Trauma healing and anger work in Rwanda

Marian Liebmann writes: 

This article is a brief account of six weeks I spent in Rwanda February – March this year.

Rwandan Quakers

Quaker church service
Quaker church service

I was hosted by Rwandan Quakers – the Evangelical Friends Church of Rwanda. Quakers only started in Rwanda in 1987, evangelised by American Quakers from the Evangelical tradition. There are 76 Friends’ churches in Rwanda, concentrated in certain areas, but several are currently closed, as their buildings do not meet new government regulations. There is also Rwanda Friends Theological College and several Quaker schools, both primary and secondary. Their form of worship is programmed, Bible-based and pastor-led, very different from Quaker worship in the UK.

But the common ground is the emphasis on peace work, and Friends Peace House in Kigali lists Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC), Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) in all of Rwanda’s 14 prisons (15 trained facilitators), Help Increase the Peace Project (for young people), Transformative Mediation in the community (15 trained volunteers), children’s peace library and peer mediation in 5 cities, Women in Dialogue (bringing together women genocide survivors and women married to perpetrators), trade training for vulnerable young people (car mechanics, hairdressing and cookery) and more. Many young Quakers volunteer to help with these projects.

All the Quakers I met were extremely helpful in getting me organised with money and phone card, taking me around Kigali and to Musanze, inviting me to church services and to their homes, and generally making sure I had everything I needed.

Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC)

HROC banner

My first aim in travelling to Rwanda was to learn about a group trauma-healing model I had read about and wanted to experience. Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) was developed by Quakers in Rwanda and Burundi in 2003 to help communities there suffering from trauma following the genocide in 1994. The HROC Centre in Rwanda moved from Kigali to Musanze for cost reasons. Musanze is in northern Rwanda, near the volcanic region where gorilla treks take place, and is a big vegetable growing area.

Because of the interest in their work, the HROC centre runs an International Training course twice a year. On my course the 9 participants were from the UK (me), Kenya and Rwanda – past participants have come from the US (where much of the funding comes from), Burundi, Congo, South Sudan and Nigeria. Our facilitators were from Rwanda and Kenya. This meant that the course needed to be bilingual, in English and Kinyarwanda. In Rwanda, older people speak French, younger people speak English, everyone speaks Kinyarwanda. The 3-week course included team building, attending a basic HROC workshop, training of trainers, and then running a basic HROC course ourselves for a local community group. I was paired with team members from Kenya and Rwanda and our allocated community group was young single mothers, a growing group in Rwanda.

Trust walk
Trust walk

The structure of a basic HROC workshop is:

  • Day 1: Introduction to trauma – definition, causes, symptoms and consequences
  • Day 2: Loss, grief and mourning, including time for personal reflection and sharing stories in the group; dealing with anger
  • Day 3: Building trust – trust walk, tree of mistrust, tree of trust, how to build trust

During the course of the workshop, we heard many distressing stories. Many participants had been children during the genocide, and had experienced death of family members, fleeing for their lives, being refugees in Tanzania or Congo, and the total dislocation of their communities.

Anger group (youth)
Anger group (youth)

One of the people who shared his story was Paul. He was 16 when the militia came to his village dressed in wedding clothes but hiding machetes underneath. They accused people of working with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and tied people up and killed them. He fled and never saw his family again. As he ran to different areas, he heard his family had all been killed and realised he was the only survivor. He joined the army. In 1996 he had a pass to go home, and took a gun and 200 bullets, intending to kill the people who had killed his family. But when he got there, a voice within him told him more bloodshed was pointless, so he let them go. He was grateful for the invitation to the HROC workshop as it gave him the opportunity to release some of the ‘rubbish’ still inside him.

Anger Management with Art

After the HROC training course I went to Kigali to stay at the Quaker Peace Garden guest house and ran courses on ‘Anger Management with Art’ for three groups organised by the Friends Church – one for youth (18-30), one for women, and one for church leaders. These took place in the local church. In these groups participants used art materials (some of which I had brought) to look at aspects of anger, such as:

  • What is anger?
  • Is anger good or bad?
  • Physical symptoms of anger
  • What’s underneath the anger?
  • Early family patterns
  • Anger and conflict
  • Triggers of anger
  • Ways of calming down
  • Trauma and anger
  • Relaxation
What is anger?
Physical symptoms of anger
Physical symptoms of anger

The groups went well, as people could see the links between their experiences and anger which caused ongoing problems for many people. Clearly I could not ‘magic everything right’ with a three-day workshop, but I hoped it could provide some helpful tools along the way. Many people said ‘Please come back!’ but of course that is not so easy.

I had asked for a co-facilitator to work with me, to enable the work to continue after I left. The person appointed was a high-ranking pastor, who helped me with many of the organisational tasks. My interpreters were excellent and also acted as co-facilitators at times. In addition I had invited two former colleagues from Uganda who have worked with me, and introduced them to the Rwandan group. So I hope there are several people who can help take the work forward.

Genocide memorials

Quakers & genocide memorial guide
Quakers & genocide memorial guide

The third aspect of my visit to Rwanda was visiting genocide memorials to see how Rwanda is trying to recover from the terrible time in which a tenth of the population was killed. Writing this now, I am reminded that Rwanda will be commemorating the 25thanniversary of the genocide this April.

A couple of times I decided to disclose my own background as the daughter of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. This resulted in those groups seeing me in a different light. Paul was so moved by this that he brought me a present on my last day in Musanze. And the Women in Dialogue group said, ‘So these things happen elsewhere, not just in Rwanda? You are just like us.’

As well as commemorating the genocide, Rwanda has implemented many peace-building processes. Quakers have initiated many of these, as described above. Other organisations also have peace and trust-building initiatives, and I met several inspiring individuals all working to repair the damage and make sure that ‘Never Again’ comes true for Rwanda. I think we have things to learn from them.

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