By Sara D. Stender
I didn’t learn about the Rwanda Genocide until the movie Hotel Rwanda came out in 2000. At the time, I was completing my undergraduate degree and going through many personal challenges. I had had a traumatic experience while studying abroad the previous year and was struggling with depression, flashbacks, and overwhelming anxiety. I tried to cover it up with good grades and a smile, but I found myself using drugs and alcohol to numb my feelings and get through the day. When I learned about the trauma people had experienced in Rwanda, it hit me hard and I felt broken all over again. As a white, privileged woman from Vermont, I had nothing in common with the Africans portrayed in the movie, but I connected with their pain. How did these people find the resilience and will to go on with their lives after losing everything? I knew that I would one day go to Rwanda to answer this question.
Eight years later, I was offered a job in Rwanda and took it without hesitation. When I first landed on Rwandan soil in 2009, I felt at home, quickly falling in love with the country and its people. I lived in the capital city, where I was the managing director of an organization called ‘Heaven,’ which provided vocational training to young adults who lost their families in the genocide. As I built relationships with many Rwandans and they shared their personal stories with me, I came to see the deep suffering that still pervaded their daily lives. Just beneath the surface lay depression, anxiety, stress, and physical pain. At that point, I was well on the road to recovery myself, but I could identify on a deep level, and I could see clearly that an individual’s mental health was intrinsically connected to their family life, employment, and the overall morale of the communities in which they lived. When I left Rwanda, I made a commitment to research methods that might offer long-lasting relief from pain and suffering and make a meaningful contribution to a place I consider my second home.
In 2011, I came up with the idea for Africa Healing Exchange (AHE) and started formulating a solid organizational plan. From there, I began networking and met with numerous Americans and Rwandans who specialize in trauma, substance abuse, and nonprofit development. I knew that I wanted it to be a cross-cultural partnership rather than a model whereby westerners insert their value systems on that of the global south. My vision was, and remains to be, to build this organization from the ground up, using a relatively flat structure, where all team members contribute to the development of an innovative and sustainable model that may be replicated on a global scale.
In quoting Michael Bernard Beckwith, “Vision without action is fantasy and action without vision is chaos.” I believe strongly that my background in business management, combined with an advanced degree in organizational management with a focus on leadership and change, has been a powerful combination in formulating a solid and actionable business plan based on a vision. The skills and degrees would be nothing however, without my passion, my personal experience with trauma, and a solid network of support. All the faith in the world could not have helped me to get this far with Africa Healing Exchange if I were trying to do it alone, and I am forever grateful to the generous and patient individuals who have served as the founding steering committee members, the founding board of directors, and the countless volunteers and interns. The most valuable lesson I have learned in this process is to remain true to the mission and the long-term vision while remaining open to the unknown on a day-to-day basis. My friends in East Africa have taught me to be in the present and focus on today, while always keeping in mind that God has a larger plan than we can possibly determine. When I try to keep a tight grip on how things unfold, or if I try to control the outcome, the forward momentum comes to a halt.
This August, AHE team members from the U.S. traveled to Rwanda, on what we called the Listening Tour. The intention for this trip was to connect with AHE partners and community leaders, and those Rwandans who may be interested in our proposed services, in order to lay the groundwork for the pilot program in a sustainable and collaborative way. While there we met with over forty Rwandan community leaders, organizational directors, genocide survivors, widows and orphans living with HIV, entrepreneurs, students, teachers, and mental health professionals. We will be returning to Rwanda in the spring of 2014, with mental health counselors skilled in trauma healing and substance abuse recovery, as well as a volunteer documentary filmmaker, and AHE’s founder. We will be launching the Recovery and Resilience program in schools and offering train-the-trainer workshops to Rwandan social workers, teachers, counselors and other community leaders who work with the traumatized population.
The following is an excerpt from my journal while in Rwanda this past August:
“Just over the border of the [Democratic Republic of] Congo, in the Western Province of Rwanda, tens of thousands of people are in dire need. For the past two weeks, I have been listening to the needs of Rwandans, I have been hearing stories of extreme trauma, and the residual effects of the genocide, as well as earlier violence. Our team has been privilege to hear from a woman named Imaculée who lost all nine of her children in 1994. She was raped and intentionally infected with HIV. She has no family left and for the past five years has been “sleeping as cows do in the field.” She is homeless and has no place to turn. She is sick and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and other related mental disturbances. Stories like this no longer depress me, or make me feel ashamed of the comparable luxury in which I live. The “story” is someone’s life, and I believe that Imaculée’s path is one which can be transformed into incredible growth and may prevent similar cases in the future. She has given us the gift of knowledge and has invited us to work with her to make a difference in this world.
More about the Founder: In addition to my passion for Rwanda and finding solutions to long-standing global problems such as generational trauma, hatred and addiction, I am a born entrepreneur and even as a child was brainstorming and “starting” small businesses. I have completed a Bachelor of Arts in Business Management (cum laude), a Certificate of International Business from La Grande École du Commerce, and a Master of Science in Organizational Management with a concentration in Leadership and Change. Combining my education and passion, I have developed an expertise in nonprofit and business management with the goal of creating sustainable change through collaboration amongst sectors, cultures, and communities. I have demonstrated this expertise through various ventures, including: owning and operating my own business; leading the effort to make Brattleboro, Vermont the second Fair Trade Town in North America; serving as the first National Coordinator of the Fair Trade Towns USA campaign; and recently bringing together experts, stakeholders, and resources to build a board of directors and raise initial funding for AHE. In addition to leading AHE based in Asheville, NC, I am involved in various business development initiatives and serve as an independent contractor and consultant to other local organizations. I was drawn to the blue mountains of Western North Carolina from the green mountains of Vermont over six years ago, and have a three year old son named Jackson.