Writing for Healing: In Rwanda and Beyond

  • Laura Apol, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor
  • Department of Teacher Education
  • College of Education

Dr. Laura Apol is a poet, writer, and associate professor in MSU's Department of Teacher Education. When the world presents a picture that is difficult or painful to look at, she believes that words and phrases can provide a way to understand and begin healing. This is the goal of her ongoing project,"Using Narrative Writing to Facilitate the Healing Process Among Survivors of the Genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda."

Photograph for Writing for Healing: In Rwanda and Beyond

In 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide, Apol was living in Oklahoma, teaching literature and creative writing, and, like most of the rest of the world, was very remote from the horror happening in Rwanda. But tragedy hit much closer to home with the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. Suddenly, people needed a way to deal with tragedy. Many turned to writing as a way to express their emotions.

"Even individuals who had never before put pen to paper tried to make sense of their emotional upheaval through words," says Apol."They wrote their way through pain into something they could begin to understand. And because I taught poetry and gave readings and workshops throughout the community, many of these individuals brought their writing to me." This was the first time Apol witnessed how writing can bring about healing.

After taking a position at MSU in 1996, Apol continued publishing her poetry and thinking more about the relationship between writing and healing. Over the next decade, she looked for other ways that her poetry could be used. Then, in 2005, a friend from East Lansing, Ken Bialek, told her about the Association Mwana Ukundwa (AMU), an organization in Rwanda that had cared for over 2,000 orphaned children of genocide, and suggested that she explore the possibility of using her approach to writing in that setting.

According to Apol,"A lasting consequence of the 1994 Genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda is that a large number of people suffer from trauma-induced emotional disorders, including post traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, depressive and anxiety disorders, and others." Apol believes that by converting their emotions into words, traumatic memories can be restructured and organized, and may gradually produce less devastating emotional responses.

In 2006, Apol made the first of many trips to Rwanda. Working collaboratively with Bialek, as well as Rose Gakwandi and her daughter Glorieuse Uwezeye, the directors of the AMU, the team developed a workshop model that utilizes a scaffolding training approach. A workshop participant may be trained as a workshop leader, who will, in turn, train future participants to be workshop facilitators, and so on. This approach will allow the program to rapidly expand.

In partnership with the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, Apol and her team (which expanded to include others from the MSU community as well: Dr. Tatyana Sigal, a psychiatrist, Dr. Yakov Sigal, a pediatrician, and Dr. Frank Biocca, a professor in Communication Arts and Sciences) facilitated their first writing workshop with a group of six university-aged genocide survivors at the Kigali Center who agreed to function as workshop participants. They enthusiastically embraced the model and agreed to serve as facilitators for future workshops. One participant, Emery Rutagonya, survivor and head of research and education programs at the Kigali Memorial Center, is convinced of the hope-giving and life-changing potential of writing, and says,"To ask someone to write is to invite them to stand up. To ask someone to write is to invite them to fight for life."

The goals of this project go well beyond the end of the workshops. Narratives collected during the workshops are being turned into literature, educational curriculum, and electronic media, so that future generations, both within Rwanda and internationally, can learn first-hand from genocide survivors. Apol and her team hope that these materials can be used therapeutically with victims who are struggling with many kinds of trauma.

Since that initial visit in 2006, Apol has made five more trips to Rwanda, and would like to make another trip soon.

Working in Rwanda on a project that addresses the darkest chapter in this beautiful country's history does not come without a lot of soul-searching and heartache. And while Apol was using writing as a way to help Rwandans work through the pain of their devastating memories, she found that she was doing a lot of writing to work through her own troubled and painful impressions. She writes,"Often I was overwhelmed by the intensity of my experience: such beauty, such power, such history, such pain—all existing side by side in the country, now existing side by side inside me." As she sorted through her impressions, she wrote her own poetry as a way to understand her experiences.

The poems forged from Dr. Apol's time in Rwanda can be found in her forthcoming collection, The Back Door of Heaven.

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Laura Apol, College of Education

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