Blue Sky, Red Earth: Somatic Experiencing in the Heart of Africa

by: FHE Admin

Part 1: The Collective Healing Vortex

Claudine is sitting on the sofa in her living room. Through the open window, traffic from the nearby road can be faintly heard, and the wind is swaying the billowy white curtains. Claudine's eyes are closed, and her hand is gently caressing the soft, brown, velvety fabric of the sofa she is sitting on. There is a gentle smile on her face, and the lines of tension on her forehead are softening for the first time in what may be years.

Like many thousands of people in Rwanda, Claudine* is a survivor of the genocide of 1994 that shook the country to its roots. Having lived for weeks on end as a constant fugitive, suffering the loss of family, friends, and possibly her faith in humankind, Claudine bears the scars of one of the twentieth century's most dramatically horrific events. The Somatic Experiencing® work that we are doing together, though, is providing her with a vital new sense of possibility: both for herself and for the community in which she lives and works.

claudineRwanda is a small country in the center of Africa, roughly the size of the state of Maryland. The country is landlocked and its mountainous terrain is home to one of the most densely populated nations in Africa. In 1994 political tensions that had been simmering for decades erupted into one of the most horrific events of the twentieth century— a genocide in which nearly one million people were killed.

I first came to Rwanda in the winter of 2012 determined to offer what help I could and to learn as much as possible about trauma, resilience, and healing from the people of this country. Before arriving, I had imagined that the therapeutic work that I would do here would be mostly in a one-on-one setting. Yet at the same time, I realized that it would be almost impossible to know ahead of time what kind of work would be most effective, given that the culture and environment was going to be so new to me.

When I first arrived, there was a lot to learn in a very short time. I quickly discovered that no matter what people had been through, admitting the need for emotional support was very hard to do. During the first weeks that I was here, I would explain to people that I was a psychotherapist by profession, and that I could help them work through some of the psychological trauma that they had been through. They thanked me very politely, and ran far, far away.

As time went on, I came to understand that while there was a great taboo on acknowledging psychological distress, there was seemingly no stigma attached to psychosomatic symptoms. Headaches, backaches, and stomach problems were all perfectly acceptable to acknowledge in connection with trauma. From then on, I began explaining to people that I could help them heal the way that trauma was living on in their bodies— and people were interested. From then on, interventions based on SE® became a centerpiece of the work that I was to do in Rwanda.

teamworkI eventually came to learn that the biggest motivating factor for people to engage in healing work was not to help themselves, but rather to help each other. We began organizing community trauma-healing workshops, where members of communities and local organizations learned SE-based stabilization techniques that they could use to help themselves— and to help each other.

If there is one thing that I have learned in my time in Rwanda, it is that the collective dimension of the healing vortex is essential. By strengthening our communal ability to care for each other and care for ourselves, we are doing what may be the single most important thing in creating a better world.

There are moments when I wonder if all the work that I am doing here will amount to anything, given the extraordinary amount of trauma to be found. But if in telling these stories I can somehow add energy to the collective web of healing that we are all a part of, I will have considered my work here a success.

Next > Part 2: Supporting the Reconciliation Process
This is the first in a five-part series. In the next installment, Jonathan meets restorative justice workers on the Rwandan-Congolese border and sees first-hand how relentless trauma has worn them down.
Jump to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Jonathan NattelAuthor Jonathan Nattel is a psychotherapist from Canada who has extensive international and cross-cultural experience. With backgrounds in psychology, anthropology, music, and pedagogy, his work is focused on the relationship between mind, body, community, and nature. A former clinician at the Center for Somatic Psychotherapy in San Francisco, he currently runs the Rwanda Counseling Project for HOPEthiopia/Rwanda.

Photos courtesy Jonathan Nattel, used with permission.

Comment (1)
  1. William Nattel

    Bravo Jon, well done. I just read your amazing article and will continue with the next in the series. I found it on Facebook. Your article is clearly written, easy to understand.
    Looking forward to seeing you soon.

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