Noetic Now

About Noetic Now »

« Previous Post Next Post »

Social Healing: Rwanda Has Much to Teach Us

by James O'Dea

On a recent trip to Rwanda to explore how societies heal from massive collective trauma, violent conflict, and human rights abuse, I was shocked to find more evidence of societal healing than I could have imagined possible.

When Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front entered Kigali, the capitol of Rwanda, sixteen years ago, they faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. A million people had been murdered in a genocide instigated by a Hutu-led government; hundreds of thousands of orphans roamed the countryside homeless and terrified; tens of thousands of rape victims and others who had been tortured and mutilated were in need of medical and psychological assistance; two million refugees, including people who had committed genocidal atrocities, had fled across the border; and the banks had been robbed by the departing government. Yet in a relatively short time span the nation is healing in ways that inspire awe and in ways that have much to teach us about social healing.

In exploring societal healing we begin with narrative: How are the key benchmarks of the past framed, what is included and what is omitted? What are the other contrasting narratives of the same events? How are root causes defined and how is blame apportioned? How has the victim-perpetrator dynamic played out over time? How do past events continue to impact current and future conditions? Where are particular narratives reinforced and supported or denied and challenged? What is publicly memorialized or scratched from the historical record? What is the perception of how conditions have been transformed or not?

Narrative will also be strongly influenced by cultural and political environments, variables such as changing economic conditions and shifts in worldview. Thankfully, yesterday’s narrative is not necessarily tomorrow’s.

Narrative serves as the context for a deeper exploration of truth – from establishing facts to creating dialogue between highly divergent narratives about past events. It helps us to gain insight into whether wounds are hidden and unhealed; whether or not they are the source of post-traumatic stress disorders; and whether they are transmitted across generations or fomenting more conflict. Inevitably, truth has both objective and subjective components and social healing has to create space for the acceptance of both. When we are able to feel heard in the narration of our experience of how events unfolded and our perception and even belief about what was happening, we are able to move into dialogic space where other narratives can be heard and appraised. Experiencing these dimensions of truth is a necessary precursor for any kind of reconciliation to begin. Interestingly, we now understand that when people feel they are being listened to, their bodies show significant indicators of relaxation which are not present when they do not think they are being heard.

The Rwandan government set about changing the narrative of Hutu and Tutsi enmity and they used a variety of means to do so. They promoted village level meetings to discuss what had happened – how things were before they were incited to hatred. They formed school clubs and did massive public education work aimed at unification. They reinstituted their own traditional village courts oriented toward deep community engagement in restorative justice approaches rather than seeking more punitive and vengeful approaches. They formed a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission which stimulated a broad range of activities to support a new narrative of unity for the country.

70,000 people accused of genocide have been processed through the gacaca, as the indigenous justice system is called. Communities participate in finding truth and in reconciling with neighbors on a scale unparalleled in human history. Today, more than half the population identify first as Rwandans before they even consider whether they have another identity such as Hutu or Tutsi – which before the colonial intervention had more to do with the number of cows you owned than your physical beauty or intelligence.

Rwanda still has its challenges. The generation that witnessed its parents massacred is now in its twenties and showing signs of unresolved trauma. I am in discussion with the government about how best to begin a national training program in trauma recovery. I feel hopeful that the deepest scars in the psyche of Rwanda will heal and that, in doing so, it will show the way for a world still locked into punitive and vengeful ideologies.

Global Shift, Worldview
  • Lightfiend Oct 01, 2010

    Very, very interesting article. However there was one question that ruffled my feathers a little bit:

    "How has the victim-perpetrator dynamic played out over time?"

    I think this can sometimes be a misleading question to ask, because it frames sociology as if there always has to be some kind of victim-perpetrator relationship. Of course, there is always conflict in our society, but assigning labels like "victim" and "perpetrator" can perpetuate resentment.

    Just my little tidbit, otherwise this article is fantastic!

  • Anonymous Icon

    julieu Oct 24, 2010

    Mr. O'Dea,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful blog. It is coincidental (hmmm?) that I happened on to it. Last Monday my daughter left for a two year assignment in the Peace Corp for Rwanda. She will be going there to teach science to secondary students. My own background as a licensed counselor and registered nurse has included working as a disaster mental health responder. I recognize that she is going to have a unique and no doubt difficult assignment, but focusing on resilience and strengths in community such as you discussed will serve her well and help her to contribute to her new community as well!

  • Anonymous Icon

    lifedancer7 Nov 04, 2010

    Bravo Mr. O'Dea,
    I have just returned from Rwanda as part of a team from Four of us who are trained in energy psychology & other healing modalities did trauma healing work with genocide orphans in a high school in a remote mountain area high above Kigali. 500 orphans, both Hutu & Tutsi, live together in two dorms. When Lori Leyden, the founder, started working there a little over two years ago, most of the youth had never spoken to anyone about their experiences during the genocide. There were many severe trauma episodes every week. We were just told that there have been no severe trauma outbursts for the last year. I have never met young people with the capacity to love that these survivors exhibit. Their thirst for knowledge & determination to overcome the horrendous obstacles created by abject poverty are beyond inspirational. Can you imagine what would happen in our ghettos & barrios if, when the Mayor says "Peace," the crowd answers as one voice, "Tolerance, Reconciliation, Prosperity & Unity?" The gifts of hope, love & inspiration that the Rwandan people gave me outweigh anything I can offer them. That is not to say that their needs are not tremendous. We will be returning after the first of the year to open the first grassroots International Youth Healing Center in Kigali. We would so appreciate dialog with you since the first component of our center is to be trauma healing, & our model of individual healing & then peer counselor training has already shown excellent results. Lori's contact information is at We also see Rwanda as an example of how the human spirit can overcome the most heinous atrocities & move toward peace. Thank you for your efforts. Kathryn Brewer, MFT, LEP. ~

Stay in touch with IONS