A deep silence sets in over Ofua 3….
Ofua 3 is home to approximately 20 000 South Sudanese refugees. It is part of Ofua 1-6 that is part of “Rhino Camp” which accommodates 150 000 of the 1.5 million refugees in the Northern parts of Uganda.
Goats are bleating and children are playing everywhere. This is the third consecutive year that we have come here.
But this year, something is different.
The grass is greener. The buildings seem to be better maintained. Small vegetable gardens are springing up everywhere.
Perhaps this group of people, having been displaced by a gruesome civil war, have decided to inhabit and care for this new piece of land and to treat this new destination as their home, like the Israelite exiles of old.
Perhaps the fact that they have already gone three years down this road of disillusionment has lightened the weight of their pain….
Perhaps our efforts to help adults and children to listen to each other’s stories are starting to make a difference…
I look at the 10 South Sudanese pastors and leaders sitting in front of me. Each one of them has become a friend of mine in their own way. I remember our first meeting at the YWAM base in Arua in 2017. The terrible things they had suffered in South Sudan had still been fresh in their memories.
I remember the fright in the eyes of some….
I remember the numbness and absence of real emotions….
It had been a difficult training….the pain must have been too severe and the stories of fear and terror still too close.
One year later (2018) we were back.
This time, we decided to stay in the refugee camp among the training participants. Suddenly, we were in the world of our 10 trainees. We started to experience some of the challenges like no electricity, no running water, and scarcity of food. We became aware of the fight for survival being played out on a daily basis even now: when it rains, mud huts are demolished and when the rain stays away, there is not enough water. When someone falls ill there are limited medical services available. Schools are over-crowded. Children with visible signs of neglect and malnutrition can be seen everywhere.
Nothing happens easily in the refugee camp…..
Many families carry the pain and scars of deep loss. Most of the dads are absent – either dead or still somewhere in South Sudan. Nobody knows. Most of the families took children in – children from families that were killed or children that became part of their household during the escape from South Sudan.
It was then, in this same camp, that we (the muzungus) became part of their lives.
This year we had 10 South Sudanese Pastors and leaders; a team of 3 from Tanzania, an American observer and Louwrens and Theunis and a South Sudanese Tutor as Facilitation Team.
Our goal was to train the 10 pastors and leaders as facilitators of the training material we had shared with them in the past 2 years.
We started our training sessions by looking at the curse-Psalms. We discovered a God that creates a safe space where we can cry out to Him with our most painful, angry and cruel thoughts.
Emmanuel 1 came…..with a deep hatred towards his wife who left him in his deepest need whilst sitting in jail, for another man….
Emmanuel 2 came….with anger towards an unfair and unhuman system of registration and food distribution they have to face monthly.
Israel came with his deep pain over the death of an elder brother in the Congo and the children that are now destitute and need help….
Emma came in silence with a deep sigh and tears….
And so we saw how a safe space in the presence of a merciful God helped each one to release some of the deep emotions….
The rest of the day we listened to the trainees’ stories on what happened with them in the past year.
We heard stories of how relationships were built with children in the community through playing with children, bringing hope; stories of a mom and dad deciding to listen to their children and to play with them, instead of shouting at them and sending them out of the house…
Stories of a woman who was on the brink of suicide and was helped by someone willing to listen to her…
Stories of a children’s home that was started by one of our trainees, and was registered after a difficult process.
And as we listened, it felt as if we were on Holy ground…..
The breakthroughs did come with challenges…..
The trainees shared about resistance from the community – that the process of playing with and listening to children has been treated with suspicion.
Then there is also the daily struggle for basic food and water to survive ….
And still, we stand on Holy ground…..
What we see and hear is not the work of mere men…..
No, we are really on Holy ground.
The 5-day training on children with trauma started with a 2-day training on how to build relationships with children.
In these 2 days we expect the participants to lay down any title and position. Even the pastors! It all starts with a name game reflecting on the importance of your name. Here we use names and not titles and positions…
Then we talked about Mt 18: Unless you humble yourself and become like a child, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.
I looked at Anthony where he was lying flat on the floor and saw the shock and amazement of the 20 children workers when he repeated the words in Mt 18:4: Unless you humble yourself and become like a child, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.
Antony did not have much of a childhood. At age 12, whilst attending a church service, soldiers came and abducted the male children and young men. 4 days later, they were in a military camp in Ethiopia where he was trained as a child soldier. Upon his return to South Sudan, he shot many people and raped several women…
Antony is now one of our facilitators. After the 1st training in Arua in 2017, he decided to start an orphanage in Ofua 3. He wants to help children to find healing from their trauma. He is currently providing shelter to 30 orphaned boys and 30 orphaned girls.
As part of the training process, the children workers and facilitators go into the community to go and practice what is taught in class.
Soon we heard the laughter of children breaking the silence. It filled the air with hope and life! These are not common sounds and feelings. Most of the time life is just a long struggle for survival!
Life in Ofua 3 is a hard life.
This is why the laughter of the children was like medicine. Good medicine that brought memories of a better life. Perhaps there is still hope…
The children laughed because someone was playing with them. It is not the kind of play you would expect. There was something different and foreign to the culture and the way the children played.
This time, the children were playing with adults.
This was not common.
The adults were even sitting with the children on the ground!
Heads were turning – what was happening here?
The children were taking the lead in the games…the adults followed….
And when you observed carefully, you could see that one of the adults was the pastor of the local church. He was playing with, sitting down on the ground. He was allowing the children to lead the game….
After the games, everyone moves into a circle. Everyone, also other adults are invited to be part of the circle.
Then a story is told. A story of a man who calmed the wind and the sea. He can calm any kind of storm. His name is Jesus!
This scene was repeated in 12 different locations in Ofua 3. Around 600 children and adults shared in the games and the story for about an hour. And for that hour, life was better and more beautiful in Ofua 3. It stirred faith in a better world…..
Can it be that this training can bring healing to this broken and traumatized community?
Can playing with children bring healing?
After two days of building relationships with children through games and stories, we moved to discussing trauma. We worked through the sessions with the new facilitators to prepare them to present the material to the children workers. We discussed the general reactions to trauma and
post-traumatic stress. We listened to new stories of trauma. It felt like peeling an onion, as if, now after 3 years, we were reaching the real stories.
I looked at Emmanuel 1 as he shared. My heart shrank as I looked at him. He was a driver for the government. When he arrived for work one morning in 2016, he was arrested. He was taken into a room where his 4 brothers had already been taken hostage. During the interrogation that followed, his brothers’ throats were slit one by one. When it was his turn, they saved his life….but he will never forget the scenes that he witnessed in that room. But this was not all…..After being sent to prison as an innocent man; his wife resented him and left him for another man.
And my heart cried for Emanuel 1 and his pain….
We also heard new stories from Emmanuel 2. He had to flee for his life and hide in a small store room from soldiers, without moving once out of that store room. No food, no water. Alone in the dark storeroom with a body trembling with fear, each time he heard the footsteps of approaching soldiers.
We listened to Felix sharing how, after many hardships, he arrived with his pregnant wife and 3- year-old daughter at the place designated to them by the UNHCR. There was nothing….just indigenous forest. That night, they experienced a heavy thunderstorm with nothing but their bodies to protect each other from the wet and cold.
No roof above their heads…nothing!
Spitted out on a piece of earth in the North-West of Uganda known by locals as a cursed land only good enough for lepers!
When I got into my bed that night, my heart was heavy. What happened to these South Sudanese people was wrong, even evil. And I wondered how it is possible that the world just moves on in the face of such evil. But it happens. After another two weeks, I would also go back. My world would also continue and I felt the deep pain as I fell asleep under a thousand African stars.
After preparing the facilitators for two days, it was their turn to present the material to the children workers. First the focus was on the immediate reactions to trauma. How the body shook when the soldier lifted the gun. How the tears flowed uncontrollably when you realised that you could be raped by the soldiers. How your mind went numb when fear and despair took control.
And we know that these stories are real. These things actually happened to the children workers sitting in the room.
Our focus moved to the experience of the same trauma a few days, weeks or even months later.
They shared about nightmares, about running for shelter when you hear the sound of a truck approaching because you fear it may be soldiers coming for you, or falling flat on the ground when you hear the sound of a stone on the corrugated iron roof of the church building.
Sometimes it gets too much. You want to withdraw, run away. Everything brings you back to the trauma!
Whilst the stories were shared, Josephine – a young mother and part of the team cooking for us – left the room. She had to go for a walk. Just talking about the experiences was too much for her. The memories hidden deep inside came back…..and she left to go and cry…
We realise that what we are talking about here is real. It really happened with people like Josephine – people like you and me.
And suddenly I had to take a walk and cry…..
Luckily this was not the end to Josephine’s story.
That afternoon, the children workers went out to meet with children in the community. Again everyone played, laughed and shared stories. And somewhere along this process, Josephine’s tears turned in laughter. Later that afternoon, she shared that playing with a child made her heart lighter.
When we play with children, share stories and laugh together, something happens….
Maybe there is more in the words of Jesus: Whomever receives a child in my name, receives me….
The training continued. We had another two days to prepare the facilitators to present the material for day 4 to the children workers. We talked about building relationships and to listen. We reflected on an attitude of understanding, sincerity and acceptance that had to become part of their lives. And we talked about the skill of active listening.
It is Michael who shared first, how his own trauma and fight for survival distanced him from his children. He used to chase them away and forced them out when he arrived at home. But now he is not doing it anymore. This training changed his life and saved his children. He realized his children were not experiencing any understanding or acceptance from him. He never listened to them. But now, he and his wife behave differently. When he arrives at home in the afternoon he will first play with the children, and his wife is also not shouting at them so much anymore.
Michael is not the only one with such a story. It is also true of Israel. He shared how he realized that he was the cause of some of his child’s trauma. He learned to respect his child and to listen to his child with understanding, sincerity and acceptance. It changed him and his child for the better!
Emmanuel 2 says he is not the same man from 3 years ago. The training helped him to look differently at himself and other people. The training brought healing to him and to his relationships with others.
And we stand in awe. Is it possible that we are witnessing something of healing in this broken and traumatized community?
We were coming to the close of our time together. We had to prepare our facilitators to present the 5th day of training. The last day is all about the sandbox. This is where it all comes together. A relationship has been built with a child over 5 days. Now the adult “helper” gets an opportunity to sit and observe a child playing in the sandbox. For the next two days we prepared the facilitators, not to only practise the active listening skill, but to, from their being, create a safe space for adults and children alike where they would feel accepted. They practised the skill to create a space for openness and honesty leading to understanding, by showing deep respect for whoever is taking part in the sandbox. Three years of modelling this to these facilitators were now coming together.
The last day was very special, experiencing how the facilitators modelled the sandbox process to the children workers. That afternoon, a child, an adult and a sandbox could be seen everywhere in the camp, as the children workers “listened” to the children playing in the sandbox.
Looking back over the last three years I can say with great certainty: “Something happened here. It is difficult to express it in words. But, the 8 men and 2 ladies with whom we journeyed over the last three years, changed. Healing happened.”
Just look at:
● Anthony, the former child soldier who is now taking care of orphaned children
● Emmanuel 1: He could not touch his youngest child after witnessing the slaughter of his brothers and the betrayal of his wife. One morning during training, he shared that he held his child for the first time in 8 months….
● Michael, who is not chasing his kids out of the house anymore, but rather playing with them.
● Joseph, who had been very afraid and fearful when we met him 3 years ago, but is now the strategic thinker in this group.
I can continue this way….
Emma, Christine, Taban, Felix, Israel, Emmanuel 2: They all have a story.
These men and women are my heroes. I salute each one of them!
The last morning with them was very special. The handing out of certificates is always a special moment. There was just one way we could greet them and send them out as the tutors who guided them over the past three years: We washed their feet and gave them words of affirmation…..
And so we reached the end of a chapter. We will never be the same again.
Walking with Wounded Children Training
The goal of this project was to provide trauma counseling and trauma counseling training to South Sudanese pastors and leaders, living as refugees in Northern Uganda.
After three years doing 5 days of training in 2017, 10 days of training in 2018, and 15 days of training in 2019 we can summarise the outcomes as follows:
- 10 pastors and leaders can facilitate different topics from the 5 –day training program: Introduction to Children Ministry and Trauma Counselling.
- 10 pastors and leaders and 80 children ministry workers can build relationships with children and help traumatised children through play, story-telling and active listening to become more self-aware, open and honest and self-accepting, bringing healing from trauma symptoms in the process.
At the end of our recent time in Northern Uganda we had a strategic planning session with the 10 newly trained pastors and leaders, to discuss the immediate future.
They formulated their common vision for the project as follows:
To become a healing community where children are welcome and where we help one another through play, story-telling and active listening to bring God’s peace and healing to our community.
They agreed on the following strategy to reach this vision:
- To use our knowledge to grow in the right attitude and acquired skills to help people experiencing trauma.
- We will use the sandbox tool to help people experiencing trauma.
- We will facilitate topics from the training material to target groups in our community to raise awareness of trauma and the effects of trauma.
- To mentor the 80 trained children ministry workers to use games, story-telling and the sandbox tool to bring healing to children.
The 10 newly trained pastors and leaders are still inexperienced facilitators and will need intentional tutoring and mentoring to help them grow in confidence and experience as they continue to facilitate topics from the training material and to mentor the children ministry workers.
The best way to accomplish this is to maintain a presence in the community to focus on the tutoring and mentoring of the 10 newly trained pastors and leaders, and to encourage them in the process of becoming a healing community.
We have grown deep and strong relationships with these pastors and leaders and we are well received in the community. We believe that it is important to return as soon as possible to the refugee camp in Northern Uganda to ensure the best results with this project.
After discussing this with the leadership at Petra Institute and Incontext Ministries it was decided that we (Theunis & Magda) will return to the refugee camp to provide the tutoring, mentoring and encouragement to the newly trained pastors and leaders.
We will aim to leave in the middle of October. This is dependent on raising the funds needed and obtaining a 90-day visa to stay in Uganda.
Our budget to stay there will be managed by Incontext Ministries. The target amount for the 90 days, including airfare, accommodation and meals are R30000-00. Theunis has his birthday on the 29th of September and you can help us celebrate by making a contribution to this project. All donations to support Project Restoration can be made to:
Account Name: INcontext
Branch: 632005 – Durbanville
Number: 407 898 3933
Reference: REST + name and surname (REST J Smith)
You can follow this link to see a video clip with scenes from our previous experience in 2018:
We have a follow-up training with “Moms for Wellington”. (www.masvirwellington.co.za/ ) planned for 30 September. We will listen to feedback from the participants and answer questions from their experience in practising the skills they acquired during the first training. We will also facilitate new topics to add to their knowledge and skills.
Magda will be facilitating another session of the Mother Design workshop (World needs a Father) on the 8th of October. The workshop is presented over a period of 6-8 weeks to a group of 10-12 mothers in Oakdale, Bellville.
Theunis will facilitate a three hour workshop based on the Gallup Strengthfinder for learners (leaders) from de Kuilen High School on 12 October in Kleinmond. The purpose will be to help them identify their strengths and to apply it to their lives to make a difference as leaders.
We continue to seek more income-generating opportunities to alleviate the shortfall on our personal budget and to continue to replace donation income with income from coaching and training opportunities. We will now aim to find opportunities for next year.
Thank you for your continued love and support. Thank you to those who made ad hoc donations during the past month. We know that all of you give sacrificially and we thank God for each one of you!