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Ref-free football helps to heal trauma in Rwanda

08 June 2018


A team from Football for Peace in Rwanda

A team from Football for Peace in Rwanda

WHEN the World Cup kicks off next week, in Russia, almost 100 referees will be preparing to monitor free kicks, obstruction, and the offside rule.

More than 5000 miles away, in Rwanda, children are learning to play with no referees at all. The goal is a greater capacity to resolve conflict.

Football for Peace is an initiative of Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Action (CARSA), a Rwandan charity established 14 years ago with a vision of healing the trauma and division that remained in the wake of the genocide.

Its founder, Christophe Mbonyingabo, was born to Tutsis from Rwanda in exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1974. In 1994, he joined a Tutsi militia, and lost his father and two brothers in the ensuing violence. It was after becoming a Christian that he dedicated himself to bringing together survivors and perpetrators. Work began in secondary schools and universities — those born after the genocide were not immune from its effects, he explained last week.

Football for Peace, now in its third year, is one of many initiatives run by the charity. Boys and girls play together, reflecting the gender balance that extends to the nation’s Parliament (for more than a decade, Rwanda has topped the global list of countries with the highest percentage of female parliamentarians), and the lack of a referee forces them to police the game themselves.

“It’s a way to educate them to grow their capacity of solving their own problems, not waiting for a third person to come between,” Mr Mbonyingabo said last week, “and their capacity for accepting their mistakes and apologising. . . To win the game is not only based on the goals, but also on how people follow the rules of the game.”

He recalled how one boy, known by his own school as “a very good player, but violent sometimes”, had finished a match without conflict.

Although young people were brought up with a “very different vision: ‘We are all Rwandan’”; they were not immune from the effects of the genocide, he said. “We are helping . . . them not to grow up with the trauma from their parents, because, globally, research proves that trauma can be passed on from one generation to another.”

It was important for them to learn about the genocide, he said. CARSA organises trips to the genocide memorial, and brings survivors and perpetrators into schools. They are encouraged to ask questions about the killings that have scarred their families, and to explore the question “How do I come from this ethnic identity towards the Rwanda identity?”

Other CARSA initiatives include work in rural communities that brings genocide offenders and survivors together: over the course of seven days, they are helped to explore repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

In April, 100 days of mourning began, to commemorate the events of 24 years ago. Mr Mbonyingabo believes that progress has been made. It was “sometimes hard to wrap your head around” stories of forgiveness, such as the widow who now offers food to those who killed her husband. Rwanda’s experience held lessons for other countries, he suggested.

“What we have seen in Rwanda is not to ignore the past, and not to take it with you, but to learn from it. We still have a long way to go yet as a community, as a nation, but I think we are on the right path.”

Mr Mbonyingabo is a participant in Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals mentoring initiative, which encourages emerging leaders who aspire to live like Jesus in their communities (www.tearfund.org/en/inspired_individuals).

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