by Karen Carr
The 2004 Accra Trauma Healing Workshop brought healing to many African leaders. Two years later, the results are impacting others as well.
They came from Burundi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Every one of them had a personal story of trauma they had experienced in their hometown as the result of war and ethnic conflict. Sometimes the violence was caused by rebels seeking to destabilize a country and overthrow the ruling party. Sometimes it was related to two ethnic groups at odds with each other. Some of the violence resulted from tensions between Muslims and Christians. Some had been persecuted simply because of their faith.
Some were bitter; all were broken. And yet each and every one of them had hope that there could be healing both for them and for others. They had come to the 2004 Accra Trauma Healing Workshop1 in hopes that they would find that healing. They were all Christian leaders, some of whom were in authority over many thousands of people. They were pastors, translators, teachers and administrators. These were some of the traumas they faced:
From Burundi: “I was in a bus that was ambushed. All but four of us were injured. Over twenty people were killed.”
From Uganda: “I talked to a boy who had been kidnapped and turned into a child soldier. The children were ordered to club men and women to death. One boy was forced to be the first one to beat his mother. She was clubbed to death.”
From Nigeria: “My father was a pastor for forty-two years. We were getting ready to have a thanksgiving celebration for him because he had been retired for five years. I lost my father, sister-in-law and her six-year-old son in a raid on our village by Muslim fundamentalists just five days before the celebration. My father was shot and killed in front of his own house. I was on my way to see my father, but arrived late because my car was being worked on. By the time I arrived, my father had died.”
Again from Nigeria: “My house was burned down. My village was destroyed. All the people in my church were scattered. Two of my brothers were killed. My mother and one of my brothers fled into the bush. They were hiding in the bush for eight days, and during that time my brother was bitten by a poisonous snake. He was left for dead, but I got permission from the soldiers to get him out. We took him to the hospital and miraculously he is alive today.”
From Democratic Republic of Congo: “During the war, terrible things happened. [There was] the belief that if you raped a woman you wouldn’t be killed by your enemies. Many women were raped, sometimes with the use of inanimate objects. People were buried alive.”
From Chad: “When I was a child, I was taken prisoner along with my family and others from my village. We were marched through the bush for forty-five days. The children were naked. The fathers were in chains. Those who renounced their Christian faith were set free and those who didn’t were tortured. I saw one man being buried alive.”
From Sierra Leone: “It was a senseless war. Ideologies changed from day to day. Anyone who was disgruntled had a way to vent their hostilities. The atrocities rose to new levels. Two rebel soldiers wagered with each other over the gender of an unborn fetus. To find out who had won the bet, they disemboweled the woman, killing her and her unborn baby. People were told to clap when their houses were set on fire. Women were told to laugh when their children were killed. Rebel soldiers amputated people’s hands and arms — they had been told to bring bags of hands back to their leaders. One time I had to hide in my residence for seventeen days as bullets and bombs went off around me.”
From Côte d’Ivoire: “The government came to hunt out the rebels in our village. If someone was wearing a fetish around his or her neck, he or she was killed. The rebels raped our women. They would tie a man up and [they would] rape his wife and daughter in front of him. Because of a lack of money, some men sold their sisters into prostitution to bring in money for food for the family.”
From Liberia: “My family fled from the war in Liberia into Sierra Leone. Then we had to flee Sierra Leone because of the war there. The rebels shot my brother because he was a doctor and had treated government soldiers. We had to step over his body as we fled the rebels. My four-year-old son could not understand why his uncle wasn’t coming with us.”
These were the images and sounds that were etched into these Christians’ memories. Many tried to deal with their pain by ignoring it and concentrating on other things such as helping others and living as a Christian. But the wounds nonetheless festered.
THE FIRST WEEK
During the workshop we started each morning with a lesson which related to participants’ wounds and to how each could find healing. We looked at why God allows suffering, how emotional wounds can be healed, the process of grief and how to help people who are grieving. We also focused on how to help caregivers, children who are traumatized, women who have been raped and people living with AIDS. We looked at the process of taking our pain to the cross, forgiving those who have done us evil, dealing with ethnic conflicts and planning for times of crisis. Biblical passages were the foundation of teaching sessions that included lecture, large and small group discussion, role-playing and demonstrations, stories and case studies.
At the conclusion of each teaching session, individuals broke into separate language groups and began translating the lessons into their own language. These lessons would then be used as resources for workshop participants to use to help those in their own villages. The translations were checked by staff to ensure accuracy of translation and true understanding of the meaning of the material.
Participants also had the opportunity to ask questions of the professional counselors either in a group setting or one-on-one. During one session participants wrote songs of lament which expressed their pain. They then put these lyrics into a more traditional music composition and shared it with the group.
Each evening, a few individuals would come before the whole group and share their personal stories of trauma and pain. Although it is rare to find African men who cry publicly, some of the men began weeping as they shared their stories. For some, it was the first time they had ever talked publicly about what they had experienced. For many, it was the first time they had shared their pain without having someone either give them a pat answer or tell them to stop thinking about it. The group responded to each person by gathering around the individuals and offering encouragement and prayer.
THE SECOND WEEK
During the second week of the seminar, each person was given an opportunity to write down the experiences and feelings that were bringing the individual the most pain. After a time of personal reflection, participants paired up and shared these specific hurts. Afterward, a special ceremony was held where each person walked to the front of the room where there was a large wooden cross. Each person then laid the paper at the foot of the cross, symbolizing the act of giving his or her pain to Christ, who is the pain-bearer. The papers were then gathered up, taken outside and burned. Many participants quietly sang as they watched their pain being given over to Christ. There was a profound sense of peace and freedom within the group.
After the ceremony one man shared that ever since his house had been destroyed, he had been obsessed with drawing new house plans. He would draw plans over and over and then destroy them. Although his wife tried to help him stop, he felt he couldn’t change. After taking his wounds to the cross, this man testified that the destruction of his house was one of the things he had written on his paper and that he genuinely felt as though he had been released from his compulsion to draw house plans. “My sickness of ‘house’ has been healed,” he said.
Two nights after the ceremony we moved on to identifying where we ourselves were culpable. In the midst of trauma, many people have also done things they were ashamed of or actions they knew were wrong. Many in the group began to realize that they were still holding onto hatred and bitterness toward those who had harmed them, killed their family members, burned their homes and committed countless other atrocities. Although it was hard to let go of these emotions, it was important to healing. The hatred and bitterness were fuel for ongoing pain, deepening wounds and a desire for revenge. And these emotions seem to feed the continuing cycle of violence in so many countries.
Forgiveness is a central aspect of the Christian faith. Jesus forgave his persecutors as he died on the cross and he commanded us to likewise forgive our enemies. However, this is a command we all struggle with and are loathe to follow, especially when our persecutors have not asked for forgiveness and may even continue to harm us and enjoy our pain. Nonetheless, that evening we all wrote down areas where we needed forgiveness and once again took those things to the cross. In the testimonies afterwards, many shared that they felt they had now forgiven the ones who had hurt them the most deeply. For some, the transformation from anger to joy was apparent simply by looking at their faces.
THE END AND THE BEGINNING
We ended our time with a communion service. Although we came from many Christian denominations, both Protestant and Catholic, we set our doctrinal differences aside and took communion together. We were a unified group of brothers and sisters who had heard each other’s hearts and had helped to carry each other’s burdens. We made plans to both meet again and to offer similar seminars in their own language.
One always wonders about the long-term impact or effectiveness of a particular seminar. However, participants shared the following words about how the seminar had changed them.
From Nigeria: “This workshop on trauma has gone a long way to give me more hope and to remind me that God remains God. The need to forgive has also been impressed on my mind, and I think God has used the loss to give me a ministry of reconciliation. The seminar has changed me. My anger and sadness have nearly gone. I am going back to Nigeria happier than when I came.”
From Chad: “When I was an adolescent, I received blows during the traditional initiation. I saw Christians who were buried alive because of their faith in Christ. Now my colleagues persecute me because of my reputation as a Christian. These two situations have traumatized me. Indeed, I tried several times to forget and forgive, but the wounds paralyze my mind when I think about these things or when I meet these people. Praise the Lord because this workshop helped me to know my illnesses and myself. This workshop helped me to bring my pain and my wounds to the cross of Jesus and to be released totally. I can go back after this workshop with my soul appeased and my heart healed.”
From Côte d’Ivoire: “Now I understand why I was often angry. Also, now I see how to help others who have been traumatized. I now have freedom from anger and deep hate. ”
From Liberia: “I was able to forgive my brother that I had been angry with for a long time.”
From Burundi: “I work with the Free Methodist Church of Burundi as a district superintendent, a development head of department and [as an] HIV/AIDS program officer. Since December 2003, I launched a Reconciliation and Trauma Healing program among ex-rebels who are in cantonments waiting to be disarmed. The aim is to bring them together with the regular members of the army and the rest of the population so that they [will have] time to reconcile with each other. This has not been easy for me and for the whole team, [but] we are working together. We work in areas where everybody stays in camps of concentration because their villages were burned and they could not go back from 1993 up to now. There are also returnees who are coming back from neighboring countries. Fifteen percent of this population is suffering from HIV/AIDS because they were either raped or forced to do prostitution to get money to survive. Some questions they were asking me were: ‘Even if we ask for forgiveness, can God really forgive us?’, ‘Is he still loving us even when we have done such evil things?’ and ‘Is it possible that God will heal our inner wounds?’ Glory be to God! During the Accra Trauma Healing Workshop, all answers were given. Now I shall be useful in the ministry. I have answers for Burundians who have suffered. I shall also be able to encourage Burundians to learn to mourn the loss. I think now I shall be able to accompany some as they experience feelings of anger, denial, hopelessness and other things, until they find new beginnings.”
The three features which seemed to have the greatest impact on the group members were (1) the process of identifying wounds, (2) symbolically taking them to the cross (and thereby surrendering the hurt to a trusted source) and (3) choosing to forgive those who had caused their wounds. We live in a world filled with violence that has been perpetuated through the generations. We need to find a way to end the cycle of retaliation and revenge. Perhaps this is a start.
TWO YEARS LATER
A follow up to the Accra Trauma Healing Workshop was held in January 2006. The purpose of this workshop was to assess the results of the first Trauma Healing Workshop, to review the materials and to build training skills. Almost all the original participants returned with many stories of the Trauma Healing Workshops they had led in their hometowns and in their mother tongues. A total of fifty-seven seminars were held with 2,200 participants. An additional 157 people were trained to facilitate the workshop. By God’s grace, the work will continue and the ministry of healing and reconciliation will spread throughout Africa.
1. The materials from the 2005 revised edition of Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church Can Help were used as the primary teaching tool in this seminar.
Hill, Margaret, Harriet Hill, Richard Bagge and Pat Miersma. Revised Edition. 2005. Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church Can Help. Nairobi, Kenya: Pauline Publications Africa.
Karen Carr is a clinical psychologist in Accra, Ghana and works as the clinical director of the Mobile Member Care Team-West Africa, a multidisciplinary, inter-mission organization that provides workshops, crisis response and counseling for missionaries living in West Africa.
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