As a member of a community (Gitoke Sector, Gatsibo district in the Eastern Province) where socio-therapy is very active, Mukabagaba Epiphanie is very familiar with the phrase; Humura turi kumwe, (do not fret, we are together).
Humura turi kumwe is a bold example of home-grown social interventions at the grass roots level where members in consultation with each other try to manage their present-day problems. Members of the socio group strive to help each other to think about the future again in constructive ways. The activity is also extended to people outside the group and Mrs. Epiphanie is a living testimony.
When the women descended on Mukabagaba’s humble homestead on Tuesday midmorning, it was in the same spirit of Humura turi kumwe – to be there for a friend in distress and a friend in need.
And it was not group members alone, as the activity was joined by an even larger number of people from the immediate community.
Most of them came armed with garden tools like hoes and slashers, while a few able bodied young men hauled in building materials on bicycles. The group with the hoes went straight to a nearby thicket further afield and immediately started to plough it while chatting animatedly. Then they planted sweet potatoes in it and trekked back to Mukabagaba’s home.
Here we found the second group already at work, re-plastering the walls of the house and reinforcing the roof. Soon, the old, dilapidated and rickety structure not only had a new shine, it also looked much stronger.
But there was a lot of suspense to deal with, as the host had until this point not shown face yet.
Then one of the local leaders called for her and she simply materialized from her modest house.
Teary eyed, Mukabagaba took to the floor to share her painful memories of suffering and loss of loved ones in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, before moving on to a more urgent issue; that of her 12 year-old son who suffers a rare ailment – low blood pressure.
She also tearfully expressed her joy and thanks to her community, the sociotherapy group and local leaders for the gestures of kindness just expressed to her.
So touching was her testimony that a few in the gathering could only succumb to silent tears, not to mention Mukabagaba herself, whose speech was marked by tears and nervous breakdowns:
Her ailing son, 12 year old Ivan Mbaraga was the cause for most of her tears. He was diagnosed with constant low blood pressure in January this year at the University Teaching Hospital (CHUK). Since then, he has been in and out of the hospital six times.
For a widowed mother of four, the fifth child having passed on last year around this period, making the hospital trips has been a nightmare in itself.
On each such trip, she revealed that she would need a budget of at least Rwf 20,000, a figure that is astronomical for her.
Then she dropped another bombshell; she too has been diagnosed with low blood pressure but the son had to take precedence due to financial constraints.
Basically, mother and son both need help.
Mbaraga’s condition was diagnosed and confirmed by Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza of CHUK.
Before this, Mukabagaba had made an equally moving testimony of surviving the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
She vividly recalled precise dates of occurrence of major events, although she frequently mixed up their sequence.
“After the war I looked at everyone as an enemy because I could not trust people anymore. But as things normalized we started to change slowly by slowly,” she revealed.
April 8, 1994
Mukabagaba’s elder sister who stayed nearby came and broke the terrible news about the killings that had taken place at her home.
“She was living on the next hill that’s a stone’s throw away from our own, and she said all her family had been hacked to death and their house burnt down while she was lucky to flee. The next day we fled for our safety on foot.”
April 9, 1994
“Collectively we agreed that women and children should flee for safety and that all the men should stay and fight.”
Luckily for her, they returned home that same night having successfully evaded the Interahamwe.
“One woman brought the idea that we should flee in the direction of the nearest border to Rwanda and in this case it was Uganda.
That same day, we were attacked with a grenade and many people died while others were wounded. I managed to escape together with a few other people.
We thanked and we still thank the brave RPF soldiers for saving our lives.”
After the grenade blast she fled for safety with a son of one of the women who was in the grenade attack but unfortunately in the confusion of trying to find a safe haven she lost him along the way, but does not know exactly how and where.
“I thought he had been killed but later I found him in a unit of RPF soldiers together with his father. This made me very happy.”
“That child was the reason I did not actively join the RPF liberation fighters. Whenever I would wear any military fatigue he would start to cry and ask me to remove it. Later I learnt what his fear was.
It is not that he hated the army because he thought it was bad. He was fearful that if I joined the armed struggle I would not have time for him. That time, many people who were able bodied were enlisting to join the RPF.”
She wound up by thanking local area leaders for teaching the community about the value of forgiveness. She further thanked Renzaho, one of the group members who introduced her to the idea of Mvura nkuvure (a community-based socio-therapy group).
She was initially reluctant to join because of her sick son who required round-the-clock attention and care.
The socio-therapy approach in Rwanda
In Rwanda, Socio-therapy is practiced in sociotherapy groups of on average 10-15 people. They meet weekly for approximately three hours in a place located in the participants’ direct living environment that group members perceive to be safe.
Two trained facilitators guide the groups through the sociotherapy phases of safety, trust, care, respect, new rules, and memories. Throughout the journey, the following six principles are applied: interest, equality, democracy, participation, responsibility, and learning by using actual and current situations.
When a person understands that he or she is safe and can trust his or her fellow men and women in the group, that person starts to have contact with others, reconnects, and is able to tell members of the group his/her problems.
The dynamism in the groups provides many moments for participants to learn from one another and to regain vitality and trust to introduce positive changes in their personal, family and community life.
The confrontation with painful memories about the past is not encouraged at the start of the sociotherapy sessions. Instead, the focus during the first weeks is on actual daily life problems –poverty issues, family conflicts, health issues, drug abuse, and mistrust between neighbors.
The main goal is to contribute to transitional justice in post-Gacaca Rwanda through psychosocial interventions at community level aimed at healing, reconciliation, improved family dynamics, increased socio-economic development, and social cohesion.
Sociotherapy was first introduced in Northern Rwanda in 2005 in the region of Byumba (Gicumbi district) by Cora Dekker, a Dutch sociotherapist. In 2008, a second program with the same objectives started in the region of Nyamata (Bugesera district) in the South-East.
The first program was implemented by the Anglican Church Byumba Diocese and the second by the NGO, Faith Victory Association.
Their successes led to the introduction of the third phase of sociotherapy, which is a nationwide Community Based Sociotherapy Program (CBSP) in post-Gacaca Rwanda.
In January 2014 a consortium of three Rwandan organizations – Prison Fellowship Rwanda, E.A.R Byumba Diocese, and Duhumurizanye Iwacu Rwanda started its implementation in eight different districts (Gicumbi and Rulindo in Northern Province, Muhanga and Nyamagabe in southern Province, Bugesera and Gatsibo in Easter Province, Rubavu and Karongi in Western Province) with the financial support of the Embassy of Netherlands in Kigali.