From: Soren Gordhamer, Between Four Eyes Senior Teacher
Subject: Bringing Mindfulness Practices to Rwanda
Date: November 5, 2008 1:17PM
To: Friends <email@example.com>
This past month we have been traveling and teaching in Africa. We are currently in Rwanda, a small country in the heart of Africa that is likely most remembered for the 1994 genocide in which up to a million people were slaughtered in several months. We are here both to educate ourselves and to introduce people to mindfulness practices, which they have received very well. Today we held a program for college students who were orphaned by the genocide and are dealing with issues of loss, forgiveness and reconciliation. One man lost both his parents and every one of his seven siblings. We also just held a two-day workshop for the trauma counselors who work with survivors of the genocide—and who every day hear stories of brutality.
A few days ago we finished another workshop for fifty women who were widowed by the genocide. They are from a group called Avega, which offers support, including medical assistance for HIV, to women who contracted AIDS from being raped by perpetrators during the genocide. Many are also raising the children conceived from the rapes. The women in Avega were as close as any group I have ever seen. At the end of every day they sang and danced for us. There was such joy in their hearts, even as they continue to recover from enormous loss.
What these women, and Rwanda as a nation, have been asked to bear is astounding. Because there were hundreds of thousands of perpetrators in the genocide, there was not the jail space to incarcerate everyone. Likewise, the country could not move forward with so much of its workforce in jail. So they created a system similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which offers leniency for those who admit their crimes and ask for forgiveness. This has been a very powerful and healing experience for many people. However, for the survivors it has also meant that now, for example, in the marketplace they may run across the person who killed their family.
It’s clear to me that many of our workshop participants have previously tasted the value of mindfulness, though they usually do not have a language for it. As one grief counselor remarked via our translator, “I have been trying to incorporate just this kind of thing for years.” Often the most powerful element they learned through mindfulness was that they did not need to know beforehand the right response to a given situation. Instead, if they could bring mindfulness to the present moment, then they would be much more likely to see the most appropriate response in that moment. This shifted the dialogue from focusing outwardly on the actions of others, such as “What about if someone says this?” or “What if someone does that?,” to focusing inwardly, such as “What is the quality of my presence in a given moment?” This was very empowering.
So many of the atrocities in Rwanda were based around people’s identities as “Tutsi” or “Hutu,” which had been created and supported by colonists. It has been quite a lesson in the need to see through the beliefs and identities we hold of who we are and to open to and live from a deeper reality of our existence. It was seeing just this need on a trip last year to Rwanda that inspired Between Four Eyes founder Theo Koffler to decide to bring mindfulness practices here. It is exciting to help in a small way to move that vision forward.
Soren Gordhamer led programs internationally through Between Four Eyes and was founding curriculum advisor at Mindfulness Without Borders. Click here to read Theo Koffler’s story about how she came to create Between Four Eyes.