By Rev. William Jacobsen, Ph.D. - he/him, Compassionate Listening Facilitator
When Leah suggested I write a letter for the Compassionate Listening Newsletter about a new Compassionate Listening project in Rwanda, I first wrote about my work from a decade ago when I offered Compassionate Listening workshops throughout that country. Among the workshop participants was a young woman named Rachel Bugenimana.
Recently, I had the opportunity to reconnect with Rachel while she was visiting friends in
the US. I learned that she had taken Compassionate Listening very much to heart and had begun a women/girls group almost immediately after our CL workshop for young women in her church and beyond. What's more, she has continued the practice ever since and now wants to deepen her own skills.
Listening began early for Rachel as her mother died when she was eight, her father was out of the picture, and her uncle took her into his home. He was always willing to listen to her. It didn't matter what she talked about. "He was an excellent listener. I could go to him with all of my concerns and questions and he would respond with acceptance and love, and wisdom." (My paraphrase.) She describes him as giving her a deep and life-forming sense of the power of listening and, as a result, she became a gifted listener from early on.
When she was in elementary school, other girls came to her because she listened to them. She became a grounding presence for a lot of her friends. The recent genocide in Rwanda formed the backdrop for the struggles facing many of these young girls. Many of her classmates had lost family members to the genocide and while they didn't necessarily talk about it, one can only imagine how important her listening presence was for them at that time.
Her listening continued to mature as she matured. Through her work with non-government agencies and organizations, she became known by women and girls as someone who listened deeply and with compassion. So, when Compassionate Listening came to Rwanda, Rachel was already a woman deeply committed to the healing grace of listening.
For the young women in Rachel’s program, the legacy of the genocide has been absent fathers, alcoholism, lack of sustainable jobs, etc. Life is precarious for many of them. Some of the women Rachel works with have been pushed by their parents to get married at 15 and younger rather than go to school, because the parents can't get sustainable work and can't afford to feed their children. Many only can afford to eat once a day if food is even available. Still, others live in violent homes or are in violent relationships in order to have food enough to feed themselves and their children. Some have dropped out of school because they were victims of sexual violence and had given birth. Those who are still attending school often have poor grades.
In her Compassionate Listening in Rwanda work with these young women, she has been able to break down barriers of fear and silence imposed by the social taboo against speaking up. In addition, Rachel says that they had not approached adults before to speak of their struggles because of “painfully low self-esteem.” She has been creating the safety they need to share their stories, often with great emotion and often for the first time.
“Compassionate Listening,” Rachel says, allows them “...to express their feelings and their needs, their understanding, their values and their power within. All of this helped build self-esteem and understanding of how they are capable of changing their behavior.”
Rachel tells us that “Compassionate Listening is a tool that helps someone who is hopeless to have hope, the one with low self-esteem to build it and achieve her/his goals, it helps the person to feel values and start valuing others. The Compassionate Listening in Rwanda is becoming like a plant nursery where girls are growing spiritually, mentally and physically and helping young women be ready to help other girls with the same problems through Compassionate Listening.”
She adds, “For this I am grateful. But there is so much more we can do. For instance, I am looking forward to working further with Yael and others to refresh myself with Compassionate Listening skills. Even more important, I pray that we can train the young women to be Compassionate Listening facilitators themselves. For that I am hoping other facilitators will join with Yael and offer hour-long workshops that take us through the entire CL curriculum. Maybe some of you can volunteer?”
Along with Rachel, we are beginning the process of Africanizing the practice of Compassionate Listening so that it will be a source of healing as it becomes integrated within Rwandan language and culture.
Rachel continues: “In addition, the program needs more funding…. Since food is scarce and many times…the girls come to our workshops without having eaten anything … for a day or more, and because it costs on average about $5 per meal per girl, we offer a healthy meal at every meeting….”
The need for financial support is urgent. We invite you to help support Rachel and her Compassionate Listening work by going to Friends Peace Teams at https://friendspeaceteams.org/ to donate. Be sure to scroll down to click on African Great Lakes and then clearly indicate that your gift is for Compassionate Listening in Rwanda. This is a tax-deductible donation.
In addition, if you would like to help facilitate an hour-long training with Rachel, please let me or Yael (firstname.lastname@example.org) know.
Rev. William Jacobsen, Ph.D. - he/him
Retired Mediator and International Peace and Conflict Resolution Professor at Arcadia University.