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Compassionate Listening in Rwanda

Bill Jacobsen, June 2011

This past May I had the privilege of helping to lead a delegation to Rwanda for Arcadia University. Included in the trip was an opportunity for me to offer an introduction to Compassionate Listening to a group of 18 Rwandans that included two district politicians, two headmasters, a medical doctor, a nurse and several church leaders. 


                                                                                                  Bill Jacobsen, with CL training group in Kigali, Rwanda


I welcomed the opportunity but was a little daunted by the challenge of offering a training that calls for the level of sensitivity and the nuance of Compassionate Listening language. Fortunately, my translator, Beaucoup turned out to be beaucoup good! He helped me successfully negotiate through some translational brambles. For instance, when I talked about the need to be anchored in our hearts, Beaucoup thought I said angered, which raised some interesting questions. He illustrated anchor by miming being seasick in a small boat tossed around by waves while being tied to an anchor. Once I found the image of a new baby being held, loved, nursed, and cared for by a mother, then they could understand the concept of anchor. That established for all that the heart as a place of safety, compassion, and being loved.

The notion of building a protective wall of bricks around our heart led to some very thoughtful and penetrating questions and discussion. One woman asked, “But if I open my heart to another person doesn’t that put me at risk of being hurt?” and a man said, “Even if I melt the wall around my heart how can I reach past the other person’s wall?” It was thrilling watching people’s heads nod and faces light up as they understood.


When I did the sociometry exercise – putting numbers on paper, stringing them out on the ground and asking them to rank themselves relative to questions around conflict – people were confused and puzzled. But when I used the image of a thermometer, and asked them to take their conflict temperature, it all made sense. It quickly became apparent that I couldn’t teach using abstract concepts but had to illustrate and provide analogies for each by using concrete images and rough drawings. These brought the abstract CL concepts to life and stimulated a lot of very thoughtful conversation.


Since this training was a pilot project and was a test to see if this material would be something the Africans want, I was very pleased when they asked me when I could return and do a full training. In the final circle the most skeptical man, a district politician shared how when he showed up he asked himself what he was doing there. Surely there were more important things waiting for him in his office. But as time went on, he realized how helpful these skills would be back at work. Happily, I’ll be in Burundi in August and will be able to go back to Rwanda to continue the work.


Genocide Reminder: Memorial to 12 Belgian soldiers who were murdered


Rwanda is still struggling under the pall of genocide. It is estimated that 800,000 people were murdered in less than a hundred days. In the 17 years since the genocide, President Kigame has done some remarkable work with infrastructure, massive building projects, economics, education, the judiciary, and tourism. And, while Kigali is probably the safest major city in Africa today, deep, unhealed wounds and scars from The Genocide remain, leaving the country vulnerable to ongoing violence and hatred. Still, Rwanda is a resilient country and hope and healing are evident. Memorials abound for those who were killed, giving them dignity and remembrance. Church groups and NGOs offer many opportunities for people to re-build their lives and government projects are putting people to work. Foreign aid as well as homegrown groups such as Ineza, a craft co-operative, provide income and opportunities for HIV-AIDS and war widows. The art colony VUKA Arts, is dedicated to bringing healing and hope through the arts to the children of a new generation, including HIV-AIDS orphans. And the program I’m working with, the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI), brings former victims and perpetrators together in amazing weekend trauma workshops through their program, Healing and Restoring Our Communities (HROC).


Bill Jacobsen, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Arcadia University’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution masters program, and Director of Mediation Services for The Peace Center in Langhorne, PA. He is president of the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and is currently completing his Compassionate Listening facilitator certification. Formerly, Bill taught at Eastern University’s Palmer Theological Seminary.

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