Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Complex Trauma: A Critical Analysis of the Rwandan Fight for Liberation

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Complex Trauma: A Critical Analysis of the Rwandan Fight for Liberation

Article excerpt


In the past 50 years, the majority of the world's violent political conflicts have taken place outside of the West (Miller, Omidian, & Quraishy, 2006). These areas maintain cosmologies, which can vary drastically from the worldview found within Western industrialized societies. In many cases, the contours of indigenous worldviews in continental and African Diaspora societies are directly connected to their experiences with colonialism and structural oppression (Vargas, 2005). Thus, African centered trauma interventions for continental and African people in the Diaspora must account for (a) traditional pre-colonial indigenous understandings and experiences, as well as (b) indigenous understandings and experiences of trauma related to colonization, structural oppression, and Ma'afa (the African holocaust).

This paper examines Rwanda's current struggle for liberation from the deleterious effects of international oppression. Appropriate trauma interventions must be grounded in the country's complex history as well as incorporate Rwandan constructs of healing. Rwanda, a nation the West seemingly affiliates only with the 1994 genocide, has a long history of colonial oppression dating back to the German (1893-1923) and Belgian rule (1923-1962). Notably, the Rwandan government "maintains that the unity of Rwandans was destroyed by first German and then Belgian colonialism" (Buckley-Zistel, 2009, p. 35). Hegemonic forces implemented a church-dominated socio-political system, which created a sharp division in status among Rwandans. Further, colonial rule exacerbated perceptions of ethnic differences, relegating the Hutu and Twa as inferior to the Tutsi ethnic minority (Kubai, 2007). Rwandans rejected this externally imposed hierarchy, and in a span of 100 days, approximately 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsi and non-compliant Hutu citizens were massacred by the Hutu extremists. Despite national reconciliation efforts, the effects of neo-colonial trauma pervade Rwandan communities to present date.

Limitations of Western Constructs of Traumatic Adjustment

Western professionals tend to conceptualize the post traumatic adjustment of Africans dispersed throughout the globe based on diagnoses rooted in a biomedical model rather than viewing traumatic presentation in light of historic and extant socio-political factors. There is still much to be learned in regards to the unique impacts that enslavement has had on African people. The study of slavery in Africa and throughout the Diaspora warrants increased attention and is, indeed, a global phenomenon (Larson, 1999). Pan-African narratives are vital to the understanding and dissemination of African trauma and healing experiences yet much of the trauma literature espouses from Western-funded bio-medical research.

Given the legacy of colonialism in Rwanda, as well as the colonial history surrounding the genocide, we have remained cautious in our examination of trauma interventions in Rwanda due to the tendency for them to be culturally biased towards Western constructs of health, illness, and healing. Additionally, the lack of public libraries in Rwanda makes it difficult for scientific research to be disseminated. Despite the existence of research ethics committees, it is surprising, then, to find that research has been done in Rwanda and published by foreigners, without Rwandan citizens necessarily having any knowledge about it (Levers et al., 2006). For this reason, it is understandable that we have been limited in our analysis by research that primarily has not been conducted by African people.

Prevalence rates for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) fall between 15%-50% in countries with a history of war, including Rwanda eight years after the genocide (Pham, Weinstein, & Longman, 2004). An inflexible adherence to the language and constructs of Western psychology and psychiatry risks prioritizing psychiatric syndromes which Western practitioners are familiar with, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), when other idioms of distress are in fact more relevant for the given culture. …

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