Toward the Village of New Beginnings

Training trauma healers in Africa


“We were fleeing town on the bus when the woman beside me was shot by a stray bullet, bled out and died in my arms. Horrible nightmares have kept me from sleeping ever since.” —Sunday school teacher in Abidjan MPouto

“We welcomed another ethnic group to farm our land decades ago,. now they have stormed our village, looted our homes, burned our houses and poisoned our wells. I don’t pray anymore since we came to live in this tent.” —Villager, Nahibly refugee camp

“I stopped going to Mass when my only son was forced to loot our home and load the contents onto a rebel truck. When he had finished, they slit his throat. Now I am destitute and alone in this tent.” —Villager, Nahibly refugee camp

More than one million people in Côte d’Ivoire were internally displaced in 2011, and their stories are heart wrenching. In the time between two civil wars, this West African country experienced a coup d’état, a popular uprising and a “Christian” president who, refusing to step down after losing the last election, is now being tried in The Hague for crimes against humanity. After a vicious civil war resulting in thousands of deaths, the duly elected Muslim president (an American-trained economist) is now installed, and the country is rebuilding; but stability is tenuous, ethnic tension is widespread and the wounds of the last 10 years are festering, with many people still displaced.

Côte d’Ivoire is not unique in this upheaval. According to Africa Sun News (January 2013), 15 African countries are currently at war or experiencing post-war conflict and tension. In this turbulent context, the West African Alliance Seminary (FATEAC, from the French) has had the opportunity to pour the oil of healing on wounded souls through its organization called Church, Healing Community, Peacemaker (ECGAP). Teamed with ECGAP, Salimata Dembele and I are using excellent trauma healing materials developed for Africa by SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) International.

Lessons for the Journey

If God is good, why do Christians suffer? That is one of many questions addressed in SIL’s book, Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church Can Help. Contextualized for Africa, the book is designed to help church leaders equip members of their congregations to counsel the traumatized people around them. Basic counseling principles are presented in a biblical framework creatively incarnated into the local context. Rather than listening to a lecture on the five stages of grief, participants in the seminar journey along the road of life, through the “village of anger and denial” and the “village of hopelessness,” before finally arriving in the “village of new beginnings.” As the importance of tears and lamenting are discussed, wild animals, snakes and other dangers are used as metaphors for trying to shortcut the journey by leaving the path. The visible effect of a nasty leg ulcer and the scars it leaves when healed illustrate the invisible wounds that traumatic events leave on a soul.

During lessons that show how HIV wreaks havoc inside us, it is not unusual to see participants wearing nametags such as “HIV,” “Anti-retroviral,” “Bacteria” and “White Blood Cell” fighting it out inside an area of the room designated as “John’s body.” Skits, role playing, hand-drawn images and sung lamentations—as well as one-on-one sharing—help the seminar attendees process their own wounds and learn how to listen well to others who are suffering. Death, rape, ethnic conflict, forgiveness and the unique needs of children are among the subjects explored.

The highlight of each seminar is an extended time of worship. Alone with God as well as one-on-one with a partner, the participants explore personal wounds of trauma.

Prayerfully, they interact with passages in Isaiah about the One who binds up the brokenhearted. Those who are not yet literate may make a drawing or a mark on paper to represent what God is saying, while others write down what they are sensing. Those who are ready are invited to leave their papers in a basket at the foot of a cross. As worship closes, the papers are symbolically burned, an act accompanied by victorious singing and dancing followed by a time of testimony.

Leading Others on the Path

Mama Germaine leads the women in her local church in the town of Duekoue—known as the “Crossroads of Hatred” because of the atrocities committed there during the 2011 civil war. She too has a story of trauma. Chased from her home by young men of another ethnic group, whom she had befriended and for whom she had prayed, she and her husband ran for their lives, escaping into the bush with only cloths wrapped around their bodies. Their Bible was doused with gasoline and burned while their home was looted by rebels mocking their faith, calling their God impotent.

But the loss of their possessions and their home was nothing compared to the loss to come. Making their way through the bush, they sought refuge among 30,000 displaced people at the Catholic mission. Crammed into this humanitarian nightmare, they spent the next three days trying to call their oldest son, a soldier, in the capital city of Abidjan. Their last hope was destroyed when the cell phone was viciously answered by the man who had murdered their son. His body probably disappeared into a mass grave, depriving them of even the small closure of burial.

Mama Germaine’s nephew Rene was one of the first pastors ECGAP trained in Duekoue, home to Nahibly, the largest camp of displaced people. In a long afternoon conversation, or debrief, Mama Germaine was able to share her story, explore her anger, ask questions about her fitness for ministry, be prayed for and take a step on the road to healing. She then helped to initiate a forgiveness conference that brought together 75 women from three ethnic groups and multiple denominations.

Using an interactive teaching method in three languages simultaneously was a huge challenge, but motivated women leaders kept the process alive. That event led to another forgiveness conference with more than 400 women in the largest refugee camp, followed by conferences in two hard-hit neighborhoods in town. Celebrating her freedom in Christ, Mama Germaine led the women in dancing.

After an ECGAP healing seminar in her church, the young Sunday school teacher who watched a woman die in her arms testified that she slept securely without nightmares for the first time. The woman who lost her only son took the team’s visit in the camp as an indication that God had not forgotten her. Ambroise, who is legally blind, walked miles across Duekoue every day from his UN tent to the church to be trained. Despite his handicap (or perhaps because of it), he has become a valuable servant to the traumatized refugees around him.

The trauma healing work, coupled with conferences targeting such issues as female excision and rape, are opening doors that have long been closed by the dominant religion in the area. Through literature, conferences and classes and through individual visits and debriefs—from Salimata and me to national pastors, to the wounded like Mama Germaine and Ambroise, to the displaced people of the Nahibly camp—the news is passing that a Savior has come to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort those who mourn and to provide for those who grieve (Isaiah 61).

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