The power of group therapy and community healing in the Highlands

Oxfam’s Community Healing and Rebuilding Program addresses the risk factors of violence and strengthens the protective factors against it. The program draws on group therapy, community healing and community development approaches.

The program is delivered within four peer support circles in each community. The circles create a safe space for members to heal from their pasts, learn and practice new skills and create new pathways for their futures. Members are segregated by age and gender to increase the likelihood of feeling comfortable, enabling them to share and reflect on life experiences together. The program is delivered in three phases: Me; My Relationships; and My Community. Each phase takes roughly one year to complete.

The case study below describes the experiences of one participant, who is at the start of her healing journey.

Esther Kuini is from Konemempi, Ward 5 in Henganofi District, Eastern Highlands Province. She is married to Kuini and is a mother to four girls and four boys.

The Community Healing and Rebuilding Program in Konemempi is in Phase 1, Step 1 where community members talk about creating a safe space and a supportive circle. The program has four different circles: young women, older women, young men and older men. Ms Kuini is unsure of her age, but is part of the older women’s circle.

Ms Kuini said previously, her life was a mess. She was not aware of basic life skills, hygiene and – most importantly for her – how to control her anger. Ms Kuini said she always had thoughts that drove her mad, many times provoking her to react negatively to her family. To control this, she would leave the house and go looking for other women to talk or gossip. But this never solved anything.

Her anger caused disharmony in her home. She would argue with her husband and children. She also identified that her anger management issue meant that she did not respect others. She knew that she would talk at the same time whilst others were talking to her.

Through the circle sessions with her facilitator Roselyn, Ms Kuini has now identified some of these things and found ways to deal with her anger. With skills learned in the sessions, she now goes to the garden, puts down her spades and stands still with her feet pressing down to the ground. She starts practicing the ‘putting down your roots’ exercise. She closes her eyes and imagines she is like a tree, putting down her roots to the ground to stand as firm as possible. She does that for ten minutes then she breathes in and out ten times. She tries to bring her mind back and calm down.

‘I am at peace with myself. I know I have this huge responsibility but I can manage,’ said Ms Kuini. ‘I can take care of the pigs, feed them food, wash the dishes, fetch water – but I still can manage to control my emotions, unlike in the past’.

Her children are now helping without arguing or being forced too. ‘These sessions are very useful as I can see it having an impact on me and my family,’ she said. The sessions have helped her to appreciate herself by taking care of her health, her home, her family, her gardens, hygeine and spending time with her children.

Ms Kuini’s daughter-in-law is part of the young women’s circle. Ms Kuini’s son is very moody at times.  He has caused problems in their family and the community. When he drinks, he often comes home, beats his wife and argues with his parents, ending up destroying many household items. In the past, Ms Kuini would retaliate by going to her son’s house to destroy things there. When they tried to settle matters, they would all end up speaking over each other.

When the Community Healing and Rebuilding Program was introduced, Ms Kuini and her daughter-in-law became members. With the knowledge gained, Ms Kuini’s daughter-in-law invited her husband to join the men’s circle. Ms Kuini emphasised that using skills learned in the circles, her family members have come together to talk. There is a shift in their behaviours. As a result, their families are also feeling that impact. Family members are at ease, sharing more information with their children and partners. Ms Kuini and her son have sat together to discuss the positive impact of the program on them.

When asked what moments she remembers well, Ms Kuini highlights the third session, which was put into a drama and performed for the community. It was well received by many, while others were embarrassed or angry, for it reflected some negative behaviours in the community.

‘We become role models in the community. If I promise something in this circle and then do the opposite outside, I will not be trusted again by my circle members. I will break the trust and the circle,’ said Ms Kuini.

Ms Kuini finds the sessions very useful and helpful. She enjoys them and wants always to be part of the sessions. Ms Kuini is very eager to see what other positive impacts she can receive from the sessions. She appreciates that there is someone who can listen to the everyday problems she encounters.

‘The circle provides that space to air out all your frustrations either though paintings, singing, dramatising or just talking.  It means a lot to me when someone listens,’ she said. ‘I have witnessed changes in my life and the lives of my family members as well as others in the community.’

The sessions have been admired by others. Ms Kuini and her circle members have encouraged others to be part of the sessions if they want to experience change. Other community members saw the items prepared for the community forum. This got them thinking and asking questions.

Ms Kuini sees the program as their school and their opportunity to learn the basics to life. The program has given circle members a happy feeling that they have a purpose. The community respects them, saying that they are investing time in something good for the community.