film production + social action

Mambo Sawa Sawa — Things are Already Better

By: @RighteousPix

Last Thursday, as the International community commemorated the 17th anniversary of the Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda, we screened The Last Survivor at the University of Miami. The film was being shown as the final installment of a three-part series on diversity presented by the Hillel on-campus, and the composition of the audience certainly reflected the theme. The University of Miami is home to one of the most diverse student populations in the entire country, and students from all across the campus joined together to present The Last Survivor. Co-Sponsors included the University of Miami Citizens Board, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Invisible Children, African Students Union, United Black Students, Haitian Students Organization, Young Democrats, College Republicans, Masa Israel, the Council of International Students and Organizations, Ethics Society, Amnesty International, the Baptist Campus Ministry, and the University of Miami Hillel. I was even told that some of the UM football players were giving out flyers on the campus’s main walkway. It was truly remarkable to hear of this massive on-campus collaboration because when we started making this film almost four years ago, we began with the hope that the film could be used to bring people together and spark important conversations. On April 7th, it most certainly did.

Often, when we think about an issue as massive in scale as genocide, it’s overwhelming to grasp the enormity of the problem. How can ONE person begin to tackle such a global issue? I’ve heard so many people say, “What can I do? How can I really help? I’m over here and they’re over there.” It’s one of the toughest hurdles to overcome in this line of work. That’s why Thursday night’s screening so was important. As the film drew to a close, Justin, a few students, and I made our way up to the stage to begin a very important dialogue about the idea of diversity and how it relates the central themes in the film.

Justin started the conversation by recounting some of his previous experiences as a refugee in Africa. Despite having nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep or live at times, Justin recalled always feeling a sense of community as he sought refuge in several African nations.  “It didn’t matter where you went or who you were: if you met someone new you had a conversation with them. You asked them who they were and where they were from. You made an effort to get to know them and share something with them. It didn’t matter their color, race or background—we were all human beings.” But Justin was surprised when he came to this country, the exact opposite was true. No one wanted to speak to him; no one wanted to get to know him. When he first moved into his new apartment, Justin often tried to say hello to the man living across the hall. He was never greeted in return. For a year he lived in his apartment and never had a real conversation with the man living five feet from his front door.

Justin urged the student audience to get to know the people living in their community—to get to know the other students on campus. He encouraged them to learn about where their classmates are from and talk about the lessons they have learned throughout their life. “You never know what you might learn from the people around you,” he said. “And you can’t imagine how much you might have in common.”

The idea seems simple. But remember that genocide is rooted in prejudice, intolerance, and fear of someone who may appear to be different from you. How often do we look around at our fellow classmates, co-workers, and random people on the street and think to ourselves, “We don’t have anything in common”? How do YOU treat people who appear to be different from you?

In the film, Jacqueline talks about how genocide is something that happens in a process. “People do not get up one day and want to kill their neighbors. People do not get up and want to kill their countryman. A genocide is something that happens in a process, and because of that there are opportunities for us to intervene…”  Jacqueline teaches us that the crime of genocide is preventable, but that we must identify the early warning signs. She told us that in Rwanda, machetes were imported over two years before the genocide actually began. The Hutu extremists were using the public radio to dehumanize and demonize the Tustis, calling them cockroaches and less than human.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve heard it before. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the Nazis began their campaign of dehumanization very early. Jews were called rats, accused of spreading disease across Europe. They were forced to wear the yellow Jude stars, pulled from their homes, forced to live in ghettos. Similarly, we learned from Adam that prior to Bashir’s genocidal campaign in Sudan, all of the Darfuri students were forbidden from going to school, stripped of any chance of furthering their lives and amibitions. All of these horrible crimes followed a pattern that signaled overt discrimination and impending violence. In these cases, it ultimately led to genocide.

Each of these conflicts have their origins in the simple idea that someone decided that someone else is different than they are—that they don’t deserve to be called a human being.

And so I’m brought back to Justin’s story, to his tragic history of loss and destruction. He and so many others he loved were told that they were less than human; that they didn’t deserve to live, simply because of the way they were born. And yet, throughout his life, Justin’s greatest hope has been to expand his human family. His own personal experiences haven’t prevented him from trying to reach out and connect with people who might appear to be different from him. His determination to reach a better place in his life has been bolstered by his insistence on inviting new people and new experiences in. Justin has a lot to teach us, and his lessons begin in our own towns, our own schools, our own communities.

The evening came to a close with Justin asking the audience to rise and join him in what has become one of his infamous calling cards: the singing of Mambo Sawa Sawa. This traditional Swahili song, with its hopeful lyrics and catchy melody, speaks to the faith that has allowed Justin to not only endure despite the most horrific of circumstances, but to thrive and move forward. “Things are already better!” the song declares. It is a song about hope, it is a song about community coming together to move forward.

What Justin has shared with us, and what we will forever be grateful for, is his faith that within each of us is the power to overcome, the power to recognize ourselves in one another, and the power to make things better.  Once we each recognize this power, things are already better.

Mambo Sawa Sawa.

Learn more about Justin’s Story here and visit to find a screening near you.

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  1. The Rice Experience | RIGHTEOUS PICTURES

    [...] where the teachers and students opened our eyes and touched our hearts in a n incredible way. A few weeks ago I wrote about how overwhelming it can be at times to grasp the horror that is genocide — the gravity [...]

    May 09, 2011 @ 3:17 pm