Creating a Community of Healers: Trauma Tapping Therapy in Congo

The silence of the hot afternoon was punctuated only by the sound of a typewriter clacking in a nearby school office, a silence that made it possible to hear fingers gently thumping skin and bone, to hear the two deep breaths taken together at the end of a round of Trauma Tapping Therapy.

It was almost noon but already a steamy day in early January 2012, eastern Congo. We had run into car trouble and were late meeting 26 women in Mumosho, but they waited on us, understanding that time, in Congo, is relevant and fluid. We met in the middle of a jungle, in the center of a village, in a school that backs up against the local church. Tucked in amidst brick buildings with dirt floors, we met women wrapped in dresses of bright African fabrics or worn T-shirts.

My friend and I were visiting eastern Congo to report on the work that Action Kivu, the U.S. non-profit we co-founded, does in connection with Actions pour le Bien être de la Femme et de l'Enfant au Kivu (ABFEK), a local Congolese nonprofit. We traveled with our partner, ABFEK's Executive Director, Amani Matabaro, to his home village in Mumosho. The UN has essentially declared Congo the worst place to be a woman -- a country recently ravaged by decades of conflict, where rape is an oft-used weapon of war. With his deep compassion and belief that women and children will change his nation, but need opportunities for equal rights, Amani runs multiple programs, from literacy classes, agricultural training, animal husbandry, sewing workshops and entrepreneurial trainings to sending children to school.

We were inside one such school that hot January day. The room, usually filled with the chanting of 10-year-olds reciting Swahili and French lessons, had been given over to their mothers, their aunts, their sisters. In it they created a place of trust and learning, filled with women caring for each other. The women had gathered for a lesson in Trauma Tapping Therapy (TTT), taught by Gunilla Hamne, a Swedish woman who works with Peaceful Heart Network to bring trauma healing to places like this in Mumosho, in eastern Congo. TTT is an off-shoot of Gunilla's training in TFT: Thought Field Therapy, developed by Dr. Roger Callahan, similar to EFT (Emotional Freedom Therapy) and the discovery that you can help heal psychological trauma by tapping ones fingers on the acupuncture/energy meridians of the body.

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Congo was engulfed in war, and various militias were notorious for their use of child soldiers and rape as a weapon of war. Gunilla began traveling regularly to Rwanda and Congo, offering TTT trainings to help heal victims of rape, genocide, war, domestic violence, untreated illness and the trauma that comes from the physical and emotional poverty that war leaves in its wake.

That day in Mumosho, an intermittent breeze blew through the open windows, wrapping around the women, bringing the outside in as they carefully practiced Trauma Tapping Therapy, touching fingers to a forehead, to the tops of cheekbones, tapping the inside of each finger, lightly pummeling each other's breastbones, holding hands and breathing together. Though the women giggled at how silly it looked to practice the therapy on each other, they soon relaxed into the work, and created a sacred space to explore what trauma means for each woman, and for their community.

After a day of training in Mumosho, group discussions, lessons and practice, the women left for the evening, promising to try the therapy on friends, relatives and neighbors that night. When all 26 women returned to the classroom the following day, Gunilla was surprised that a third of the class raised their hands to acknowledge that they had tried TTT on someone the night before.

As the other women shared their stories from the night before, a common theme arose.

Almost every person who was treated asked to join in the training session, and felt it was important to share the training with others. From a young man suffering terrible insomnia, who had been abducted by militia soldiers to a poverty-stricken woman, a widow who couldn't sleep from stress and worry after her only crops had been ruined by erosion, everyone wanted to know more about the therapy.

The women in the training were engaged and eager to share their stories, asking practical questions that showed there were already envisioning how to use the training, anticipating problems or questions that might arise from their neighbors. Similar to the first day, but with more confidence, they separated into pairs to practice the tapping therapy on each other.

Hopeful, the women asked Gunilla if this treatment would allow them forget their traumatic experience. She explained that while it does not erase the memory of the event, it can help one remove herself from the immediacy of re-living the trauma.

The training finished at sunset. Gathering outside in a circle, the women, a new community of healers, followed Gunilla through a series of stretches, self-massage and relaxation techniques. Gunilla bent into a half-squat, her knees and feet close together, swaying in a circle. The women joined her, and in unison a song arose from the group. This move was part of a dance they already knew.

The dance continued at the City of Joy in Bukavu the following week. Part of Eve Ensler's V-Day organization, City of Joy opened in 2011 to begin its first six-month program, housing and rehabilitating women and girls who are victims of sexual violence.

Many of the participants are from the nearby Panzi hospital, but Christine Schuler Deschryver, the Congolese woman who helped Ensler start the program, explained that they serve women from all over eastern Congo, and that Heal Africa hospital in Goma has done very well selecting women who fit their leadership profile. After being healed in hospital of the physical trauma resulting from rape, the women move into City of Joy's housing, to form community and learn skills, from English and computer skills to agriculture, self-defense and women's rights. They are encouraged to take back the power of their story by telling it and opening up to others.

Gunilla had visited City of Joy once before to train a group of women in Trauma Tapping Therapy, and we joined her to follow-up one January morning. Christine's SUV pulled off the rutted, muddy road at the city's dirt-brown soccer field, and bumped along a make-shift road between a shanty-town of brown tents pitched in the mud, laundry lines strung between them, kids playing and waving.

The women were gathered for the tapping training in a large canvas Unicef tent. As we entered, 30 women began singing and dancing to the beat of a drum one played, their bare feet pounding and slapping the tent floor. We joined in the dance, and one girl danced up to each of us, correcting our rhythm by example, her smile filling most of her face. City of Joy indeed.

We took our seats in a circle of chairs, and Gunilla reminded the women gathered about the steps to practice TTT, then asked them about their experience with trauma tapping. A woman named Jane took center stage. Young and exuding energy, everyone laughed just to be in her presence, and cheered her on. Despite her great smile, she described her trouble sleeping, that she has had nightmares that the man who raped her is trying to rape her again. "I woke up afraid, then realized I was at City of Joy and alone," she said. She was worried and sad, but then remembered the TTT training, and thought she'd try tapping. Standing in the middle of the circle, Jane demonstrated through elaborate charades how she tapped each energy point and, dramatically, how she fell asleep. She explains that she woke up feeling peaceful, and would like to learn more.

To honor each woman who spoke, everyone joined in group applause. Together, we clapped three times, followed by everyone throwing out their arms, palms out, towards the speaker, sending her blessings. The woman who spoke joins in the three claps, but then crosses her arms over her chest, accepting the group blessing. Then, another three claps in unison, and the group all accepts the woman's blessing with arms hugging their chests, as she throws her arms out, palms towards her friends.

After a few more people shared about how TTT is helping them heal, Mama Bachu, a City of Joy leader and a big, strong woman who looks like she could wrap all the girls up in her arms, started another song, and everyone joined in. We finished the training session with more body exercises, stretching deeply and then, each turning to the side, we gently placed our hands on the shoulders in front of us, as Gunilla demonstrated a massage train. A petite girl reached up to grip my shoulders, digging deeply into my knots.

Christine had explained to us that one of the trainings at City of Joy is massage, to help heal through positive, healthy touching. She told us how one woman didn't feel she could be touched by a muzungu ("muzungu" is the term for a white person, and Christine is half Belgian and half Congolese) because she didn't feel worthy of being touched. It was almost holy, that quiet room filled with women holding each other's tense muscles and pain in their hands, gently honoring each other with the heels of hands and kneading fingers.

After a late lunch of banana, papaya, pineapple, hard-boiled eggs and white bread rolls "for the muzungus," we returned to the tent for a dance lesson. Linda, an intern at the City of Joy, called out the moves and DJ'd, teaching us all a West African dance to a well-known pop song there. The lesson over, the tent morphed into free-style dance-off, where several girls stepped up to lead dances that everyone knew. Sweaty, laughing, receiving hugs from the girls, we left the tent and crossed the grass back to the main building. It felt like summer camp, leading me to ask Christine about the post-graduation step, when the women return to the villages, villages where they were sexually assaulted. Were they prepared for the stigma that horrifyingly follows the victim, not the perpetrator, of sexual violence? Were they worried about another attack?

Christine explained that they're addressing those issues, in the courses and through individual social workers, with a budget allotted for follow-up and initiating income-generating jobs for the women. She pointed to one woman who had lost all her family, and literally had only the clothes on her back. To whom would she return? This was the first group to graduate, so there were a lot of questions to be answered.

Nothing about Congo is black and white, but watching the women share their lives and care for each other and themselves, there are hues of hope in every story.

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