Masculinity and Mental Health in Post-Genocide Rwanda

The vast majority of perpetrators of the 1994 genocide were men. Now, having served time in prison, they want to heal themselves and their communities, but toxic masculinity remains a barrier.

by Alice McCool; illustrated by Charity Atukunda
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16 November 2017, 1:37pm

All photos by Alice McCool

In Britain, a group of men sitting together talking openly about their problems and feelings would be an unusual scene. It would be all the more unusual if those men had spent time in prison and almost impossible to fathom if they were perpetrators of horrific killings.

I am not in the UK, but Rwanda, sitting with a group of softly spoken and smiling men who have all done time in prison for brutal crimes committed during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. According to government figures, out of a population of 7.3 million, over one million people were killed in the ethnically motivated violence which lasted just 100 days.

“My daughter in law left the grandchildren at my house last week because her and my son are having marital problems. But I am too old to look after them”, says a man in his seventies to the group of 20-odd men, sitting outside in a circle of benches one sunny October afternoon in Juru, a rural area in Rwanda’s Eastern Province.

“My wife was sick this week and I was very worried” pipes up another, wide-eyed. When one person is talking everyone is silent – it feels like even the nearby herd of cows are listening. The group goes on to discuss all their problems, offering sympathies and giving each other advice on what they would do in a similar scenario. The troubled men agree to update each other on their situations the following week.

In Kinyarwanda there is a proverb - “Amarira y’umugabo atemba ajya mu nda” - which literally translates as “men’s tears flow inside the belly” or in other words, men cry on the inside. Illustrations by Charity Atukunda

These men are “graduates” of community based sociotherapy. First implemented in 2005, the programme now operates across eight different districts in Rwanda with the aim of improving “psychosocial well-being and strengthening interpersonal reconciliation and social cohesion”. Though the structured course – led by two local sociotherapists – lasts 15 weeks, according to the organisation over 70 percent of groups continue to meet afterwards of their own volition.

This is the case with the male perpetrator group in Juru. As well as meeting weekly to talk through their personal issues, they have started a money saving group. Joining with a group of genocide survivors, they have managed to save enough to buy a goat for every member.

One of the main aims of the sessions is to rebuild trust within communities coming to terms with the collective trauma of genocide, an event which saw people torture, rape and murder their own neighbours. The scale of the violence means that essentially every Rwandan has been affected, be it directly or indirectly. In this context, conventional psychotherapy undertaken outside a community doesn’t always work: individuals with conditions such as depression and PTSD return home without having addressed ongoing and complex social problems. Research in other countries recovering from genocide has also found local ways of overcoming trauma highly important: in Cambodia, people use elements of Buddhism to achieve mindfulness, particularly through meditation.

Resolving issues as a community is rooted in Rwanda’s history. Gacaca – meaning "a bed of soft green grass" on which a community and leaders gather to discuss and resolve conflicts – is a traditional justice system which was most prevalent during pre-colonial times. After the genocide, Gacaca was adapted to help bring the vast number perpetrators to justice; advocates argue putting 100,000 people through the formal justice system would have been counterproductive. They have a point. Earlier this year, the UN backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal designed to bring to justice perpetrators of the Cambodian Genocide was called into question: it lasted over a decade, spent nearly $300 million, and made just three convictions.

But Gacaca is one-of-a-kind. Unlike the Nuremberg style justice used for other genocide cases, which focuses on persecuting top level instigators only, communities actively participate in the justice and reconciliation process. Criticised by some as violating human rights, and by others as too lenient on those who committed genocidal murders, Gacaca also sought to bring about transitional justice; rebuilding fractured communities by handling crime and punishment on a local level. But however unconventional to the Western eye, Gacaca was first and foremost involved with justice, and to an extent social cohesion – but not mental health directly.

Genocide survivor Sebastien, 43, lost his father, sister and brother in 1994. Sitting inside a church hall in Bugesera, also in Eastern Province, he takes time out from his sociotherapy group to chat to me one-on-one. “I used to think that everyone I met could not understand or hear me. I also felt paranoid, suspicious that everyone was going to do something bad to me” he says. He explains that, like many others, before he started sociotherapy he had gone over 20 years without sharing his grief with anyone. “My sadness did not allow me to cry. My eyes would sometimes contain the tears but they wouldn’t come”. He then references a Kinyarwanda proverb – “Amarira y’umugabo atemba ajya mu nda” – which literally translates as “men’s tears flow inside the belly”. In other words, men cry on the inside.

The saying gives an indication of what is expected of the traditional Rwandan man. Much like stereotypical masculinity in the Western world, in Rwanda men are expected to be strong: the head of the house who protects and provides, never showing signs of weakness. Sebastien describes the man as the “defender” of the family, but also acknowledges the problems that come with this: “During the genocide men wanted to show they were powerful, present in every place. The first to receive information, the first to take action. So the defenders found themselves in situations where they became violent.”

But the number of men involved in the genocide as perpetrators and victims significantly altered the politics of gender in Rwanda. While sexist stereotypes remain, women whose husbands died or were sent to prison in 1994 began to take on traditionally "male" roles. Female empowerment became a landmark policy of President Paul Kagame as part of his government’s strategy to develop the post-genocide nation. Among other things, today women have gender-equal land rights and dominate some of Rwandan society’s most powerful positions: the small East African nation has the highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world.

Anastase, 73

For many men, this has been a hard pill to swallow. “Some women feel like gender equality is about women being superior and abusing their power… before, you could tell a woman what to do and the family would do it, but now you can’t and that causes conflict” argues Anatase, 73, who is part of the same sociotherapy group as Sebastien. Anatase spent eight years in prison for genocide crimes which he says he was later found not to have committed through the Gacaca system. Like many others returning from prison came back to find his wife had moved on – and in his case, spent money he had left with her. “I was full of anger when I came out, for the person who put me in prison and for my wife. There was a point when I wanted to beat her.”

Survivors and perpetrators alike suffer from mental health problems, yet many remain within the confines of toxic masculinity – unable to express emotion in fear of appearing weak, with some instead resorting to violence against newly empowered women in their lives. The genocide left many men feeling emasculated: from survivors who felt shame for not being able to protect their families from harm, to perpetrators who came home to self-sufficient wives with jobs and often new partners and children.

But while Anatase is part of a generation that is perhaps less likely to understand the benefits of gender equality, he does say that sociotherapy has helped him open up, listen to others and trust people again. “I don’t really have a problem now” he says, talking about the situation with his ex-wife. He was one of several men interviewed who referred to a game played in the early stages of the sociotherapy programme, where one person covers your eyes while another guides you from A to B. “When you open your eyes you see it was someone who you weren’t friendly with, or maybe was even your enemy, but in the end they were the one who helped you”, remembers Anatase. This may not seem particularly revolutionary, but in communities like Anatase’s where trust has been nearly completely eroded, it is a huge step.

In some cases, sociotherapy sessions have brought together perpetrators and the family members of their victims. In the remote, rolling hills of Muhanga, Southern Province, I visit the home of 49-year-old Vincent. His young children potter around outside the house. On the wall inside hangs a picture of Jesus and a crucifix – next to it, a photo montage made up of happy images of Vincent’s wedding and children’s birthdays.

“It was the first time Dative had come to my house. I was scared. Why is she coming here? Are they going to take me back to prison?” remembers Vincent, who spent 11 years inside for his part in the hanging of two people in the genocide. These people were relatives of genocide survivor Dative, 52, who in total lost six family members in 1994 including her father and three siblings.

But Dative had not come to take Vincent back to prison. After going through sociotherapy herself, Dative went on to train as a community sociotherapist – and decided to reach out to Vincent and see if he wanted to join her group. “I had heard he was one of the people who came to hunt me, and though his gang did not find me they did kill two members of my family,” explains Dative, now sitting in Vincent’s living room. When he re-entered their community after prison, she noticed him avoiding her and looking scared every time their paths crossed.

Vincent agreed to join the sessions but remained guarded for the first month of sociotherapy. “I still had thoughts that people were spying on me, trying to collect information, so I decided to stay quiet”, he explains. But he slowly started sharing with the group, and eventually got to a point where he was able to talk to Dative directly. “When Dative was talking about what happened to her I had the feeling inside that I was about to cry, like I was about to burst. I was wondering why I participated in that suffering”, says Vincent, who also describes sharing his own feelings with Dative as a “release”.

The idea of mutual sharing and listening is central to sociotherapy, which is reflected in the phrase Rwandans use for it: mvura nkuvure, meaning "heal me, I heal you". Understandably, Vincent and Dative still don’t seem like the best of friends – but they both say they are able to greet each other without fear, and, incredibly, attend family celebrations at each others homes as they do with others in their village.

Research and understanding of mental health is still in its early stages across the world, and this is particularly so in developing countries. But while stigma remains, the devastation of genocide has forced these Rwandans to confront their mental health – not only for the sake of their personal wellbeing but also as a practical means of bringing about peace and cohesion in their everyday lives.

For some men, the process has resulted in the breaking down of their toxic masculinity, to the benefit of themselves and the women in their lives. Back at the all-male perpetrator group in Juru, one man tells his peers that his wife, having seen such a big change in him since sociotherapy, is asking to attend the group too. Afterwards, Jean, 66, talks to me about the change sociotherapy has made to his marriage: “I used to argue with my wife so much but I have learnt to let things go and manage my anger. Even though I did bad things my wife visited me in prison for five years and welcomed me home afterwards, so how can I get angry with her about little things?”

Yet despite his reconciliation with Dative, Vincent still appears withdrawn. While, on paper, Rwandan women have made strides in the fight for female empowerment, men like Vincent have been left with outdated ideas about what it means "to be a man". When speaking about his mental health, one of the main things Vincent talks about is concerns he had in prison that he would never have a wife and family – and the fact that his children now are still so young, while he is nearly 50. In Rwanda, part of being an ubugabo – stereotypical "big man" – is having a wife and multiple children. The delay in this happening for Vincent, and the fact he has a younger brother with older children than him, seems to be a major internal struggle for him as a man: “It makes me so unhappy. But I cannot cry to the extent of showing my tears. A man must resist showing those tears.”

This story is part of Big Men , a European Journalism Centre project telling journalistic stories about men, masculinity and gender equality in East Africa.

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