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Romeo & Juliet In Kigali: How A Soap Opera Sought To Change Behavior In Rwanda

Actors reading during the recording of an episode of the soap opera "Musekeweya" in Kigali, produced by the NGO <a href="http://www.labenevolencija.org/">Radio La Benevolencija.</a> Twice a week and for half an hour, everything stops on the hillsides of Rwanda as people huddle around a radio to listen.
Stephanie Aglietti
/
AFP/Getty Images
Actors reading during the recording of an episode of the soap opera "Musekeweya" in Kigali, produced by the NGO Radio La Benevolencija. Twice a week and for half an hour, everything stops on the hillsides of Rwanda as people huddle around a radio to listen.

It's one of the darkest chapters in recent history – in 1994, the Hutu-led government of Rwanda led a systematic campaign to wipe out members of the Tutsi minority. At first, the people participating were tied to the government—military leaders, local mayors and police. But soon, thousands of ordinary people were encouraged or bullied into taking part in the killing. Shopkeepers and farmers, fathers and husbands slaughtered their own friends and neighbors, using basic farm tools like hoes and machetes. Often they killed in broad daylight, in the most public of settings, like churches, hospitals, and even schools.

By the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the Hutu government, just 100 days after the mass executions began, the country was in ruins. As many as one million people were dead, including about three quarters of the Tutsi population. Many of the Hutu killers were roaming free, still living alongside the Tutsis, going to the same stores, churches and stadiums as they had before.

For Ervin Staub, a Jewish psychologist who had narrowly escaped the Holocaust in Hungary some 50 years earlier, it all seemed eerily familiar. A genocide had unfolded, and yet again, the world had sat on its hands and done nothing. And now, after a lifetime of studying genocide and how to work toward reconciliation, Ervin felt he had to act. He wanted to know,how do you convince people who once slaughtered each other to join hands and make peace? Is it possible to change a person's deepest beliefs?

The idea behind "Musekeweya," or "New Dawn," is to do the opposite of what the government's notorious "hate radio" did 20 years earlier as it stoked ethnic hatred during the genocide carried out by Hutu extremists.
Stephanie Aglietti / AFP/Getty Images
/
AFP/Getty Images
The idea behind "Musekeweya," or "New Dawn," is to do the opposite of what the government's notorious "hate radio" did 20 years earlier as it stoked ethnic hatred during the genocide carried out by Hutu extremists.

His answer would take him to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. There, with a team of Rwandan policy makers and writers, they would try an unusual social experiment on a national scale: a radio soap opera.

Musekeweya is produced byRadio La Benevolencija, an NGO which works in Rwanda to help with post-genocide reconciliation, and to build a more tolerant country.

This week's episode was produced by Matthew Schwartz and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel, and Thomas Lu. Special thanks to Jackson M'vunganyi for doing our voiceovers, and to Anuradha Chakravarty for research assistance.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
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