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Left to Tell, Left to Heal (each other) through Story and Testimony: Her-Stories of African Women’s Quest for Justice and Healing in Contexts of Transition

Left to Tell, Left to Heal (each other) through Story and Testimony: Her-Stories of   African Womens’ Quest for  Justice and Healing  in contexts of transition

By Teresia Hinga

One of the most moving and profoundly thought-provoking books that I have ever read is Imaculee Ilibagiza’s  Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst The Rwandan Genocide:

This is the story of  Immaculee, a survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In the book, she narrates in heartrending details her intimate experiences of the horror that comprised the genocide as neighbors killed neighbors, families killed families and spouses killed each other. The book also narrates how, despite having lost all members of her family in the genocide, Immaculee found it in her heart to forgive. Furthermore, in the midst of  the pain and heartbreak, she found a mission to model and tell her story of forgiveness  to others as a means of teaching them the possibility and imperative of forgiveness, as the only way out of the vicious   cycles of violence that sadly peaked in Rwanda in 1994 leaving close  to a million people dead and thousands deeply traumatized and wounded not only physically but also morally and spiritually. In efforts to explain her new found sense of Mission, Immaculee recalls how in one instance she encountered children who, like her had lost their entire family in the genocide.  Aged three and four, the two were the youngest in a genocide refugee camp where Immaculee was helping out. Meeting these two children led her to realize that there was a reason she had been spared (not just rescued) from death herself. She had a mission to teach and model forgiveness. In her words:

“I will never forget the two brothers, ages three and four who came to us (to a camp) from Kigali. Their parents had hidden them in the ceiling .. the parents were murdered and children were retrieved a few days later… they were the youngest children on the camp with no relatives, no parents to mind them .. so I temporarily adopted and cared for them .. I feared that their future would be filled with sadness, abuse, and denied opportunities—-the kind of lives where bitterness and hatred easily take root.”

She continues: “I saw the circle of hatred and mistrust forming in those innocent eyes, and I knew that God was showing me another reason He’d spared me. I vowed that one day when I was strong and capable enough, I would do everything I could to help the children orphaned by the genocide. I would try to bring hope and happiness to their lives and steer them away from embracing the hatred that had robbed them of their parents, and of a family’s love.” (Left to Tell page 165).

Immaculee had come to the realization that “that the violence will not be over until the cycle of hatred in the country is broken.” She concluded that  since “ there are now thousands of wounds to heal from the war, the country could experience violence unless people learn to forgive.” Immaculee saw the nascent hatred in the two young boys “who did not understand where their dead parents have gone” and she worried that (though) they are innocent now, everything will change when they realize the hatred that has ruined their lives. She was convinced that the circle of hatred and mistrust” must be broken.

For her, the genocidal atrocities did not result from “essentially bad people.” In her view, the killers are good people whose hearts were in the grips of evil.” Helping loose that Genocidal grip from people’s minds and hearts became a lifelong commitment. She was convinced that indeed she was left to tell her story and to heal the wounds of the spirit which ran deep. Such wounds were enduring and could fester if not dealt with systematically.

My memories of this book, which I had read some time back and which I have several times assigned my students to read, were activated when in  November in 2015, a group of women colleagues from the US asked me to join them on a study trip to Africa where we would collaboratively conduct ethnographic research in efforts to map African women’s involvement, engagement with and moral agency in situations of transitional justice. The women researchers were determined to get the story from women themselves and so we (7 of us including a Gertrude, a professor and veteran of feminist liberation struggle in South Africa) embarked on a 3 week study tour of 3 countries: South Africa, Rwanda and Kenya, countries where, at least de jure, transitional justice efforts were afoot.

My rather quick and easy acceptance of the invitation to join this group, was motivated in part by a strong curiosity and desire to check out whether indeed, Immaculee’s story of unconditional forgiveness of those who murdered her family and her mission to model and teach forgiveness to others was a viable strategy for a continent which, according to Desmond Tutu has no future without such forgiveness. I was curious to know: Was Immaculee a lone ranger in her mission or is there evidence that there are others like her, whose cumulative and multiplicative impact could be tapped, encouraged and scaled up to enhance chances of a better future and better flourishing in Africa and beyond?

Space does not allow me to give a detailed account of the itineraries and the emotional roller coaster effect of some the moments in this intentional journey.  Our journey into the three countries in transition, South Arica, Rwanda and Kenya, was dejure a journey of discovering African women and their quest for healing and justice in the three countries: Defacto, however the journey became also one of mutual and self-discovery. We (the Researchers) were meeting each other for the very first time during the trip and so we were as new to each other as we were new to the African women we met in the three countries. Our stories (the researchers’), often ended up blending into each others’ stories and in several notable instances, the stories of pain, resilience and hope told by the African women were strong echoes of  “the researchers” own stories and vice versa. It became clear, at least to me, that in the very sharing of stories, a strong basis for empathy, compassion and potential solidarity became organically woven into the whole project. Unpacking the impact and implications of the mutual story- telling is a larger project that must await another day and venue

Suffice it here for the purposes of this brief (I guess brief is in the eye of the beholder) report to highlight several moments of encounter in the trip and to lift insights from these encounters that suggest hope for a continent navigating the impact of multiple and intersecting crises, including the crisis of violent conflict which became sadly epitomized in the Rwanda genocide. The stories that the women told were as harrowing as the ones narrated by Immaculee tales of pain and betrayal, not only by social structures which are manifestations of what Paul Farmer calls “pathologies of power” or what Elisabeth Fiorenza calls Kyriarchies, systems of deadly domination. In South Africa, many women still wrestle even 20 years after the “dejure” demise of Apartheid, with the impact of multiple instances of racism and its legacy: extreme poverty and homelessness, which still haunts many in the townships. In Kenya, the flourishing of many is subverted by the impact of what have been labeled “historical injustices,” including landlessness, haunts many and robs them of means of survival or mobility. Neocolonial realities compound the poverty and its feminization. Violent conflicts seem ubiquitous and women and children tend to be caught in the crossfire as was the case during the genocide in Rwanda and during the 2007 PEV. As recently as last week, many women and children were seriously, even fatally, wounded during the episodes of violent jostling for water and pasture by livestock herders in Northern Kenya, a jostling exacerbated by the ongoing serious drought.

Notwithstanding the pain and the tears that flowed often during the narration of the harrowing stories, I came back from the trip with a  sense of hope. Our encounters and conversations revealed not only the pain the women were going through but also a resilient hope in these women who were determined to assert moral their agency in diffusing the desperate and painful contexts that bred the vicious cycles of violence. I came back with a sense of hope because as we found out through the encounters with women, Africa has a significant number of people, who individually and/or collectively have embraced the view that indeed there is no viable future without forgiveness. Indeed among the women we encountered, there were many Immaculee’s (or more accurately groups if Immaculees) who though deeply hurt and traumatized, considered themselves left to tell each other stories of resilience and hope and who encouraged and mentored each other en route to healing. Here I highlight a few cases in point:

In South Africa:

  1. Institute of Healing Memories : Our first stop in South Africa was at the Institute of healing memories.  Founded by Anglican Priest  Fr Michael Lapsley. Alongside his colleagues who included  some young Black  men and one Muslim woman who run workshops facilitating healing of memories through storytelling, Fr Michael, (who himself lost both arms to a letter bomb sent to him due to his participation in the liberation struggle), explained that the motto for the Institute is that “every story needs a listener”. Through the institute, Michael and his colleagues seek to facilitate healing in Post-Apartheid Africa and Beyond. The institute facilitates mutual Listening to people’s stories of woundedness and resilience. Many of the stories told are by women. He has also worked with war veterans abroad and victims of trafficking as categories of people who need a healing and listening ear! Here is a link to the Institute’s website:
  2. Circle Of  Concerned African Women Theologians: Our group also visited with chapters of the Circle of  Concerned African Women Theologians at the University of Western Cape and the University of Stellenschboch. At the university of Western Cape, the meeting was facilitated late by Prof Saronjini Nader a longstanding member of the Circle who had just joined the University of Western Cape from Kwazulu Natal.   A major concern of the Circle is the Persistent gender-based violence in church and society. Sarojini is a major player in the Circles Campaign and advocacy against such Violence and at Kwazulu Natal participated in the “Tamar Project,” a platform for Highlighting and advocating against gender-based violence. The group’s meeting and engagement with the Circle in the Cape-town Area were coordinated by myself with the help of Nontando Hadebe, the incumbent coordinator of the Circle in the Southern African Region.
  3. The Grail Women’s Group: A Third visit on August 5th was with the Grail women group. This particular visit was simply a delight … Ruth, the Convener of the group and our host, was an excellent facilitator of storytelling and though we were meeting the group for the very first time and from across the seas, by the end of the session, we were all relaxed (at least I was) in the presence of each other and were able to share, our stories  and reflections laughing, crying, joking …

Several moments were even more outstanding for me as I recall this visit with the Grail women movement in South Africa:

a) The meeting was de facto A Theology/Spirituality of the Body in Action: The session was hands on! (literally). We all got a hand massage as an introduction to the group. The Grail women were clearly not satisfied with a mere handshake by way of welcome. It reminded me that much violence has been done to women/s bodies and that therefore the healing touch has to address women’s wounded bodies. It reminded me also that much of the harm done to women is due to a disdain to their bodies (taboos against menstruation, veiling and surgical modifications of their bodies to suit culturally determined ideals of beauty). It was therefore most refreshing to be invited to a few moments of bodily “indulgence “. celebrating and enjoying our embodied selves as a part of our spirituality. It reminded me of an emerging theological discourse called “theology of the body” to which many are beginning to tune in.

b)    The Fragrance of Diversity: Ruth, the director of the group  led us in an exercise in which we were asked to introduce ourselves and also to mention our favorite smell while holding a twig from a  local flower species and passing this along after the self-introduction. This exercise reminded me of the tremendous diversity that characterizes womankind /humankind. Each of us told of a different favorite smell. More frequently, metaphors used to describe diversity are visual (eg the rainbow metaphor describing the diversity of the people in South Africa)  Other times the metaphor is audio (when we are called to respect and engage each other as we speak “ in a different voice”). Diversity expressed with the metaphor of smell was refreshingly creative … ( it was intriguing to note that people did not give what was possibly  routine smells (fragrances like rose etc.) Someone   claimed her favorite smell was curry!  ….this too was a memorable moment.

c)     An Exercise in Ubuntu: Walking the labyrinth in Pairs see Photo) reminded me of the African perspective on the Human person, of human nature and Human destiny. The received wisdom is that a person (Omuntu)  is a person through Others. The African belief says Mbiti ( citation) on)  is  that  “I am because we are “ (Elsewhere the belief is that ”I think therefore I am (Descartes).” The ideal in African thought is that we rise and grow and are healed and saved together. We all belong to the bundle of life as Desmond would say. And when one hurts, we all hurt. Walking the labyrinth together reminded me of this aspect of afro-theology, cosmo-vision and ethics

d)    Naming and Responding to Intergenerational Woundedness: The group facilitated our awareness of the intergenerational woundedness in the context of South Africa and beyond o elsewhere ) and therefore the need for generational healing. Many of the stories narrated by women during individual interviews and small groups drew attention again and again to the inter-generational nature of the wounds. Some women mentioned the violence done to their mothers as the reason they left home and are still angry; other times mothers expressed anxiety about their daughters falling into the same traps and cycles of violence that the mothers currently find d themselves in. The  Grail is commendably  encouraging inter-generational soul searching as a step towards more authentic healing …I was touched by this emphasis.

e) I could go on: We sat in a Circle, that palpable metaphor of inclusion and solidarity; We sang together and we broke bread together (i.e. cookies and tea), we listened to each others stories of hope and resilience. All in all, this was an outstanding model and approach to the much-needed healing and reconciliation in South Africa and beyond. It had a palpable woman’s touch. It was a joy to be in such a welcoming and safe space…Thanks Ruth and the Grail Movement Women and thanks Amy and Deidre our US team conveners for facilitating the visit by the US team to the Women of the Grail Movement.

In Rwanda:

Examples of the spirit of forgiveness and women’s agency in facilitating healing were palpably evident in:

  1. The reconciliation villages which were truly awe-inspiring. These villages, facilitated by Rwanda Prison Christian ministries, were created to address the fact that both perpetrators and victims of genocide were wounded. Their Ubuntu had been radically compromised (some speak of “Moral and spiritual Injury”  of perpetrators who had killed in cold blood and victims who harbored hateful thoughts of revenge). To meet members of these villages and to hear their heroic stories and testimonies about their intentional efforts to live alongside each other in solidarity and in search of healing for their deep-seated wounds was profoundly humbling . Their efforts to interrupt potential vicious cycles of violence by cultivating and modeling solidarity with each other was indeed incredible and inspiring. The villagers and their testimonies reminded me of a documentary entitled “As we forgive” that had been done around these villages. The villagers were commendably living the Lords prayer: In their action and words they were saying, “Forgive us (Lord) as we forgive.” Some testimonies were of perpetrators who had written letters asking for forgiveness from their victims or families. One of the leaders of the village we were told was a repentant perpetrator.  He too was left to tell and to share his story as a means of healing himself and as an example to others who might be in the grips of murderous hatred of the perceived other. His testimony was a call to repentance as a step towards reconciliation and healing
  2. Rwanda Women Arise Group: In Rwanda, we specifically visited and listened (to at least 50)  Rwanda women in various capacities and places. We met Muslim women, Mormon women, women at the university and women activists as well as women in the Reconciliation villages mentioned earlier.  Of special interest to me was our encounter with a group of Pentecostal women who named themselves “Women Arise.” Instead of granting individual interviews to record as was the case in most instances, in typical Pentecostal fashion, the women simply presented a “Praise, Worship and Testimony” (i.e. story telling) session. One by one, members of the group stood up to “give a testimony from their real life experiences.” Some revisited the painful encounters during the genocide while others spoke of contemporary encounters with domestic violence and “intimate “terror “ perpetrated by family members. Each story, long or short was listened to, a pertinent and encouraging Bible story was read in response and a pertinent encouraging commentary followed by a song, acknowledging the pain but also pointedly urging each woman to arise and stand tall despite their circumstances. The group provided victims much-needed safe space to tell their stories and also offered other testimonies of resilience by role models. They literally urged each other to arise and not stay downcast. Their was a community of mutual solidarity and healing. Like Imaculee, they were left to tell each others encouraging stories of hope and resilience. They were a community of Wounded Healers .

In Kenya

Visiting with Women of Life-bloom: Peer Mentoring and Support for “Sex Workers”

While we did not conduct any ethnographic work in Kenya, the group did take time to visit with  yet another community of wounded healers; Namely the Life bloom group of women as peer mentors and advocates for women caught up in the violence and indignity of sex work to which many are pushed by desperate conditions of impoverishment . Rather than a condemnatory approach to such workers, the  mentors, erstwhile sex workers themselves accompany their peers in their (not so easy) journeys into reform and transformation through mutual self-empowerment, refurbished sself-esteem and mutual encouragement. It was most humbling and inspiring to see the determination and resilience among the women who had a remarkable sense of solidarity and community.

The whole three week journey of exploration and mutual self discovery culminated in a one day symposium entitled: “Weaving Just Peace: African Women’s Transformative Leadership  in Contexts of Transition,” which I convened and which was suitably hosted by The Women and Gender Studies Department at Kenyatta University (where I did my undergraduate studies and where I subsequently taught between 1978 and 1994). It was gratifying to note that some of my students in those pioneering days are now professors at Kenyatta University and are founding members of the Women and Gender Studies program. Some of the recent  graduates from the program included several PhD and Masters research male students.

I also noted with appreciation that many of the papers presented in the symposium were themselves testimonies and stories of women’s resilience, courage and agency in the rather precarious and delicate processes of transitional justice. We heard the stories of moral exemplars like Wangari Maathai but also listened to papers from a representative of life Bloom telling their story in their own words. The US group had commendably sponsored one of the Rwanda women survivors turned scholar and community activist to the symposium and she spoke passionately about the task ahead for  Rwanda and indeed the whole Continent hopefully transitioning into non-violent and safe space for all . . Gertrude, a veteran of the feminist struggle against Apartheid was one of our key note speakers and she spoke the story of courage and resilience on behalf of the women of courage in South Africa, then and now. Our second Key note speaker narrated her own story of courage and agency as she lamented the enduring tensions among  ethnic communities to which she belongs. She celebrated her rather successful role in mediating conflict resolution between the groups  As a Member of Parliament  She particularly celebrated her success in the proposing anti FGM law that is now operational in Kenya.

All in all, what had initially seemed a very daunting project (visiting three countries in three weeks!) proved to be, in my humble view, truly worthwhile. Being eye/ear witness to the great work that women are doing towards healing and justice in the continent was inspiring and contributory to the sense of hope I spoke of earlier. That the women have to work so hard and against many obstacles and at times severe backlash remains a major issue of ethical concern for me and for many who consider the many debilitating battles that women have to fight (e.g. against bodily mutilation or rape, or abduction and kidnapping of themselves or their children, extreme impoverishment and denial of their rights in many levels) a major ethical challenge.

One hopes (sometimes against hope) that their courageous battles will cumulatively yield significant results.

One hopes and wishes that others, in Church and society would heed the call to become “feminists” (For me , Feminism means : Recognizing that women are People and Treating them as such ) and join the women in the struggle towards social, moral and ethical transformations necessary for a more livable continent and indeed world. Accompanying rather than subverting women efforts towards justice and healing would be the ideal.

Below is a Group Photo of the Participants at The Symposium on 15th August 2016

(Notice the Representatives of the Braham Kumari  Sisters who are also contributing to peace making and peace building in Kenya  by encouraging mindfulness and meditation . In the aftermath of the 2007 PEV, they facilitated a nationwide campaign for people to write “Letters to God”  It was  a  creative way of allowing people to vent in a peaceful way. It was a strategy designed to interrupting the cycle of violence …)