Breaking the Silence of Shame and Grief

Katie Scrafford has a hard time not crying when she talks about the handkerchiefs that some Rwandan women use to express their grief — drawing on the cloth pictures of sorrows they could not speak of.

Katie, MS ’11, a graduate of AUNE’s Marriage and Family Therapy program, returned in August from a year in Rwanda. There she interned with the International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights agency helping victims of slavery, sexual exploitation, and other violence. Katie worked with Baraka Uwingeneye, client care director at IJM Rwanda, on a team counseling parents whose daughters—some of them as young as two years old—had been raped. Recently, she told about her experience at AUNE.

Desperate need for counselors
Mental health counseling is in its infancy in Rwanda where, fifteen years ago, there were just two psychiatrists for the country’s eight million people. But it is desperately needed. In 1994, in this small country, about one million people were murdered in ethnic violence—roughly seven people a minute throughout one hundred days of violence. Rape was also a weapon of violence, often used to deliberately infect women with HIV/AIDs. Two-thirds of the women raped during the genocide were infected with HIV/AIDS.

Although the Rwandan government is now committed to promoting gender equality and child protection, rape traditionally diminishes a woman’s value, and these women and children are often persecuted, particularly by the perpetrator’s family. “The courage of parents bringing their child’s abuse to the police is tremendous, because they’re often harassed by the community,” Katie said. “Just as it is in the United States, it will take time for values about women to change at a cultural level.”

Last November, IJM started its first counseling group of eleven clients, led by Katie and two contract counselors. Katie had expected her internship to be limited to paperwork. “But Baraka was so passionate about it,” she said. “There was no way she was going to have a person on her team who wasn’t doing counseling.”

It was not easy. Katie said that both the Rwandan government and citizens are striving for reconciliation, and the many government-led and citizen-led organizations assisting survivors and conventions to promote unity among the young generation are fostering the country’s reconstruction. “But healing is a long, complicated process, and broken trust among Rwandans creates a silence under which tribalism can continue,” she said.

No words
Language was a barrier, in more ways than one. Katie did not speak Kinyarwanda, the indigenous language. “And Kinyarwanda does not have many words for emotional experience because you don’t talk about that,” she said. There is no word for “courage” or “trauma” in Kinyarwanda, and so the group started out by trying to define such words. The women were hungry for a chance to talk, in a safe place, about how grief and shame affected their everyday lives. “This is our daily experience,” they told the counselors. “The conversation we are having today is saving our lives.”

Katie returns to Rwanda next month to volunteer with True Vineyard Ministries, helping genocide widows to get out of poverty. She hopes to also spend time working again with IJM, in a program to train local nurses and pastors as counselors.

Most rewarding for Katie was the relationships with people that she built. “I was so humbled realizing how little I know about what goes on in the human heart. I just hope any of the counseling we do will contribute to reconciliation.”