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Providence Seminary Students work in Rwanda

A team from Providence Seminary headed by Dr. Rolf Nolasco, Jr. spent two weeks in Rwanda on June 2-16, 2012 to work with the Rwanda Military Psychologists and to expose students to cross-cultural counseling through immersion. The team is comprised of four student counselors, namely, Jenni Bartel, Rhonda May, Jan Regehr and Meryll Jill Milne, and two graduates of the counseling program--Jordan Bell and Glenda Dubienski. We provided teaching on trauma and co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, addiction, etc., and facilitated experiential groups to help these psychologists further their own personal healing.

The narrative below is a personal reflection of Jenni (Lucy) Bartel's experience of the trip. The video was creatively done by Jordan Bell's daughter, Leah Yardley.

So much could be said about the Rwanda trip. Attempting to say something that encapsulates what I brought to and took away from the trip seems to implicitly minimize it. The trip carried immense meaning for me, both professionally and personally, and it continues to impact and change me. That reassuring red "You are here" sticker in my mind moves often and is hard to pin down; my thoughts shift and evolve like a wandering river. This, however, is the reality of personal and professional growth - we never fully arrive. Once in a while though, it is helpful to stop and take stock.

When the Providence team arrived in Rwanda, one thing quickly became apparent to us: Language is a powerful carrier and communicator of culture. Although I had read extensively about Rwandese history and culture, and prepared myself for the therapeutic context we would be working in, I had not learned any greetings or words in Kinyarwanda before our arrival. Although I wished that I had worked on this in some small way, I also came to appreciate that knowing language was less important than simply taking an interest in learning language and its culturally located meaning. I quickly learned that our curiosity and interest in language learning served as an invitation for interaction with our Rwandese friends, who bombarded us with new words to learn and remember. The process of language-learning is a powerful relationship-building tool, and I am glad that I capitalized on it in the moment.

The cultural meaning of language becomes even more important when entering into a counseling context. When we arrived, we were prepared with teaching material to present during a conference for Rwandese psychologists. Over the course of the first day or two, however, we adjusted our format to make listening to the Rwandese understanding of mental illness central. This allowed us to plumb deeper depths. For example, the Rwandese psychologists offered three possibilities as to what might be the most accurate Kinyarwanda word for depression. After suggesting akababaro (deep and acute sadness), and agahinda (a deeper, long-lasting sadness), they finally settled on the phrase agahinda k'inyongo bezabugingo which, literally translated, means "the soul is shrinking." To truly understand the meaning of mental illness in another culture, we must first understand the language they use to describe it.

Some words are carriers of cultural values. At the end of our trip, one of our psychologist friends asked if we would allow him to accompany us to the airport, even though our flight left in the wee hours of the morning. I later discovered that this concept has its own verb in Swahili, but has no equivalent in the English language. This word has come to carry immense meaning for me both personally and professionally. It describes the Rwandese way of being wholly present with a departing guest right until the end, most often accompanying them not only to the front door but all the way to the gate. This unhurried farewell may take an hour or more, with many pauses for further conversation along the way. The length of the farewell is indicative of the value placed on the relationship. With a very good friend, one might walk a distance of two miles or more. This east African wholehearted farewell is called kusindikiza.

Kusindikiza was incarnated for me in a dramatic way a few days later. On a short trip to an isolated part of northern Kenya, I found myself lost in a remote wilderness conservation area. Even my Kenyan guides were fearful; it was late at night and we seemed trapped in a maze of muddy roads, bike paths, and walking trails. After hours of wandering, we were found by a Kenyan man from a nomadic tribe who realized that drawing us a map would not be sufficient to guide us past the many hazards and back to a main road. He volunteered to accompany and guide us until we reached the next village - a full day's journey. He often walked ahead of us through the dense brush to make sure the route was passable. He could not eliminate the rutted roads or the persistent rain and mud, but he remained fully present. Sometimes his guidance seemed counter-intuitive and risky, but he never led us wrong. When our vehicle got stuck in deep mud (twice), he remained and worked with us to push the vehicle out. This man who introduced himself only as "Pastor" was committed to being physically, emotionally, and spiritually present with us until we arrived safely at the next village. In his shepherd-like presence, we experienced a measure of safety, but most of all connectedness and hope. This is the heart of kusindikiza.

As I reflected on these experiences, I was struck by the way in which kusindikiza described not only the Rwandese process of saying farewell, but also their approach to counselling. During our time with the Rwandese psychologists, we were humbled and inspired by their ability to listen well, being completely present with each other and with their clients. They demonstrated a willingness to walk alongside clients in monumental ways, much in the way that "Pastor" was present for me in Kenya. Infused in kusindikiza is a willingness to remain with a person no matter the depth of their pain. Kusindikiza is committed to journeying whole-heartedly with a person until the appropriate time comes to release them to journey on alone. The Rwandese psychologists we worked with incarnate kusindikiza daily. Every culture has strengths and resources like kusindikiza that lends depth and beauty to that culture's approach to healing.

The trip to Rwanda has given me a wealth of fodder for contemplation. I was humbled and inspired by the resilience of the Rwandese people, the strengths woven into the fabric of their culture. The Rwandese psychologists who we had the privilege of walking with demonstrated exceptional compassion and skillfulness in their work. Although it belongs to the east African people, the concept of kusindikiza fits well with my personality, values, and philosophy of counseling, and I plan to integrate it into my approach to counseling. The time I spent in Rwanda will continue to shape my perspective on what it means to be a Christ-follower, a therapist, and a human being.

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