This is the second in a five-part series on Somatic Experiencing® in the heart of Africa. In Jonathan's first entry, he described his arrival in Rwanda and announcement of his intention to help, for which the locals “thanked me very politely, and ran far, far away.”
Part 2: Supporting the Reconciliation Process
The prison chaplains of Just.Equipping were crossing the border each morning for our SE®-based workshop. From where I was waiting for them on the Rwandan side of the border, gazing across Lake Kivu from a green, leafy, garden-decked road, it was hard for me to imagine the mayhem going on just a few hundred yards away in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Just.Equipping is a Canadian-based organization that works in the field of restorative justice. When I first met their founders, we talked about the psychosocial needs of their staff: Just.Equipping had reconciliation workers in Rwanda as well as the DRC— and both groups were in need of psychosocial support. The Rwandan chaplains were suffering the effects of near-constant exposure to genocide-related material. The Congolese were suffering the cumulative effects of years of war, poverty, and instability.
As the chaplains arrived for the first day of training, I noticed with deep concern how tired and depleted they looked. Nonetheless, they seemed determined to be there, and to bring themselves as fully present as possible for the work that we were to do together.
It was a tradition among the chaplains to begin each session with song, and I was very glad for them to start our workshop this way. In those earliest days of our work together, I saw it as my role to help them identify whatever resources they already had, and to help them deepen their own awareness of the effects these resources were having on their nervous systems.
As an outsider who could easily be identified with the former colonial rulers, I wanted to avoid recreating the pattern of the outsider coming in and telling the locals what to do. I wanted to do my very best to honor and support their own ways, and to provide my own input in as gentle and respectful a way as possible.
Nonetheless, as the leader of the workshop I was expected by the group to both hold the space and also to provide the input. The very first activities that I had planned for the group were personal introductions and two-minute check-ins. While I had at first imagined us spending about half an hour on this, I saw that once the chaplains started talking, there was absolutely no stopping them.
They very quickly began to recount their histories of strife and challenge, each of them talking for a good ten to fifteen minutes. While my first impulse was to contain the sharing, I soon realized that what was happening in the group was something very important: For the first time, the chaplains were having the chance to talk about their trauma in an environment that was open, safe, and accepting.
Over the coming days, we talked about all sorts of things: the trauma vortex and the stream of life; autonomic arousal and the zone of resilience; somatic memory and the importance of resourcing; techniques for healing and the gift of interpersonal support. As a group and in pairs, we practiced basic stabilization skills: grounding, orientation, resourcing, and so on.
Our days of work together continued over a number of months. With each new skill that the group mastered, the change in the air was palpable. It was a deeply moving sight for me to watch both individual and group energies shifting before my very eyes.
What finally tipped me off to lasting change was the singing. While in the first days of our work together the singing at the start of the day would be tired and moaned, the final days of our work together were started with singing that was bright and energized, with clapping hands and bodies swaying in unison and harmony. I could see before my very eyes the shift in the chaplains' nervous systems— both as it manifested in each of them personally, as well as in the group's collective rhythm.
[This entry would not be complete without extending thanks to Laurie Leitch, PhD, whose advice on the use of SE-based skills in cross-cultural settings was essential in getting this work going.]
Next > Part 3: Somatic Experiencing and Cross-Cultural Work
In the next installment, Jonathan will detail the process of discovering and understanding the innate healing knowledge that is already inside each of us. Working across cultures, he finds and shares valuable skills for helping ourselves— and for helping others.
Jump to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
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.
Photos courtesy Jonathan Nattel, used with permission.