8 June 2011

Rwanda: Group Therapy for Genocide Trauma

Kigali — "Socio-therapy not only helps to battle our traumas but it also helps to reconcile victims and perpetrators" says Immaculate, a Rwandan woman with visible and invisible scars of the 1994 genocide. In the past 17 years, she learned that she can't escape her experiences but needs to learn to live with the past.

She sits in the shade of a tree with half a dozen of other women; most of them were raped during the genocide that killed 800.000 Tutsi's and moderate Hutu's. "This socio-therapy group was an eye opener. I thought my case was unique, but most others have the same experience. It helped me to accept the past and move on with my life", Immaculate adds.

Since 2005, roughly 8000 Rwandans attended socio-therapy groups. Each group comprises of 10 to 15 people and are made up of victims and perpetrators, women, married couples, youth or have a mixed make up. Under the guidance of two group leaders members discuss issues troubling them, varying from direct memories of the genocide to consequences of the traumatic experiences which manifest in violence at home or abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Ancient Rwandan therapy

Socio-therapy is a modern word for an ancient African and Rwandan way of solving problems. Communities in the old days would gather in the shade of a tree in a village and sort out communal problems. "Socio-therapy fits perfectly in our tradition", remarks Anglican bishop Emmanuel Ngendahayo of Buymba who initiated the programme. Most people who attended socio-therapy groups live in his north-eastern diocese.

"Socio-therapy should be available everywhere in the country. We see the positive results. We know it helps people mentally and also contributes to the much needed reconciliation in our country", says bishop Ngendahayo.

Rwanda is rebuilding its economy, its development and its capacity since the genocide. But the government lacks money to fund socio-therapy programmes. The past few years the Dutch organisation Cordaid funded the socio-therapy but will withdraw its sponsorship later this year.

Farmers talk trauma

"It's not much money. The group leaders are volunteers who only get some travel expenses", notes Dutch psychotherapist Henny Slegh, who coaches the group leaders. She is impressed by the progress socio-therapy made in Rwanda. "But what is needed urgently is the integration of socio-therapy in the national policy on mental health, since the method can reach people in all corners of the country".

In Mubuga, a hamlet hidden in the misty hills just south of the city Buymba, a socio-therapy group gathers in a house that also serves as a storeroom for agricultural produce. Local farmers talk about their problems. They notice the worried look on a women's face. She feels comfortable enough to explain her trouble. "I bumped into a survivor of the genocide whose family members were killed by a group of extremists in 1994. My nephew was part of the group. I fear revenge."

Comforting worries

The group members talk to her and after a while a smile breaks through. "There is no reason to worry. It's just my fear. It's so good to be part of this group. Without it I would be worried sick for weeks without talking about it".

The socio-therapy groups often evolve into co-operations. Members get to know each other very well in 15 weeks of therapy and learn to trust each other. The group in Mubuga already started an agricultural co-op which already brought them some financial gains.

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