From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Counselors Help Rwandans Prepare to Grieve

Date 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 
daily routine. 
     "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 
were killed.  
      "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 
into place.   
     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 
homeless children. 
     "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   Web page: 


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