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Where they went

Learning to take care in trauma's wake

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Staff / January 22, 2006

WHO: Cheryl Motley-Sanders, 59, of Stoneham

WHERE: Rwanda

WHEN: 10 days in June

WHY: ''I went with a group of neuropsychologists from California to teach students in social work and psychology about recognizing and coping with post-traumatic stress disorder," said Sanders, who is a social worker in a state-run psychiatric facility. She also is working on a doctoral degree at Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and plans to write her thesis on how Rwandan women are coping after the genocide in 1994, when the Hutu majority killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis.

GLOBAL INDIFFERENCE: ''When I first saw the genocide on TV in 1994, saw skulls floating in a lake, I was so struck by the fact that none of the countries stopped it or responded," Sanders said. ''If the US had stepped in, the genocide would have stopped. It impacted me in a personal way."

HARD WIRING: The trip was Sanders's first to Africa. ''I wasn't so much nervous about going there, but I was nervous about having no electricity. There were generators, but they aren't on all night. At night it's totally dark. And there are people up all night, walking. You see groups and groups of people walking all the time."

A SMOKY START: When Sanders got off the plane in the capital city of Kigali, ''my first impression was of the fumes, of wood burning. I've never been to a country without processed fumes. Most of the houses are open and they don't have doors and they're all burning wood. The city is very hilly. Rwanda is the hilliest country in Africa." The group had breakfast at the hotel made famous in the 2004 film ''Hotel Rwanda."

SHARP CONTRASTS: Sanders and her 10 colleagues drove about three hours to Butare, the country's second largest city and home to Butare University. ''Everything was very neat and very green. We saw many little garden plots and houses are within the garden, mud houses," she said. ''Every piece of land is used. The main roads are beautiful but if you go off the main road, they're all dirt." They stayed at a nice hotel, with a garden and pool. ''But sometimes the water would come out green in the beginning. We couldn't drink it. The bathrooms were nice, but sometimes they wouldn't flush. I always sprayed my room with Raid every night and slept under a mosquito net."

A TEACHING CHALLENGE: ''Social work is new to the university, to the country," she said. ''We were teaching students how to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, but in Africa, it's not even a concept. In the beginning, the students really didn't trust us and they really did not understand trauma as we did in Western terms. It was kind of chilling. Also, they speak French and the local language, so everything had to be interpreted. In the end, the students were very eager to learn," said Sanders, who now is assisting some of them from afar. One thing social workers are doing is ''trying to reinvent the family to include the homeless children, in that each family should take a child. Now, children live on the street," she said. There's domestic violence as well, she said, ''but they don't talk about it. And there's very little understanding of the dangers of alcohol."

MONUMENTAL SORROW: ''After we taught, we visited genocide sights. In every city in Rwanda there are genocide sites. They feel very close to their dead. In a number of the villages there were sites where there were bones. One site had skulls on shelves, often cracked or pocked from a violent death. In Kigali there's a big memorial that's very Western, with pictures of people and history. Outside the memorial there are mass graves that hold hundreds of bodies." The entire trip, Sanders said, ''was just unbelievable. It really added to my life."

To see other reader vacation snapshots, visit www.boston.com/wheretheywent. Send your story suggestions to ddaniel@globe.com.

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