- Obituary: Alison Des Forges
“What are they scared of? I’m just a little old lady.” With this disarming comment, Alison Des Forges would make light of her extraordinary accomplishments as a human rights activist and scholar. Under normal circumstances, she would have had many years ahead of her. Instead, on 14 February 2009, her accomplished, vibrant life ended tragically early, in a winter plane crash outside her home city, Buffalo, New York.
But to me and many others, Alison will be remembered not as a gray-haired, middle-aged woman, but as a person known for her ever-buoyant youthful energy. This obituary comes with mixed emotions: to commemorate a dear friend whom I knew for a half-century, and to mourn a cherished colleague whom I respected for almost as many decades.
She grew up in Schenectady, New York, a major manufacturing center near Albany. She compiled such an impressive record in high school that she was admitted to Harvard as a sophomore in 1960, arriving there when men outnumbered women three to one. Alison threw herself into the challenging academic setting—we met in freshman German class, where her quick grasp of its complex declensions, genders, and the like made her intelligence apparent, and she wrote her senior thesis on the history of Alsace-Lorraine. Her turning point came through volunteer work. In the summer of 1963, she decided to teach in Tanzania, a decision that transformed her path in life. For the remaining decades, she would combine the diverse careers of [End Page 1167] teaching by example, involving herself in matters African, and serving as a quiet, persuasive spokesperson for the voiceless.
Her initial orientation lay in the scholarly world in which she showed such promise. Following marriage to her high school Model UN acquaintance Roger Des Forges, who attended a different high school, Alison embarked on her Yale doctorate in African history. Her dissertation on one of Rwanda’s most noted, longest-lasting mwamis (kings) gave her deep and detailed insights into how “Hutu” and “Tutsi” ethnicities developed with substantial influence from German and Belgian colonial practices. The purported “ancient tribal hatreds” that less-informed commentators turned to in trying to understand the 1994 genocide in Rwanda became one of the easy explanations she showed to be false.
Alison and Roger came to the University at Buffalo in 1973, following two one-year stints at Middlebury and Yale. The academic marketplace in those days in African history was not promising. The arrival of son Alexander and daughter Jessie by the mid-1970s also affected her career. Community activism became the center of her energies for a decade, manifested in her spearheading a successful effort to integrate and upgrade public schools in Buffalo through the establishment of several “magnet schools,” so-called because they were designed to attract parents and students by virtue of their distinctive features. The schools included one of the first public Montessori centers in the country, deploying a method of individualized instruction that was based on the principle that learning is fun and that all students should be allowed to grow at their own pace.
Alison’s work on human rights started informally in the late 1980s when she was asked to serve as a volunteer member of the board of directors of Africa Watch. Her linguistic expertise in French and Kinyarwanda and her extensive prior field work in Rwanda made her invaluable to the organization which soon became part of Human Rights Watch. Part-time unpaid involvement turned into full-time and eventually salaried work as her children matured and headed to college. While others at HRW gave attention to different parts of Africa, Alison focused on Rwanda, Burundi, and affected parts of neighboring Uganda and Congo. She traveled there often, her mild, open, and unassuming manner inviting others to share their ideas. I recall the morning we sat together on an early-morning flight from Buffalo to New York City. I would attend a meeting of HRW’s advisory committee for the Africa Division; she would fly that evening to Africa for a few weeks of field work, followed by consultations in Europe. The small...