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Elderly Genocide Survivors Using Yoga to Combat Covid-19 Stress

by Daniel Sabiiti
4:03 pm

 The year 2020 will be remembered as a year of Coronavirus (Covid-19) that added more stress to economies, businesses, communities, and individuals to a specific level.

The World Health Organisation figures show that 1 in 3 persons have a mental health problem, and with Covid-19 pandemic stress due to forced lockdowns, loss of jobs and idleness these numbers are expected to increase.

For genocide survivors in Rwanda, who already are living with traumatic experiences from the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and isolation added an injury to old wounds.

A mental health survey in 2018 in Rwanda revealed a picture of the increased prevalence of different mental disorders in both the general population and Genocide survivors.

The prevalence of major depressive episode is 12% in the general population and 35% among Genocide survivors, while Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is at 3.6% in the general population and 27.9% among Genocide survivors.

Research shows that genocide survivors are often hunted by the atrocities and the traumatic events they experienced during the genocide against the Tutsi.

Findings show that some still live in extreme fear and panic, others feel extremely alone even if they are with their family members, some others face a constant lack of sleep, a continuous headache and scaring nightmares, to mention but a few.

Unlike the youthful genocide survivors, the elderly survivors say they have felt the biggest impact of the Covid-19 lockdown measures as a result of limited activities to keep their minds busy just as the youths who easily get hooked on the internet to keep themselves busy.

To address this, the Organization of Rwandan Graduates Genocide Survivors (GAERG) through First Lady Jeannette Kagame’s Imbuto foundation which supports genocide survivors was connected to Azahar Foundation which also promotes peace culture through yoga, as a tool to bring healing to elderly genocide survivors.

At exactly 3pm, January 2nd, Thomas Twizerimana, 61, one of the 65 elderly genocide survivors in the yoga trauma healing focus group is seated waiting for the rest to join the session held twice a week at Aheza center located in Cyugaro cell, Ntarama Sector, in Bugesera district.

Twizerimana, a former statistician who quit working because of extreme trauma episodes looks frail before the yoga session but anxious to start exercises and explains that besides having terminal illnesses, loneliness; isolation during Covid-19 has added on his physical weakness and traumatic episodes.

“It is not easy to be sickly, lonely because it brings back the memories of genocide that is why I am attending the yoga classes to break this experience. Yoga brings a sense of belonging that is why I cannot miss out,” Twizerimana said.

Few minutes later, Twizerimana is joined by Emmanuel Manirarora, his young yoga tutor and other 14 elderly female and male genocide survivors who are wearing face masks and most of them in above 50 years and less than 80 years.

As a way of preventing Covid-19, the group seats under a tree shade in a 70-yard green compound where trees are blowing fresh breezes from streams and lakeshores surrounding Bugesera district, setting in a spiritual yoga mood.

The yoga session led by Manirarora kicks off 30 minutes later under the theme of “Appreciation”   – a subject that he introduces and explains to the elderly ones while they go through body stretches exercises- throwing their hands in the air, up and down while breathing in deep and shallow breaths.

This takes about 15 minutes but doesn’t leave the elderly men and women the same way they came in. during the stretches one can hear some of them groaning especially when they have to bend over and backwards, and only to sigh with relief when stretching hands up and down.

“At our age it looks painful but whenever I stretched while listening to inspirational words from our conductor, I could feel some joints loosening. I actually feel much relaxed and cannot miss this out next time,” said Twizerimana.

Invited to try out this yoga, Josephine Mukarugwiza, 58, who has a severe back problem says her first reaction to the invitation was that- the elderly doing yoga are either lacking what to do or have eaten a lot of food and need to cut weight.

Now in her third attendance, she laughs about this attitude and though she unknowingly considers yoga to be a physical sport, Mukarugwiza says it has relieved her of back pain and even when she is always seated during the session, she says it all ends in gains spiritually.

“The way these young men guide us with mantras during the session, it is like spiritual magic as I listen and contemplate the words over and over, and somehow I end up feeling some spark of relief in the backbones,” Mukarugwiza explains.

Though the elderly cannot differentiate yoga from physical exercising, Aime Josiane Umulisa the GAERG Psychologist at Aheza healing center said that the fact of coming together and sharing their experiences is an opening to both the physical and spiritual dimensions, which are needed for healing trauma.

With these benefits, Umulisa said that starting January 2021, they plan to train an additional 200 youth yoga instructors who will undergo Trainer of Trainers (ToT) sessions of which registration is on now open for applicants.

“The young instructors will be able to train others through yoga instructors to reach many communities of genocide survivors to get healing exercises through yoga,” Umulisa said.

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