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Expert Voices

An Anniversary: Reflections after Ten Years of Healing in Uganda

Published October 18, 2019
Northern Uganda Office

By Gabriele Marini, psychotherapist/trainer at CVT Uganda. He was the first CVT staff person to be based in Uganda and served as the field representative for many years.

To me, this sentiment reflects the legacy of the ten years that CVT Uganda has cared for survivors of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war. Today, as a result of our work, thousands of individuals who survived unspeakable atrocities have found healing, respect and even love.

Our clients in Northern Uganda are survivors of torture and trauma, taken by force from their families to be used as soldiers and sex slaves. And then after the war, it was very hard for them to reenter a community. Called ‘crazy,’ they were denied their existence as individuals. Women faced particularly difficult challenges because many were dealing with sexually transmitted infections and children who resulted from rape, children who didn’t belong to any clan. It was difficult for them to see any path to a positive future.

Many survivors who returned to the community from captivity had no chance for formal education, no social skills. Cultural rules limited survivors’ access to resources, to self-determination. Facing this situation, it is difficult to say which is heavier—the impact of the trauma they endured or the impact of their poor social status in post-war, Northern Uganda society.

Counseling restores the sense of having capacity to influence our own lives. During the experience of pain, we feel alone; we just react and cope, trying to find meaning. The presence of another human being soothes us and helps us center ourselves inside the storm, without simply reacting or trying to run away. It helps us accept what it is and play the possible little role we can, helping things to happen the way we wish.

I use the metaphor of CVT’s care being a bridge for clients to walk over the idea of “impossibility,” and instead walk in the direction they have already started when they decided to look for help – they have begun giving themselves the idea of possibility. By coming to CVT, they have already started to change their lives. Beyond the labels they have been grappling with since the war, they are human beings, many of whom long to be recognized in their community, to reach their potential. One client shared at the last session, “I wanted to end my life, I had no appetite or sleep anymore. I’m so grateful to God who sent you (CVT) to give us back our life.”

While many could not find a place in their given roles as “marginalized” community members, CVT’s group counseling experience offers the opportunity to satisfy both the need to be recognized as unique and the need to belong. “I never felt comfortable with other people. Now I discovered that I like to stay and share with other human beings,” one client told me after coming to the group sessions.

The psychotherapy group is a place where clients learn to value individual experience – their own and that of the other group members. During the weekly sessions, there is partial suspension of the social roles, usual life limits, and common relational strategies. As another client said, “I always thought that I should never talk about those bad events I went through. Now I discovered that sharing helps to reduce the pain of the memory.”

The counseling sessions remove a social sense of absolute rules – when we set up this experience, it becomes necessary to invent, to explore. New actions are possible, and new actions lead to a new identity. It takes dedication and effort – many clients walk miles to join the group session. They are committed to healing.

In the early years, CVT Uganda focused on work with many partner agencies, working to empower their clinical capacity in Northern Uganda. I did a lot of training and co-therapy with counselors from other organizations: modeling, supervising and promoting clinical procedures with the counselors and their managers. It was in 2015 that CVT started our own direct service provision.

These ten years have been very meaningful to CVT clients. As one client said, “I thought that I was nothing, but I discovered that I’m important and capable.” This is a message that touches my heart. I cannot honestly say that I know what is the “magic” in counseling that makes people return to life. Yet I cannot deny that it happens.

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