Skateboarding is Cool…Especially in Rwanda!

There is no magic wand for providing effective proactive mental health education. Support for each person is an unique mix of self and community care. As a teacher, this can be hard because we often ask, “What should we do about…?” while relying on tangible data to determine our next steps and progress. When we work on mental health strategies, results are often more internal and hard to quantify.

In the midst of this intricacy, there are a few things I know for sure. I know that providing children with a sense of belonging matters. Setting, monitoring, and achieving goals establishes a sense of purpose with eyes cast on the future. When children know they are important to others, they can gain a sense of their individual value within a larger community. Helping young people find their personal valves of self-expression promotes positive self-care and awareness of ways to decompress during stressful moments.

The skateboard park at SOS Children’s Village in Kigali, Rwanda is a breathing example of a mental health prevention network. From 3:00 – 6:00 PM each day, children converge from all directions on this colorful play place. Led by Skateaid volunteers, hopeful skaters take brooms in hands to clear dust from the previous day and prepare the park for the whooshes and rolls of flying decks. A collection of boards and donated shoes line the entrance ramp as eager children anticipate their moments in the spotlight and dream of floating through the air with varied levels of expertise.

Some of the smaller children, tentatively stand on boards, soaking in the support of the volunteers and the shouting encouragement of their peers, as well-versed senior skaters practice flips and dips along the curving ramps.

On one special Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the park for the highly-hyped skateboard competition. When market-shopping for gifts on the previous day, Tim (from Skate Aid) and I anticipated attendance of about 100 children. We confidently carried our load of shopping bags away from the market, filled with clothing, toothbrushes, toys, candy, and other treats. As the afternoon proceeded, cheering grew to a fevered pitch – well beyond the screams of 100 and my confidence in having gifts for everyone began to wane.

The Skate Aid volunteers, Tim, Maxim, and Pat kept this wily crew organized with their bullhorn, shouting names of competitors with high shouts of directions and praise.

For hours, kids stayed focused, as they watched others – ranging from youngest to oldest – take their turns swooshing across the steep curves and ramps of the park. Big tricks received an uproar of screams and raucous name-chants. Big falls received silent moments of fear that quickly turned to laughs and cheers as the skater dusted off and jumped back on the board – seemingly trying to convince the crowd that the blip never occurred.

The rapidly approaching sunset forced the competition to a close with the final, most advanced skaters wow-ing the crowd with their skilled leaps and tricks. As the judges deliberated, children gathered with anticipation in a large circle to learn who garnered the coveted prizes. Our hope was to provide gifts for everyone, but the rushing masses made it a challenge – with the judges quickly surrounded by a flurry of hands and bodies hoping to score some goods.

The final moments were a bit chaotic…with the Skate Aid volunteers masterfully managing to hold onto some of those treats for another day – while also being the kind of teachers who used the chaos as an opportunity for learning.

I used to pass skateboard parks with limited understanding of the positive role they can play in the lives of young people. Luckily, Skate Aid has a vision for using this method of self expression to build children up, help them to set and achieve goals, teach them that they matter, and show the power of community.

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Forgiveness & Umuganda

What strikes me about Rwanda is the way forgiveness is viewed as an active process without a concrete end. There is a general belief that forgiveness, while it is agonizing, in its deepest and more pure form, requires work both on the part of the perpetrator and survivor. At home, there can be a stigma about sharing details of traumatic events, so they are often reserved for a protective inner circle. In Rwanda, sharing stories is woven into the fabric of the healing process and is something many feel comfortable enough to do. While these ideas sound right, there was a moment when I sat in a front yard with a woman baring deeply indented machete scars on her head and shoulder next to the man who caused them, when I wondered if I was capable of this type of forgiveness.

As the woman talked, she told me she wanted to share her story. She wanted me to know that forgiveness wasn’t a gift to a her perpetrator, although they have a strong friendship today. Instead, she actively pursues forgiveness as a gift to herself and a legacy for her children. She told me that, “Our time on earth is short, and in the end, I will not be asked to account for his decisions. I will be asked to account for my own. The genocide happened, but I lived to tell my story. I was sick with trauma for years, but the only medicine that worked for me was forgiveness.” As the man shared, he talked about the difficulty of seeking forgiveness – and how even after he was granted leniency through the Gacaca courts by seeking formal forgiveness, it was essential for his healing to pursue deep relationships that fight for authentic forgiveness. While their life stories are very different, forgiveness is a healing climax with empowering benefits.

Another thing I have heard from many Rwandans is that to truly understand reconciliation after unimaginable atrocities committed during the Genocide, I need to understand Rwandan culture of interconnectedness and the very explicit post-Genocide reconciliation and healing plans that President Kagame continues to focus on today.

During his recent Humans of New York interview, President Kagame reflected on the challenge of pursuing justice for crimes that were so great. While he recognized the hardship of this path, he noted that, “Only forgiveness can heal this nation. The burden rests with the survivors because they are the only ones with something to give.”

One place where I saw this process in action was through participation in Umuganda which is Rwanda’s mandatory monthly community service held on the last Saturday morning each month. The word “mandatory” always has a negative connotation to me – so I suggested to Higiro Issa, who coordinated my role on this day, that this activity would be hard to sell back home – closing down all businesses and requiring every citizen – including leaders – to stop everything to serve others seemed out of bounds. Issa said, “People follow laws, right? If it was the law, they would do it. Eventually, people would understand that it was important and see the value of this time together.

I was able to see this value as I participated with an organization named “Truth Prevails” who understand that Umuganda can also play a role in the reconciliation process. On this Saturday morning, village members of Nyamata Sector, Bugesera District, Eastern Province Rwanda, continued their ongoing process of building six houses for genocide survivors. People worked hand in hand, often knee deep in rainy mud, both inside and outside the houses in progress, to cement walls and cover floors. From any distance, you would think this was a group of friends who have shared a lifetime of neighborly memories instead of a mix of people who live with cutting memories of how their lives were tragically intertwined.

Throughout the morning, people moved with the unison of a seasoned team – carrying each other’s supplies, sharing the workload, providing impromptu training, and participating in casual chatter. There was robust power in the way the village children and teens sat nearby casually watching everyone they knew working together for the common good of others. “We cannot not model.”

When I met with Elnestin and Patrick, leaders of Truth Prevails, during the week before our Umuganda service, they shared how they created this organization because forgiveness doesn’t just happen. They said it is a messy process and they have found shared community engagement as a key to success. Patrick, who spent ten years in jail for crimes committed during the genocide, talked about the deep guilt he felt about his role as a soldier in the defeated army. While he recognizes that many of his decisions were steeped in lies of Tutsi threats by leaders, he lived in shame during ten years in prison remembering the crimes he committed. He only smiled deeply during our conversation when he talked about how being forgiven was beyond his imagination. Being encouraged by Gacaca Courts to admit the details of his crimes was liberating, but still left him living with intense guilt. The relationships he has developed through Truth Prevails made forgiveness more than words to him. They give him an opportunity to build solidarity and actively fight the ideology of genocide that separates people and eases the pathway to discrimination.

Again and again, I have heard that genocide is not one abrupt event, but the culmination of many small actions and decisions made over a course of time. Forgiveness is the same…an active process that requires commitment and hard work.

Through the example of Rwanda, I have learned that the heavy burden of weaving cultural forgiveness for our past can be a roadmap to progress. What we do matters.

(Pictures shared with permission)

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Art Matters

Surrounding ourselves with beauty matters. Art Matters. I appreciate the way cities around the world are embracing street art rather than making it a battling ground that diminishes the powerful messages drawn from public displays of creativity and color.

During initial collaboration with Hope for the Day about our Hope Travels partnership, we talked about establishing a program that opens doors to informal, but global conversations about mental health. One tenet of promoting positive mental health was a focus on building a sense of connectedness, group missions, and a sense of larger purpose centered on messages of hope.

Establishing support for local artists to share this universal message seemed like a solid way of creating tangible conversation touchstones while also establishing positive relationships and enduring mental health partnerships. Our aim was not to push an agenda – but to establish conversation spots. Sure enough – plans continue to unfold beyond our hopes with the completion of multiple murals in varied locations and plans for more to come.

As for our initial murals, my role was limited to sitting in awe at the work of local artists and seeking donations for supplies. There is a bursting street art scene in Africa and I was proud to observe some of the talented hands who beautify blank spaces. As we traveled with Sparrow and Rach, I glimpsed firsthand how artists view the world with a lens I don’t own, as they noted empty walls left to fill and closed their eyes to “see” completed masterpieces before their work began.

This collection of Hope Murals can be found throughout Uganda and Rwanda. It would be amazing to have others visit these spots and even more amazing if we could continue this endeavor by supporting local artists in upcoming destinations including Ethiopia, Djibouti, Malawi, Mali, and more.

One of the greatest life lessons I have learned, is to “put ideas out there” and they often come to fruition with surprising, but guided hands. So, if you know any artists in these areas, or would like to sponsor a Hope Mural, please let me know.

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What I Learned from “The Rescuers” in Rwanda

I have never been tested…spoiled to traipse through life with the blissful belief that I am a generally nice person – without a forceful event to determine my commitment to kindness in the face of death. Most Rwandans over the age of 30 were deprived of this luxury. Between April 7 – July, 1994, decisions made during the Rwandan Genocide came with consequences to perpetrators and victims of atrocities, leaving scars still crusting in varied levels of healing. And then there are some – a small number – who made the decision that if forced to watch suffering and death of another – they would step up, step in, intervene, carry the load, and protect – with the full knowledge that it might be the last decision they made.

The complexity of the Rwandan Genocide is deep and my knowledge is basic. Each day I am here, I am taught about the events of this time – but also about post-Genocide mental health, trauma care, reconciliation, resilience, and forgiveness – led by people who persist in creating hope from the darkest circumstances. I can’t begin to detail the genocide or even act like I know enough to share. Even as a person advocating the importance of awkward dialogue – I fear tripping over myself in mistakes of my limited knowledge. What I do know is that the weight here is heavy – but the commitment to peace and progress is evident.

Trauma counselors will say that over 80% of Rwandan citizens alive during the genocide suffer with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – so facilitating healing could not be limited to a trained few. Educating masses of people and providing exposure to trauma care was an essential aspect of the collective reconciliation roadmap. As time progresses, the impact of the genocide doesn’t diminish. There is evolving research on trans-generational trauma that necessitates continued focus on family and village support. Innovation in mental health education rules by necessity in Rwanda- and guiding all citizens toward mental health advocacy a significant priority of building One Rwanda that moves forward in reconciliation.

In the midst of all this – years later, people still yearn for role models of hope. While there are masses of people tirelessly treading into the most complicated stories and facilitating progress, there is a recognizable group of heroes – known as The Rescuers – whose stories serve as reminders that kindness can prevail. If you follow Humans of New York, you know that in recent weeks, Brandon Stanton has been sharing their stories. I was privileged that Higiro Issa, president of Good Change Rwanda, organized a lunch with three rescuers, two whose stories have already been highlighted on HONY – which I shared in the links below.

I’ve never been awed by celebrity, but as we settled at our lunch table, emotion overwhelmed. Sylas began telling his story about early signs of dehumanizing Tutsis- referencing his traumatic junior high memories of a girl, stripped and harassed as others watched. He described feelings of powerlessness during this haunting atrocity committed by students older than himself without any consequences from school leaders. Discrimination against the Tutsis was common in his youth – but Sylas remembers the increased intensity and growing “normal-ness” of harassment. He emphasized the genocide really started with dehumanization and intolerance toward this entire group of people and believes it was planned and propagated well in advance of 1994. As a young man, he wanted to know what it felt like to be Tutsi, so he randomly took this designation when applying for his first identification card. Losing job opportunities in the military because of this decision increased his sense of empathy, especially since he was able to easily change his “error” while others could not avoid the trauma of being a Tutsi in Rwanda at the time. All of these early experiences influenced Sylas when he secretly guided 23 Tutsis to Burundi border escapes. He found power – not in the military – but in the act of bringing others to safety, as did his friend Pastor Gratien.

While being human, acts of empathy, and consistency in love are expected tenets of a pastoral life, some of the saddest stories I have heard are of those who abandoned their congregations to save themselves or aided in their collective demise. Pastor Gratien and his wife were the essence of their beliefs as they stood outside their church, lined with crevices of 320 Tutsis, and insisted to killers that if others were to be taken, they must kill them first. Guided by his faith, he demanded that potential perpetrators consider their own spiritual fate if they fired the first bullet. Even in the midst of chaos, they stopped. I asked how his experiences have influenced his faith and belief in a loving God. He noted the solidity of his beliefs drawn from the ways he has been able to invite others in through stories of miraculous forgiveness and healing.

Christine’s story has not been detailed on HONY, but offers remarkable imagery of strength, and also weaves closely with the strength of her faith. Her father worked for Tutsis during her early years, and unlike many other parents, was quick to share the goodness of his friends. As the genocide began, her Tutsi neighbor and children rushed to Christine’s home when her Hutu husband returned from a day of killing and said that he must now kill her too. One young girl was shot multiple times in the escape, but made it to Christine in desperate need of care. Each day, a 34 year old Christine would secretly put the eight year old on her back to carry her for treatments to a hospital seven kilometers away. With the other children, she knew getting them into one of the few spaces in a UN orphanage was safer than her home, but they accepted girls more than boys – so she put the boys in dresses and carried them on her back to safety. Diverting roadblocks, climbing under bushes, and sliding under fences carrying another person has left her survivors indebted for life – still sharing maternal relationships and immense love.

While we talked about their lives, my teacher-centered questions often sought to quantify the characteristics that prompted their actions. I longed to know how we could replicate their values for ourselves while we instill them in the young people under our influence. They noted that some of the biggest perpetrators were youth because they were raised in ways that dehumanized Tutsis through misleading stories and propaganda.. “When people hear hate, they learn hate. When they hear love, they can learn that too.” They said many times that the genocide did not begin in 1994 – but was the consequence of years of discrimination and separateness. “We are to love all equally without segregation in our actions and words.” Or, as it has been said, we cannot not model.

The message of The Rescuers has global importance as we are all pushed to defend values in small ways each day. I pray to never be tested like this, but their stories and messages pulse in my heart as a reminder of hope in all circumstances and the power that one person has to be a hero. Thank you for being the type of people who strive to share yourselves and your stories so generously to influence others. I am grateful.

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Celebrating a Legacy in Senegal

The trauma of losing loved ones is universal and impacts mental health in everyone, but the cultural responses are so unique.  My own life and relationships have often been shaped by grief for lost loved ones, which gives me a personal interest in how others mourn, grieve, and honor legacies.I often wonder why there is so much stigma when talking about the long-term scars of loss. Personally,  I am comfortable talking about, and celebrating lost loved ones, but I have learned that this isn’t easy for everyone. When strangers ask typical background questions about my parents or sibling, I watch them suffer in the awkwardness of my responses. Often, in that moment, I feel worse for their discomfort than for myself. So, instead of deep conversation, changing the subject is the best distraction with people breathing an obvious sigh of relief.

Generally, after initial memorials and condolences fade, there aren’t often secular spaces for celebrating legacies of loved ones within standard American culture. As time passes, we hear that “life goes on” as new people enter daily life bringing fewer ways to naturally share enduring memories. So, they start to fade…leaving a mix of sadness and a bit of guilt at not honoring the lives of those deeply influential people. I would even say that there is an unspoken timeframe when people begin to feel awkward bringing up someone who has died, as if a mention will harm hearts with reopened wounds. Instead, there can be a degree of invisibility to everyone but the person silently suffering in grief.

These thoughts are inspired by the deep imprint of a recent celebration spent in Nguekhokh, Senegal where we honored my friend Adama’s grandmother, Ada Mariama Diallo in her village home. It was the six-year anniversary of Ada’s death and the local village remembers her with food and prayers each year.

Although I won’t ever meet Grandma Ada, throughout the preparation and events of the day we developed the kinship of dreamers. In 1982, Ada purchased a plot of land in an isolated village and built more than a house – she built a human oasis. While others teased at her remote choice of a property, Ada knew it would be a special place for creating her lasting legacy, so she purchased herself a plot of land. Others soon followed, likely drawn by the creation of memories unfolding before their eyes. As we toured the property, Adama nostalgically told stories of eating from the fruit trees, playing with the animals, and enjoying games with the other village children. “You should have seen it then,” was a common theme of the place where she learned much about life through the loving lens of her family matriarch.

On the day of the celebration, we arrived to find Ada’s lifelong friends stirring steaming pots of porridge and comfortably chatting in the back of the yard. Her inner circle watched the events of the day from a loving distance – spending time in fellowship honoring their friend while focusing on the preparation of celebratory sustenance. Throughout the morning, neighbors strolled in and joined the family at large rugs near the mango trees, where they gathered to share prayers and faith. Many were prompted to make the village trek by personal memories that included the young teacher who traveled each year to remember the woman gave him shelter and shaped the successes of his life.

After prayers and sharing by Adama’s father, we marked the day with a commemorative meal and time together. I asked Adama how they spread the word to so many people. She said there is really no need to send invitations because people just know the date and remember to come. That is when it struck me that I wished for the same. It’s funny because I am not a person who enjoys celebrations that feel forced. While I love time with others, surprisingly, something as simple as birthday recognition can be a struggle. I often forget and feel like I can’t find the perfect gift under pressure of a specific timeline preferring “just because” gifts in natural ways. But with death, it is different; finding the place for recognition is hard, so reserving this special day for Ada felt right. It served as a place to remember a loved one and invite new friends to meet the person who so importantly shaped so many lives. The party served as a powerful release, and to me, provided a space that reduced the stigma of grief.

After the celebration, the inner circle of family extended their time together with visits to local friends and a delicious dinner near the beach. With the foundation of honor set by morning events, everyone seemed tugged by the reminder of the power of one person and relished these precious moments of bonding. I know that I did.

While I never met Grandmother Ada, I am grateful for the time we spent together and will look for ways to instill the value of powerful legacies in my own life.

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Loving “Teranga” in Senegal

Connecting with Senegalese partners about mental health often lead to similar conversations on the impact of stigma, the challenges of receiving adequate support, and the need to encourage conversations that heighten awareness on this topic. Discussions center on low reporting of suicide cases and how they are rarely shared openly because of deep religious implications on impacted families including the inability to provide a proper burial and significant judgment from others. From hospital hallways to NGO offices, everyone agreed there is much work to be done in a system where therapy and medication are lacking at all levels.

At the same time, daily life in Senegal offers a glimpse into how informal systems exist, as people shared about a culture that strives to build neighborly connections where people work together for common good. Offering support to others is tangible here. It is found at tables during family meals, in daily group prayers, and with a concept I have grown to love – TERANGA!

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While I believe I could knock on doors of family or friends in a crisis to find support, in most cases, I just wouldn’t do it. The idea of “just showing up” without a plan seems intrusive and a bit disrespectful. Teranga topples those norms by making it ok to just show up. Teranga, which is known as the act of hospitality is a true open door policy for foreigners and friends where people are welcomed for last minute visits with drinks and open conversations. Woven within the guise of hospitality, there are tenets of mental health support for all involved.

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I made lovely friends in Senegal who gave me a slice of their everyday lives. As we traveled to local destinations for errands, they would often pull the car over for a quick visits along the way. During these times, and since I don’t speak French, I was able to deeply hone into the support offered during these moments of connectedness. The idea that “you matter” was clear upon arrival as people were welcomed with open arms and quickly-assembled drinks. Even as a guest, I grew to love bright greetings and the “always ready” hospitality. Conversations seemed light with the deep listening as important as the stories being shared. As the chatting and laughter commenced, the environment seemed warm with the time and place offering a natural space for family leaders to share wisdom and insights with young people who sat within the mix.

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Throughout my time in Senegal, I would lie awake thinking about the mental health connections that are deeply embedded in the culture I observed. While people say, they do not have mental health support here, there is something incredibly hopeful in the intuitive care and support offered through Teranga.

As a final thought, I do realize while talking about people throughout my journey, my perspective is limited by my own experiences. I am in no way implying that these are the experiences of every Senegalese person or that I have captured depth in my awareness, but this is what I observed during my short journey into Senegal.

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Visiting Accra Psychiatric Hospital

More than once after arriving in Ghana, I was told it was a shame to begin a year-long journey there because I will never meet nicer people in another country. “You should have saved the best for last,” is what they said. After just a short time, I got it.

Ghanaians tend to work as a collectivist society where everyone looks out for each other. As you wander crowded streets, people step in and guide the way. There isn’t a consistent system of addresses commonly used. Instead, landmarks describe locations which makes the network of strangers as essential as GPS. This seems to work for locals, but is hard to navigate when you aren’t sure where you’re going in the first place. For me, this collective system of help was always needed to get from place to place. As for safety, I was also told that as long as someone is around, people are safe in Ghana because others will physically jump in to defend against injustices they see. Even the names of businesses and signs on storefronts showcase a spirit of general good will for others. Ghana is a special place.

If visiting a new country feels like swimming in an unfamiliar pool, then committing to do so while engaging in conversations about mental health is a bit like being pushed into the deep end. Navigating mental health openly can feel awkward when battling years of silence and stigma, but the added element of doing so in a less familiar place requires pushing yourself on a personal limb of outreach, listening, and learning. Even with that, I am aware that I am likely making unintentional mistakes along the way, which makes relationship-building an essential aspect of the Hope Travels project.

Despite this underlying challenge, wherever I turned, Ghanaians tossed lifesavers to guide me through learning about their current progress spreading mental health awareness, building advocacy networks, and creating spaces for hope. At the same time, they were open and anxious to share the significant challenges still to be faced.

My learning began during a visit to Accra Psychiatric Hospital where I was guided through the expansive compound by Emmanuel Aboagye. He shared how the stigma related to mental health runs deep in Ghana and that many of the patients who stay here have been dropped off indefinitely at the hospital and may never be seen by their families again. Fear of lingering curses, judgment by extended families, and a lack of resources can push families to make this painful decision. For this reason, Emmanuel believes that mental health outreach is a critical and urgent need in all available venues. Breaking stigma and spreading the message that, “It’s OK not to be OK,” is going to require a deliberate focus beyond the hospital to reach families, schools, churches, and local NGOs.

The hospital is broken into a variety of wards for women, men, children, and criminals. As we walked each ward, there was obvious disrepair, limited resources, and dated facilities. Emmanuel said that getting funding from the government is hard and housing people is different than providing funds needed for comprehensive care. Last year, the staff went on strike to fight for more facility resources – even though doing so left the hospital with only a bare bones staff and minimal care for patients. For them, the radical discomfort caused was the only way to be heard. Some additional funding was granted, but so much more is needed. People who work here are committed to doing the best with what they have, but feel stretched by the crisis.

There is a “vagrant” unit which houses people found on streets years ago when there was some funding available to do so. Sadly, the money dried up, and the people who live in this unit are those left behind – many who are named after the day of the week and place where they were found. At this point, most of the people are expected to spend the rest of their lives here.

Patients receive therapy during the day and access to medication. These are expensive services that are not readily available to most people who are struggling with mental health but live outside of the hospital.

There are some signs of growth at the hospital. An NGO recently funded an occupational therapy center that will open soon. The brand new tennis court looks slightly out of place now, but is a flag of hope for things to come.

As my visit ended, Emmanuel and I chatted and found much commonality centered on the need for advocacy and prevention services. He noted that self care and mental health support is essential for people who work at the hospital who often ignore their own needs to focus on others.

I asked Emmanuel how people can help and he said, “Honestly, anything helps because we need everything from basics like food and clothing.”

If you would like to learn more about Accra Psychiatric Hospital, you can contact Emmanuel Aboagye at spiritosdusanctus@gmail.com.

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