forgiveness.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. God Sleeps in Rwanda begins with a description of Rwanda as a culture of listeners, and the warning that “the very thread that knits Rwandans so closely together is the same one that can so quickly unravel the country.” (Pg. 6) What is the positive side of this connectedness? How did this culture of listening and obedience to authority lead to the events in Rwanda’s recent history?
2. During one of the early outbreaks of violence in Rwanda, a close Hutu friend warns Sebarenzi’s family to hide, then immediately joins the Hutu mob in burning homes. “It didn’t seem strange to me,” he says. How can you explain this contradiction? How does this mixed loyalty become even further warped in the decades leading to the 1994 genocide?
3. Sebarenzi’s parents both feel certain that violence will return to Rwanda. His mother states, “If we are killed, we’ll die together.” His father firmly hopes, “If we are killed, you will survive.” What is the value of each of these statements? Is it better for a family to remain together for the time that they are allowed, or to separate with hopes for a future? How does Sebarenzi struggle with these decisions as an adult? How does he end up in Canada?
4. Sebarenzi’s father is wary of the seemingly peaceful climate of President Habyarimani’s regime, calling it a “negative peace.” In what ways is the peace of this period illusory? In what ways is it more dangerous than an openly communicated hostility? How is Sebarenzi later able to identify these same flaws within the post-genocide government in which he serves?
5. “Fear is in the anticipation of danger, not in danger itself.” (Pg. 45) Sebarenzi repeatedly returns to this concept, in part to explain the extraordinary courage he demonstrates in multiple harrowing circumstances. Do you think that this statement is true for everyone? How does Sebarenzi’s ability to look at fear objectively enable him to act courageously in a time when all others around him act out of fear?
6. In Rwanda, Sebarenzi says, the norm is for individuals to ask for advice among friends for all major life decisions. How does this custom differ from American culture? What are the benefits of asking and valuing advice? Can openness become dangerous within a regime such as Kagame’s? How does his connection within the community ultimately benefit Sebarenzi when his life is at stake?
7. Sebarenzi states that “all human beings, regardless of the evil they commit, deserve dignity and respect, and it is a disservice to humanity when either is denied.” (Pg. 53) Discuss the moments of compassion and forgiveness in God Sleeps in Rwanda. For example, were you surprised by the way Sebarenzi reacts to the mayor who had facilitated the death of his family? How does this extraordinary empathy help Sebarenzi envision a unified Rwanda?
8. During the genocide of 1994, Sebarenzi was living in Canada, able to see detailed and shocking news reports from Rwanda created for a western audience. How is he able to use this experience to recognize the hypocrisy of western leaders who later claimed to be ignorant of Rwanda’s plight? Why do you think the world could “turn its back so easily?” (Pg. 70) Can you recall news reports from this time period? How aware were you of the depth of the tragedy? Do you agree that economics and lack of “national interests” in Rwanda helped play a part in the failure of the west to react? Do you agree with Sebarenzi’s hope that small steps from the nations like the United States and from individual citizens can help create a culture of accountability in countries like Rwanda?
9. How does Sebarenzi’s great optimism help to drive his work towards reconciliation and rule of law for Rwanda? How does it help him within his life? In what ways does his optimism make him blind to the true motivations of others? Ultimately, how do you think Sebarenzi is able to maintain such vibrant hope?
10. Discuss the elements of reconciliation that Sebarenzi outlines in his conclusion. Which aspects particularly resonate for you in terms of conflicts in your own life? Do you agree with Sebarenzi that small human steps towards forgiveness can change human relations globally?
11. Sebarenzi and Paul Kagame both experienced suffering as children as a result of their Tutsi identity. Yet their lives took very divergent paths, as did their views of the world. What factors in Sebarenzi’s life do you think led him to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation? What factors in Kagame’s life do you think made him become the type of leader he is today?
Enhancing Your Book Club
1. For more information on the School for International Training, visit its website at www.sit.edu
2. For more information on the UN’s response to the genocide, visit http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/rwanda/sega1.html to find an interview with Romeo Dallaire.
3. In the afterword, Sebarenzi concludes with suggestions that each of us can make to increase compassion in our own lives. Be sure to discuss what you take away from this book personally—and share other books on connectedness and forgiveness that have changed your lives.
A Conversation with Joseph Sebarenzi
1. Your father was firm in his insistence that you pursue the education that was available to you, no matter the personal cost. What has education meant to you in your life? How has it helped you to make a difference for Rwanda?
I am extremely grateful that my father insisted I get education, despite how difficult it was for me as a young boy to be sent away from my family and, no doubt, how hard it was on my family, particularly my mother and sister Beatrice, for me to be gone. Education opens one’s world. In Rwanda, those without an education speak only the local language (Kinyarwanda) and are therefore unable communicate with the outside world. By traveling to Congo for school, I learned to speak French and Swahili, which is spoken in a number of African countries. It also opened my eyes to better understand the world outside my small community in Rwanda and reinforce what my parents had always taught me: all human beings are equal in God’s eyes. This knowledge, coupled with the other skills I learned during my schooling, had great influence on me throughout my life and in my job as Speaker of Parliament. I firmly believe that without my education, I would not have been able to achieve all that I have and, in fact, I likely would not have been able to escape Rwanda before the genocide.
2. You said that it is impossible for those from affluent countries to understand the pain that refugees suffer in being torn from their homes. Do you think you first learned how important Rwanda was to you when you were sent away to Idjwi? What does “home” mean to you today?
Refugees leave behind their homes, their belongings, their jobs, and their friends to start over again. Anyone who has had to move to a new city knows how difficult that can be. But imagine moving to an entirely different country where you don’t speak the language, have no friends nor family, and no money. It is depressing, to say the least, and extremely difficult to make a life for yourself. When I was sent to live in Idjwi, it was the most devastating thing that had ever happened to me. I had never spent any time outside Rwanda or away from my family, and now I was miles away with no way to communicate with them except by infrequent letters. I realized then how important Rwanda was to me. In Idjwi, I missed the food I was used to; I missed my siblings; I missed the affection of my mother and my father’s wise counsel; I missed our cows; I missed my friends. Rwanda was not just a place, it was the center of everything I knew and loved. Today, I don’t have a place I call home: I don’t live in Rwanda and my home village no longer exists as I remember it because my parents’ house was destroyed and so many of our neighbors killed. Though I wish I had a “home,” I believe that in the new era of globalization, each of us should behave as a global citizen, eager to be a voice for the voiceless, and committed to human rights in distant corners of the world. Because I have learned this, I have made friends all over the world who are like family and they welcome me into their homes. This is a blessing.
3. Although you were hampered and endangered by the realities of the political situation in Rwanda, it is obvious that you were able to make a great positive impact during your time in the government. What are you proudest of in your work as Speaker of Parliament?
The most rewarding achievement during my time as Speaker was being able to establish parliamentary oversight of the government. Signing the Oversight Bill into law and implementing it despite the resistance of the executive branch allowed Rwanda, for the first time in its history, to have a system of checks and balances. Although the executive branch ultimately created unconstitutional methods to block our efforts, for a time, Rwanda was on a path to be governed by the rule of law, not by the whims of those in power. I will always be immensely gratified that I was instrumental in making that happen—and I believe it can happen again…this time permanently.
4. Do you think that the political situation will ever be such that you’ll be able to return to Rwanda?
Yes, I believe that, sooner or later, I will be able to return to Rwanda to visit or even live again. Although President Kagame has chosen to build himself into a strongman instead of building strong democratic institutions, I believe he can change if he chooses go that path, and if not, positive change can occur after his tenure ends.
5. How have you adjusted to your life and work in the United States? Have you been able to reunite with your family?
My adjustment to life in the United States was not easy. I had to start over with little more than the clothes on my back. I had to learn a new language and struggled to make a living. Soon after I left Africa, I was able to bring my wife and children to the United States— but we decided that it was better if they moved to Canada. We still live apart today, which is hard on all of us and makes the adjustment far from our homeland even more of a challenge. But I regularly visit my family and hope that soon we will permanently live together.
6. How do your studies and the relationships that you have built at the School for International Training (SIT) and elsewhere throughout the world enable you to continue your work towards the goal of reconciliation for Rwanda?
The SIT/Graduate Institute has been important to me, not only because of the education I have received in conflict transformation, but also because of how much I have learned from my colleagues and my students, most of whom are from conflict-torn countries themselves. I use the lessons I’ve learned from SIT and my doctoral studies to advocate further reconciliation in Rwanda—mostly through my writings and contributions to BBC and Voice Of America broadcasting in my native language Kinyarwanda. And because Rwandans are always among my students, my hope is that they apply what they learn to promote reconciliation in Rwanda. My SIT and professional networks and my connections in the United States and throughout the world help me encourage various individuals and organizations to help Rwanda advance along the path of reconciliation. I am pleased that SIT is now working with Rwandan authorities to offer graduate-level training through a local university. My overall hope is that all Rwandans, Tutsi and Hutu, embrace and internalize the moral obligation of our generation to spare future generations the evil of violence we have endured.
7. Do you think that the international community has done enough to acknowledge their culpability in the events that led to the tragedies in Rwanda? What steps do you hope the current US administration will take in helping Rwanda to become a truly democratic nation?
Unfortunately, leaders in the international community, in my view, still do not take full responsibility for having chosen not to intervene and stop the genocide. Instead, they insinuate their innocence and push the responsibility onto others. Yet I am pleased that some acknowledgment has occurred. With regards to the United States, and as I mention in my book, President Bill Clinton noted that the failure to try to stop Rwanda’s tragedies became one of the greatest regrets of his presidency. Madeleine Albright, then U.S. Secretary of State, wrote that she deeply regretted not advocating action to stop the genocide.
As for what the current U.S. administration can do to help Rwanda become a truly democratic nation, I want to note that Rwanda is a small country with hardworking people and I feel confident that nation-building in Rwanda would be a success. I would be thrilled to see the United States help Rwanda to achieve this goal. Under the current situation, where the Rwandan regime is an autocracy, the United States can pressure President Kagame by offering incentives to initiate a dialogue with regards to the best way for Hutu and Tutsi to share power and promote individual rights and liberties. The United States can also spearhead economic development to sustain reconciliation efforts.
8. You discuss the important role faith plays in your life, including your realization that “mystery is not the absence of meaning, but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.” Do you think that the trials of your life and your crisis of faith have ultimately helped you find a truer and deeper connection to God?
Yes. Human beings are naturally—and rightfully—saddened by the suffering and death of loved ones. But for God, these events may have a different interpretation and meaning. Little children don’t always understand why their parents’ make the decisions regarding what they can and can’t do—yet a wise parent knows what’s right for his or her child. Likewise, God knows what each of us needs to become fuller, more complete human beings. I am often struck by the fact that seeds must decay before they grow and produce fruit. Similarly, humans generally don’t grow until faced with adversity. I believe that without the extreme suffering I have endured, I would not have become the person I am. And I strongly believe that no hardship should derail us from doing what is right; instead we should strive to get light out of our darkness.
9. Throughout your life, you have demonstrated incredible compassion for individuals on all sides of the Rwandan conflict. Do you think that everyone is equally capable of the forgiveness that you have found within yourself?
I believe that everyone has the potential to find the same [levels of] forgiveness I have found in myself. It’s an ongoing process. This may be extremely hard for some people, especially those with distressing backgrounds. But I am convinced that if we are taught through words and deeds—beginning as children—that compassion and forgiveness should be part of our lives, that even those who have endured terrible hardships can find it within themselves to forgive. The key is to understand that it’s in our best interests – physically, emotionally, spiritually, and for lasting peace – to nurture compassion and forgiveness. Peace for our families and communities—and even our minds—greatly depends on it. Durable reconciliation is not possible without the first steps of compassion and forgiveness.
10. What led you to write God Sleeps in Rwanda? What is the most important message that you hope a reader will take away from your story?
Whenever I would speak about my experience—either to my students in the classroom or to the public when I give speeches—I would always be asked more questions than I had the time to answer. This is one thing that prompted me to write the book. But more than that, I hoped that in writing my life story, I could shed light on the current political situation in Rwanda, and, I hope, inspire political leaders in both Rwanda and other countries to facilitate positive change. And although Rwanda is a unique experience, sadly it is not alone in facing extreme ethnic divisiveness. I hope people from other nations that suffer similar problems can read this book and learn from Rwanda’s experiences. But mostly, I hope readers will walk away believing that suffering no matter how severe, empathy, kindness, and forgiveness are possible and necessary for healing.
11. Do you think there is a way for the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda to undo the damage of colonial-imposed discrimination and rebuild a strong national identity?
Yes, I absolutely believe that it is possible—though painstakingly difficult for both ethnic parties—to rebuild a strong national identity. This belief is what motivated me as Speaker of Parliament to fight for the rule of law, checks and balances, and reconciliation. And this belief drives my continued advocacy for reconciliation in Rwanda. Building a strong national identity in Rwanda requires establishing sound and democratic institutions and devising a power-sharing mechanism between Hutu and Tutsi to end the cyclical violent competition for power. It also requires that justice be brought not only to extremist Hutu who perpetuated the genocide, but also to those in the Tutsi-dominated ruling party who have committed human rights abuses.