Expect the Unexpected: AGLI at Work

In 2003 the African Great Lakes Initiative developed the Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) program to bring individual and societal healing to Hutu and Tutsi involved in deadly conflict in Rwanda and Burundi. The hope was to restore normal human relationships which had occurred before the violence.

The First Unexpected Development

When we followed up to assess the effects of our workshops on the participants’ lives, we received numerous testimonies on healing and reconciliation, as expected. However, we also received testimonies like the following:

After the workshop that I attended, I wished that my husband would get this extraordinary chance too. Fortunately, God answered my prayers! He participated in the last one you conducted. My home has become a paradise! Before we attended these workshops, my husband was always furious. He was treating us as slaves. My home was a hell. Since he had participated in the HROC workshop, he has now time for the children and me. When he comes from work, he greets us, tells us how things have been for him and asks us how we have been doing too (which he never did before). Now he consults me before making any decision. You understand that there is a reason for me to be this joyful woman.

Testimonies like this mystified us. The workshop did not address marital problems and family violence. However, when a person is traumatized—angry, bitter, depressed, isolated—then he or she is quite likely to take his or her frustrations out on family members. Relieving the trauma
removes a cause of family strife. And a renewed, peaceful family life contributes to a calmer community.

A Second Unexpected Development

Many non-government organizations focus their work on established community leaders. With our grassroots workshops, we found this was not a useful strategy. Those leaders were too busy to attend regularly during their training workshops (normally three days long) and did not have the time to lead HROC workshops in the future. For example, we once had a government minister attend a basic HROC workshop, but she was continually being called on her cell phone and had to frequently leave the workshop to respond. Another time we trained a chief (a government official in Kenya) as a facilitator. He could rarely get away for three days to lead a workshop.

As a result, when we are looking for possible candidates for HROC facilitators, we look for people who, as Florence Ntakarutimana from Burundi says, have the “heart” for trauma healing work. Upon return to their home communities, they, along with other HROC team members: conduct apprentice HROC workshops, work with people on family issues, and help resolve conflicts in their community.

The unexpected surprise for us was learning that soon after these people return to their communities and become active, they become community leaders.

For example, in 2015, Peace and Democracy Groups were formed in Burundi from participants in HROC workshops. When demonstrations against the president of Burundi broke out and turned violent in the town of Buterere, people asked the local Peace and Democracy Group to step in. The standing of the group in the community and their reputation for impartiality enabled them to successfully defuse the situation and prevent more violence.

Realizing Potential

Although we had seen unexpected results from our HROC workshops, and we knew that experienced and active HROC facilitators became community leaders, it was not until Felicite Nyonzima’s brave announcement that we realized the tremendous potential of workshops based on the HROC model.

In 2005 Felicite Nyonzima stood up in church and announced that she was HIV+. To do so implicated her spouse or her as having “sinned” with sex outside of marriage. As soon as she did this, other women came quietly to her to say that they were also HIV+. She soon realized that living with HIV was a major social issue for the Quaker Church in Burundi.

We were challenged to adapt the HROC workshop for those who are suffering from the trauma of being HIV+. The workshop was modified to include lessons on healthy living.

After our success with using the HROC model to develop workshops for HIV+ individuals, we (or our project partners) designed workshops for:

  • rape and gender violence survivors
  • women prisoners about to be released into the communities where they had committed crimes
    the second generation of youth who were either very young or not yet born at the time of violence—a much more difficult group to handle since they have no concrete knowledge of what happened and normally their parents tell them nothing
  • mid-wives (birth companions) who have had babies and/or mothers die under their care;
  • the deaf community
  • the marginalized Twa communities in Rwanda and Burundi

and we have several exciting targeted workshops planned for the future.

By David Zarembka

This article is featured in the Fall-Winter edition of PeaceWays. Click here to read more.