That phrase - the power of words - conjures up so many thoughts; sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me echoes from the playground, but is that really true? Words can sting when they are thrown carelessly at us, they can cause endless hours of worry if we feel someone has said something bad about us or perhaps not said something that we feel we need to hear. We know people respond to verbal praise and that productivity increases in the workplace when we are positively acknowledged for our contributions, and equally we know that no-one flourishes in an atmosphere where communication is poor and people don’t know what is going on. Silence creates a vacuum quickly filled with rumour or gossip, which rarely has a pleasant outcome.
We know all of this and as we reflect on the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, we remember that words played a chillingly powerful role in developing hate propaganda and that education was used as a vehicle to transmit it, so words used in classrooms played their part in these tragic stories.
Working in Rwanda now, almost a generation after the genocide of 1994 against the Tutsi, I was reflecting this weekend on the power of words to do the opposite of building hate. In the work we are doing with the staff, students and parents at Umubano School and in partnership with the Aegis Trust and the education team at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, we are learning about the continuum of benevolence, where we can build trust and empathy in our communities and where we learn to approach information with a critical mind; able to question and discuss, rather than take anything for granted. These are skills we see in evidence every day at UPS now, when children engage enthusiastically in circle discussions, drama and debates, when they read widely and report on their learning, when they ask questions in class as well as answer them and where teachers are confident to facilitate independent learning and not be purveyors of any kind of doctrine.
This pedagogy is essential for Rwanda to continue to rebuild in peace and social justice and we believe it is also the foundation of effective education for peace anywhere in the world. Education for Peace is at the heart of all we do at UPS. It continues in the staffroom where lively debate occurs about policies and practice, facilitated calmly and with democratic consensus being reached on major decisions. It continues in the yard where space and relationships are negotiated through play, and where the peace corner is accessible to anyone who needs some quiet time alone. Children and teachers at Umubano School know they have a voice and that their opinions will be taken seriously. Teaching in Kinyarwanda, English and French is important so that everyone knows their home language is respected and that they can reach for words that are close to their heart and identity, when they are trying to express feelings that often only come from those early language experiences.
Back in the UK, at a ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day at the synagogue in Liverpool, prayers were said for the victims of the Holocaust and all subsequent genocides. The words used were asking for their souls to be forever remembered and at peace and we listened to the resonance of that simple request. We were told the story of Anne Frank and inspired by the immense power of her words of longing for peace and of her faith in the essential goodness of people. Songs were sung by choirs representing the diverse communities in Liverpool, all with the theme of peace. Of the many words spoken or sung….the ones which have stayed with me include: ‘When the power of love replaces the love of power there will be peace in the world’ and ‘We have to have peace inside us before we can make peace in the world….’ and finally, ‘Peace is just a word.’ This is true, but we believe at APIE that there is indeed power in words and that our job in education is to ensure that that power is of love and of peace-building. So I will end with the three words which we all sang to close the ceremony, as we left with a feeling of connection and of hope: Peace, Salaam, Shalom.