Sociotherapy Goma

Pilot Program Sociotherapy in Goma, DRC

Most of us have a wife who was raped

In this group we are healing one another

Recently the Institute of Higher Education in Mental Health (Institut Superieur du Lac – ISL) started a pilot program sociotherapy in Goma. The set up of this program was inspired by the positive impacts of sociotherapy as practiced in Rwanda. Eight third year ISL students mental health or trauma counselling were trained and successively started four sociotherapy groups. Each pair of students facilitates one of these groups. Supervision is done by ISL staff and the program coordinator of the Bugesera sociotherapy program in Rwanda. The pilot program is financed by a small Dutch humanitarian NGO called Solidarity Fund and some additional private donations.

The composition of the groups is as follows: a group with male and female students with various ethnic backgrounds; a group with different categories of women - including women who were sexually violated and women with a child born from rape; a group with women who were sexually violated and live separated from their husbands; and a group with men – including men who accepted to continue to live with their wife after she had been sexually violated, men who rejected their wife because of sexually violation and men who had been exposed to violence themselves.

During my seven day stay at the Institute in Goma (April-May 2013) I visited three of the four groups - together with Benoit Rutayisire (the director of the Institute) and Theophile Sewimfura (who had trained the facilitators and co-supervises the program). It is often assumed that men compared to women do not easily talk about their suffering and share it with others. However, we did not find any confirmation of this assumption during our group visits.

The men’s group

The men’s group we visited had come together for its sixth session. Thirteen of the fifteen group participants were present. Two men had sent a notice of absence, providing good reasons for not being able to join. The three of us came in after the session had already started and remained for about one and a half hour.

Sitting in a circle, as is the custom in sociotherapy, all of us present introduced ourselves. In this introductory round men told us spontaneously about the impact of sociotherapy so far or about an issue which related to what they had discussed in previous group sessions. Most of what was said was translated for me. In the quotes below some details of what the men said have been changed for the sake of anonymity.

Men’s voices

Some men gave an example of how they had intervened the past week regarding a problem that they had encountered in their living environment, based on what they had learned in the group. One man had corrected injustice done to a man in the village who had been falsely accused of poisoning; another one had referred a young deaf child after rape for medical care and comforted her family; and a third one had provided small jobs to a neighbour who wanted to commit suicide. “He can now at least feed his wife and children. I learned in the group that even loneliness can kill.” One man just mentioned two problems that had troubled him the past week: “My sister had an abortion. A colleague had been killed by Mai Mai rebels when he was travelling.”

Some men spoke about a problem that had been bothering them already for some time.

My problem is the death of my wife after she was raped. She was raped in the bush while she was away from home. She came back to Goma physically injured and very traumatized. She died one week later. I am now struggling to care for our seven children.

I am troubled by difficulties. I got chased out of the house I was renting, because I could not pay the rent. My wife was taken by soldiers and raped. I did not see her again.

I have difficulties caring for my children. I am jobless and do not succeed to get a job. My wife died after she had been raped. She was stronger than me; she was the pillar of the house. After her death, the house collapsed.

Some other men spoke about a change in their own behaviour as a result of their participation in the group.

My wife was raped in Uvira. I planned to chase her away and marry a new one. But this last week my joy is increasing. I start to accept the situation. The advice of my family was to stay with her. At first I refused. But through the group I changed my mind and I start to feel happy.

One man, reacting to others, said, “I have three children of my own and one from rape. I accept that one child as my own child.”

Some of the men expressed explicitly what the group meant to them.

My joy is the group. My initial doubt about what I was doing in the group was quickly gone after the first few sessions.

The group is my joy. Most of us have a wife who was raped. This group can help men. The problem of a woman is the problem of a man.

The group is my joy and comfort. I hope I will be helped more. I am getting younger here. I am assisting my orphan children who have no mother. I have many problems, the main one being poverty. I get encouraged here.

In this group we are healing one another. I lost my parents at a young age and grew up in another family. I am jobless. Now my thinking is coming to be ordered. Much light and hope is coming that I will not die.

We have many secrets that we hide in ourselves and in our family. In this group secrets are revealed. This helps us to be released. Secrets were imprisoning us. Chains are broken in this group. I do not know how to describe the fruits. I have got courage to continue to attend the sessions.

My wife was raped. This is a heavy burden to carry. I am still young and asked myself, why stay with this lady. She is impure. I did stay with her out of respect for my parents, but my heart was not there. I was suffering and did not have any desire to have sex. Through this group, hearing others how they accepted and supported their wives, I changed my mind. Now I feel sad about my behaviour towards my wife. I thought it was me only to have the curse of that problem. But I heard others share the same problem with the group. I was dying inside. This group helped me.

More general remarks about the merits of sociotherapy were the following:

The method of sociotherapy is a powerful tool to transform behaviours and heal wounded spirits.

I’m amazed. During the first meeting of our group, looking at the attitudes men were showing and hearing the questions they asked while expressing anger mixed with pain, I was convinced, without telling them, that the facilitators will not succeed to run the group. But, I’m amazed. Even a man like Augustin, until now he remained in the group and testified that he regained hope. Sociotherapy will help many people.

Case presentation

After everyone had spoken, one of the facilitators concluded that there were three cases to be discussed. One pending one, which had been brought in the group last week and was not solved then; one serious one that had been briefly presented in the introductory round; and one of a participant who had so far only said that he urgently wanted to present his case. Time was allocated for all three cases. But, it was decided, it would be best to at least continue with the case that was still pending. Let me present two of the three cases. Some details in the stories the men told I changed for the sake of anonymity.

Jean (a pseudonym) told the group that his fiancée in the past was raped. She had not told him. The doctor had informed her family that she was pregnant. One day people in the neighbourhood told Jean, ‘do not think that that child is yours’. Jean lived with this issue for many years. He got children who were his own, but was always in conflict with his wife. He reached the stage that he intended to leave the house; however, with the intention to keep supporting his children so that they could study. Jean lost his father when he was young and consequently could not study. He did not want his children to suffer like he did from not having been able to study. Jean felt challenged by the advices which in previous sessions had been given to other men in the group who were in conflict with their wife. He started to understand the problem of his wife and realize that he would punish his wife unjustly by leaving. Jean now would like to hear from others what to do in the present situation.

Vincent (a pseudonym) had followed the advice from the group given to him during the previous session and now needs additional advice. His wife is a drunkard. She sold everything from the house. At a certain moment the wife left the house and went to her parents. Vincent stayed behind with the children. The group had advised Vincent to present the case to both families for mediation according to the local custom. Vincent had subsequently gone to the family of his wife to invite the wife to be available for a meeting with both families. The wife however did not respond to that invitation. Her parents told Vincent that she should have done so. No one knows where she is. This development had increased Vincent’s problem. What to do?

We were amazed

We could not stay longer to hear what the group advised the men who had brought their case forward, but left with the impression that the group would have a serious discussion about the cases, either in this session or the next. What impressed us as visitors was the serious involvement of the men in the group process and the openness with which they shared their grief, sadness, powerlessness, and worries. Like I had noticed so many times in sociotherapy groups in Rwanda, an atmosphere had been created in the group in which the participants felt free to speak and started to share intimate problems they had kept so long for themselves. The group can certainly not solve all problems the men struggle with; a major one being unemployed and suffering from poverty. However, as the quotes above demonstrate, the group does contribute to at least various non-material changes in men’s lives that they experience as positive. And who knows, this group made decide towards the end of their 15 group sessions to start income generating activities together, as some groups in Rwanda do. What impressed us most was that already after five group sessions the men had started to change some of their behaviour towards a wife or child who had been victimized by them. Before leaving, the men shared with us that they all know men who are eager to join their group. Theophile explained – using the metaphor that when cooking vegetables one cannot add halfway a new portion of vegetables because they will not get well cooked anymore in time – that men interested to participate must wait for a new group to start. All men nodded that they understood.

Evaluation of the impact of sociotherapy group sessions

Following our three group visits, we met all students/facilitators and supervisors involved in the pilot program. They shared with great enthusiasm the ‘indescribable changes’ they are experiencing in their respective groups after already three to five sessions. The two facilitators of the student group shared with us the opinion as expressed by the students: “This program has the potential to prevent violent conflicts that make our province suffer so much. It prevents youth to join rebel movements through discussing with them and making them understand the reality of issues which politicians do not openly speak about. Sociotherapy is the light that can guide youth.”

We urged the facilitators of all four groups to document well how the group process in their group develops and what the different kinds of impact of these processes are for the group members themselves as well as their families and neighbourhoods. If the results are as positive as we experienced in the groups we visited, we hope even more that the pilot program of sociotherapy gets the chance to develop in a large program that will serve the population of Goma and surroundings to overcome some of the wounds caused by the war violence of the recent past and will contribute to peace.

Sociotherapy and the prospect of peace

While writing this report I read that the World Bank had announced 1 billion US dollar in development funding for Africa's Great Lakes region, where renewed fighting between the government and rebels in eastern Congo has raised fears once again of an escalation in conflict. The funds should help finance health and education services, hydro-electric projects and cross-border trade in the area. "We believe this can be a major contributor to a lasting peace in the Great Lakes region," World Bank President Jim Yong Kim stated when he unveiled the proposed aid financing for one of Africa's most intractable conflict regions on the first day of a trip with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Paraphrasing what the students in the student group in Goma had said, a program such as community-based sociotherapy has the potential to make a significant contribution to lasting peace in regions; that is, if it gets the chance to be implemented on a grand scale. Thus, a small part of the 1 billion dollar for sociotherapy would be a good investment.

Heemstede, the Netherlands, May 2013