Shattered societies cannot be mended with pills or analysis or technology or foreign aid. Our need to hear that Rwanda is ‘healing’ tells us more about ourselves than it does about Rwanda.
For the last ten years I have been involved in development projects in Rwanda. This month, in April 2014, Rwandans are marking the twentieth anniversary of the genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people, more than one in ten of the country’s population at the time. Non-Africans frequently ask me, “Have the people there healed yet?”
As a British woman working on Rwanda, it seems to me that the Western tendency to focus on this nation’s healing process reflects our own priorities rather than Rwanda's. In the West we tend to address psychological health on an individual basis, because we assume that everyone analyses their emotions as carefully as we examine our own feelings. “Am I comfortable with what she just said to me?” we ask ourselves. “How am I reacting to that piece of news?” Our society is so well-versed in Freud and Jung that we are no longer aware of measuring each event or exchange according to its emotional impact.
People in many other cultures put less emphasis on individual experience, thinking more about the feelings shared by their community. They also see themselves in the context of generations or geographical groups. There is a vital connection between their ancestors and the great grandchildren they may never meet. Asking how a nation is ‘healing’ would require a view reached by consensus. In the meantime, people display admirable resilience and stoicism, getting on with their daily challenges which are not insignificant.
We Westerners also yearn to be assured that everyone in Rwanda has ‘healed’ because some of us feel guilty that our nations ignored what was happening there, conniving to ensure the UN Security Council did not discuss the unfolding massacre. We have leaders who still pretend that they did not know well in advance that the “Interahamwe” militia had compiled lists of potential victims, and that they had been training and stockpiling weapons for years.
Those same leaders perpetuate the lie that there was nothing that could have been done. Yet the UN commander at the time, Romeo Dallaire, believes that a few thousand peacekeepers would have been sufficient to signal to the murderers that the world was watching. Failing that, we could have jammed the radio towers that broadcasted hate messages that directed the killing machine. No wonder we want to think that everything is better now.
Our certainty that a shattered society can be quickly mended also reflects an assumption that all problems can be fixed with pills or analysis or technology. It makes us uneasy to consider the possibility that some pain is too dreadful to disappear, or that many memories will linger on long after the last commercial break. We want quick solutions, and prefer not to have to dig through too many layers of complexity to understand the issues involved. Hence our fondness for dismissing other nations’ conflicts as ‘tribal.’
We yearn for feel-good closure, underestimating how long it takes a country to process its history while ignoring our own unresolved conflicts. It is 150 years since the American Civil War, yet how many Americans have expunged its legacy from their consciousness completely? How many Northerners, for example, still hold onto the stereotype that all Southerners are racists? Why is it that an Irish teenager can describe some obscure battle or skirmish that happened several hundred years ago as if it was fought last week? And why do so many people in Britain and Russia still have prickly feelings towards the Germans and the Japanese?
If the answers to these questions are difficult and complex, why do we expect Africans to forgive and forget so quickly?
Our need to hear that Rwanda is ‘healing’ tells us more about ourselves than it does about Rwanda. It also explains why some of our ‘development’ efforts are futile: we impose what we want for ourselves on different cultures and political realities - what ‘we’ believe will solve ‘their’ problems rather than examining the unique circumstances in which we are meddling. We fail to ask local people what they think would be most useful because we are convinced that our analysis of their needs will be superior to their own understanding.
Some charities exploit this eagerness to ‘fix’ Rwanda's psychological scars in order to raise money in the West by promising projects that will ‘heal.’ But in the experience of my organization, Network for Africa, helping people to manage their trauma is far more realistic than claiming that survivors can be healed.
The former child soldiers with whom we work in Northern Uganda will never recover completely from the ‘kill or be killed’ initiation forced upon them byJoseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army. However, they can learn some useful techniques to control the frequency and devastating power of their traumatic flashbacks, thereby unblocking their capacity to acquire new skills and rejoin society.
Many people who live in countries that are emerging from conflict spend much of their day trying to provide the next meal for their families. They worry that climate disruption means another year of drought on their farms. They fear that their children will die of malaria or diarrhea. Forgiving the unrepentant person who killed your parents may be a secondary consideration when you are always hungry and tired. That’s why we focus so much on training people to develop sustainable livelihoods so that parents can feed and educate their children.
As a cursory glance through history suggests, there is little evidence that we in the West know much about the healing of nations. We are better equipped to help with the more prosaic fundamentals: clean water, sustainable agriculture, literacy, family planning, and accessible health care. We should have the humility to base our support on what the agents of change in African civil societies tell us that they need.
Rebecca Tinsley, April 25, 2014
Rebecca Tinsley is the founder of the charity Network for Africa, which works with survivors of war and genocide in Rwanda and Uganda. She is a former BBC journalist.