Traumatized as a child, Rwandan Anglican works to heal genocide-scarred youth

"I was feeling the world is hostile. You cannot imagine such a situation, says Emmanuel Gatera. He says the starting point in his healing process was what he calls his conversion to Christianity, at age 15. Photo: Contributed
"I was feeling the world is hostile. You cannot imagine such a situation, says Emmanuel Gatera. He says the starting point in his healing process was what he calls his conversion to Christianity, at age 15. Photo: Contributed
Published December 6, 2016

Emmanuel Gatera was only five when trauma of a kind so familiar to his fellow Rwandans first began to afflict his young brain.

It was Christmas Eve, 1963 at his family’s home in southwest Rwanda. The family had just sung Christmas carols, and he and his seven-year-old brother, excited about what the next day would bring, had to be reminded by their parents that it was time for bed.

About an hour later, a mob of more than a hundred people had gathered outside the house. They tried to bash their way through the front door, but Gatera’s father, a carpenter, had built it to withstand such an assault, and it held. So the mob tried to make a hole in the house’s wall. Suddenly a shot rang out, from the direction of a Belgian army unit that had been patrolling nearby. (Rwanda had gained its independence from Belgium the previous year, but the government continued to have close ties with Belgium.) The mob scattered, and for the moment, the family was safe. Gatera’s parents didn’t wait long to see what would happen next. They packed up the family and headed south for the relative safety of Burundi.

The family survived the massacres of Tutsi Rwandans that swept the country in late 1963 and 1964-part of a long history of ethnic strife that would culminate in the 1994 genocide, which claimed somewhere between half a million and a million lives. But it was survival with a price. As they made their way south, the Tutsi family was stopped several times by Hutu villagers who abused and tortured them, Gatera says. His father, he says, would later die as a result of the injuries he suffered at their hands. The new home the family made in Burundi was in a harsh savannah. The family lived on the verge of starvation.

Life is different for Gatera now. The father of a family of four children, he’s an Anglican priest on the verge of completing a doctorate of ministry degree from St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton, funded by the Anglican Church of Canada’s global relations office. Since 2010, Gatera has also served as executive director of YEGO Rwanda, a foundation for helping Rwandan youth that he co-founded with his wife, Athanasie.

The focus of Gatera’s studies is to show how a scientific understanding of the brain can be combined with spiritual care to promote healing from psychological trauma. Gatera says he himself has recovered from the psychological wounds of his earlier life-but his healing took many years, because trauma has effects on the brain that take time and energy to reverse.” It remains encoded in the body,” he says. “If you don’t attend to it, there are so many complications. It affects the memory, all the parts of the brain, even the co-ordination.

“You cannot concentrate, you have fear, you are not happy, you have no joy, you feel like life has no meaning, you are angry- sometimes at yourself, sometimes at other people-you lose trust in people.

“I was feeling the world is hostile, it’s bad. You cannot imagine such a situation.” Gatera says the starting point in his healing process was what he calls his conversion to Christianity, at age 15. Though he had been raised an Anglican, he says he had not been exposed to the idea of being born again in Christ until he attended a Christian youth camp in Burundi. It was only then, he says, that he accepted Christ as his saviour. He was transformed.

One effect of trauma, Gatera says, is to create a pattern in the brain of fearful responses to external events. But his new faith, he says, provided him with the sense of safety that is essential for breaking this pattern. “When one is overwhelmed by trauma, then the brain is like a machine that registers, ‘Oh, somebody’s in danger,’ ” he says. “But when I was in the situation where I said, ‘OK, I’m now born again, I’m now Christian, God loves me, God cares for me, I have passed my burden to him’-that was a way of talking and having a dialogue with my brain, saying, ‘Look, brain, things have changed. I’m not at risk, I’m now good, the situation has improved, now God is in charge.'”

Another essential ingredient to his own recovery was his going to church and joining a community of believers.

But it took 13 years, he says, for him to feel he was truly healed-to be no longer consumed by bitterness or experiencing trauma-induced nightmares, and able to hope for the future.

After completing high school and spending some time doing odd jobs, Gatera felt a call to ministry. He was trained as a pastor in Uganda, and eventually served as warden and part-time lecturer at Uganda Christian University.

Only a few years after Gatera began to feel that he had healed, he was afflicted with more tragedy. He was lucky enough to be still in Burundi during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, but most of his relatives were not. In the frenzy of killing that swept the country from April to July of that year, Gatera says he lost more than 100 members of his extended family. After the genocide, Gatera returned to his homeland, where he served for four and a half years as provincial secretary for the Anglican Church of Rwanda.

Gatera says his studies in Canada, and his eventual co-founding of YEGO, sprang from a desire he felt at this point to work with young Rwandans who had been traumatized by the genocide. YEGO stands for “Youth Empowered for Goals and Opportunities.” (The word also means “yes” in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s official language.) YEGO aims to help vulnerable young Rwandans on four levels: promoting their healing from trauma; empowering them to earn a living; reconciling Hutu and Tutsi youth with one another; and offering sup- port to those struggling with HIV/AIDS. According to the United Nations, roughly 200,000 Rwandans were living with HIV in 2014. About 70,000 children age 17 or under were orphaned as a result of AIDS. As many as half a million Rwandan girls and women were raped during the genocide, sometimes by HIV-infected men.

YEGO offers a range of services: counselling, training, visiting orphans, sponsoring school studies, and more. Gatera’s doctoral dissertation looks at how spiritual or pastoral care can work together with psychological counselling to promote healing from trauma, and one of the goals of YEGO is to combine these practices.

Gatera also believes in the power of music and dance to help in recovery from trauma, and YEGO holds a music and dance afternoon every Sunday that attracts 25 to 30 youth.

Andrea Mann, director of global relations for the Anglican Church of Canada, says she’s both inspired by Gatera’s personal journey as a survivor of childhood trauma, and hopeful about the potential of YEGO. Its emphasis on healing and reconciliation, Mann says, sets it apart from many of the NGOs now at work in the country, for whom the country’s physical infrastructure is more of a priority.

The Rev. Gordon Oaks, a United Church minister and former chancellor of St. Stephen’s, was one of YEGO’s founders, and has helped raise funds for the organization. Oaks says he’s amazed at what Gatera’s organization has been able to do with the modest amount of money raised so far.

“It’s small, but it’s sort of saying you change the world one person at a time,” he says.



  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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