iDebate: The power of critical thinking
By Jean Michel Habineza, founder of iDebate Rwanda
Encouraging peaceful debate
My name is Jean Michel Habineza and I’m from Rwanda, a country famously referred to as the land of a thousand hills. It’s a beautiful country with a scenic landscape, tremendous climate and amazing people. Sadly however, Rwanda is also famous for the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis that saw the demise of over one million lives in just a hundred days, for the sole reason that they were born Tutsis. It was this event and its aftermath that made me realise that change was needed in our society.
Reflection and Reconciliation
As the Rwandan community started to recover, it was clear that there was a lot of residual bitterness and anger, so myself and 7 friends started an NGO called “Peace and Love Proclaimers: Youth For a Change”, when we were just 19 years old. As an organization, we did a lot of work in the arena of forgiveness and reconciliation through projects such as “Forgiveness a Step to Reconciliation. In this project, as the post-genocide generation, we explored the role that forgiveness plays in uniting our generation. We also worked to support the vulnerable population, especially those who were orphaned as a result of the genocide. We did clothes drives for the Gisimba Orphanage and paid school fees for some students.
The most visible project that Peace and Love Proclaimers (PLP) worked on was a project called “Walk To Remember” - an Annual commemorative walk that brought (and still brings) together young people from all over the world to educate them about the genocide in Rwanda and stress the efforts needed to ensure nothing like this happens again, not just in Rwanda, but anywhere in the world. I’m proud to say that since its conception in 2009, the walk has attracted more than 50,000 people from 25 locations, spanning 17 countries and 4 continents. Dignitaries such as William Hague, Tony Blair, Samantha Powers and H.E President Paul Kagame attended the 2014 Walk to Remember in Kigali, Rwanda, showing the impact that PLP had across the globe.
Using language not violence to solve problems
While PLP and associated projects were taking on a life of their own, I took a step back and focused on my university studies. During this time I became even more engaged in the work my generation was doing for the reconciliation process. This interest led me to the work of genocide scholar Ervin Staub, whose work focuses on the factors that make violent uprisings more likely. A number of these resonated with me, in particular how countries with unhealed “wounds” due to past victimization and a “history of using aggression to deal with conflict” are often more vulnerable to “renewed aggression”. To me, this was clearly evident in Rwanda, with repeated cases of violence throughout our history.
He also describes the “lack of critical analysis” fostered by leaders and those in position of power, to create a society which is founded on “strong respect for authority and strong inclination to obedience” and makes inciting violence easier. I was familiar at this point with many accounts that showed that when asked why they killed their neighbors, most perpetrators claimed they did it simply because they were told by the authorities to do so. The narrative norm as Rwandan citizens was not to question such figures of power and influence.
Seeing these connections with how Rwandan society was set-up made me want to do something to ensure that nothing like this happened again. I saw an opportunity to engage with a new generation of Rwandans and change the way we interact with each other. So two of my friends, Teta Christine and Alex Kambanda, and I started iDebate Rwanda, an initiative which believes that while conflict is inherent to human nature, violence is a choice. We teach our students ways they can engage with each other without resorting to violence. The aim is to create a generation of critical thinkers who are not afraid to challenge people who hold views opposed to theirs, but to do so in a way which enables them to work together to solve the problems they see in their communities.
Starting from scratch
When starting out, the first thing we did was to build a team of volunteers. Because I had been involved with a good number of youth organizations, I was lucky that I knew a lot of great people. I contacted all of them and shared with them the vision of building a debate organization. Once we had volunteers in place, we then focused on training them in Public Speaking and Debate so that they would be able to confidently facilitate the programs. These sessions were held in the school holidays so that a number of students could also attend. These were young leaders who wanted to further harness their public speaking skills, and who would ultimately end up becoming ambassadors for us in their respective schools. They went on to build debate clubs within their schools and then reached out to us at iDebate Rwanda to partner alongside, where we have been able to offer support, advice and guidance along the way.
Our greatest challenge was having to build a program from scratch. We had run prior debate events but not within the same vision that we now had, so getting iDebate off the ground needed a new approach. Beyond training students in the art of civil argumentation, we also had to gain the trust of school administrators and parents who thought we were making their kids rebellious. There was also always the challenge of funding, to ensure we had enough funding to cover our expenses. All of this had to happen all at the same time because focusing on just one thing would make everything else fail.
Despite these challenges, they also taught me my biggest lesson, which is the importance of building a great team with a similar vision. I am lucky to be surrounded by a group of great people that not only worked hard and took risks but who also trusted me and believed in the vision enough to give up their time and work for free as a volunteer. Without them I wouldn’t be here now, and although I know that the work of social change is filled with frustration, betrayal, fears and uncertainty, I also know that if you remain consistent in your beliefs, and keep a strong team around you, then great things happen.
When starting an organization, you always feel like you need a lot of people for you to accomplish your goals. For me, this need for human resource meant I focused on hiring those who were simply available to work, and this ended up being a big mistake. Although I hired people who were skilled and smart, I ignored their character and that was detrimental to their work ethic and their dedication to the task at hand. When building a team or organization that deals with young people in particular, my experience has shown me that character and personality are just as important as skills and competencies. Now I know that yes, you can train someone to become a good accountant, but you can’t teach them not to steal. You can teach someone to coach, but you can’t teach them to respect their students.
Looking back however, it was making this first mistake which has now made our team stronger in the long run, and now when hiring or choosing who to work with, I take the time to learn about their character not just their competence. Today I am lucky to be surrounded by a group of great people that not only work hard and take necessary risks, but who also trust me and believe in the vision enough to give up their time and work for free as a volunteer. Without them I wouldn’t be here now, and although I know that the work of social change is filled with frustration, betrayal, fears and uncertainty, I also know that if you remain consistent in your beliefs, and keep a strong team around you, then great things happen.
Using the power of debate for peace
We are currently working in 25 schools across Rwanda, but our vision is that by 2032 we will have 1000 schools in our program and will have created an iDebate Africa. A personal goal for myself is to raise up leaders who will in turn develop and inspire other leaders.
I envision a world where conflict will be solved using the power of words. A world where every young person, no matter where they’re from or what start they had in life would know that their voice and their lives matter.
Jean Michel’s Top Tips
1. Get started. There’s no time like the present – so if you have an idea, go for it, start working on it - TODAY. There’s no blueprint as to how you should get your idea off the ground, just go ahead and do it.
2. Fail as fast as possible. My debate coach used to tell us at the beginning of every season to take big risks and fail when it’s still early so you can figure out what works and what doesn’t. Failure is painful and sometimes heart breaking but it also allows you to see which of your assumptions are true.
3. Ask for help. Seek people who are doing what you want to do and ask them for help and for counsel. There is no such thing as a self-made man/woman. We are all a result of the sacrifices of many people so therefore do not be scared to ask for help from your friends, family, neighbors or even strangers. The worst that could happen is that they would say “no” and you will still be fine.
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