Ideas, Stories, and Profiles

Rwandan debate coach Jean Michel Habineza, 27, has responded to articles and comments published in local online media regarding a controversial comment he made during an ongoing tour in the United States. In a “personal statement” published on Facebook, Habineza refutes accusations and explains what happened exactly “so that people can make more informed conclusions.”

Yesterday Igihe published an article entitled “Amagambo Umwana wa Joe Habineza Yavugiye Muri Amerika Yamaganiwe Kure” in which the website/newspaper makes allegations about statements that were made by “The son of Joe Habineza, ” (who happens to be me) in his visit to America. The statements made are that “Ndibaza ko ari ingenzi guha ubumenyi bwa ngombwa igisekuru kizaza bwazagifasha kwinjira mu kazi bugahindura imiyoborere.”Yakomeje avuga ko benshi mu bayobozi b’igihugu mu Rwanda badafite ubumenyi buhagije mu bya Politike kuko bagiye ku butegetsi ku ngufu, ati “Bitekerezeho, umuntu ava ku rugamba mu ishyamba umunsi umwe ukurikiyeho akaba Perezida.”

I would like to first of all acknowledge that I had undermined the power that media has but after reading at least 8 pages of comments and receiving more than 200 mentions on twitter and tags on Facebook, I think it would be appropriate for me to come and clear the air about those comments.

A few years ago I learned a quote that says that “Text without context is pretext” which simply means that words taken out of their context lead to false conclusions and these words sadly apply to the situation that I am in right now.

It is for that reason that I’m writing this statement so that people can make more informed conclusions about what I said.

For the last two weeks, I and a few members of iDebate Rwanda are in the USA for what we call “The Voices from a Post Genocide Generation Tour”. This is a project that was initiated last year at the occasion of the 20th commemoration of the Genocide against Tutsis to share with Americans and the world at large the history of Rwanda, the genocide against the Tutsis but most of all to share about the recovery and the rising from ashes for our country.

The first stop of one tour was Pepperdine University which was hosting us for the Second time because of the impact of the debate of last year. While at Pepperdine, our students debated with the Pepperdine students on the motion that states “The church should take a lead in solving social conflicts around the world” this was a fascinating debate and discussion that attracted more than 200 students on the Malibu campus. As part of the visit to the University, the group was invited to speak to different classes about Rwanda and what Rwanda can teach the world etc.

One of the classes where we were invited was a PR class. That class was different because we did not do a presentation but rather we had an informal discussion and conversation for about two hours with the students about topics ranging from Rwandan history, debate, politics, culture, racism and a lot of discussions about our own personal goals and what we want to accomplish in life.

One of the students then asked us “From your website, I can see that you are organizing a Dreamer’s Academy, could you please share with us what you hope to accomplish”. We then explained to the student that for the past two years, we have organized a debate camp where students come for a week to sharpen their debating skills and to learn how to become better critical thinkers and public speakers but that this year we wanted to change the focus and actually focus on getting kids to dream and to start planning for their lives. We said that dreams are what make us achieve greatness, dreams push people to get an education and take that extra step and that if we focus more on building the dreams of the students then they will start viewing debate, coding as a training ground for the amazing work that they will do in life. We said that if our students start building their dreams when they are young then they can accomplish it.

The following question was “What kind of careers do students want to pursue?”. This was answered first by the students on the group who talked about what they want to do in their life and then I also shared my personal dream for our program which is to see our students debate against Harvard and Oxford (the best debate teams in the world) and for them to feel like just because they are born in East Africa and trained in East Africa it doesn’t make them inferior. I also said that once I accomplish that I can then buy a house at the beach and rest because I would have accomplished my life goal.

We also said that a lot of students that do debate want to do politics because they feel that it’s the only career that would allow them to continue debating but that we encourage them to do many different careers and to use the skills that they gain in debate to be the best in those careers. I also said that those who want to be in politics should be encouraged to start building up their careers when they are young. We then made a comment that Americans have something that many African countries do not have, we said that in America someone like President Barack Obama can build a 20 years career in politics with the aim of becoming a president but that was not the same case in many African countries because someone can go from fighting in the bush in one day and the next day they become president. The conversation then continued on different subjects that I would not have time to expand on.

A few days later, a student wrote an article entitled “ Rwandan Debaters focus on empowering youth” that was published in the Pepperdine Graphic, the university newspaper, talking about the visit that iDebate Rwanda had on the campus and some of the discussions that we had in that class. In the article that the student wrote, they said I quote “ Habineza said he believes it is important to teach the future generation skills necessary to attain jobs and change country policies. He said that many of the country leaders are not knowledgeable about politics because they come to power by force. “Think about it” he said “ people go from fighting in the bush one day to being the president the next” and this part of the article was the part that the Igihe and (many) people on twitter quoted but just like I have explained above we never mentioned Rwanda or any specific country, we just said that this was the reality in many African countries”

It would be unethical and immoral of me to say that the student had ill intentions in writing that, it was a simple misunderstanding and just a great example of how one word can change a whole statement. But to restate this we have NEVER EVER said that the leaders in Rwanda are not fit to run the politics in the country.

For the past 48 hours, I have received more insults and accusations that one can bare for a lifetime but I wanted to make a few statements to address some of these criticisms (a polite way of saying insults).

  1. The first thing that I would like to make everyone understand is a principle that people learn in debate which is there’s always two sides to a story and if you do not know something the best way to find out is to ask. A lot of people have made all sorts of accusations but no one was in the room when those statements were made and very few people took the time to ask those that were in the room what really happened. Accepting something at face value without questioning is definitely the opposite of critical thinking. No journalist contacted me before publishing the story.
  2. The second statement that I would like to make is that although I’m indeed the son of Hon Joseph Habineza, I’m a fully grown man who has a brain and personality of his own. Actually I have started been referred to as a young adult which is kind of scary and if you ask my friends they would say that I’m old enough to have my own family ( once I find a wife I’m ready to go).
  3. I would also like to respond to those that are trying to portray us and me particular as people opposed to the government and who deny the role that the people in power had in making Rwanda what it is today. This is false and intellectual dishonesty. These judgments were made on a statement that was taken out of context and also contradict the message that we have been giving to the students that we meet on a daily basis. I challenge you to read this article and watch the presentation that was done in Pacific Lutheran University and tell me what part of our presentation supports your point.

As a debate coach, I enjoy scrutiny and the competition of ideas but when those turn into insults and name calling, it does not benefit anyone.

I would end with a quote from Chimammanda Adichie Ngozi:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.

I hope this explains the context of the statement.

Best regards,

Jean Michel Habineza

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