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Mozambique’s healing lessons for Ugandan peacemakers

As Uganda's long-running armed conflict appears to be ending, the experience of another African country in reintegrating former child fighters back into society may hold important lessons for Ugandan authorities.

Some 14 years before the Ugandan government's August 29-truce accord with the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), anti-government forces in Mozambique laid down arms to signal an end to another protracted African conflict.

As in Uganda, the civil war in Mozambique saw thousands of children being kidnapped and used as combatants – and how well they are eased back into their communities will be key to the success of the peace.

One method employed by the Mozambican authorities was to use traditional African healers, who helped out a large number of child fighters returning from the war – children such as Adriano Chirindza, who spoke to Panos Features.

When Chirindza came out of the bush after a ceasefire in October 1992, he was put through a series of traditional rituals lasting several nights before being allowed to return to his family home. Chirindza fought for the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), which was backed by the apartheid regime of South Africa in an abortive bid to topple the Mozambican government.

He was among thousands of children who had been kidnapped and made to commit appalling acts of violence during the 15-year civil war. Just like the LRA of Uganda, RENAMO was notorious for its ritualistic use of violence aimed at instilling incapacitating fear into rural communities.

Some 25,000 children were abducted and forced into military service over the 20 years of the Ugandan conflict. The exact number of Mozambican child soldiers has never been established. But some researchers estimate the number of RENAMO child soldiers alone to have been between 8,000 and 10,000. Children were also used in government forces.

In Mozambique, "a number of children were 'instrumentalised' to commit crimes beyond the human imagination. Citizens were kidnapped in urban and rural areas, tortured, mutilated or murdered," says Iraê Baptista Lundin of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Maputo.

The Mozambican programme of reintegration, among others, has stimulated interest among academics and other experts looking for conflict resolution models in Africa.

One point of focus in Mozambique was the psycho-social rehabilitation of child soldiers. A programme involving traditional healers evolved out of concerns that Western psychological treatments might not be relevant in the African context. Mostly conducted at night, the rituals aimed to 'expel bad spirits' from the traumatised fighters and reduce the violence among them. Many experts felt this was a locally-relevant way to reintegrate the children back into their communities, often as traumatised as the children themselves.

Fenias Honwana, a well-known chief-cum-traditional healer in Tavira, a town lying 50km north of the capital Maputo, said that after the ceasefire, hundreds of children, many of whom were forced to fight and kill their own parents under the influence of drugs, started to flock to his hut seeking traditional treatment.

According to him, the rituals involved songs and dances, performed in front of a fire and to the accompaniment of traditional drumming. Sometimes birds and animals would be sacrificed to appease the spirits. The children would be given traditional drinks as the healer evoked the spirits to free the child from the disgrace of violence and gain "moral strength".

"This process has helped the child soldiers to be accepted in the new world, different from the violent nature of their previous world," says Honwana. "Sometimes it was necessary to consult the dead on the social reintegration of the child soldiers," he says – meaning some cases required him to 'talk to the dead' and seek advice on how to proceed with the healing.

Honwana would keep the child soldier in his own house for several days while he assessed their needs and treatment. This was also aimed at extracting from the child's body "strange elements which could make his life very difficult," he says, adding: "For this treatment, I sometimes used to wash the child soldiers with chicken blood."

The process is also described by Baptista Lundin, who says the ritual of social integration is divided into three parts.

"The first part is designed to help the ex-soldier overcome his acquired identity as 'a killing machine' and regain a civilian identity after which he 'becomes a person again.'" The ceremony is meant to cleanse both physically and spiritually, so the individual first takes a steam bath, and then washes afterwards in water fortified with various herbs.

"The second aspect of the ritual is the propitiation of the spirits, to announce to the dead relatives that the 'lost sheep' is back home."

"The third and last part of the ritual is the reconciliation with the spirits of the dead persons killed by the ex-soldier, a symbolic 'encounter' with his victims. In this last moment, forgiveness is requested and is backed by a show of remorse."

"Some question the degree to which a ceremony 'cleanses' a former child soldier, but the value of these processes to family and community is important to healing and post-conflict recovery," says Beth Verhey, a child protection consultant and author of a World Bank paper titled Child Soldiers: Preventing, Demobilising And Reintegrating.

The case for involving traditional healers is argued powerfully by Alcinda Honwana, a Mozambican anthropologist and specialist in post-conflict healing. Western approaches, she says, typically locate traumatic distress in the mind of the individual and responses are devised on a one-on-one basis between patients and health professionals. If these are unsuccessful, they involve drug therapy.

"In the Mozambican context, their [Western approaches'] suitability can be questioned. This is because Western approaches tend to be expensive, require specialist training and are limited in the numbers they can reach. On the other hand, therapies which do not account for the role of ancestral and malevolent spirits in the causation or healing of trauma may actually hamper family and community efforts to provide care," she says in her paper, Healing for Peace: Traditional Healers and Post-War Reconstruction in Southern Mozambique.

Nevertheless, experts warn that reintegration efforts, even when locally appropriate, can be ineffective without wider guarantees such as jobs and training.

According to Jaremey McMullin, a reintegration specialist at Britain's Oxford University, "…Post-conflict states with impoverished economies offer little to reintegrate into.

Mozambique, where only a tenth of the population had formal employment, was no exception, giving rise to the quip: "The government told us, 'Now you are all equally poor. You have been reintegrated back into basic poverty.'""

Ex-child soldier Adriano Chirindza, who is now married with four children, says his main concern is the lack of jobs. "The traditional healer had given me the guarantee that I would be lucky in my life and have a happy future. I was submitted to a lot of traditional baths and other rituals, but my life continues to be very difficult," he says.

"My only consolation has come from my neighbours in the local community. They make me forget the bad memories I have from the civil war."

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