Latest News
  Home About AGLI AGLI Programs Countries Get Involved in AGLI Contact AGLI    
      Most Recent AGLI Articles AGLI Appeal Letters      

Your location>Home>Publications>PeaceWays>Fall 2007

                Print Issue  


Cultural Appropriateness

Almost everyone interviewed stated enthusiastically that the HROC workshops fit in well with Rwandan culture. Many people pointed out that Rwandan culture involves talking through one’s problems, which is a practice the workshop encourages and utilizes. As Munyeragwe Epimaque, a facilitator in Nyamata, said, “The main thing in the teachings [of HROC] is to talk and listen. Rwandans like to talk. Having a solution doesn’t matter. The important thing is to talk.” Musoni Eric, another facilitator from Cyangugu, agreed, “The workshops are similar because in Rwandan culture, we teach people to meet and talk about their problems, so that they can solve them together.” For many people HROC was a means of achieving this. Either because of anger, fear, shame or countless other personal issues, taking that initial step and reaching out to others was extremely difficult. For many the workshop was the first time that they had been around people on the other side of the conflict, and it provided them with any opportunity to finally talk to the other and work at resolving the issues of the past. This was especially true for some of the released prisoners who had wanted to seek forgiveness but did not know where to begin; HROC gave them a way to approach survivors and a space to reconcile.

Another theme that came up repeatedly was sharing and unity: a remembrance of days gone by when Rwandans helped one another and shared what they had. Although Rwanda has struggled with ethnic divisions for some time, participants of HROC, and particularly the older ones, talked about a time when Rwandans supported each other and gave what they had when someone else needed it. Relying on one another and working as a united community was simply how people survived. Since the genocide this system has disintegrated due to mistrust, suspicion, and fear between neighbors. But according to participants, HROC has brought it back. “In Rwandan culture, we loved each other for a long time,” said Ibyiyingoma Hassan, a released prisoner who attended a workshop in late 2006, “there was a culture of sharing and no division, people shared their food. In the workshop we learned to be kind and gentle to one another and to share anything good.” Similarly, Ndangamira François, a participant and released prisoner, commented that HROC was similar to Rwandan culture “because the workshop shows us that we must live in peace in good relationships. HROC showed us that all of us are Rwandan. Even before in our culture, we were one.” Several people connected the idea of sharing to eating together, which occurred every day at the workshops as well as during large celebration with all the HROC participants in the area several months later. In Rwanda, ubusabana means sharing a meal together and is thought to be key to reconciliation; it is a way of connecting people that has been observed in many other cultures as well. When asked if the workshop was similar to Rwandan culture, Nirere Régine, a survivor and past participant, immediately starting talking about the lunches people ate at HROC. “In Rwanda,” she explained, “when we have a feast, we used to invite people of different ethnicities. [The workshop] reminded me of Rwanda before the war.” Since the genocide, an integral way that Rwandans bonded – through sharing meals – has deteriorated, and the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities workshops reintroduced this common cultural practice to several interviewees.

In addition to applying aspects of the old Rwandan culture, participants commented that HROC also stood as an example for the future culture of Rwanda. “HROC was good for Rwandan culture because it was about reconciliation and now Rwandans are being reconciled. I wish I could stay in the workshop,” said Nyirabyimana Vanancie. “HROC is about reconciliation, to stop division and rebuild unity of Rwanda, to show that each person is part of the country, to help others through grief, to help those who lack things,” explained Komezusense Samuel, a released prisoner from Cyangugu. “[HROC] brings light to Rwandan culture,” said Nshirizirana Jean. In the words of Mukagakwandi Amina, released prisoner from Kibuye, “Workshops were better than Rwandan culture.” Again and again, interviewees expressed the idea that the culture of HROC represented the kind of culture they wanted in Rwanda; it represented the kind of world that people wished their country could one day be.

Only two people interviewed had comments about the differences between HROC and Rwandan culture. While the workshops encouraged people to talk about their painful experiences and share their feelings, for many Rwandans to be publicly open about their emotions was a foreign concept. As Musoni Eric put it, “to be open is not really Rwandan culture. It is not bad to be open, but when you are trying to explain it [what goes on at HROC] to others, they don’t understand.” Similarly, Pasteur Nyirinkindi Theophile, a survivor from Cyangugu commented that “we do not like people to be open, but in HROC people could say anything, they could talk about bad things. I didn’t think it was good the first time, but after seeing the results I now think it’s good to be open.” Although different from traditional Rwandan culture, talking about one’s experiences and telling others how one feels about these experiences is a fundamental part of the trauma-healing process which HROC teaches and is a crucial step in moving forward.

Trauma Healing
The first day of Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities is devoted to lessons on trauma - what it is, how it happens, what its symptoms are, and how to handle these symptoms. Although “no ones knows how prevalent PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome] is in Rwanda,” a study four years after the genocide asserts that “its prevalence may approach 20% in the adult population – much higher than in other war-torn countries.” Yet even without full-blown PTSD, there is still psychological suffering in the form of depression, anxiety, phobias, nightmares, hallucinations, hyper arousal, shame, unexplained anger or aggression, apathy, and countless others symptoms throughout the country. According to a Harvard School of Public Health Report, there is a major mental health crisis in Rwanda consisting of “the general population who are experiencing emotional difficulties as a result of the genocide; individuals who have developed trauma-related problems as a result of violence, including rape and torture; and the chronically mentally ill whose mental health problems were exacerbated by the 1994 events.” Currently, the resources needed to address this crisis are limited. Psychology in general is a fairly new concept to most Rwandans. Prior to 1994, talk therapy and counseling had not been utilized in Rwanda and were more or less foreign ideas. While psychological counseling is not the express purpose of the HROC program, as you will see in the testimonies below, the workshops have had a profound effect on the participants and greatly helped to diminish people’s trauma symptoms. For most, the very idea of experiencing or witnessing something take place and then having it affect their state of mind and mood was totally new. It was often the first time that they had ever been told that the isolation, anxiety, and depression that they had been feeling since the genocide were normal, appropriate emotions to have; and, this telling went a long ways in healing the wounds of the past.

Through the workshop I saw that everything may change, and the workshop gave a power of handling the life however it is. Because before attending the workshops I would come back to a bad life, I had nothing to please me, but after attending the workshop I started to lead a new life, a good life. Even in the inside of my body I felt good, because before attending the workshop I could not sleep well, but now after the workshop I sleep well. And I had many other sicknesses, but now I am healed… I could not eat, I lost appetite and would go whole days without eating; I had headaches everyday; I scratched my skin, but after the workshop I did not scratch… I can say that [my trauma symptoms] can finish sometimes, but what is very important, when it comes I know that it is a symptom of trauma and I know how to treat it. They do not come like they did before the workshop. Sometimes I used to think that trauma was good to stay in. The workshop was the first time I was open about my feelings, it was the first time I understood trauma. – Pasteur Nyirinkindi Théophile, survivor

I could not sleep, I could not eat and feel satisfied, I had chronic stomach pain and could not speak - thinking about what happened, and had headaches. Through HROC, I discovered I was traumatized. I had heard of trauma through the government prisoner program, but this was the first time I understood it. I was free to ask what I didn’t understand and the facilitators were compassionate…Now I have peace within myself and talk and I have no fear. Now I am human. I have stopped losing trust and my trauma has healed and when the trauma comes back, I remember the workshop. - Komezusense Samuel, released prisoner

Before the workshop, no one could come to my home, even for salt. I hated them so much. I had fear to meet those people. I could not talk to them and thought they might put me again in prison. And even for the first day of the workshop, it was like a dream, it was beyond my understanding. I was angry at them, and as the workshop moved on I understood them, because they taught us to live with others. And I saw, yes, it was possible, and I changed my heart. I would not have changed without the workshop; I would have stayed angry… [Before HROC] when somebody was knocking, I was thinking that they were coming to beat me. If somebody said ‘Oh, I need you,’ I thought ‘He’s coming to beat me.’ I could sleep during the day, the night I could not sleep. I would stay home because I feared being beaten. I had no appetite. I was thinking they would come back to take me again to prison. I had fear to see a soldier… The Friends Peace House touched me, touched my heart. If I had not gone to the workshop, I would be like somebody useless…I would have stayed with anger and fear and a heart of revenge if the Friends Peace House did not come…[Before the workshop] I did not know about trauma. I felt fear only; I had no good understanding of trauma. - Mukagakwandi Amina, released prisoner

It was not like this before. Now, I have a loving wife. The killers come and visit her, and she talks to them and doesn’t flee. She does not have so many flashbacks and can sleep better. Before she was easily angered and we fought, but since the workshop it has diminished…My wife told me the workshops were good and diminish trauma. I feel changes in my soul, because I had bad ideas and I learned from my wife what they really were. - Mutahazi Laurent, husband of participant

In prison, it was bad, beyond understanding. You could not sleep lying down, there was only room to sit; many died from disease. Even sometimes there was no water, and once I went four days without food…I realized I had many symptoms along with the others who had been in prison. When I remembered sleeping among the dead in prison, it made me want to be alone and not speak. Even though I was released, I still felt imprisoned and didn’t trust others…I was only doing my thing, I could not talk to people about my problems. I thought I could only live with prisoners. But after the workshop I felt free in my heart, it let me release my fears and helped me to form relationships with survivors… even if I have a conflict with someone, it no longer destroys the relationship. - Ibyiyingoma Hassan, released prisoner

Lessons Learned
In addition to learning about trauma, another lesson which resonated strongly with participants was the message of trust using the Tree of Trust and the Tree of Mistrust. On the last day of the workshop, facilitators use the image of a tree with its roots, trunk, branches, and fruit to show participants how trust can be built and destroyed. As ninety percent of Rwanda’s population is engaged in agriculture, the image of a growing organism like a tree is powerful and easy to grasp. It is a clear illustration of the foundation of trust, how it can be nurtured, and what will eventually come from it. After learning about the tree, participants often use the metaphor regularly and look to it as a guide to future relationships. Participants see that it is indeed possible to create trust in the wake of the genocide and build relationships which will foster peace. For many, the Tree of Trust is the first sign of hope for the future of Rwanda.

What I remember most are the two trees: The Tree of Mistrust with its roots and the Tree of Trust with its roots. I found that the Tree of Trust must replace the Tree of Mistrust. - Ibyiyingoma Hassan, released prisoner

What I remember most and what I use to help others is the Tree of Trust and the Tree of Mistrust. And even when I am preaching I use those Trees. - Pasteur Nyirinkindi Théophile, survivor

I learned about reconciliation and I remember the Tree of Trust with its good roots, leaves, and fruits. The Tree of Mistrust is like the desert, it is a tree that has thorns and is good to remove. Through the Trees, I saw the difference between a good person who wants to live in peace and a bad person who hates. - Ndarisamye Esdras, survivor

The Tree of Trust and Tree of Mistrust touched me. It is a good lesson for everyone – both perpetrators and survivors – about life in the future. People had no trust, but the Tree gave people hope of a better future. - Ndamage Corneille, facilitator

Forgiveness and Reconciliation
While having survivors forgive those who offended them and having released prisoners seek forgiveness from those they offended is not one of the main goals of HROC, it is a welcomed by-product of the workshops. To choose to forgive someone is a deeply personal and tremendously difficult process. No one knows how a person will react after learning about trauma, grief, and trust or hearing the truth of what happened to a slain relative. The Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities program recognizes this and does not outwardly promote forgiveness or even discuss it directly; rather the program seeks to empower its participants to make their own choices and creates a unique place for people to begin rebuilding broken relationships of the past. At the end of each workshop, facilitators set aside a time for individual testimonies, where participants can talk in a more personal way about what the workshop has meant to them. During this session, it is not uncommon to see a perpetrator stand up and ask another participant for forgiveness, or watch a survivor tearfully forgive the person who killed her family members. Of course, not everyone is moved to pardon others or seek absolution, and that is alright. But for those who are ready to go down this path, it brings tremendous relief and closure. While HROC on its own cannot bring reconciliation, as you will see in the testimonies below, it has indeed created a space wherein reconciliation is finally possible.

Before we [survivors and released prisoners] could not even talk to each other or sit next to each other, but after the workshop we could talk. The one who killed my family asked for forgiveness, explained what he did and accepted it. It was not easy for me to forgive him, but I did and little by little he became close to me. And then, the killers told us where the bodies of our lost family members were, and then we could go find the remains and bury them properly. After HROC, I found out where my sisters were and buried them, and many others were found. - Zinucinda Simon, survivor

Before the workshop, I didn’t think I could ever forgive the killers, but when one of the released prisoners told the whole truth in the workshop I was able to forgive and gained many things. The killers asked for forgiveness, they got down on their knees and asked God, the government, and the survivors for forgiveness…Many of my friends in the workshop forgave the killers. My anger has diminished. When I have drinks, I share them with the killers…I remember the trust walk when the person who killed my family was my partner. [During the genocide, she witnessed this man kill her two brothers with a machete and her younger sister with a spear.] I was shaking before because my partner was a known killer and very strong. I thought he might throw me down, but he also had fear and he took me gently, kindly. I asked him ‘will you lead me in peace.’ After the trust walk with him, I felt it was not good to stay in my grief and had no fear against him. - Nyirabyimana Venancie, survivor

I have known the Pasteur [Nyirinkindi Théophile, participant] since childhood and he is a neighbor… In my area there were 28 people which I helped to kill. I did not kill anyone myself, but brought people to a place where others killed them, and among those were the Pasteur’s mother and 2 of his children… After the genocide, the Pasteur was very bad. He lost his family and was angry and could not talk to the killers. He could not talk to me. Now he is our friend and has helped many people who did wrong during the war to accept what they did. He told me that in order to be free I must accept what I did and seek forgiveness. Now I live with survivors in peace. I share with them, help on wedding days, build houses together, cultivate together. Everything because of the Pasteur… [Since HROC] many things are changing; killers are asking for forgiveness; people are living in peace. I know two other released prisoners who have attended the workshop, and they have changed. They kneel down and ask for forgiveness. They admit they did wrong and promise to never do it again. - Damaceni Jean, non-participant who knows participant

[I have forgiven] everybody I met. After the workshop I had received 12 letters from killers who asked for forgiveness and I forgave them. I baptized my child this last day and four among [the people who helped with the ceremony] were among the ones I had forgiven… I have peace in my heart… In my daily life, people say they are surprised by how I have changed, surprised to see me go to prisons, share food at my home with killers, hire killers to work in my garden. In the meetings of other cells, I have been invited to resolve conflicts. Through my teachings, there have been many killers who have asked for forgiveness and survivors who have forgiven. - Pasteur Nyirinkindi Théophile, survivor

When I came to the workshop I had difficulty seeing the killers. For the first day people were angry and saying bad things to them. I refused to sit with the released prisoners, but as the workshop continued and we did the Big Wind Blows exercise, we were mixed together… I think I was chosen because I was among the survivors who could not be changed. Even the first day I resisted, but as time went on I changed. The man who killed my sister was at the workshop. The first day we couldn’t talk, but on the third day he asked for forgiveness and I forgave him. - Kanyabashi Anastase, survivor

Long-Term Effects
Perhaps one of the most important questions posed during the interviews was whether or not people had seen any changes in their neighborhood since the workshop. The answers were astounding. In addition to the great individual transformations we saw, we found that HROC had, in fact, had an impact on entire communities. During the second day of the workshop, facilitators lead a discussion on what participants can do to help others. Participants are asked to think about what has helped them heal personally and to consider ways to relieve the pain of others. A brief lecture is given on the best ways to listen to someone who is traumatized and how to deal with volatile emotions, either their own or someone else’s. It is clear from our interviews that this lesson resonated with the participants. From counseling others, to educating friends and family about trauma, to resolving neighborhood conflicts, to forming associations, HROC participants have taken what they have learned and brought it into their communities with great passion and enthusiasm. Participants have become role models to friends, family, and neighbors and are finding innovative ways to spread the message of HROC to those around them.

People come to me for help. One woman who was very angry and disturbed came to me to talk about her problems. She was staying in bed all day and got in fights with people. I talked to this woman. Both Hutus and Tutsis come to me. I help them by showing them a good heart, by listening, by talking together, and by telling them about my own trauma. - Kansayisa Clémentine, survivor

They [HROC participants] have been very helpful. People now greet each other. Now we live as we were before the war. The participants have acted as examples and taught people what they learned. Before the war, we could not imagine meeting with the other ethnicity or the people who have wronged us. They have brought light to our community. - Nahontuye Jean Pierre, non-participant living with participant

Even before the workshop, there were some things I was doing, helping the killers to understand the crimes they committed and showing them that the government was wrong to encourage them to kill. After HROC, I continued to do this. I advised those going to gacaca to speak the truth gently so they do not hurt survivors and traumatize them more. Everywhere I went I tried to tell people to put themselves in the place of the survivors. Even many people have accepted their sins because of what I told them…People feel like they can come to me for help. - Ndangamira François, released prisoner

They [facilitators] helped us make an association called “Let Us Make Reconciliation and Truth”…they elected me as president and a released prisoner as vice president… Everyone is really involved. We’ve talked to a facilitator, had six meetings, and formally asked FRP for more workshops. We want to be trained as trainers and then we can help the killers tell the truth. We want to go to different sectors and help others…The association is a seed, which we hope will grow and it is a result of the workshop. Many people now want to be participants of the workshop. This will help bring reconciliation.
- Kanyabashi Anastase, survivor

To see people with such a hunger and thirst to rebuild things here was very important to me. The workshop helped me to change my feelings. It helped me to feel like I could marry a woman from a different ethnic group. I was talking to my friends and they were saying how they could never marry the other group. Now my girlfriend is of the other ethnicity and people give me a hard time, but I have changed some of my friends’ opinions…I feel like I can be a model to others…I use the HROC in my life when I am with youth…. I try to get people to accept what has happened to them. I try to help people find their own solutions. - Nshirizirana Jean, facilitator

When I am holding cell meetings, I show people what they lost and what they did, and they understand. I told my wife and friends about what I learned…I am the first vice president of gacaca and a judge. The workshop helped me; what I learned in the workshop helped me in gacaca. I learned to forgive from HROC and I learned compassion and not to take sides…I try to tell survivors to forgive and not seek revenge and show them that what happened is not the end of life. Now I have a compassionate heart and even bring food to people in prison. I like to talk to them…There are many changes in the community. Now people invite each other to baptisms, weddings, feasts, and bring people together more and build love. Even Hutus are now saying that Tutsis are good, because they have lost many and can still forgive…We started an association and have collected money for it, elected a survivor as president and a released prisoner as vice president. We want to teach unity and reconciliation, we will cultivate gardens together, do income-generation projects and help people with their finances, help the very poor among us. We will share, welcome each other, and live in peace. - Ndarisamye Esdras, survivor

Many changes can be seen in how men say their wives are behaving better. When there is peace in families, there is peace everywhere. There were problems in the community before, bad relationships. People are different and behavior is different. People used to have fear and relationships were broken. People feared their friends and neighbors. Now people ask for help from one another and there is a good atmosphere… Each day is a good step. You see people of different ethnicities getting married, people have formed associations. Learning does not finish. It is a continuous process. - Mukeshimana Laurent, non-participant who is a district leader

I asked the government to use a room in the sector building once a week on Wednesday to counsel people – released prisoners, survivors, people in conflict. Some come for trauma, others for conflict, and many widows come and I help people with their problems. The National Committee of Unity and Reconciliation saw what I was doing and trained me in reconciliation…Now there are three associations in the community, there are survivors and killers together, but before the workshop it would not be like that…After the workshops people put into practice what they learned. When they come home, even the men had to play the games they learned in the workshop. When you go at school, you see the children playing the same games. – Pasteur Nyirinkindi Théophile, survivor.