From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Rebbecca Walton and Maggie Zraly

Professors Rebecca Walton and Maggie Zraly are collaborating to explore how Rwandans can remake their wrold decades after genocide.

Building Something New

By Kristen Munson

For two Utah State University professors, Rwanda is where opportunity and hope exist.

Maggie Zraly, a medical anthropologist, studies human resilience in response to violence. Rebecca Walton, a scholar of communication technology, examines how information technologies connect and empower people. Both assistant professors are pooling their expertise to explore how Rwandans reconstruct and reimagine their communities two decades after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

“One thing that brings us together is all of the different ways to use our academic knowledge to highlight and amplify strengths,” said Zraly. “The biggest question for me is, after war and genocide, how do people remake worlds?”

The Rwandan genocide killed upwards of 800,000 people, decimated the country’s fragile economy, and left 80 percent of the population impoverished. In 2000, Rwanda’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning released Vision 2020, a comprehensive report outlining its strategy to propel the nation towards prosperity. The proposal begins:

“How do Rwandans envisage their future? What kind of society do they want to become? …What are the transformations needed to emerge from a deeply unsatisfactory social and economic situation?”

These questions steered the government to embrace policies advancing sectors, including education, infrastructure, technology, and human health. At its core, the vision charts a course out of poverty by transitioning from an agrarian to a knowledge-based economy. The authors acknowledged it was potentially “overly ambitious,” but a needed start. At the time, 90 percent of the population relied on subsistence farming and nearly half of Rwandans could not read or write.

Zraly understands the challenges of moving the country forward as well as the desire for it. She spent two years in Kigali as an International Research Fellow working with genocide-rape survivors and youth heads-of-household, trying to understand patterns of resilience in the post-conflict era. Part of her aim was to provide information to the country’s mental health services so they could better address the needs of a population still recovering.

After the war, social infrastructure in Rwanda was destabilized. Neighbors had killed neighbors during the conflict. Trust was broken, Zraly said. “It’s 18 years post-genocide but it’s still under construction.” So how do you move forward when your worldview has been shattered? What roles do institutions play in this process? Zraly wants to find out what we can learn from individuals and cultures who have endured terrible things.

“When the actual social fabric is also destroyed, how do they get remade?” she asked. “What new things can be made in those spaces? Is it a time for innovation? I am interested in what’s possible.”

However, these were not the questions Zraly was asking early into a doctoral program in chemistry. After realizing she did not want to spend her life in the lab she elected to pursue degrees in health and anthropology.

“In social epidemiology, sometimes people become dots on a line in a graph and you can’t even tell a dot from the line and sometimes the outliers get cut off,” she said. “I was more interested in the outliers.”

Zraly secured an internship at a refugee camp in Rwanda where she worked with community health workers to study the lived realities of survivors of sexual violence. Zraly was drawn to the idea of working with people in post-conflict societies and learning how they reshape their identities after trauma. Her work now incorporates culturally-specific knowledge of resilience into community-based mental health programming.

In June, she returned to Rwanda with Walton to pilot new research projects using seed grants from the college. Zraly began studying gender differences and pathways leading to marijuana use by Kigali youth while Walton examined youth perceptions and use of technology. Audrey Merrill, a senior anthropology major, joined the two professors to investigate how and if religion affects healing. (Read her column on page 31).

The three partnered with the Counseling Volunteers Club in Kigali and Rwanda National Police to initiate a long-term collaborative research relationship and develop ways for research to empower the community. They even collaborated on a song, “Ganja, Spirituality, and Technology Research in Rwanda is about Connection,” promoting community-based research on issues important to youth to play on local radio. CVC president Idi Banamungu wrote and produced the song featuring Rwandan artists.

However, of the three USU researchers, only Walton’s voice can be heard on the track. That seems appropriate since her work studies information technologies in resource-constrained environments. Walton assists development projects where communication technologies help improve health, well-being, and emergency logistics. While analyzing information systems may not be flashy, it can change how people interact with one another; it can enhance their access to goods and services.

“It’s not sexy, but I think it does solve problems,” Walton said. “Technical communicators can really influence things. We are user advocates.”

Over the years she has worked with World Vision International, the Gates Foundation, and Mercy Corps to improve nonprofit management and disaster response in developing countries. For instance, Walton recently analyzed vaccine delivery systems in public health clinics in Mozambique to augment distribution methods. Much of her research focuses on the complex gray area between envisioning support from nongovernmental organizations and actually implementing a long-term plan. The reality is, many operations designed to pull individuals out of poverty fail to achieve their goals. Walton wants to understand why.

She was attracted to studying youth perceptions of technology in Rwanda because of the nation’s vision for the future. The tiny landlocked country has few mineral and energy resources. Because growth in these areas alone will not lift the nation out of poverty, the government has invested in building and promoting its intellectual capital. In 2011, it completed installation of 2,300 kilometers of fiber optic lines throughout country. The hope is that Rwanda will become a regional technology hub.

What struck Walton from her conversations with participants was how frequently they mentioned needing technology to get a job, find a job, and to keep a job, she said. “Many feel information technology holds a lot of promise for them.”

Several youths used cell phones for religious experiences. During Ramadan, Muslim participants used their phones as alarms for when to eat and when to pray. Another respondent explained that when he was hungry and there wasn’t food in the house, he listened to gospel music on his phone as a source of comfort.

“There’s definitely some real connections there with using phones for emotional comfort,” Walton said. “I just didn’t expect to hear a lot about that.”

She saw how technology can empower people while at her first job, a religious nonprofit called Herald of Truth, where she managed its website, video production, and print pieces. The organization assisted with relief efforts after an earthquake triggered deadly mudslides in El Salvador. Walton recalls hauling large bags of beans to isolated villages, along with a supply of Polaroid film. She snapped pictures of children, partly to occupy them while their parents received food from the distribution area. But the photos were very meaningful to the families—many of whom had lost all of theirs— and several parents left to make sure their children were photographed.

The experience was an important precursor to her research. As Walton continues to process findings from the summer, she is already proposing follow-up investigation in Rwanda. This time, she aims to probe deeper into how information technology affects emotional wellbeing.

“I really would like to do research that makes a difference,” she said. “That’s the point. We’re not here that long.”