How an initiative is helping survivors find healing through therapy
The dark past of Rwanda’s history left many wounds in the hearts of survivors. It’s been 27 years since the horror of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi happened but many are still grappling with the trauma.
Mental health issues have been persistent in haunting those who survived.
It is in this regard that Master Dean Siminoff, the president of the Canadian Charity Martial Arts for Justice initiated Enhanced Resilience Training (ERT), a unique and proven method of mind and body training that helps reset the nervous system after experiencing trauma, subsequently leading to healing.
It was early this year that he introduced the training to the Association des Veuves du Genocide – AVEGA AGAHOZO (an association helping widows, orphans and others who lost family members in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi), with a mission to help them fight trauma.
The unique training involves a mix of theory and physical activities which act as a remedy of trauma by resetting the nervous system.
Since trauma affects the body by trapping energy in the nervous system, which causes various PTSD symptoms, the physical training allows the energy to be let out and end the trauma symptoms.
So far, 120 widows from Rusizi District have benefited from the training. The program anticipates to reach out to more than 400 women before the end of the year.
Beneficiaries share their journey
Xaverine Mujawayezu, a 60-year-old widow, lost her entire family during the genocide including her husband and all of her five children.
She narrates that some of her members were buried alive in a pit while others were thrown in a dam. This horrific event made her live in denial as she kept on hoping that one day she was going to see her loved ones again.
“As years elapsed, I kept on imagining how my children would have grown up to be, this is a great grief as a parent. What hurt me most is that apart from one photo of my husband, I wasn’t able to retrieve any photos of other loved ones including my children,” she says.
Mujawayezu, who is now a retired teacher, says encountering such grief without any definite solution is what brings the trauma.
Through Enhanced Resilience Training however, she says her life has started changing.
She says she has grown to love it because it incorporates discussions, explanations and methods that are going to help them cope in their lives as survivors.
“When a problem becomes insurmountable, it tends to dissociate you with your inner self, but as you go through these exercises, I have realised that I am now in position to bring back my thoughts on the right path. This will help me regain my lost identity and sense of direction,” she admits.
The women have a mantra “I am beautiful, I am strong, I am loved and I am valued” which they recite during the training. According to Mujawayezu, this helps inform the brain that she is strong and still a human being just like others.
At her age, the training has enabled her to find strength and energy which wasn’t the case before. She says she hopes to use the same strategy and reach out to others, especially the elderly.
45-year-old Alice (not real name) was only a teenager when the genocide started. She was captured and taken to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where she was held hostage and raped on many accounts, as she recalls.
As a result, she ended up pregnant and later returned back home after giving birth.
Her child became a burden to her because every time she saw him, the ordeal kept on haunting her.
“I suffered from depression as it was hard to accept the reality. After joining the training, I started healing. At our age, the training does not only help us to be fit but also keeps us off from dwelling on negative thoughts because the training is not only about the body but also the mind. When you go back home after the training, there is this feeling that makes you feel like human again,” she says.
57-year- old Faina Mukamurenzi, President of Avega association in Rusizi says after the genocide and the trauma, the last thing she would have thought of is physical training, especially with her age.
She however says, the training has proved to be of great value for her life and that of other survivors.
“ERT is now proving that anyone can be active both physically and mentally. The exercises help us feel safe and build trust in our trainers as well as the training itself,” she says.
More than just exercise
Blaise Nyiribakwe, an ERT Certified Instructor for the training says their core principle for the journey of healing to be successful is for all beneficiaries to be able to break free from their boundaries and get involved in all training sessions.
Nyiribakwe notes that beneficiaries demonstrated a remarkable shift from serious Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that the physical sessions especially worked to improve their mental and physical condition.
Majority of participants showed a bit more serious level of trauma but while taking part in physical activities they had an attitude of excitement and they also showed positive results especially the recovery of their mental and bodily function, he says.
Siminoff says ERT is essential for the women because PTSD resulting from traumatic events can be crippling, preventing one from having a productive life.
ERT, he explains, uses the most recent scientific research such as the Polyvagal theory that shows how bodies are affected by trauma and guides on how to reset the body’s nervous system using the ERT methodology.
This allows people to have freedom and a new sense of power in their lives, Siminoff says.
“These women are our mothers, they are the head of every family and household. If they are not healthy, this will have a negative effect on the entire family and there are reports of generational trauma, symptoms of PTSD showing up in our young people,” he adds.
Valerie Mukabayire, President of AVEGA AGAHOZO says there is need for continuous training for these women to improve resilience and management of trauma.
“As they grow old, there are many conditions they develop as a result of ageing which hinder them from going on with their daily activities. This training is therefore helpful in fighting trauma and at the same time, keep them strong.”