Transforming Trauma Episode 008:
Soul Death and the Reclamation of the Soul – Healing Complex Trauma in Africa with Wangui Wanjiru
A podcast brought to you by the NARM® Training Institute
“The one thing I love about NARM is that it's empowering. It helps you realize that there’s so much power in you. It returns your agency. The power of agency is that you let go of the helplessness.”- Wangui Wanjiru
In this episode, host Sarah Buino and her guest Wangui Wanjiru, a Kenyan clinical psychologist and the first NARM Therapist on the African continent, seek to humanize the culturally-specific challenges of complex trauma care in Africa. “Trauma isn't a localized issue. It's a global issue. This is something that needs to be an international movement, it can’t be localized. Personally I feel that societies that are communal, and mainly authoritarian, need NARM. I don’t think any other treatment model has hit the nail on the head more than in NARM in terms of actually being able to capture that communal setting of living. So for me, it’s been a great journey.”
Wangui describes the cultural orientation that’s very present in Kenyan culture, a strong focus on the group over the individual. Sarah points out that this construct is the opposite of what’s common in American culture– where society is more individually focused. Wangui shares about the complex trauma she’s observed within the Kenyan culture. “We exist, but we’re completely disconnected from our individual self.” Wangui says people don’t personalize themselves or each other outside of sweeping social categories. And when people do acknowledge their individuality, they are labeled as “selfish”.
She shares that when a child is born, they have a sense of self, but that “the culture works hard to remove the individual parts of themself, and to deny their own needs,” resulting in what Wangui refers to as “soul death”. Sarah points out that, through a NARM lens, denying one’s individuality to stay connected to one’s culture is a way children learn to adapt themselves in the face of developmental and cultural trauma.
While painting the picture of how more communal based cultures work against the individual’s connection with themself, Wangui describes the bind that comes with the desire to remain in connection with your culture. Sarah and Wangui talk about what they’ve learned in their NARM Training– that when someone is more connected with themselves, they actually have more capacity to be connected with others, their community, and their culture. Paradoxically, reconnecting with the self, which pushes against the Kenyan social construct of “the group over the individual”, will actually allow for more connection with the Kenyan culture as a whole.
Wangui brings up an important question: What are we gaining from losing touch with ourselves?
And then Sarah and Wangui go even further in their discussion, reflecting on the impacts of racial oppression and cultural trauma, to ask: Who is benefiting from people losing touch with their individuality?
Sarah prompts Wangui to share what it has been like to bring NARM back to Africa and applying the NARM approach to her work with her clients. Wangui shares that with other modalities, she’s had to adapt the modality to her culture. With NARM, Wangui found that the NARM approach provides patients access to healing regardless of their cultural foundation. “NARM is…not a cultural thing,” Wangui explains. “It's human behavior, basic, general human behavior, and it's relational human behavior.”
After sharing how transformative NARM has been for Wangui personally, she shares empowering stories of transformations in her clients. Specifically, a session where the client was able to recognize and shift from their child consciousness into more adult consciousness, a foundational NARM principle. Wangui shares, “You sit with them and you do [NARM]. It’s like pulling a string on a sweater, and it’s not really a sweater, it’s a blanket, because it’s heavy and big and has gone on for generations.”
Sarah asks if healing trauma is possible as cultures are still currently living through trauma. How can one transform trauma amidst ongoing trauma and oppression? “The beauty of reclaiming your self is that when issues come, or even though you’re still living within the trauma, these issues don’t come to an empty soul, or they don’t come to a dead soul. They’re coming to a soul that can resist and choose what gets in and what does not get in. And that’s the empowering part of it. Yes, people might be continuing to go through trauma, but as long as the software within themselves is different, you’re giving them the virus protection. It’s not about getting people out of trauma, it’s not about let’s do this treatment after the trauma is done, it’s letting empower people as they’re going through trauma so they will carry less of it.”
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I’m a mental health and behavioral medicine therapist – I practice in the fields of clinical psychology with interest in complex and shock trauma. I am currently working as a psychosocial counselor with torture survivors, developing a treatment program for survivors of sexual trauma and will soon be leading the complex trauma division of the Traumatic Stress Society of Kenya. I enjoy reading, good food, great conversation, a good work out and of course kittens, puppies, and babies.