Blended Voices- Exploring challenges and opportunities for healing in Africa

CSVR hosted its first global symposium, titled, Blended Voices, which focused on building an understanding of torture, war trauma and violence through an African lens. The symposium took place virtually through a series of webinars starting in October 2020 and ending in March 2021. It brought together voices of African practitioners working on the ground to speak to narratives of trauma, healing and resilience. Over the years, there have been many actors that have contributed to the shared goal of a healed, thriving Africa and a healed, thriving planet. We cannot undo Africa’s traumatizing past shaped by colonialism and post-colonial conflicts, but we can learn from it and use the lessons learnt to shape the future.

The following is a brief summary of part 1 to 5 of the CSVR Symposium Webinar Series, sourced from observation notes written by Tasneem Van Der Biezen-Community Based Counselling Psychologist, who acted as an independent observer of the webinar series at CSVR’s request.

From the first webinar titled, “A traumatized Africa”, it became immediately clear that this was to be a space in which the traumas that the African continent has been exposed to would be dealt with in an honest, transparent, yet sensitive, safe and reflective way. This is important , as we acknowledge how sanitised the history of Africa had become, how stripped of emotion its retelling now is, if it is told at all and it really puts back the focus on the human experience. Hence, raising the awareness that real people, real communities had experienced these horrors, these atrocities, huge and complex losses, is important. These were the lived experiences of people from all over Africa, noted in the presentations reflecting the Gukurahundi genocide in Zimbabwe, impact of colonialism and dictatorship, state led violence and torture. Leaving one with a more holistic understanding of the width, breadth and depth of trauma and torture on the continent, but also the ways in which these atrocities have contributed to the state of Africa and her people, in more ways than just mental health.

A pivotal part of this webinar was the introduction of the concept: “woundedness” – which presented a rethinking of trauma and its effects. Insisting that trauma be understood in a collective way, in order for all its effects to be fully appreciated. The use of the word “woundedness”, offers an important way in which African and grass-root understandings of trauma can be adopted into clinical definitions. The term comes from the Xhosa understanding of trauma being a “wound of the heart”. The usefulness of this definition is that it allows for the effects of trauma to be understood as more than just a list of prescriptive and approved symptoms; but rather a marked impression left within an individual and a system.

The second webinar attempted to tackle the issue of, “Repetitive Cycles of Violence”, offering insights and critiques into some of the conundrums and stumbling blocks often faced when doing this work particularly when sitting with the gravity of the effects of trauma and the longevity of violence and trauma across time. It highlighted how we are often left with more questions than answers. A key observation was that trauma is not just epigenetically passed down over generations, but it is also intergenerationally shared through language, story-telling, and “works of memory” and so the trauma is inlaid across generations in multiple ways and re-performed generation after generation.

The third webinar, titled, “Torture and Trauma Rehabilitation” in Africa explored how conversations by African people can influence the narrative of violence on the continent so as to facilitate healing. This webinar offered reflections on the ways in which violence and transgenerational trauma can be disrupted so that rehabilitation strategies could be offered at multiple levels with the aim of collective healing.

Key take-aways from this webinar included the utility of traditional mental health methods of diagnosis and understanding. And that in an attempt to integrate indigenous ways of knowing, we do not need to proverbially throw out the baby with the bathwater. We can integrate our clinical expertise into our indigenous/cultural/spiritual ways of healing and that we must also caution ourselves to handing over all current ways of healing as “theirs” or “Western” as if we have not contributed to that knowledge or community of practice. This webinar restated the importance of psychotherapeutic work and its understandings, necessity in healing and helping individuals. Which has a place in society as less broken people, helps the collective. This webinar also emphasised that whilst indigenous and traditional healing may not be journaled and documented in conventional and traditionally Western ways, the healing is real nonetheless. The healing has a place in the world and certainly within Africa. 

While the previous webinars focus of interventions were on the individual, family and group level. The fourth webinar, titled, “In the Aftermath”, looked at the ways in which collective trauma interventions can be engaged with in post-conflict situations. Research and findings were presented depicting the ways in which various interventions are making progress in peace building and healing across the continent and that despite the various roadblocks and challenges, the work continues. An analogy that was useful throughout the webinar was that of the cracked cup, that despite the cup looking intact there are deep-rooted cracks that have been caused by violence and then further proliferated by systemic issues. As was usefully demonstrated, trauma in and of itself does not cause the cracks, but rather trauma is what prevents the cracks from being repaired. The symposium showed this over and over again in exploring the prevalence and pervasiveness of trauma across space and time and the ways in which it is produced and reproduced in so many spaces. The analogy of the cracked cup sits with one because it concretely demonstrates the inability of a cracked cup to be a useful and effective vessel. With the cracks it simply cannot be a productive entity and is usually something that we would just discard. However, through the work presented in this webinar glimmers of hopefulness emerged through seeing the ways in which repair is possible.

Lastly, the fifth webinar titled, “Unpacking Mental health in Africa”, allowed for African mental health workers to define and reflect on mental health on the continent. They discussed how pervasively mental health services continue to be under-resourced on the continent, yet due to high demands for care, is also simultaneously over-subscribed. The panellists demonstrated the ways in which healthcare practitioners, institutions and organisations attempt to fill these gaps. Suggestions were offered as to how research, advocacy, treatment and empowerment strategies can allow for the creation of a new way of thinking, engaging and co-creating a way forward. It was emphasised that the utilisation of an Afrocentric lens is pivotal. In order for healing to happen, respect has to be granted to grass-roots endeavours, interventions and to indigenous and African ways of knowing and healing.

#TowardsHealingAfrica

#MHPSSinAfrica

If you would like to watch the CSVR Symposium webinar series go to our website www.csvr.org.za or visit our Facebook page at The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Comment to let us know your thoughts on these issues.

Observation notes compiled by Tasneem van der Biezen (tasneem.psych@gmail.com ) and the CSVR MHPSS team

Published by CSVR Trauma Clinic

This blog represents thoughts of therapist working within the CSVR Trauma Clinic. The focus is on understanding the drivers and impact of violence on individuals, families and communities to work towards violence prevention and the building of peaceful societies

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