The Role of Debate in Rwanda

by Nikitah Gaju • Rwanda

This article was written on behalf of Team Rwanda. It discusses the team’s experiences at the World Schools Debating Championships and the debate scene in their country.

Debate demands that you engage with people; the ones on your bench, the ones sitting across you, and the ones you face when you are standing on the podium. That is what drew me to this art. Debate offered me an intellectual, diverse and friendly community that never fails to challenge, inspire and teach me. I am always seeking ways to give back to the community that has been an important part of my personal growth.

The debate community in Rwanda is fairly new and small. It counts only around 500 consistent high school debaters that participate in monthly debate tournaments organized by Idebate Rwanda; a non-governmental organization whose mission is to initiate positive impacts in local communities by teaching the youth to think critically and creatively. I participated in these tournaments for six years, debated complex economic and social policies, suffered a number of gruesome losses and collected some wins. Nevertheless, what stuck with me the most to this date are the meaningful connections I was able to create because of debate and the long-lasting effects they had on me. Debate created a niche for me where my nerdy tendencies were welcomed. I met coaches that saw beyond my introverted demeanor and encouraged me to voice out my ideas. I found role models that inspired me to face my shortcomings and work deliberately to better myself. I was on teams that supported me and faced opponents that challenged me to expand my knowledge. 

However, the debate scene in Rwanda is far from perfect. There is a lack of afterschool activities in public schools, which means that a significant number of students are never introduced to debate. Even in schools that have debate clubs, little to no funding is allocated to debate programs either by the school or government. This results in irregular tournaments, unavailability of experienced debate coaches and judges and obviously limited participation in regional and international tournaments. All of this contributes to the stagnant growth of debate in the country. Despite all of this, I had the opportunity to represent Rwanda in several regional and international debate championship. These experiences ignited a new sense of responsibility in me towards my community.

I was immensely lucky to study in a high school that valued extracurricular activities and had access to external funding to support the debate club. I showed commitment, diligence and the desire to improve, which helped me to secure a spot on the Rwandan national debate team created at my school. The first tournament we attend was the African Debate Championship in Uganda. The fact that we were an all-female and STEM student team made us somewhat of the underdogs in a predominantly male and humanities major African Debate Society. To almost everyone’s surprise, we won the championship undefeated. It was an empowering moment that taught me that passion coupled with hard work can help me overcome any stereotypes and labels that might limit my achievements.

I questioned this lesson when I attended the World Schools Debating Championships in Zagreb and Bangkok. Observations as small as the size of our delegation compared to our opponents and how our black skin stood out in the auditorium made me more aware of my race and socio-economic background. On top of the obstacles we had to overcome as a new nation, we also had to navigate the struggles of being an African team with very limited resources. As far as debate goes, they were significant differences between the debate format in our country and the one we were presented to at WSDC. We worked hard to adhere to the WSDC emphasize on the depth of an argument and to tone down our energetic debating style that bothered a number of our judges. We had to quickly learn to look for the underlying philosophies behind motions and base our arguments on them which we had never done before. Although we tried to learn as much as possible from our opponents and judges we were discouraged to see no important progress in our performance. In those moments, it was impossible not to question our intellectual abilities or succumb to the stereotypes that our race and economic background entailed. On a personal level, I reflected on the role that circumstances outside of our control such as the quality of education in our country or financial resources played in our performance. Few nations had to worry about the finance that was going to get them to the tournament, or internet connectivity to do research, or even the skills to do thorough and effective research.

We had no tournaments at the caliber of the WSDC to train or even experienced teams in our country to practice with instead we relied on YouTube videos of past rounds and few sparring matches with teams that agreed to make time for us. We intentionally put all these factors and more in perspective to understand our role as pioneers in Rwanda’s participation in international debate tournaments. Our success was not measured on how many rounds we won or the number of judge ballots we had at the end of the tournament but on the lessons on strategies and style of debate we collected from our opponents, judges and other debaters we observed. They were a lot thanks to debaters who by doing their best unknowingly transferred new knowledge and skills to us, and coaches and team managers of other nations who made time to give us tips on how to upgrade the debate society in Rwanda. 

As soon as we arrived home from Bangkok, we started a non-governmental organization; the Rwanda National Debate aiming at increasing Rwanda’s representation in international Debate tournaments by gathering more funds and organizing advanced training for our teams. We are currently gathering all the valuable tips and tricks into a guide for the next generation of debaters in the Rwandan delegation. 

The communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills debate teaches are valuable to young people who are at the forefront of the journey to development that Rwanda is on. By opening doors to more training and competition grounds for Rwandan debaters, we hope to foster the talents needed to drive social, political and economic progress in Rwanda.