This is the fourth in a five-part series on Somatic Experiencing® in the heart of Africa. In the previous entry, Jonathan's work in Africa revealed the need for cross-cultural understanding in order to discover and share our bodies' innate knowledge and ability to heal trauma.
Part 4: Healing the Post-colonial Wound
During my earliest months in Rwanda, one of my biggest pleasures was early-morning walks. Not far from the house where I was staying was a large and mostly unused golf-course, and the valley that it was in had a lovely, tree-lined dirt road that ran through it. The presence of the trees, the smell of the air, the feeling of the earth beneath my feet during those early morning walks made an important contribution to my sense of wellbeing and groundedness.
One morning as I was walking, I noticed that there was a young man ahead of me who was slowing down, as though he wanted to talk. When we were almost side by side, he turned to me and engaged:
“I saw you walking earlier,” he said, “and I was so surprised!”
“Really?” I asked. “Why were you surprised?”
“Because you were walking!” he replied.
“Why would it surprise you that I was walking?” I asked.
“Because you are a Muzungu,” he said, referring to my European ancestry. “You are rich, and you should be driving in a car.” I couldn't believe what I was hearing. “And not only that, but you are walking so early in the morning!” It was about 7:30 a.m. at the time and most of the city had been out and about for over an hour.
I felt the pit of my stomach sinking as he went on to tell me how god loved people of European descent more than Africans, and so he made the Muzungus intelligent and rich. It was in this moment that I began to grasp the full extent of the post-colonial wound.
In those early months in Rwanda, I got to experience first-hand how the kind of dehumanization that came with colonialism affects all those who come into contact with it, albeit in different ways. And while I found the embodied approach of Somatic Experiencing to be invaluable to me in helping track, manage, and regulate my own visceral and emotional responses to the post-colonial wound, I found it even more helpful in clinical and educational settings in this regard.
When I first started giving SE®-based workshops with groups in Rwanda, I found myself wondering how I could share whatever knowledge that I had without falling into the role of the “outsider who knows better.” Once the workshops were underway, I realized that this was not a problem after all— my role was to support participants in the discovery of their own embodied wisdom. As we sat there together exploring sensations, images, and experiences of being alive, the decades-old gap between “those who knew” and “those who needed to be taught” was able to soften, crumble, and fall away. We were there together on a mutual exploration of the experience of life.
One day last summer, I was sitting with a man in the office where he worked. He was going to be getting married that summer, and we were working on helping him come back to a fuller experience of vitality, equilibrium, and inner coherence. When we had first met, he had told me the upsettingly common story about how god had blessed the Muzungus. Yet as we sat there together, attuning to and tracking felt experiences of life, something important shifted. Something new came into the room: something quieter, deeper, and wiser than any notions about ethnicity, race, or the uneven distribution of divine love.
A shared experience of felt humanity took hold. And while it was true that fate had landed us in radically different social, economic, and cultural circumstances, we were able to sit there together as two sentient human beings, each fundamentally entitled to dignity, respect, and compassionate human connection.
As our time together drew to a close, this man that I was working with said to me: “Now that we have sat together, I can see something new. I can see that god made all of us, African or Muzungu, as equal.”
Author 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.