September 16, 2011

Surviving Ugandans Become Trauma Counselors

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(WOMENSENEWS)–Tragic events like terrorist attacks and natural disasters illustrate how strangers can come together selflessly and spontaneously, helping each other. For each moment of horror there is a corresponding act of beauty and kindness.

But what happens when the initial crisis is over, leaving people to adjust to a new reality? Around the world, it is often women who strive to make life as bearable as possible for those who survive.

A friend who worked in a Bosnia refugee camp told me, "The men rapidly fell apart, and the kids became silent; it was up to the women to get the family up every morning, feeding them and washing their clothes. If the women had let their feelings show, just for a moment, the whole edifice would have collapsed."

I interviewed a young mother in the West Bank’s Ramallah who woke one day to find her apartment block encircled by tanks, their guns trained on her windows. "How could I explain it to my 7-year-old son? I baked him a cake shaped like a tank and used a chocolate bar as the gun. I had to normalize the situation for him."

In the case of northern Uganda it is hard to "normalize" the new reality. For 23 years unarmed civilians endured a war that shattered villages and families. Many who supported their families through unimaginable hardship now face a sense of anti-climax and depression. Anyone who has cared for someone during a terminal illness recognizes this feeling. Once the funeral is past, the bleakness of continuing life alone can be overwhelming.

Great Challenges

The challenges could not be greater than in northern Uganda. Thirty thousand children were forced to become soldiers, brutalized by the notoriously vicious Lord’s Resistance Army. Kids were forced to kill or be killed.

As yesterday’s Women’s eNews story reported, girls were gang raped and bore children for the soldiers who abused them.

Thousands were abducted, often for years at a time, and at the height of the war nearly 2 million northern Ugandans were forced into refugee camps.

My charity, Network for Africa, works in a remote rural area called Patongo, a place without running water where people still die of easily preventable diseases. We are helping local women rebuild their devastated communities in this forgotten corner of Africa, setting up farming associations and training women in health, nutrition, women’s empowerment, family planning and improving agricultural techniques.

But how can a woman concentrate on learning a skill and holding her family together when her surroundings provide triggers that daily plunge her into post-traumatic stress? Keeping calm and carrying on may have been an option during the war, but now unresolved trauma prevents people from starting over.

Network for Africa knows that shipping in experts cannot meet the massive need, nor is it culturally appropriate. Thankfully many Americans will never know what it is like to live in constant fear of attack by a rebel group. Nor are most of us haunted by recent memories of enslavement and rape.

One of the cornerstones of our psychiatric tradition is to assure the patient they are no longer at risk, and that their fear is irrational. But in northern Uganda there has been little justice and the perpetrators carry on with impunity. It is entirely rational to live in fear, expecting to have to suddenly run for your life–because that is how it has been for two decades.

Providing Trauma Counseling

Our approach is to train well-respected local people in basic trauma counseling. They in turn help their communities. Twice a year our team of professional counselors–three remarkable women from Missouri–go to northern Uganda to run intensive training courses.

Our graduates become outreach counselors; we provide bikes so they can reach distant villages. We know they are having a positive effect, because villagers report that they are better able to work, study and sleep. Our American team will keep returning to run courses because we have only just scraped the surface of local needs.

Network for Africa’s outreach counselors have also become trusted messengers, passing on information about health, nutrition, family planning and women’s rights. Civil society was destroyed during the decades of war, yet our outreach counselor team members are just the people who can help strengthen social networks and coping mechanisms.

The community’s psychological well-being cannot be separated from their dire economic circumstances. Traditional farming skills were lost while people were in the camps, so we train women in sustainable agricultural techniques, enabling them to support their families. We raise funds to buy oxen, seeds and plows and teach environmentally responsible methods to grow traditional nutritious local crops, which then produce balanced meals for their children.

Sometimes we wonder how the women of Patongo find the emotional and physical strength, but as long as they do, we are honored to provide a helping hand.

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Rebecca Tinsley is a human rights activist and founder of the charity Network for Africa. She is a former BBC journalist and has a law degree from the London School of Economics. Her novel "When the Stars Fall to Earth" is published by LandMarc.

For more information:

Northern Uganda’s Girl Soldiers Find a Harsh Homecoming:
http://www.womensenews.org/story/the-world/110916/northern-ugandas-girl-soldiers-find-harsh-homecoming

Network for Africa:
www.Network4Africa.org

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