Africa Healing Exchange links Asheville with Rwanda

Coffee and connections: African Healing Exchange founder Sara Stender will return to Rwanda with Dynamite Coffee Roasting Co. this June to launch the crop-to-cup tour. Photo courtesy of AHE

Sara Stender first learned of the genocide in Rwanda while she was in college. In 1994, between 500,000 and 1 million members of the Tutsi tribe were killed by members of the Hutu majority in the country.  “It struck something really deep within me,” says Stender. “I felt like this was a nation of people that I wanted to get to know. So the seed was planted,” she says.

“There was something about Rwanda that was drawing me. I heard so many stories of survival, and I was really mostly interested in stories of resilience and really started studying this idea of human resiliency. Why is it that some people have it and some people don’t? Is it nature? Is it nurture? Is it culture?”

Stender knew that if she was going to truly help people in Rwanda, she needed to do something different. “When I lived there, I did a lot of observing. I did a lot of listening,” she says. “I was in the capital city, and I was seeing the major government organizations and NGOs from around the world present. Without being critical, I was seeing that a lot of initiatives weren’t working, or they weren’t sustainable, or they weren’t needed or requested by the local population.”

So 3 1/2 years ago, she began formulating the Asheville-based nonprofit Africa Healing Exchange. Her passion for Rwanda has attracted a diverse group of local medical and nonprofit professionals to AHE, in part because the nonprofit focuses on human resiliency instead of trauma. The Community Resilience Model, or CRM, is a positive psychology approach developed by the Trauma Resource Institute in California BETTER DEFINE THIS AND TELL US (in one sentence) WHAT RESILIENCY TRAINING IS. Mary Lynn Barrett, director of behavioral health at the Asheville-based Mountain Area Health Education Center and board member of AHE, has embraced the method, teaching it to fellow nonprofit members before they took their most recent trip to Rwanda.

“I like that AHE is doing something that none of the hundreds of [nongovernmental organizations] in Rwanda are doing. AHE’s focus on teaching resiliency is fundamental to life,” says Dr. Michael Weizman, a physician at Our Family Doctor and president and chair of AHE. He  already had a connection to Rwanda through his medical training in Africa. But his support for AHE runs deeper than that.

“Helping the Rwandan people — and eventually people in other post-conflict African nations — develop resiliency skills in the face of past trauma will help them to live healthier, more productive lives. This is an incredible opportunity to make a real difference,” says Weizman.

Stender says focusing on the trauma can have adverse effects. “Our mission is to offer new solutions and proven, innovative solutions for generational trauma. But we don’t need to talk about the trauma in order to do that. And that’s the difference [with CRM]. That was a huge realization on this [most recent] trip,” she explains.

“If we can just stick with talking about stress and stress management and resilience, it’s so much more empowering. People feel like, ‘We’re all stressed out, right?’ There’s no social stigma around that. People are going to show up to a workshop that’s called ‘learn new stress management skills’ and ‘programs to increase your resiliency.’”

Stender first learned of the genocide in Rwanda while she was in college. In 1994, between 500,000 and 1 million members of the Tutsi tribe were killed by members of the Hutu majority in the country.  “It struck something really deep within me. I felt like this was a nation of people that I wanted to get to know. So the seed was planted,” she says.

“There was something about Rwanda that was drawing me. I heard so many stories of survival, and I was really mostly interested in stories of resilience and really started studying this idea of human resiliency. Why is it that some people have it and some people don’t? Is it nature? Is it nurture? Is it culture?”

Stender’s background is in fair trade education, consumer education and business management. When she moved to Asheville over seven years ago, she was still working with fair trade companies but was looking to work overseas in the countries that she had been learning so much about. Rwanda was at the top of her list. When an offer to manage a mission-driven restaurant in Rwanda’s capital of Kigali landed in her email inbox, she jumped on the opportunity. The job allowed her to make connections in the country and learn what Rwandan life, post-genocide, is like.

“A lot of the approaches used are created by the West for the West, and it’s a Band-Aid approach. So I knew I wanted to do something different. It’s not for me or about me. It’s for my friends in Rwanda who are asking for help,” she says.

“They’re saying, ‘Look, things appear to be going really well on the surface, but we’re still suffering emotionally. We have issues related to what happened that are manifesting physically and we’re not getting the services that we need.’…

“So we decided to form this partnership and really look at how we’re building programs from the ground up that are indigenous and culturally appropriate,” says Stender.

While the current focus is bringing Americans to Rwanda, Stender intends for the AHE to be an exchange more than in name only. “I see AHE really being a partnership of Rwandans and Americans who are really going back and forth, and, ideally, we’re opening it up so that we’re inviting Rwandans here,” she says.

“It’s not about us Westerners healing someone else or fixing someone else. It’s about working together to create solutions to global issues.”

For more information, visit africahealingexchange.org

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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One thought on “Africa Healing Exchange links Asheville with Rwanda

  1. Dan

    After living four years in Rwanda, I sincerely appreciate the efforts of the writer of this piece to inform us of the opportunities to help Rwandans. Sara Stender is to be congratulated for her efforts to create sustainable ways of empowering the Rwandan people.

    That said, I want to ask that the reporter take a bit more responsibility to communicate the situation in Rwanda a way that does not just repeat the government of Rwanda’s propaganda about the events of 1994, propaganda designed to repress the Rwandan people and obfuscate the facts on the ground.

    The crimes of 1994 were not so simplistic as Hutu killing up to 1,000,000 Tutsi. The history of Rwanda is very complex. It is naive to repeat what the government of Paul Kagame offers up as truth, truth enforced with long jail sentences, disappearances, and summary executions for “genocidal ideology.” The Kagame regime is set on pinning the blood bath of 1994 on the Hutu exclusively, taking no responsibility for its own actions to destabilize and attack Rwanda from Uganda from 1990-1994. Also taking no responsibility for its role in destabilizing The Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996 until now and the subsequent 6,000,000 who have lost their lives in the conflict.

    The sad truth is with the repressive regime of Paul Kagame controlling every aspect of Rwandan’s lives and having full control of the media, Stender will face the tough compromise of having to work with Kagame’s blood thirsty regime to accomplish their goals. Speaking up about the real situation on the ground in Western media can earn her and her partners a very swift demand to leave the country and Rwandans involved can face Kagame’s assassins.

    So I ask that before any more feel good pieces are written about Rwanda for the good people of North Carolina, tell the whole story. Start with the BBC documentary that got the BBC kicked out of Rwanda, Google “BBC Rwanda the Untold Story” and “Rwanda Rape War Congo” to begin understanding this ongoing multi-national conflict.

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