by Mulanda Jimmy Juma
Traumatic exposure is very common for people like me from DR Congo and other war-effected countries. I experienced armed violence as a child, lost loved ones to violence and was forced to flee my home as a refugee. I came to understand trauma as something we could and should respond to by studying at the Africa Peacebuilding Institute, and later learning trauma healing methodologies like Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR), developed by Eastern Mennonite University, and Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC), an approach pioneered by Rwandan and Burundian Friends.
Trauma healing focuses on the wounds of the heart, the wounds inside us that not only hurt us but can damage our relationships with others. If we do not share healing with the wounded, the wounded will share their wounds with us. The need for this work is great: organizations like MCC need to support community-led strategies, rather than relying heavily on outside specialists who can never fully address the need.
HROC is a model of community trauma healing developed in Rwanda and adapted to our contexts here in DR Congo. HROC trainings help people understand the river of life, the journeys that people go through with many ups and downs to lead them to where they are today, supporting them in charting a more positive path forward after exposure to traumatic events. MCC and its partners use HROC in North and South Kivu in eastern DR Congo to help people name and understand how they have been impacted by different traumatizing events, how they can cope with trauma and pain and how as a community they can overcome difficult experiences and move forward in lifegiving ways.
The HROC approach mobilizes the larger community to heal together, rather than only working with people as isolated individuals. The program is built on a series of intensive workshops tailored to the resources and needs of each community. The first workshop introduces trauma healing as a concept and connects it to their experiences and culture. The second begins to help them care for themselves. The third prepares them to help others go through a similar process of healing and transformation.
The HROC approach is valuable because it works at both the individual and community levels. HROC applies the ubuntu principle: I am because you are. One cannot be fully healed alone. Everyone has a unique story and learns to understand their own river of life and how to cope with the ups and downs they face. However, the community must be activated for deeper healing and resilience to support others who have been through similar situations. Resilience builds on the resources available in the community and local culture. In some cases, HROC workshops can contribute toward reconciliation by bringing together groups of people who have been in conflict to restore their relations.
Success from the HROC approach is seen most clearly through individual stories. In 2018, we introduced HROC workshops in Tshikapa alongside humanitarian aid distributions. I remember a female participant who was always visibly down when she came to distributions. One could read stress on her face, in her eyes and in her body language. After the first workshop, she began to markedly change. She began to smile again. She found a constructive way to tell her story. Before she would just break into tears, but now she could tell her story positively and help mobilize others. HROC’s success in this woman’s case was her transformation from someone who was down, angry and crying now to someone who now has hope, is smiling and can tell her story and help others.
I also see success when reconciliation takes place. After workshops, I see people once again able to eat, interact and work together. Not every workshop is a success for every participant right away. Healing from exposure to traumatic events takes time. We do not want to rush to say that trauma response has failed because we do not see immediate transformation. It takes time for some people to deal with their past. The intensity and duration of the trauma people have undergone can impact how long healing takes: healing can also take longer when people are still living in a context of unending violence. Some argue that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not an appropriate construct in contexts in which one can never truly be post exposure.
Adapting trauma healing models to the culture and context is essential. I have seen examples of outside experts who do not understand the culture and context and who in turn make things worse, leading to retraumatization and conflict. The basic principles may be universal, but we cannot copy and paste strategies between countries or cultures, even within the same region. Every culture has existing ways of helping people heal and cope.
These local resilience strategies are often not documented or known outside the community. For example, women in some rural areas spend time at the river sharing stories of what they go through in life and supporting each other as they share painful stories. If you bring a trauma healing model from outside without taking local cultural and other contextual factors into consideration you can override resources people already have and make things worse. For example, if a health project tells women to no longer collect water at the river, this may unknowingly eliminate a source of community resilience.
We must start by seeing what has been unique and helpful in each context for addressing trauma before we bring something from the outside. HROC was developed in neighboring Rwanda, but Rwanda is a different context from DR Congo, and DR Congo has a wide variety of diverse contexts: trauma healing approaches must be adapted and appropriately contextualized for each community.
My advice to people interested in trauma healing work is to be careful. Do not promise healing if all you are doing is raising awareness. Do not come into a new context you do not understand and start facilitating workshops based on some supposedly ‘universal’ model. You must spend significant time in a context and culture to learn before you can be helpful: trauma healing trainers coming from outside the context should co-facilitate with someone from the context who can help with adaptation and cultural translation.
We must also avoid generalizing people’s experiences. For example, we must avoid saying that everyone from a war-torn country is traumatized. Such claims are not true and can in fact be damaging. Everyone responds to trauma differently: we should respect this. We also need to take religion and religious values seriously in trauma healing work. In many communities we work in, Christianity can be a resource for hope and for coping with trauma. We must build on people’s sources of strength and resilience: religious commitment, practice and community are often such essential sources.
HROC has been useful in DR Congo because it can be adapted to each local context and helps both individuals and communities understand themselves and move forward positively together.
Mulanda Jimmy Juma is MCC representative for DR Congo and Angola, living in Goma.
This article was first published in MCC’s Spring 2021 Intersections: MCC theory & practice under the title, “Community Healing: using the Healing and Rebuilding our communities approach in DR Congo.” You can read the full volume here.
Banner image: Scenic landscape looking out towards Lake Kivu from Mosho III village in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (MCC photo/Matthew Lester)