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Maine and Burundi communities begin to heal through storytelling

Denise Altvater
Denise Altvater Photo: BBC

Risky truth-telling

Telling one’s story, and having it deeply heard, can be the difference between carrying the burden of trauma, violence, and guilt, and building trust and reconnection.

When people who have experienced trauma hold their stories, become isolated, and have no safe place for their telling, the trauma can fester and emerge in acts of retribution and future violence. Where harm is caused by violent conflict, genocide, and the systematic destruction of cultures, trauma is often passed from one generation to the next.

Telling stories and having them heard, received, and understood lays the groundwork for the kind of healing that can make way for peace—for moving from harm to healing.

Healing from civil war in Burundi

Burundi suffered through two periods of intense conflict and killings between Hutus and Tutsis in the early 1970s and early 90s. Quakers have seen and responded to the great need in the country for healing. 

Through peace committees, HIV clinics for women, and creating spaces for people to tell their stories, Quaker ministers and churches have had a deep influence on healing from the deep hurts from this time.Cibitoke province peace village

One Quaker group, Friends Peace Teams, developed a trauma-healing curriculum in 2003 called Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC). The initial workshop lasts three days and takes participants through a process that can result in healing and reconnection. 

The first exercises create a sense of safety in the group. These are followed by learning about the dynamics of trauma and creating space for remembrance and mourning. The participants learn a road map toward healing from trauma and connecting with faith in that process. They learn about the process of reconciliation and building trust. They also learn about helping others, working with healing companions, the recovery process, and the power of listening.

Deep listening creates the foundation for the healing. As participants learn to listen to one another, they also tell and sometimes are freed from their difficult stories of experiences of violence as perpetrators or victims. Leaders don’t talk about forgiveness in the workshops; they have come to understand that forgiveness can be a powerful result of the process, but it is a spiritual gift and cannot be assumed or required.

But sometimes it is a result. Apollinaire, who lives in a peace village on the outskirts of Bujumbura, Burundi, told about his experience after the workshop: 

“One day I was not at home, my wife was pregnant and I received a phone call that she had been beaten nearly to death. The man who did it had been my friend. We spent many years without talking with each other. One day he asked for my forgiveness. I said, ‘Yes,’ but it wasn’t true. After the HROC workshop, I went to him, shared food with him. I asked him to forgive me for not forgiving him. Now he is my best friend, we take care of one another.”

People who participate in the process talk about how they have changed. Jean-Marie, a neighbor of Apollinaire’s, said of her experience, “The one who killed my father, I used to see him, he was a soldier. When I saw him before the HROC workshop, my wound would re-open; I wanted to kill him, but now I have forgiven him, I’ve seen him since and I knew I was healed.”

From “to kill the Indian” to reconciliation in Maine

Denise Altvater, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe of the Wabanaki, has worked for AFSC for 18 years. She has worked in Maine with Wabanaki and state childcare workers to establish a truth and reconciliation commission—the first between a sovereign tribal nation and a U.S. state, and the first in which victims and perpetrators have proceeded in unity. The commission was seated in Hermon, Maine, on Feb. 12.

Preceding the seating ceremony was a day of reflection and prayer for the telling of the hard stories of children who had been taken from their homes, their people, and their ways, and placed into foster homes with white families. The foster care system was a tactic to eradicate the culture of the few Wabanaki who had survived physical genocide. The intention was, as Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle
Indian School in Pennsylvania said, “to kill the Indian, but save the man.”

Denise says, “When the boarding school era became unpopular, and people started turning against it, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America implemented the Indian Adoption Act. This was a 10-year experiment that they conducted during the late 1950s through the late 1960s. The act was implemented primarily in the New England states.”

Many of the children are now adults and still suffer from the trauma of being taken. Denise says, “Across the board, however you were taken, in a real good way or a real bad way, whether you were taken from a good home or a bad home, whether you were placed in a good or bad foster home, the people taken didn’t feel like they knew where they belonged. The trauma that had the deepest impact was the trauma of being taken. It was a real strong and real life-long traumatic event.”

Denise is clear that the harm done was part of the system: “During the boarding school era, the foster-care era, child welfare workers were doing their jobs and they thought they were doing the right thing. It’s not an issue of them being good or bad, right or wrong.”

The focus of the truth and reconciliation process will be the healing of the Wabanaki through the telling and receiving of their stories, the healing of the child care workers, and changes in policy and practice. 

Child welfare workers and tribal members have worked together on developing the declaration of intent; they were mistrustful at first, but when they told each other stories about who they are as people, their hearts opened to one another, and they have moved together to make the commission a reality.

As the tender, difficult stories are told and really heard, the healing can begin, the reclamation of the birthright of all people: to one’s own culture, to one’s own heart, to a sense of belonging.

Denise says, “People can be transformed by being open and human. We believe that people have a need to be heard, but how they are heard really matters—if they take the risk of telling their story, it needs to make a difference.” 

Telling stories of violence and trauma in a context in which those stories will be believed, listened to, and deeply held by the community lays the foundation for healing and for reconciliation between perpetrators and victims. It also allows new ways of interacting and commitments to end the practices and conflicts that have caused the trauma.

Hearing such stories can ignite movements movements of the heart that can lay the foundation for peace.

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