How Action Teaching Can Help Heal Rwanda and Its Neighbors

Ervin Staub (University of Massachusetts at Amherst)

Laurie Anne Pearlman (Trauma Research, Education, and Training Institute)


Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.


To: (1) teach journalists, leaders, writers, and community members in war-torn areas about the psychology of violence, trauma, and healing; and (2) to help them apply this information to create positive changes in attitudes, feelings, and actions in the service of violence prevention and peace


This project uses a combination of bottom-up and top-down action teaching to promote healing and reconciliation in Rwanda and its neighbors. The bottom-up approach focuses on teaching members of the general public in Rwanda about the psychology of violence, trauma, and healing, and helps them apply this information to create positive social change. The top-down approach focuses on sharing this information with journalists, community leaders, government ministers, presidential advisors, members of parliament, and other Rwandan leaders. The project initially began with a series of seminars and workshops, and today it continues as a mass form of action teaching with anti-violence radio programs (educational dramas as well as direct informational programs) in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo.

Overview of the Project

Bodies from a mass grave in Rwanda

Bodies from a mass grave in Rwanda

This project, which started in the late 1990s and is ongoing, aims to promote healing and reconciliation in Rwanda and its neighbors, thereby preventing new violence. Between 1999 and 2006, we conducted a series of seminars and workshops in Rwanda, and in 2002, we began collaborating with a Dutch non-governmental organization, Radio LaBenevolencija, to develop anti-violence radio programs (educational dramas as well as direct informational programs) in Rwanda, and later in Burundi and the Congo. The goal of these educational efforts has been to offer information about the causes of mass killing and genocide, strategies for prevention, and paths toward reconciliation. The radio programs, which now have a staff of about 100 people, use action teaching to help participants: (1) learn about the psychology of violence, trauma, and healing; and (2) apply this information to create positive changes in attitudes, feelings, and actions.

Structure of Training Programs

Small group discussion

Small group discussion

The seminars and workshops we gave varied in length from three days to two weeks. Typically, they began with a 30-45 minute lecture, followed by discussion and small group activities. The lecture topics included psychological research and theories on the origins of genocide and mass killing, the prevention of group violence, the traumatic impact of violence, and paths to healing and reconciliation. For example, when talking about the origins of genocide, we described the role of economic hardship, political disorganization, conflict between groups, and strong respect for authority (often leading to destructive obedience and bystander inaction), among other factors. We illustrated these influences using examples other than the Rwandan genocide, such as the mass killing in Cambodia and the Holocaust. In all except the first seminar we conducted, we also discussed approaches to prevention and reconciliation (Staub, 2006; Staub, Pearlman, & Bilali, 2010).

Participants then discussed these concepts extensively and applied the material to their own experience of the genocide in Rwanda. This segment of the training session was followed by participants holding small group discussions on various issues and then reporting their conclusions to the large group (e.g., about how political and military leaders can have negative influences, and about ways that people can resist those influences).

Assessment of Training Programs

The first seminar we offered was a two-week training program for 35 staff members of community organizations. An informal evaluation suggested that participants gained a deep experiential understanding of the concepts, which may be one of the most important outcomes of action teaching. These participants also showed some evidence of personal healing and a more positive sense of self. For instance, they said things like: "So this was not God's punishment; others have also had such experiences... if we understand how such things happen, we can prevent them."

In more formal research, we evaluated the effects of our program not on the facilitators we trained, but one step removed, on members of community groups led by the facilitators (Staub, Pearlman, Gubin, & Hagengimana, 2005). For this assessment, we compared experimental groups, treatment control groups led by facilitators we did not train, and no-treatment controls. The results indicated that there were significant changes over time and between groups, with experimental groups showing fewer trauma symptoms, more positive intergroup attitudes between Tutsis and Hutus, a more complex understanding of the roots of violence, and greater "conditional forgiveness" (forgiveness conditional on members of the other group acknowledging what they have done).

Combining Top-Down and Bottom-Up Action Teaching

Given these positive results, we expanded the project to include seminars and workshops with journalists, community leaders, and high-level national leaders (government ministers, heads of national commissions, advisors to the President, members of parliament, and so on). The goal of this expansion was to combine top-down and bottom-up approaches to educate leaders on violence prevention while also fostering effective bystander intervention among members of the general public.

As part of our work with journalists, we asked reporters to write news stories that drew upon the psychological understanding they had gained. They wrote, for example, about the importance of humanizing (rather than devaluing) all groups in their stories. Similarly, as part of our work with leaders, we formed three-person groups and asked members to examine policies they had just introduced or were contemplating and discuss whether the policies would make violence more likely or less likely.

Educational Radio Programs

Another central part of this action teaching project was to create educational radio programs. We worked with Rwandan writers and journalists, providing them with training about the origins of group violence, its prevention, trauma, healing, and reconciliation. We then developed the storyline for a radio drama about two neighboring villages in conflict. The writers, working with producers, then wrote weekly episodes of the drama using their knowledge to insert educational material into episode. In addition, before the radio episodes were broadcast, we provided feedback about the educational content, and the writers made revisions incorporating this feedback. The radio drama depicted, for example, harmful leadership, the role of followers, people speaking out against the leader, and people humanizing members of the other village.

The educational radio drama, a mass form of action teaching, became extremely popular in Rwanda. According to the results of an experimental evaluation study (Paluck, 2009; Staub & Pearlman, 2009), the program not only led to extensive discussion within the community and between parents and children, but it affected the attitudes and actions of listeners. Compared to a control group, for example, listeners showed an increased belief in the value of expressing one's opinions, and they behaved consistent with that belief by acting more independently of people in authority.

Visiting with local community members

Visiting with local community members

A Few Concluding Thoughts

To work in another culture — especially after people have experienced great trauma — requires sensitivity and humility. It is important to see oneself as a collaborator working to facilitate violence prevention and reconciliation, not an expert who knows better than the local community. For that reason, it is best for seminar and workshop attendees to apply educational lessons and information to their own situation rather than trying to apply the information for them. As long as this approach is taken and local populations are treated with respect, this general framework for "violence prevention through education" can be adapted for use in many settings where there is intergroup conflict. The understanding that this framework promotes can also be a useful precursor to conventional conflict resolution approaches, such as dialogue and negotiation.

For further information about this approach, including downloadable articles and book chapters describing this action teaching project, please visit A description of this work is also available in Staub, Pearlman, and Bilali (2010), and in substantial detail in Staub (2010).


Paluck, E. L. (2009). Reducing intergroup prejudice and conflict using the media: A field experiment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 574-587.

Staub, E. (2006). Reconciliation after genocide, mass killing or intractable conflict: Understanding the roots of violence, psychological recovery and steps toward a general theory. Political Psychology, 27(6), 867-895.

Staub, E., & Pearlman, L. A. (2009). Reducing intergroup prejudice and conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 588-594.

Staub, E. (2010). Overcoming evil: Genocide, violent conflict, and terrorism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Staub, E., Pearlman, L. A., & Bilali, R. (2010). Understanding the roots and impact of violence and psychological recovery as avenues to reconciliation after mass violence and intractable conflict: Applications to national leaders, journalists, community groups, public education through radio, and children. In G. Salomon & E. Cairns (Eds.), Handbook of Peace Education. New York: Psychology Press.

Staub, E., Pearlman, L. A., Gubin, A., & Hagengimana, A. (2005). Healing, reconciliation, forgiving and the prevention of violence after genocide or mass killing: An intervention and its experimental evaluation in Rwanda. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(3), 297-334.