(Participants at the 2014 Zen Peacemakers Rwanda Bearing Witness retreat, photo by Aleksandra Kwiatkowska.)
Thérèse Uwitonze, a Rwandan clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, and Roshi Barbara Wegmüller, a founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order in Europe from Spiegel, Switzerland, met during the Zen Peacemakers Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat in 2014. Below is Barbara’s account of their meeting and friendship, followed by the report developed by Thérèse and her colleague Nsengiyumva Joseph, detailing the incredible work Thérèse and Nsengiyumva were able to do in the Ruhashya, Rwaniro, and Kinazi sectors of the Huye District in Rwanda with the support of the Zen Peacemakers from Switzerland.
Right after our arrival and after settling into our hotel room, Roshi Genro introduced us to Thérèse Uwitonze. My husband, Roland, is the participants doctor at the Bearing Witness Retreats in Auschwitz, and was inhabiting this position in Rwanda.
Thérèse, we were told, is a psychotherapist specializing in treatments of trauma. She was accompanied by a friend, a women psychologist. The four of us gathered around a small table on the shady veranda. It was Friday afternoon, three days before the start of the Retreat.
An international group of Zen Peacemakers came together to Bear Witness to the genocide that took place in 1994. Over a period of 100 days, 800,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsi women, children, and men were brutally slaughtered. The genocide was the culmination of decades of persecution and hatred directed at the Tutsi, a tragedy deeply imprinted on the land, hearts, and spirits of the Rwandan people. In our conversation, Thérèse described how the victims, and also the offenders, are still severely traumatized. She explained how it is important for the doctor and the Retreat team leaders to know how Rwanda is coping with the situation. She told us that treatments mostly involved drug therapy and that these were administered quickly to prevent more people from being affected.
In the first hours of our arrival, we listened to Thérèse as she gave us an account of the unfathomable suffering her people were experiencing and of her incredible work that is dedicated in helping these people to cope and live their lives. Listening to her as she shared about the Circle work on different places, with different groups of the population, we felt high respect for Therese`s work.
“You know,” she said in this first conversation,”everybody in the country is affected by what happened here, all of us need healing.”
During the Retreat we got to know each other better and I could observe that Thérèse was very competent when her help was needed.
Roland and I learned to let go what we learned about trauma therapy in our collective, this place and the amount of the grief was huge and visible in the eyes of survivors as well as the perpetuators. We learned just to be there and listen with a open heart.
At the end of the Retreat we spent several hours talking about council circles. Thérèse told us about her circles of reconciliation and I spoke about my extensive experience with circles in the Zen Peacemaker tradition and gave her an outline of our tools. We discussed the potential power of council practice, or peace circle as Therese refers to it, as a transformative and healing force for the trauma embedded in the Rwandan psyche as the result of the genocide. When Bernie suggested my support for Thérèse after the Retreat, I happily agreed. Thérèse and I keep regular contact by email. I sent her a description of our tools and she keeps me updated with her work in the circles. Ongoing financial support donated by the Peacemaker Community Switzerland helps Thérèse maintain and expand her work.
–Roshi Barbara Wegmüller,
Report: Peace Circles for Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Conflict Management in Rwanda
Therese Uwitonze, Clinical Psychologist
Nsengiyumva Joseph, Social Worker
Partner Organization: Zen Peacemaker Order, Suisse
Responsible: Barbara Wegmüller
Time Frame: April 2012 – December 2016
General Objective of Mental Health Dignity Foundation Intervention
To contribute to psychological balance and social cohesion toward development.
People suffering from PTSD in the Ruhashya, Rwaniro and Kinazi Districts, in addition to youth experiencing transgenerational trauma from the Nyaruguru and Huye Districts.
To achieve the objectives, we worked in the following ways:
Psychoeducation and the Facilitation of the Group
After gaining consent from our clients, we gave the Ruhashya and Kinazi group members information about mental health (including definitions of mental health, symptoms, root causes, and treatment of mental disorders, and the definition of PTSD). We then facilitated group therapy; the primary approach we utilized in group therapy was the peace circle format in which we allowed clients to express their negative or positive emotions about their stories and practice relaxation exercises. We facilitated peace circle for 3 hours bimonthly.
We respected the following guidelines of peace circle (as outlined by Zen Peacemakers):
Preventing Transgenerational Trauma in Young People
There is very little knowledge about mental health in secondary schools. In addition, many cases of PTSD may be observed in Rwandan society, in both adult and youth populations, as the result of the 1994 genocide committed against the Tutsi. Every year, each school holds a commemoration for the killed persons at their school. During these commemorations, many people experience emotional crises, their PTSD symptoms flair dramatically. MHDF increased the knowledge on these matters to facilitate understanding; students, parents, and teachers were informed about mental health, PTSD, conflicts, and their interconnection. As part of this program, 98 trained volunteers took advantage of the self-assessment and self-transformation resources available and supported their peers in commemoration period at school.
Economic Empowerment: Banana Plantation Project
A person has two aspects: psychological aspect and physical aspect. The two aspects must be maintained. After the psychological recovery of Ruhashya and Kinazi group members, they had the wish to be supported economically. In collaboration with a social worker, we conducted the meetings for assessing their needs and their solutions (using the problem tree and solution tree). Through these exercises, we designed a banana plantation project for the Ruhashya group and a slaughterhouse project for the Kinazi group. Until now, Huye district gave 5,600,000Frw to support banana plantation project only. We are waiting for slaughterhouse project donors (we need 9077500Frw) for the Kinazi group.
Success Stories: in the Words of Program Participants
N.B: The success stories from beneficiaries were collected from the field(Ruhashya and Kinazi groups). They were in Kinyarwanda language and translated in English by MHDF. Because of confidentiality issues, we use letters instead of the names.
MHDF project was characterized by different activities, all of which contributed to the promotion of mental health and providing care for the mental disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. After conducting the project in schools and in the community and seeing positive outcomes, we would like to extend this project in other sectors of Huye, Nyaruguru, and Gisagara districts. This could help to get the same positive outcomes in other schools and communities and lead to a better way of preventing mental disorders and providing care to patients in schools and in the community.
This is one of the many inspiring projects to emerge out of Bearing Witness Retreats. Join us in November for our next Bearing Witness Retreat in Auschwitz/Birkenau.