From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Counselors Help Rwandans Prepare to Grieve
04 May 1996 20:53:53
95347 Counselors Help Rwandans Prepare to Grieve
by Alexa Smith
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Counselors working with Rwanda's broken families are
beginning to make it safe for surviving women and children to begin to
grieve their terrible losses by helping them restore some semblance of
"Imagine seeing someone kill your father and you can't even cry
[because it may reveal your hiding place]. Or to hear people screaming
because they are being killed and not be able to scream yourself," said
Albert Nambaje, a Rwandan psychologist working with the United Nations
Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Kigali.
"These people couldn't cry. They couldn't mourn. They couldn't say
anything. ... It was not possible," said Nambaje, stressing that some
children were doubly traumatized by watching their parents kill, even if it
was to keep from being killed.
Those stifled screams and sobs stymied grieving. So all the
suppressed emotion is now beginning to surface as physical symptoms among
Rwandan children and adults -- more than one year after the violence ended.
Caregivers say phenomenal numbers of children and adults are reporting
headaches, nightmares, numbness, inattention and sleeplessness because, in
Rwandan culture, emotional distress is deeply stigmatized.
The deeper dilemma for many adults in Rwanda, who cannot make sense
out of the horror themselves, is how do they begin to face their children's
questions and their children's pain?
"Getting people to talk, be it individuals or be it groups, by saying:
Tell me how you feel' or just asking people to open up to a stranger ...
well, that's very Western," said Denise Gordon, Kigali program coordinator
for Africare, a long-established humanitarian relief organization
headquartered in Washington, D.C.
"And the social structures that would normally address something like
this are not in place. ... It's going to be some time before [those
structures] are back in place again. Given what happened in Rwanda -- the
scale of horrible things -- everybody is pretty much traumatized."
So traumatized professionals are being trained to care for others who
have been displaced, widowed or orphaned and who have little structure in
their daily lives. Jobs are scarce and school systems and recreational
programming are just not functionally at full tilt yet.
"There need to be ceremonies for people who were lost," said Ann Rall
of Washington, D.C., an Africare volunteer who returned from Rwanda in
April, even though these rituals do not duplicate weeklong mourning rites
and visitations customary in Rwandan society before the killings last year.
"Most have no idea where the bodies of family members are or what day they
"Many have had no chance of having any kind of ceremony, any funeral.
That's one way for both women and men to deal with their trauma."
But the overwhelming numbers of people -- who already have built-in
cultural biases toward counseling for emotional distress -- ensures that a
more Western clinical model is just not workable in Rwanda. Finding jobs
and income is one way some agencies like Church World Service, one conduit
for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) aid to Rwanda, are helping put structure
UNICEF estimates there are about 300,000 orphans, with 200,000 of
those children, now living in temporary public facilities. Widows number
near 30,000, estimates say, and they are taking in anywhere from six to 15
"We're just not focusing on clinical treatment," Nambaje told the
Presbyterian News Service. UNICEF, he said, has trained more than 3,000
teachers, doctors, social workers and other professionals to care for
traumatized children in hopes of reaching as many children as possible in
unstigmatized, ordinary settings. The agency has a trauma officer working
in each of Rwanda's 11 provinces.
"Last year, there were signs that people were affected by trauma,"
said Anne Smith, Catholic Relief Services' project manager for vulnerable
groups in Kigali. "And people were able to say: The war has just ended.'
Of course, that's normal. [People will] get over it.
"But people are still having nightmares. Students are still acting
out in class," she said, adding that, culturally, Rwandans are taught to
keep emotional stress under wraps. There was so much need for distribution
of food and for locating housing, emotional stress was low among people's
priorities last year. "People have literally kept everything inside, and
it's causing them to explode."
Now children are being encouraged to draw and to learn songs about
what it feels like to be an orphan in hopes of coping with unresolved
grief, anger and sadness. Parents are being educated that a child's overly
aggressive or withdrawn behavior may be a result of trauma. Widows are
being encouraged to gather in small cooperatives so conversation about
their losses may be held more casually. And public games and dances are
beginning so community bonds may again form in a world where people have
learned to have little confidence in others' trustworthiness or goodness.
"There have been so many killings, just about one adult has survived
with the children of about four or five families," said Nambaje -- a heavy
emotional load for adults who have no answers themselves for what happened.
"Many adults have no answers for children. ... [The violence] was
something so upsetting, so not understandable. It's really beyond what's
expected from anybody," said Nambaje, insisting many grownups avoid
children's questions because the adults do not want to reflect on their
painful past. "They think they are protecting children. But they are, in
fact, protecting themselves."
That's not so strange, considering the desperation and the confusing
alliances made during the past year in order to survive. Some women were
spared death and then expected to express gratefulness for that favor to
those who killed their husbands and sons. Incidents of rape are high.
Surviving males are drinking more than usual -- some speculate out of shame
for living while they were unable to protect their wives and children from
"Closure? People have not been able to have it," according to Smith.
"The fact is ... on a day-to-day basis, people see and are neighbors with
people who were indirectly involved in this entire process.
" Traumatisme.' ... That's the French word. It was a word I never
heard before here," said Smith, who worked with the Peace Corps in Rwanda
several years before the violence. But, she said, it aptly describes the
lingering uncertainty and fear and the energy expended daily to keep
emotion under control. "Now it's used in daily conversation."
Nambaje said realization of the impact of trauma on the human psyche
has come slowly. "It's so heavy to bear. People want to suppress it," he
said. "That's only human. It's quite common."
For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
phone 502-569-5504 fax 502-569-8073
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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