How Genocide widows use martial arts to heal from trauma

When someone suffers from trauma, it is mostly because of their inability to adequately respond to a threat.

This has been the story of more than 30 AVEGA Agahozo widows across all districts in the country, who survived the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

24 years after the Genocide, many of them attest that the traditional therapy they had been subjected to, at some point failed to heal them completely.

Women are taken through different activities like meditation while training. / Photos by Lydia Atieno.

However, Martial Arts For Justice, a programme that helps the widows fight and defeat trauma through learning self-defence techniques along with counseling, has seen them gain confidence and let go of the trauma.

The programme, that started last year, has so far helped 35 women, and its goal is to reach out to 19,000 survivors across the country.

This will be achieved by training all AVEGA therapists working with the widows, who will in turn be training them in their various areas. The training is already ongoing in Rwamagana District.

Master Dean Smirnoff, founder of Martial Arts For Justice, explains that the energy from trauma becomes trapped in our bodies and this manifests through many symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and headaches.

Master Dean Siminoff,founder of the programme, hands over  a certificate of participation to one of the beneficiaries. 

“Trauma is about the loss of connection within ourselves and the world around us. The physical training in enhanced resilience puts clients back in touch with their bodies, while basic self-defence skills empower them and gives them a renews sense of confidence,” he says.

He adds that the training allows women to access their inner resources and they experience a shift from a victimised feeling to an empowered one. They also experience joy despite their traumatic experiences.

Justice Ntwali, programmes manager for AVEGA, says that they have seen a lot of changes since the women started learning self-defence, which include healing traumatic cases among AVEGA members.

Some of the beneficiaries practising self-defence

“The programme is a better way of fighting trauma, to defeat it you either have to fight or flee it. The absence of both makes one surrender making the body to freeze, hence the trauma cases we have been experiencing despite using other measures to fight it,” he says.

Blaise Nyiribakwe, from AVEGA, says that women are being empowered, and that just as trauma leaves someone helpless and weak, by gaining power, it’s the beginning of the healing process.

He says this has been achieved by seeing them release the trapped energy through the exercises that they normally do, that engage their bodies.

Women share their stories

Most of the beneficiaries say the programme has helped them a lot when it comes to trauma because of the different approaches it is using.

For instance, they say they are taken into what happened to them, helped to meditate on it and taught what they should do in case the same memories reappear.

They continue to narrate that the healing technique is mixed with learning self-defence, characterised by its emphasis on head-height kicks, jumping and spinning kicks, and fast-kicking techniques, which they are taught not only to defend themselves but also help release trauma.

Fany Gikundiro, a mother of two, is the survivor of 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. She attests that self defence has helped her find a way of coping with trauma. Before there were a lot of therapies and other psychological techniques that were set aside to help them cope with the situation, but they were not effective.

She lost her father and other members of her family, while the genocide also left her mother disabled. She has been battling trauma for a long time, although she is beginning to recover from it.

“It is not easy to recover from trauma, but I have managed to since the healing technique has additional skills to make it successful. Between the training sessions, we get involved in physical acts, which  helps me feel  relieved and relaxed after running, through healing courses that usually first take us into the past and then pave the way for healing,” she says.

She adds that what she likes about the sport is that it is attractive. Interestingly, she says even with her 92 kilogrammes, she still manages to do physical exercise which make her flexible, an added advantage to her health wise.

Hilary Ndiganilawa, a thirty one year old, says that most of the time when they were isolated and stressed, it was hard to hide what they were going through and would end up displaying symptoms of a depressed person.

“The skills which we are learning are detailed and help us go through every step as far as remembering the past is concerned. The good thing is that we are taught how to go about it, while at the same time shake off all these through physical exercises,” she says.

Another mother of two, Marceline Mutuyimana, had been through trauma and had even given up on seeking help.

She lost her husband during the Genocide at the age of 20. The training, according to her, was timely since she had not even realised that she had trauma.

She reveals that there is also other trauma that comes a long, not necessarily from the Genocide, but by what they go through every day.

“When I was taught how to teach myself to cope with trauma, I realised what it is and from then onwards, it has been easy to take care of myself,” she says.

Mutuyimana has made tremendous steps toward in healing and is planning to use the skills to create awareness among other people who may not be survivors but also those with different problems that deny them their freedom as human beings.

Other initiatives

The women meet twice a week in Kimironko, a Kigali suburb, to strengthen the healing process.

Dubbed, ‘Subirana Imbaraga n’umurava watakaje’, which means ‘Regain strength and hope that you have lost’, the initiative helps them learn different processes on how to get through not only trauma but also other burdens that they may face.

Beneficiaries say that, through meetings, they also get time to know each other well and what they are going through, thus providing help becomes easy.

Apart from that, the women also hold prayer meetings and support each other, both morally and financially.

“We have started to train other Genocide survivors on the process to recover from trauma. Through this, we realise that there are others who even don’t know that they have a problem, and only realize it when they get incubated,” says Gikundiro.

She adds that they have teaching materials, and they target to train many more women in other provinces.

“Self-defence is one part of the courses that help us feel as one and bring back that oneness and love, give us hope to live again and paint a picture of a bright future, which is different from the tragic past,” Mutuyimana says.