Psychology to Help Rwanda


Dr. Kassel working with Rwandan students

When TCS faculty members Dr. Mark Kassel and Dr. Tiffany Masson stepped off a plane in Rwanda in November, it was a major step forward for the school's efforts to bring psychology to help the African nation heal the ever-present wounds of its 1994 genocide.

The outreach to Rwanda is part of TCS' larger vision of using psychology to ease suffering in countries around the world plagued by war, violence, disaster and other ills. The vision includes realizing human potential and laying the groundwork for future peaceful relationships.

Drs. Kassel and Masson found traveling to Rwanda, where reminders of the genocide surround people every day, a compelling experience.

"I felt so privileged to be there and that they (Rwandans) would trust me with their stories and share honestly about their struggles," Masson said. "I feel I have a duty, now that I know what their needs are, to help them."

Multiple traumas

Their needs are great. The nation is reeling from the genocide, when militias killed approximately one million people in Rwanda, or about 10 percent of the population, in a power struggle between ethnic groups. Rwandans also suffer from a high HIV/AIDS rate and gender-based violence, and huge numbers of children have been orphaned.

Before Kassel and Masson arrived in Kigali, the capital, on November 6, they had worked for months on adapting for Rwanda a trauma curriculum developed with a team of TCS educators. Yet they realized they would have to look to Rwandans to tell them how to make the curriculum appropriate and useful in Rwandan culture.

"Any time you're coming in from a different cultural perspective, you have to establish relationships and understanding, or you'll come across barriers later," Kassel said.

Getting to know you


Group shot with all of the program participants

TCS administrators strategized about how psychology could make an impact across Rwanda. They zeroed in on the idea of training elementary and secondary school teachers, who would be able to bring the benefit of mental health skills to school children experiencing trauma symptoms. TCS would also ask them to impart the knowledge to other teachers in a train-the-trainer model.

Jean Paul Ntabanganyimana, TCS' on-the-ground coordinator in Rwanda, screened school teachers before the workshop and chose 18, a blend of men and women, who spoke English well enough to participate. Six Rwandan psychologists, who were college professors, also took part in the workshop, which lasted from Sunday through Thursday.

"The first day was a 'getting to know you' session,'" Kassel said, explaining the Rwandans thought everyone in the United States was rich and happy, and had no idea how Americans could relate to their suffering.

Though they weren't planning to, The Chicago School professors made an on-the-fly decision to tell them about poverty, hunger, abuse, and despair in the U.S. It caused an emotional shift in the room, and Masson said she felt the Rwandans rewarding them with a greater level of trust.

Listening as well as talking

Kassel and Masson made presentations both verbally and online throughout workshop. They also actively listened to the Rwandan teacher-participants to learn how they could adapt the curriculum to best fit their culture, sensitivities, and preferences.

Deane Rabe, assistant vice president for student affairs, whose spring 2008 trip to Rwanda got TCS interested in working in the country, stressed that TCS psychologists and Rwandan participants have to collaborate and shape the curriculum in accord with Rwandan culture.

"What Rwandans don't want is for Americans to walk in and hand them a packet and say, 'here's your answer,'" he said. "They want to be part of the solution."

So after Kassel and Masson spent all day and evening with their Rwandan counterparts, they woke up early each morning to discuss what they had learned, and adjusted their presentation for that day to best meet their audience's needs.

Cultural disconnects

The two professors found different assumptions on either side of the Atlantic. Whenever they talked about trauma, the Rwandan teacher-participants framed it in terms of genocide. They hadn't considered domestic violence, child abuse, and children orphaned by AIDS deaths as traumatic.

"It wasn't until the fourth day they could say yes, we do have a problem with those things," said Kassel.

Likewise, the Rwandan teachers had not connected their students' wild or withdrawn behavior with stress caused by abuse or violence and its aftermath.

"They thought the kids were just misbehaving. Now they understand the kids' acting out was a symptom of trauma," Kassel explained.

'Tears in the stomach'

While therapy in the United States involves encouraging clients to express their feelings openly, Rwandan culture does not permit that.

"People don't cry publicly. Women are allowed to cry privately, and men not at all," said Masson.

Though children are permitted to cry, male children are told their tears must fall into their stomachs, rather than coming out on their cheeks. In other words, they're not allowed to openly express their sadness.

"As we develop the curriculum, we need to offer them additional coping skills that don't only require expressing feelings, unless they desire to," Masson said.

She also picked up on the fact that children younger than 15, who were not alive during the 1994 genocide, nevertheless feel guilt and blame.

"They wish they had been born then, because they could have protected their families, and maybe their mom would be alive, or not raped," she explained.

She hopes that once TCS fully trains school teachers, they will teach children how to cope, help them identify triggers, and enable them to live a fruitful life.

Hope to return for full training


The trip was an exploratory foray, and the professors, who came back to the U.S. on November 15, will use what they learned to refine the curriculum TCS hopes to use in Rwanda.
If TCS can get grant funding, faculty will return in April, when Rwanda holds genocide commemorations and many people re-experience trauma.

Future plans may include developing a plan and time frame for doing full-fledged training with the refined curriculum. Kassel said it will be face-to-face training, following the train the trainer model, and TCS faculty in the United States would provide online support to the Rwandan participants on an ongoing basis.

However, the professors found that the Internet is still limited in Rwanda. The workshop participants knew how to use the Internet, though most didn't have daily access to it.

As Internet accessibility in Rwanda and other African countries increases over time, Kassel said, TCS would develop blended and online training.

Rwandans react

The teacher-participants want the program to be extended throughout the country, said Jean Paul.

"The reaction was very positive with much interaction and lots of input," he said. "They liked it suggested that workshop to into more details and cover some additional topics."

Guest participant Felix Mwale, who is with Save Africa's Children and the Zambia Association of Child Care Workers, called the curriculum "very useful" and expressed hope it can be broadened to address social workers and child and youth workers. Mwale coordinates orphanage workers caring for HIV/AIDS children.

"The materials can be used elsewhere in Africa. It does fit for most African countries," he said.

Next steps

Upon arriving at TCS in April, Dr. Tim Shannon, vice president for institutional advancement, set the wheels in motion for The Chicago School delegation to travel to Rwanda in the fall. He went to the Rwandan Embassy in Washington, D.C., met with exiles who had established advocacy groups for Rwanda, and made valuable contacts. Shannon said he plans to apply for grants from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund further TCS efforts in Rwanda.

He is also hoping that when the TCS Washington, D.C. campus opens in late summer, its Center for African Psychological Studies can become a hub for faculty and student exchanges and boost the school's momentum in Rwanda.

For more information, contact Dr. Mark Kassel, associate director of curriculum and instructional design, and Dr. Tiffany Masson, assistant professor,

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