“Inside, we’re deeply wounded” – Friendship and Healing for Congolese and Burundian Girls

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Edna Gicovi is a psychosocial counselor at CVT Nairobi.

When war broke out at Rosa’s village in Congo, she was fetching water with her cousin at a stream several kilometers from her home. She remembers seeing smoke rising nearby where houses were being torched. There was a lot of noise and commotion; gun shots and desperate cries of people pierced the air. She was captured by the dreaded outlawed group the Mai-Mai and taken to one of their camps, which had 15 men. “I was like their wife to them,” she said of the hard labour and sexual violence she underwent while at the camp. She only managed to escape six months later when a fight broke out between the rebels and government soldiers.

This was part of the narration Rosa* gave during our fifth group counseling session, when she described some of the terrible experiences she’d undergone since her village was attacked, and she was eventually forced to flee Congo. There was hardly a dry eye in the room as she spoke. We all hung on her every word as she narrated, staring straight ahead at the window across the living room of our clinic.

Interestingly, during our clinical check-in, which is carried out for each client individually after one month of being in the group sessions, Rosa had mentioned that she would not tell her story to the group. The clinical check-in fell just after a session where the clients used the metaphor of a river with stones and flowers to explore some of their traumatic memories. Rosa went on to say that she didn’t know when she would ever be in a position to talk about what she had been through, even in one-on-one counseling.

Habiba Huka, my co-facilitator, and I hypothesized that hearing Diana, a fellow group member, share about a rape ordeal with an older man who was a neighbor and family friend, could have compelled Rosa to tell the group about her own experiences. It’s always moving to observe how hearing about other people’s experiences in a group triggers other members to share their own experiences or gives them a sense of solidarity and the feeling that they’re not alone.

This particular group is made up of girls aged between 15 and 18 years from Congo and Burundi. We’ve had a translator for the group as most of the girls do not understand Swahili.

At the intake assessment stage before we started the group, hearing these young girls’ stories of rape, abandonment, parenting and taking up adult roles at such a young age was heartbreaking for both Habiba and me. Diana, 15, cried so much as she narrated being raped and the resulting unwanted pregnancy that the sleepy baby on her lap nearly slid out of her grasp. I had to hold the baby for the remainder of the intake assessment.

Habiba and I were both keen to tailor the group sessions to something that would be both relevant and of therapeutic value to the girls, which we did in our examples, explanations and the activities we incorporated. The group started in the manner most of the very young groups I’ve facilitated do. It felt like a class, with us as the stern, no-nonsense teachers and the group members as compliant students, though this changed a great deal as the group progressed and as the girls got to know each other and us.

One thing that caught my attention was the ritual chosen by the group for starting each week. Most of the groups I’ve facilitated, even the very youthful ones, are very religious and are quick to choose prayer as a way to start the group sessions. “We always pray in church, let’s do something else,” said Rosa when the discussion arose. Prayer was among the options considered, but they finally decided on a game as a starting ritual.

The next week, there was a lot of jumping and clapping, a game my co-facilitator and I didn’t understand but enjoyed because the girls seemed so excited about it. Every week, they have a new game to play. They are also very quick to use the balls and hula hoops at our office. It’s almost as if they are claiming back part of their childhood that has been taken away from them by their traumatic experiences.

The girls were very keen on the group from the first session. From the 11 girls we had at the intake stage, two did not show up and one dropped out after finding a job. We’ve had a consistent number of eight since then. Given their age, we expected them to be shy and afraid of talking in the group. On the contrary, most of them have been quite open with the group about what they have undergone, and they also seem to have become rather good friends. Diana, who carries her six month old baby to the group, receives a lot of support from the girls, who are usually eager to help her carry her baby and play with him so she can talk and participate in some of the group activities. During their clinical check-in, most of the girls reported that being in the group has given them confidence to speak in front of other people, something that previously terrified them.

During some of the difficult sessions, we introduced a ritual where both facilitators and the group members go around the group giving everyone a brief hug, something we thought would be therapeutic and appropriate, being an all-female group. The girls seemed comfortable with this, and we had some girls who did not speak much during the sessions break down and cry during these moments. Some of them have opened up much more in subsequent sessions, including Rosa who had been adamant about not sharing her story.

One of the problems I have observed is that most girls in the group struggle with low self worth. Habiba and I once commented that the girls were nicely dressed and looked pretty, and Mariamu was quick to say, “That’s only on our faces. Inside we’re deeply wounded.” Given that identity and self image is an issue that most girls in this age bracket struggle with, I think it is important to find a way to address this in such groups, as some traumatic experiences like rape may also contribute in significantly lowering one’s self image.

We’re having our last session this week, and Habiba and I are optimistic that the girls will continue in the healing process we have started them on. They are enthusiastic about meeting as a group, and we have encouraged them to maintain the friendships they have formed during this time. It seems to me that they will.

 

*Names and some details have been changed to protect clients’ identities.

CVT’s work in Nairobi is made possible by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture; United Methodist Women; and the S.L. Gimbel Advised Fund at The Community Foundation – Inland Southern California.

 

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