Sisters Listen to Help Heal as Rwanda Marks 23 Years since the Genocide

By Lidman, Melanie | National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2017 | Go to article overview

Sisters Listen to Help Heal as Rwanda Marks 23 Years since the Genocide


Lidman, Melanie, National Catholic Reporter


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Like nuns everywhere, the Benebikira Sisters, the oldest indigenous congregation in Rwanda, have sisters who are teachers, nurses, pharmacists, formators and administrators. But they also have religious with a unique title: Sister Listeners.

"The genocide created many problems, some people don't want to live because of what happened," said Sr. Marie Venantie Nyiralaaganwa, the superior of the Southern Province of the Benebikira Sisters and the women's head of the Association des Superieures Majeures du Rwanda, the national umbrella group for women and men religious.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide, when up to a million people were killed during 100 days of fighting and in the chaos before and afterward, lurks under the surface of every interaction, even though 23 years have passed since the killers laid down their machetes.

The country has successfully emerged from some of the physical devastation after the genocide, the economy growing at impressive rates. Skyscrapers reach toward the heavens in the capital of Kigali and well-paved roads crisscross most of the countryside.

Now the country is perched in a delicate balance, as the people try to honor the memory of those killed while firmly looking toward the future. This balancing act comes into focus each year on April 7, the anniversary of the day the genocide started. It marks the beginning of a three-month period when the country turns inward to remember.

"There are many problems in Rwanda, and many people have mental problems because of the genocide," Nyirabaganwa said. "Those who killed have their own problems, and those who lost people due to the genocide have their own problems."

"Especially mothers who lost all of their children and husbands, or the young ones who lost all the members of their family" Nyirabaganwa added. "Many people just need someone to listen. Some have HIV [rape by HIV-positive men was one of the tools used to brutalize during the genocide]. There are different problems with families."

Six Benebikira Sisters are dedicated to full-time listening. Some of the sisters rim group therapy sessions, others do individual counseling as needed. They studied different approaches, including pastoral work or counseling, and go for continuing education on a regular basis, Nyirabaganwa explained.

The role of listener is less formal than therapist but fits better with Rwandan culture, she said. "The sisters in charge of listening are helping them spiritually We help them to resolve and get answers to their problems."

Other congregations, including the St. Boniface Sisters, adopted the model of "listeners," finding ways to blend psychological support with Rwanda's unique needs and culture. The role of these listeners is especially important in the springtime.

"In April, the country shuts down in memoriam for about two weeks. It's a period of remembrance," said Nicole Sparbanie, a Peace Corps volunteer from Chicago who works with the Bernardine Sisters in the village of Kamonyi, 25 miles outside of Kigali. Each village or district has its own memorial, usually a tomb and a mini-museum. Additionally each district observes the anniversaries of major events that happened locally during the 100-day genocide.

"All the school kids walk together and they read the names of people who died in that area. They tell the stories of the victims, and there is also art and music," Sparbanie said.

Because every local anniversary is marked annually during this 100-day period, newspapers and radio shows are full of reports about them, keeping the focus on the country's difficult past even as people try to move on.

Although the government severely limits free speech inside Rwanda, some activists and international organizations quietly question whether the government is using the memorials to limit opposition and maintain its authority Official government memorials, including the Kigali Genocide Memorial, call it "the Genocide against the Tutsi," which erases any reference to the thousands of Hutu who were killed, sometimes while protecting Tutsis. …

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