REDEFINING TRAUMA AND IDENTITY
Insights from an African Context

Ray Motsi, Ph.D. was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He left Zimbabwe at the age of 19 and attended college in England. After he graduated, he learned that there had been a massacre in Zimbabwe. This massacre was part of Robert Mugabe’s Gukurahundi Conflict. He knew it was time to take a stand and make a change. He has dedicated his life to combatting the conflict in Zimbabwe through peace-building and non-violence. President of the Theological College of Zimbabwe (TCZ) since January 1991. Dr. Motsi previously has served as a Baptist pastor in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe for more than 20 years and, in 2002, he founded Grace to Heal, a faith-based organization focusing on community peacemaking and conflict transformation. He graduated from TCZ with a B.A. in Practical Theology in 1990 and then later from the University of Pretoria in South Africa where he earned his M.A. in Old Testament and Hebrew in 2001, and his Ph.D. in Peacebuidling, Conflict Resolution, and Trauma Healing in 2009. 

Yago: Ray, you are welcome to this blog called “Breathing Forgiveness.” In this blog we are aiming at deconstructing the energies of enslavement that keep perpetuating tremendous suffering in today’s world. In this interview we want to be enlightened by your insights and reflections as a peacebuilder practitioner and as a Pastor in the demanding context of Zimbabwe. You have been for decades at the forefront against the Mugabe regime. In the first half of the interview we want to reflect in your understanding of trauma in the African context and also its challenges for pastoral care. In the second half we shall focus in your experience as a church leader and a peacebuilder in the Zimbabwean context.

You are very much concerned about the “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) approach in the African context. For you is clear that PTSD is not the only measurement for trauma assessment. You say that trauma should not be left to medical psychiatry terms or be limited to PTSD alone. Could you tell us what does it mean PTSD and why is so predominant in the scientific western understanding of right intervention?

Ray: Trauma in African context is not just a psychological problem it is far more than that. It must be realised that trauma must not be removed from its context and it must take into consideration the world view within which it happens. Africans are social-centric by nature and not individualistic as the Westerners. My social and spiritual being is intertwined by the extended family and community. This is our first line of defense. Evidently, trauma in Africa is by and large a social and political ill rather than just a medical pathological problem.

Yago: In the context of your reflection on trauma in cultural context you ask yourself if the Western worldview is better than the African one. How would you answer this question? How would you describe the main characteristics and differences between a Western and African worldview?

Ray: The main difference between the Western world view and the African world view is the cultural emphasis. African culture is based on Ubuntu (I am because we are) We are a community of people not just an individual. I believe that this is also very biblical in its practice.

Yago: The psychological and psychiatry approach of the Western worldview perceive a person as ego-centric self. How does the ego-centric self understands the individual being and its relationship to trauma?

Ray: I am not an expert in Western culture or world view. I am an African, hence I notice and see the differences in the emphasis in terms of practice and approach to life existential crises. When an African is in a crisis he/she looks for family/relative to talk to. After that we will then go to a medical doctor or where ever to seek for help. When one gets sick the whole family is affected. It is not so with the Western people, they look for a doctor to fix it. 

Yago: You say that from an African point of view the dualism which is foundational in psychology and psychiatry will lead to mistreatment of survivors as they become alienated from the community. The western view disregards the social origins and path of mental illness. You point out that most of the world’s population holds on to a more socio-centric conception of the self, where individuals exist within networks of social relationships. How does this conception of the self shapes the understanding  of trauma?

Ray: The conception of the self is the basis of how to understand the whole picture. If therefore the self stands alone and has no relationship with the rest in a meaningful way there is no way anybody who seeks to help that individual should bother about others who may be involved or connected to that person. Trauma is perceived the same way. Psychology and Psychiatry avoid and ignore the social and political milieu within which trauma is caused. Hence, there are no efforts to find ways and means of how to avoid, address the causes of it and stop it from happening again. All PTSD practitioners do is to deal with the individual mental health.

Yago: Mike Wessells, in his article “Trauma, Peacebuilding and Development: An African Region Perspective,” says that the trauma approach has also suffered from ethnocentrism and culture bias. The term ‘trauma’ has in many contexts been a neo-colonial imposition that tends to silence or marginalize local understandings and practices related to mental health and psychosocial well-being. It also reduces local peoples’ sense of dignity, empowerment and positive cultural identity. Are we marginalizing local knowledge coming from the African context?

Ray: The African Culture is marginalised as pagan/traditional. What even educated people forget is that there is no culture that is better than the other. All have strengths and weaknesses and positives and negatives. We would be taking great strides if we could consider positives from other cultures as we deal with trauma. The understanding of the person is based on the cultural value system that the person has been brought up in and what has been acquired educationally or through exposure.

Trauma in Africa is caused by politically motivated  violence and not necessarily war or combat. This violence is community based and it affects the fabric of society and disables the cohesiveness of the society. In order to cover the full gamut of trauma we need to learn from others who have a different context. Trauma has does not have one face it is multifaced and layered.

Yago: You talk about the risk of using pre-packed universal interpretations, definitions, and approaches to psychological suffering and trauma. Can the victim be re-traumatized? Why are we so dependant in the science and in the power of the international scientific community? 

Ray: It is easier to take a western approach in Europe, America and probably Australia. But it is impossible in Africa. Take for an example Rwanda. A million people were killed and as a result over three million people where affected. It takes a psychologist or psychiatrist to certify one person twelve to twenty weeks in order to certify a person as one who suffers from PTSD. How many years would it take us to go through three million people?   Hence in my research I suggested a psychosocial approach as a comprehensive way of handling victims.

Yago: In the African worldview individualism is intertwined with the whole tribe and community and cannot be understood in isolation. So, could we say that a collective identity makes a person be traumatized because of the group being affected? And also that whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group?

Ray: That is precisely the case for us here in Africa. That is the rational for Ubuntu.

Yago: Wessells says that the dominant focus of the trauma idiom, which in many African countries is PTSD, fails to take into account the on-going, cumulative nature of the distress. The protracted armed conflicts, the tendency of conflicts to spread across national boundaries, the intermingling of conflict and natural disasters such as the current drought, and the prevalence of ongoing sources of distress make it legitimate to ask “where’s the ‘post’ in ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.” What is your view on this regard?

Ray: According to Basoglu M. 1989, this is because of secondary, associated and recurrent trauma.

Yago: Wessells also says that war-affected Africans often report that their greatest sources of distress are not the emotional residues of past violence as suggested by the trauma approach but the large array of interacting stresses of daily living and the destruction of their systems of social support. Would you agree with him?

Ray: The destruction of property/homes, granaries and watching as your neighbours are being killed or beaten up is part of this problem. Sometimes one is forced to rape or kill his or her relative or neighbour in front of the whole community.

Yago: Culture provides the community with a system of values, lifestyles, and knowledge, the disruption of it will have deleterious effect on its members. How would you evaluate the legacy and aftermath of colonization, slavery and the current imposition of neo-liberal economies in the African continent? Can we say that we are in a traumatized continent?

Ray: To say that we were traumatized is overstating the case but we were taken a couple of decades back in more ways than one due to disenfranchisement. The results of colonialism have more disadvantages than advantages. Africa cannot speak with a clear voice due to the divide and rule plan of the West. The attitude of many Africans towards white people emanates from colonial legacy, vestiges and hangovers. Neo-liberalism maintains the western shackles not only on our ankles but in our brains; hence, slavery has taken a different form but it is slavery nevertheless. This slavery is now based on the supply matrix. As long as they can control the supply of money and  other resources then Africa is a playing field for the big teams.

Yago: You also say that the symptoms are not the only way to ascertain trauma. Why?

Ray: Symptoms are signs / indicators that there might be something there and not the final results. The symptoms for trauma are not only unique to traumatised people. This is true because we now know that there are other methods of how to ascertain trauma not necessarily based on symptoms but on hard evidence. People do not respond to the same incident equally because their reaction and response depend on their disposition.

Yago: Let us move to the issue of torture as a traumatic event. Wessells says that “although torture survivors may experience PTSD and other maladies and may benefit from counselling, no amount of counselling will correct the structural violence, human rights violations, and systems of state oppression that produce many forms of trauma.” Do you agree with him?

Ray: Victim of Torture (VOT) is what I am more familiar with because it was the context of my PhD research. Yes I agree with Wessells. If one loses a hand and/ or an eye there is no amount of counseling that can replace that ha limb. The trauma may not be as painful as it was before but it remains traumatic experience. Volf Miroslav confirms that in his Book  “The End of Memory.” 

Yago: You say that by definition torture is a complex phenomenon with interacting social, culture, political, medical, psychological and biological dimension. It can not be adequately be dealt with by a single method. How would you approach people being traumatized by torture?

Ray: A psychosocial approach is what I suggest as a comprehensive way of handling the community and not just individuals. Mobilisation of different groups of expertise and organisations to try and restore and improve the community will hasten the healing.

Yago: Wessels proposes that in place of ‘trauma’, a better term is ‘psychosocial well-being’. He says that this phrase reaches across different levels more easily than does ‘trauma’ yet avoids imparting clinical meanings to distress that have political, economic and historic origins. Would you agree with Mike’s term and approach?

Ray: That was precisely my conclusion in my PhD dissertation. No two people have the same disposition hence there is need for a  psychosocial approach.

Yago: Let us move now to issues of identity. How does our sense of identity affect our resiliency and capacity to navigate in violent and stressful contexts?

Ray: Our sense of identity is based on our world view and who we are. In an African context we have our motivation from a sense of belonging, our history, people and give me the identity that spurs me to live up to the name and family identity. This position is not always true in the western culture.     

Yago: You say that the individuals understanding and the perception of the event will determine how a person is affected and how he/she responds; culture plays a key role in how individuals cope with potential traumatizing experiences. Could you elaborate more in depth these important insights?

Ray: In our case the way in which traumatising events take place is often mixed with tribal, political and religious undertones. These are aspects that connect us to others. The attack is not always aimed at an individual but to the group. These events are sudden, unexpected and beyond one’s control. As a result we look to others to explain or make sense of what happened. If those others are victims  like you then there is a crisis which leads to trauma.

Yago: Shame is the response to helplessness, the violation of bodily, family and tribal integrity. How much shame distorts our real human identity?

Ray: It depends on what you call real. The fact that my wife/mother is raped in my presence takes away my identity as an African man who should protect his family from intruders and harm. My real identity is with my people and not as an individual. Tribal integrity is passed on and demonstrated by men within the clan. If therefore men become helplessness it means that tribe be ashamed amongst others and becomes a laughing object. The tribe is vulnerable, voiceless and weak. 

Yago: You say that the more control people can exercise on a situation, the less they suffer from diverging symptoms and cope better in general. Could you expand on this?

Ray: Control over one‘s life gives a sense of responsibility and assurance that I am myself. But if I cannot have responsibility of myself and my circumstances then it is easier to be attacked from outside. Being able to cope with personal problems is a sign of personal inner resolve and  functionality.

Yago: In developing effective psychosocial programs, it is vital to start from an analysis of how the affected people understand their situation and regard as their greatest problems. You say that it is about the importance of working with a critical eye. This is a quite challenging approach inviting the practitioner to develop active listening and profound respect for the experience of the other. Isn’t it?

Ray: It is not the practitioner who  has a problem and therefore we must start with those that are not well by asking them to explain their pain/trauma or problem. There is a methodology called Empathy and Distanciation. Social scientist have now realised that there is no way one can engage a traumatised person and remain totally objective. Using empathy and distanciation will enable the practitioner to be empathetic but to also distance one’s self from the victim. To do this, one needs certain skills  and  experiences without a doubt. This is called “narrative social reconstruction” by Pollard.

Yago: You say that “quiet often trauma has to involve a betrayal of trust.” The shattering of one’s sense of connectedness between individual and community creates a crisis of faith. Could you explain how influential this is in the African sense of self?

Ray: First and foremost the betrayal is a personal one where one thinks he/she lost control of one’s self. Secondly, it is on the part of the family or community that did not protect me during my ordeal. Trauma’s major effect is inward even though the causes are by and large outward. Because of the shattering of the sense of self one cannot be able to build meaningful relationships. Hence, lack of connectedness.  

Yago: You define trauma from a psychosocial perspective. Could we say that the image/concept of a broken social fabric is fundamental in the understanding of trauma in the African context?

Ray: Absolutely, the social fabric plays the role of the second line of defense. When one fails to protect oneself then the community jumps in and where there is no community/family particularly extended the crisis is worse.

Yago: You are asking for an integrated and inter-disciplinary approach. In which way psychosocial programmes are likely to increase the survivors’ own coping resources?

Ray: The possibility of individuals coping with multiple approaches is far better than a single phased approach. People do not respond the same to an incident.

Yago: Finally, you say that the ongoing discussion about how useful or limited this diagnosis of PTSD and how widely it should be used, especially in large-scale ongoing traumatic events in both western and non western societies should not distract us from the task ahead. Which is the task ahead of us?

Ray: The task ahead is to care for the survivors of torture, victims of injustices, survivors of and prisoners of war and abused people. We can not wait until we have come up with a methodology that is acceptable to all.

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