Rwanda Trip A Memorable Experience For Hess

May 23, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Last July was an interesting month for Joanna Hess, who will sit in the No. 2 seat in Yale's varsity eight at the NCAA Championships later this week in New Jersey. It began in England at the Royal Henley Regatta, one of the most famous regattas in the world and one full of pomp and circumstance. Women wear hats and skirts that must go below the knees, while men cannot take off their jackets.

Hess had a splendid time at Henley and helped Yale's eight advance to the semifinals of the Remenhem Cup. It was the culmination of an outstanding season that saw the Bulldogs capture the Eastern Sprints title and earn a seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships. Following the races at Henley, most of her teammates headed back to the United States to start odd jobs and get some R&R after a long season.

Hess had other plans. She flew directly to Rwanda in Africa to begin working on her senior essay. She received a grant from the Yale Political Science Department to do research on gacaca, which is a traditional, tribal form of justice being used to try alleged perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.

"Leaving Henley and arriving in the Kigali airport was definitely a shock to the system, especially when there was a short blackout while I was at the airport," said Hess

The "court sessions" she witnessed took place outside and throughout the country, so she did a lot of traveling to urban, suburban and rural areas during her nearly month-long stay. She would observe the trials and then interview judges, witnesses, officials, victims and even one prisoner.

"I got interested in Rwanda when I took a class on the Rwandan genocide in the fall of my junior year," said Hess, a political science major who graduated on Monday. "I've always been interested in international law and learning about gacaca just piqued my interest. By coincidence, I was taking a research methods class at the same time, so I was learning from other students' research trips and practicing grant writing which made going to Rwanda seem possible."

Hess originally planned to stay at a hostel, but her parents were uneasy with that so they paid for her to stay at the Hotel Milles Collines, also known as Hotel Rwanda.

"Jo has always been willing to take risks," said Yale Head Coach Will Porter. "She learned to fly an airplane before she graduated high school. She is a confident, independent thinker, so I was not surprised when I found out she planned to do research in Rwanda."

The most unforgettable day of the trip for Hess came when she interviewed a prisoner who had been found guilty of petty stealing and was set free on time served.

"During the trial, one woman stood up and accused him of killing her entire family in front of her, although ultimately there wasn't enough evidence to convict him of murder," Hess said. "While I was interviewing him, he took a break to approach this woman and told her that he would ask for her forgiveness if she wanted him to. She did not, but she accepted a hug from him, albeit very hesitantly. It was incredibly sad because it was clear this woman was not convinced of his innocence but at the same time felt pressure to forgive him. It was very, very difficult to watch and has definitely stayed with me."

The experience also taught Hess a lot about herself.

"I learned the value of simply being friendly and talking to everyone I possibly could," she said. "I was surprised when Rwandans would comment on how a lot of visitors wouldn't talk to them `on their level,' and I think my willingness to start a conversation or extend a handshake made a huge difference in making friends and having a great experience. I'm usually a relatively shy person and doing this project forced me out of my comfort zone many times in many ways, and I took a lot away from that."

Hess was rewarded for all her time and effort when she received an A on her senior essay, which was also nominated for a prize in the political science department, although it didn't win.

Hess isn't sure of her post graduation plans, but says she would like to do something related to Africa in the non-profit area for a year before heading to law school.

For now, Hess is focusing on the NCAA Championships which begin on Friday at the Finn Caspersen Rowing Center in West Windsor, N.J. She is in her third year as a member of Yale's varsity eight, despite not starting to row until her senior year of high school.

"I had grown up with crew because my dad rowed at the University of Washington and on national and Olympic teams and is chairman of rowing stewards at UW," said Hess, who played basketball and volleyball growing up in Edmonds, Wash. "I knew I wanted to play a sport in college because I love being on a team and competing, so I figured I'd give crew a try."

Hess's most memorable experience at Yale came in her sophomore season when she was in the No. 2 seat of the varsity eight that earned a silver medal at the NCAA Championships, the highest finish in school history.

"We came off the line in last place, but everyone in the boat just came together," Hess remembered. "I was pretty much a clueless sophomore but being in that eight, with people who knew what they were doing, what result they wanted and how to get it taught me a lot about racing."

Hess isn't sure if she will ever return to Rwanda, or Henley for that matter, but she knows the lessons she has learned will always remain with her.

"Seeing the difficulties the Rwandans live with, and the trauma they have been through and are still going through, has definitely made me appreciate the need for action before atrocities like this occur," Hess said. "While my initial reaction was to say that Rwanda was incredibly different [from Henley], there is no less effort in Rwanda to make things nice and beautiful. Rwandans just don't have the same resources. A hotel room may not have electricity, but it will have a beautiful candle instead. One big difference, though, is that Henley is all about tradition, but Rwanda is very much trying to move away from its past."

Report filed by Tim Bennett, Yale Sports Publicity