In March, Dr. Naasson Munyandamutsa of Rwanda was selected to receive the 2013 Barbara Chester Award. The award will be formally presented on the 12th of October on the Hopi Indian reservation in northeastern Arizona.
Naasson Munyandamutsa is a medical doctor with specializations in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. He has worked as a clinician and lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. A frequent presenter at international conferences on psychological trauma, Dr. Munyandamutsa addresses the psychological consequences of extreme violence and the challenges of living together in war torn societies. He also collaborated with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the capacity building of stakeholders by providing psychological treatment for victims and witnesses. Currently he is a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine and the Department of Clinical Psychology at the National University of Rwanda, maintains a clinical practice, and works for the promotion of dialogue as a mechanism for conflict management in war-torn countries in his role as Deputy Director of the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace. Dr. Munyandamutsa also is a member of the scientific support committee for Rwandan projects in the field of health funded by the government of Belgium. In 2011 he received the Geneva Prize Foundation for Human Rights in Psychiatry Award.
In 1994, the world awakened to genocidal mass slaughter that took place in the East African state of Rwanda. Over the course of approximately 100 days, from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people were killed, or as much as 20% of the country's total population, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate.
Although not present in Rwanda in 1994, Dr. Munyandamutsa lost all of his family except for one brother who was also out of the country during the genocide. His birthplace home was destroyed. He was motivated to return to Rwanda to help with the country’s recovery from massive trauma. He knew he could help to train others as well to respond to the traumatic reactions of genocide survivors.
Naasson returned to Rwanda in late 1994 and for several years was the only psychiatrist in the country. With financial assistance from a Swiss humanitarian organization and later from UNICEF, in 1995, Dr. Munyandamutsa established the National Trauma Recovery Center to promote healing from the massive traumatic experiences of the genocide. He began to train students of psychology and lay counselors to respond the needs of individuals and communities. He also promoted supervision being acutely aware of the impact of secondary trauma on those who also endured primary trauma. Additionally, he advocated and received a set of scholarships for Rwandan physicians to be trained as psychiatrists at his Swiss alma mater.
In 1999, when UNICEF funding ended, Naasson worked with the Rwandan Ministry of Health to assume a responsible role in maintaining psychosocial services. This collaboration resulted in the development of the Psychosocial Consultation Services (Service de Consultation Psychosociale) to provide outpatient counseling for genocide survivors.
In addition, Dr. Munyandamutsa began teaching clinical psychology, psychiatry, and psychopharmacology at the National University of Rwanda to increase understanding of traumatic experiences. In some ways, he is the “father” of mental health in post-genocide Rwanda. His wife, Donatilla, who became educated in psychiatric nursing after the genocide and has made her own contributions in promoting mental health in Rwanda, says, “No one else can do what Naasson has done in Rwanda, he is a resource to everyone.” He has been instrumental in governmental policies on mental health, the development of programming for education and direct services, and is a sensitive and skilled clinician.
Henriette, who was 19 years old at the time of the genocide and has a horrific story of fleeing and hiding for her life, says, “Dr. Naasson saved my life.” She explained that after the genocide ended, she saw the massive loss of human lives and had haunting memories of being stalked by genocideers. She became profoundly depressed, was hopeless, and wanted to die. Henriette recounted that was how many people felt afterward the genocide. She described how Dr. Munyandamutsa listened to her story with understanding and kindness, affirming her suffering and gradually redirected her to what she had to live for. She went on to receive training as a trauma counselor and by helping others, she continued to recover and regain a sense of hope and future for herself and for Rwanda.
One Rwandan psychologist, Dr. Eugene Rutembesa, recalled that Naasson was always teaching. He served as a role model for others through his devotion to helping and positive attitude. Naasson once told Eugene when he asked how Naasson continues to work so hard, “Serving people, it is life.”
Dr. Eugene also reported that he learned from Naasson that healing goes beyond psychological treatment, that the needs of the whole person must be addressed, the psychological, the social, and the economic. Naasson believes that a good clinician must always be thinking, “What is the next step?”
An illustrative example of this involves Naasson’s work with IBUKA, an organization that assists genocide survivors, with particular concern for widows. His work with IBUKA resulted in a program that recognizes and addresses the long-term consequences of trauma on emotional well-being within the social context of a post-genocide society where social and economic issues are essential to well-being. IBUKA has prided itself in developing income generation projects for widows as a result of Naasson’s consultation and support.
Dr. Munyandamutsa is also the Deputy Director of the Institute for Research and Dialogue for Peace. He works extensively within the country and with the Rwandan diaspora. He uses community meetings and radio discussions to address issues of mistrust that persist in the post-genocide society. He believes that in order to heal from the genocide, silence needs to be broken and words needs to be used to speak of the experiences endured by all Rwandans. The radio is a powerful tool that reaches all people in the country, even the illiterate, to explain symptoms and to encourage.
An example of radio as a powerful tool that reached far was a broadcast that discussed suicidal feelings. A young male survivor who lost all family members in the genocide was alone and depressed. He was hopeless and considering ending his life. He heard Naasson speak on the radio about suicide and it sparked an interest in meeting him. This young man traveled by foot for three days. When he reached Kigali, the police questioned him at a checkpoint and he told them that he was wanted to see Naasson. They escorted him to the psychiatric hospital.
When he met Naasson, he told him, I have questions for you: How do you manage your life when you listen to people like me who have lost everything and are depressed, how do you not go crazy? What do you do with people like me who want to put an end to their life? If I die, will I continue to suffer?
Naasson responded to the young man, “If I have the opportunity to meet somebody like you, we work together, and you improve, it gives me much hope for the future.” “It is a killer’s business to end life, we need to focus on living.” And thirdly, “No one knows what is after death. We just have to accept that we do not know.”
The young man went on to work with Naasson for a period and was able to move beyond his depression and find a hope for the future.
Naasson recognizes the complexity and responsibility of memory, and the need not to get mired in divisive memories. He believes it is impossible to forget, but it is also risky to wallow in the past, saying we have to look to the future – we need to find a way to meet this challenge. He recognizes the importance of justice and the difficulty to achieve justice. He believes in and promotes the use of dialogue in his therapeutic relationships and in his advocacy within the country and with the diaspora.