Healing in Rwanda



For the second year in a row, I had the privilege of traveling to Kigali, Rwanda to lead a Multi-Cultural Trauma Treatment Training sponsored by the Global Engagement Institute and the Integrative Trauma Treatment Center. This experience has been transformative. 


My story is a bit unusual, and I feel like I need to give a little backstory. I have my PhD in Social Work and a couple of years ago, I decided to go to massage therapy school and yoga teacher training.  My goal was to provide these two modalities that have positively impacted me to others who were in need of them, too. During my time in school, I learned a lot about the nervous system and its connection with massage therapy and yoga . I read The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, and was fascinated, so I kept digging deeper. 

When I returned from my training I was convinced that touch has been the missing ingredient when working to improve mental health. Sure, there is a community already doing this, but it sure isn’t mainstream thinking yet. Upon my return, I began looking for places where I could provide trauma-informed bodywork and yoga classes - enter Integrative Trauma Treatment Center


I approached the owner of ITTC and while she already valued these things in her practice, she didn’t really have consistent providers. After just a couple of months of working together to get the trauma informed massage and yoga classes going, she approached me about going to Rwanda to facilitate this training that she normally leads - and I could do it with a focus on integrative therapies - my favorite! I always love traveling and experiencing different cultures as it puts our own norms and societal rules into perspective. 

At the training, hosted by the University of Rwanda, we have several delegates from other countries who are interested in learning more about Rwanda and their mental health approach. We also have several Rwandan mental health practitioners interested in continuing their education to help their population deal with the effects of the genocide that occured in 1994. Nearly 30% of the population still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and studies have recently come out showing that the trauma is being passed down generationally. The idea is that over the course of our time together, we learn from each other - both providing an opportunity for the other to learn what we wouldn’t have without this opportunity. One of the main things that has stood out to me is the importance of utilizing their collectivist culture, community, to heal. We learn that when faced with the ultimate devastation, a community can rise once again and work through their trauma as a collective society.

At last year’s training, I introduced the idea of using safe, therapeutic touch to calm the nervous system. We practiced doing light massage on each others hands and heads. At first most were hesitant, but once I demonstrated on several people, they began trying massaging each other's hands and heads. We practiced some simple yoga stretches, breath work, and mindfulness exercises. There were lots of giggles, smiles, and a genuine interest in learning more about this even after the training had ended. After the genocide, the country turned to evidence based trauma treatment - but the problem is that the evidence base was from studies done in different cultures. Even in the U.S., the idea of incorporating eastern principles such as yoga, breath, mindfulness, etc. to improve mental health is not known to all. These were newer concepts in terms of treating mental health, and very well received. I’m always mindful to not assume that these approaches would work with everyone, in every culture. There are norms and guidelines that will dictate what interventions work best. Interestingly, the younger generation in the big city of Kigali seemed intrigued. 


In the U.S., as well as other countries, the stigma associated with receiving mental health treatment can be a barrier. What’s great about mindful touch, stretch, breath work, mindfulness, etc is that using these approaches to regulate our nervous systems is not stigmatized - it can be used for literally everyone - struggling with their mental health or not. The team at ITTC and the associated non-profit (for which I’m the President) is working in partnership with the University of Rwanda to open an integrative clinic that offers culturally appropriate interventions that are not stigmatized with the hope of helping people who wouldn’t otherwise seek out help with traditional mental health treatment at the local hospitals and clinics. 

Rwanda is a unique case in that they have experienced the most extreme form of trauma and have basically had to start from scratch in terms of developing their mental health system. They understand the importance of incorporating culture (music, dance, art, community) into their interventions and are well on their way to being a model for other countries. I’m really looking forward to what will come from this partnership in Rwanda and how Yomassage might be able to learn and contribute to worldwide healing. 


Written by: Tiffany Ryan, PhD, MSW, LMT

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