Speakers giving keynote addresses at the transitional justice workshop in Conakry, Guinea
On 8 May, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR )’s Trauma Clinic co-facilitated a transitional justice workshop on atrocity prevention. This was done in partnership with the International Coalition for Sites of Consciousness (ICSC) in Conakry, Guinea.
This went towards our goal of ensuring that the importance of psychosocial support within transitional justice processes is understood by all actors, especially when these services are not prioritised or are scarce within a country context.
The workshop was unique in that it brought together NGOs, victim groups and journalists. Furthermore, the workshop encouraged them to strategise around how they could work together to ensure that the human rights of people are restored and that transitional justice takes place within Guinea. At the end of the workshop, media and transitional justice strategies were presented in plenary and suggestions for improvement were made by all. This ensured a clear development of a vision which participants could use to guide efforts towards achieving transitional justice for all victims of violence from 1958 to 2009.
Guinea is a unique country in terms of its history with violence as outlined by ICSC representative, Ereshnee Naidu-Silverman in her trip report.
Since its independence in 1958, it is a country that has experienced ongoing cycles of violence characterized by massive human rights violations and ethnic and political tensions that were exacerbated by authoritarian rulers who failed to hold perpetrators accountable and allowed a culture of impunity to flourish. Due to the repeated cycles of violence and changing actors during different conflicts, there is no clear distinction between victims and perpetrators. The decades of impunity and the lack of vetting and institutional reform has resulted in previous structures remaining intact and perpetrators continuing to hold positions of power.
Many of the participants reported rape and other Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) violations as the most common trauma experiences of victims within the country.
Others highlighted the dissolving of the family bonds due to a relative being in prison for many years. This was particularly difficult for men who have lost their place of authority within the family as the wife had to take on that role while they were away. What was striking from the stories that the participants shared was the fact that this was the first time that they had told anyone about their trauma. Many participants stated that they shared in the group experiences which even their wives did not know about. Another powerful observation was the fact that many of the men who spoke experienced their trauma in Camp Barro, a concentration camp were thousands were tortured and murdered. The camp closed in 1984 and the men spoke as if the trauma was still very fresh for them – speaking to the power of unresolved trauma which extends across generations and decades. Another theme that was present from the stories of the participants was that of vicarious traumas and how the experiences of others impact those who are trying to assist them. In particular, the women who are assisting the victims of female genital mutilation reported experiencing nightmares, low mood and a decrease in job motivation.
State of psychosocial resources
The participants reported that there are no psychosocial service providers based in Guinea. The majority of services are provided by international Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) and end when they leave the country.
In addition, these services revolved mainly around the outbreak of Ebola in the country and were not related specifically to treating psychological trauma.
An article by the International Medical Corps cited census data provided by Abaakouk (2015) and Psychology in Africa (2013) to highlight the dearth of mental health services in Guinea and the results are extremely concerning. Per 100000 people in the population, there are 4 psychiatrists; 1 child psychiatrist; 13 trained generalists; 11 psychologists; 0 psychiatric nurses; 12 nurses and 2 social workers (both of whom work for the ministry of social work). This is nowhere near enough to deal with the complexity of the population’s trauma as well as the number of people requiring assistance. As one participant stated, “I believe that everyone in Guinea is suffering from trauma.” If this is the case, something needs to be done to improve access to mental health services particularlly in the region.
Speaking to co-facilitators from Liberia and Tunisa, it would seem that the need for mental health services in Africa far outweighs their availability. The Guinean government has tried to engage the services of traditional leaders, traditional healers and faith-based leaders to assist. However, these relationships have not been smooth and much work needs to be done.
Ideas on the way forward
As CSVR, we believe there’s need to train lay counsellors who are able to incorporate traditional African healing models; ideologies and cosmologies are greatly needed on the continent.
This is far more sustainable than bringing in international professionals who have to leave after a time and who do not understand the languages and cultures of the country.
However, part of the training would also need to incorporate assistance to the potential lay counsellors to deal with their own trauma before assisting others as well as ongoing scheduled supervision and debriefing spaces.
This will all require investment and buy-in from governments and communities but could go a long way to assist healing and economic development in Africa. The continent has experienced and is experiencing a lot of pain, grief and loss. We as Africans need to do all we can to heal our mother and restore the dignity that was lost over generations.