By Jean Pierre Ndagijimana*
University of San Francisco
Amidst the current global lockdown, Rwandans are mourning lives of loved ones that were brutally taken by their neighbors mostly with machetes and other farm tools. Twenty-six years ago, beginning from April 7th of 1994, Hutu extremists sponsored by the Rwandan genocidal regime slaughtered 10,740 people on average, each day, across a three-month period — four hundred and forty-eight people every hour, or seven people every minute.
For many genocide survivors of the genocide against the Tutsi, the three-month period ranging from April to July of each year is the most depressing, isolating, anxious and unbearable time — a time of loss, of feeling worthlessness, of loneliness, or as a friend of mine who survived the genocide recently highlighted, of numbness. With the coronavirus pandemic, Rwandans entered the 26th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi with a pandemic that put many of them on the edge of an emotional breakdown.
As the people and the world live in fear of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rwandans are at such an unfortunate intersection. Not only are they mourning the more than one million lives lost, but they are also grieving for their inability to leverage the Rwandan community’s cultural wealth to fuel their resilience, a necessity especially for those who were most affected by 1994’s one hundred days of unimaginable human madness.
Coronavirus is not only an obstacle to the regular commemoration activities but also an overwhelming reminder of the genocide. In many societies that experienced massive fear and collective heightened stress, the coronavirus pandemic may trigger stories they think they have buried in their past.
For many, this is not the first time the elders in their/our communities and those physically vulnerable among us are at the highest risk of dying from a communal threat. We have developed ways of coping, like taking a different route to avoid converging with someone else when walking or trying hard to not breathe when there is no option to avoid contact. The currently encouraged “compulsive handwashing” is not far from the compulsion around checking one’s door, not trusting that it is completely locked before going to bed. For some, this is not the first time that leaving home could result in dying sooner rather than later. The experiences of cautiously looking through windows to find nearly empty streets, with the people you do see outside perceived to be a threat. These are embodied stories that our brain-bodies have stored for our future survival.
The currently encouraged “compulsive handwashing” is not far from the compulsion around checking one’s door, not trusting that it is completely locked before going to bed. For some, this is not the first time that leaving home could result in dying sooner rather than later. The experiences of cautiously looking through windows to find nearly empty streets, with the people you do see outside perceived to be a threat. These are embodied stories that our brain-bodies have stored for our future survival.
Feelings of insecurity from my own childhood experiences during the Anti-Tutsi campaign in the Eastern Congo in the early 1990s and the violence by “Abacengezi” (“Insurgents”) in Rwanda soon after the country’s liberation are similarly being felt and observed during this collective confinement. In different corners of the world, people who used to feed themselves must wait in lines to receive donations because it is no longer safe to go out. Sticking together as a family becomes critical, with the vagueness of fear, incessant prayers, planning what to wear and what to not wear; the constant reminders of not trusting anyone, warnings to never cough, or sneeze so as to avoid putting others at risk.
And now, as familiar cues continue to accumulate and memories continue dissolving, the collective fear of this moment takes its toll on people’s resilience zone — mentally and physically shrinking. For one with relatable experiences, the present and past collective fears can become fluid, making it unclear if stress responses are due to the actual communal threat or past experiences.
With the fluidity of reactions to past and present collective fear, it is easy for one to feel like they are “hiding” when asked for shelter-in-place; it is possible for the constant washing of hands to trigger past thoughts of frequently checking doors in paranoia; it is easy to see the long lines waiting for food through the lens of the past experiences; it is rational for one who survived collective terrors and started a recovery process to feel concerned that after trying hard to “kwiyubaka” ( literally, building oneself again in Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language) and engage in a social-economic recovery processes, the coronavirus can revert their living condition back to decades ago.
I am a psychologist AND a human being. I have feelings and I have my own experiences with them. Today I was reminded to take my own advice that I offer clients, students, family, friends, and colleagues. My suggestions are drawn from personal and collective experiences.
First, Be Present.
While being vulnerable is generally encouraged, for those in crisis, being vulnerable is healthy only when there is no danger. In these cases, the safest thing to do is to be with the person — not as a helper, or a therapist, or a coach, but as an “equal” at the human level. Sit with them (when possible), walk with them (even virtually), video call, and let the process happen naturally.
Second, Engage Thoughtfully.
In Rwanda during commemorative events, a family, a friend, a neighbor, or even a stranger might instinctively place their hand on the shoulders of the one who is burying their head between their knees, paralyzed by emotions that they do not wish others to see. There, comforting words are whispered to those showing “ihungabana” (trauma crisis symptoms), like “Ninjye X, humura”, (It is me, X, do not worry), “Turi kumwe” (I am with you), or when there are no words to say, just offering a bottle of water. With physical distancing, these options are not possible. We are all called to find new ways of helping ourselves and each other and this may include embracing a virtual way of showing care, supporting ourselves and others.
Third, Find New Remote Support.
As Clementine, one of the community healing Coaches I work within Rwanda, said of our work in this crisis, “In times of commemoration, we are supposed to take care of each other, to comfort each other, to support each other. Today, we do not have other options except to use phone calls, text messages, social media, and most importantly video calls.”
In some communitarian cultures, virtual ways of life can feel strange. However, crisis such as this forces a human to adapt. While this would be new for her, for my mom in Rwanda, using Zoom to check-in with her brothers, nieces, neighbors, friends, and kids who are in different places could uplift her heart. We are individually and collectively engaging in a trial and error process, and until we find something that works sustainably, we need to use all the resources within reach.
Fourth, Support Necessities.
The experience of “hiding” in one’s home drives two competing concerns from other collective threats from the past. As we recall from the common saying in Rwanda during the chaos, “Aho kwicwa n’inzara na kwicwa n’umuhoro (I would prefer to die by hunger than a machete).” I recently heard similar expressions from friends from some other African countries. For people who are unable to afford food or housing, it does not matter what services an organization or institution usually provide, the caring of the brain-body health of those they are serving should be the priority. It is time to stretch the scope of intervention and embrace cross-disciplinary services. For instance, in times such as these, counseling programs providing cash or food assistance to their clients who are not able to afford essentials can go a long way.
Fifth, Find Stories of Strength.
Right after the announcement of the shelter-in-place order in the Bay Area, California where I live, I had some of the darkest feelings I have ever had since my father’s death more than twenty years ago. While I was sharing hope and courage with both my clients and my students, inside, I felt extremely weak. And while there is absolutely no way to underscore the danger of COVID-19, some medical experts believe that panic about this situation may be just as awful as the disease itself. Sometimes, sharing our experiences can fuel our resilience to move past our collective tragedies. I am grateful for the landlords who decided to not charge their tenants during the shelter – in – place period, people who made generous donations to those who do not have the luxury of staying at home, and for those who are creating free masks for people who are at a higher risk of infection. The voice of a smiling stranger on the second floor of her house in San Francisco, telling me, “keep going, keep going” as I run towards the ocean beach to relieve the stress of isolation. I will leave the list of positivity here for you to complete…
In short, those with prior experiences of collective fear can be triggered by their current experiences. However, feeling like one has experienced too many bad things to be shaken by any new threat is also a dangerous place to be — it can, potentially, be a sign of deep and frozen trauma. For example, in Rwanda, when one says, “ntacyo ngitinya” (I am no longer scared of anything,” “hari icyo ntabonye se?” (Is there any bad thing that I have never seen)? We are all reacting to the pandemic from different places, and we all need to take care of each other.
We need to stay informed, not just about the dangers in our neighborhoods and all over the world, but to share stories of strength across different cultures. After securing necessities, try remote connections to make sure our communities have access to the resources they need, including each other.
About the Author*
Jean Pierre Ndagijimana is a Rwandan psychologist born in the Congo. He is currently a Resident Minister and Visiting Global Fellow at the University of San Francisco. He is also the Co-Founder & Director at Talk Recovery Training Rwanda UBU. He uses history, psychology, culture, and African drumming to educate groups on cultivating empathy and tolerance for others, responding to prolonged accumulated stress, and building peace. Prior to coming to USF, he offered services around healing the effects of extreme ethnic violence including the 1994 genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda.