By Jeanette Hung

Strategies to strengthen resilience – spending time with loved ones, using humour, attending to our spiritual lives, engaging in physical activity and maintaining a sense of control – cross cultural and national boundaries

Just past the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where the mother of my driver was buried in a mass grave, is a right turn down a bumpy dirt road. I gasp with each bump. The red dust flies up and around our car and coats everything in a dry, thirsty film. I am told that this red soil is very rich – it reminds me of the red soil in the green fields of Prince Edward Island. However, there is very little green here. July is one of the dry months and there is no water in these houses and certainly none to spare for even the tiniest of lawns.

We arrive at our destination. The small sign says “AspireI learned about Aspire through a friend and started to correspond with the founder, Peace Ruzage, to see if there was something I could offer her staff while I was volunteering in local hospitals with my family. Aspire is a non-governmental organization (NGO) which provides “vocational training, skills and education to vulnerable women living in poverty.” As I am shown around the offices, I see welcoming smiles but also weariness on the faces of the staff. Ruzage is worried about staff burnout; that is why I am here. I will meet with some of her staff and facilitate workshops on stress, burnout and resilience and will meet with all of her staff for workshops on communication skills.

As I try to learn about the needs of the staff, I also try to understand some of the needs and pressures of their clients. The clients are women whom they refer to as beneficiaries. I am introduced to some of the beneficiaries in their classrooms. These women are here because Aspire provides an opportunity for each of them to develop a new career and create a new life for themselves. It will not be easy. For many it will provide a way to escape life on the streets or to give them a way out of an abusive relationship. These women have had entire lifetimes of violence. I see traces of the pain they have endured. These could be scars from the genocide, domestic violence or a john.  Will what they learn today help lift them out of poverty?

As I look at the enormity of the need and the work to be done in Rwanda, I am overwhelmed.  What does a career counsellor have to offer? I tell myself that every academic work I have studied and every pain I have experienced has prepared me for this moment. I will teach the staff what I have learned. Together we will discuss their current needs and challenges and develop strategies each of them can adapt for their beneficiaries. I will be honoured to hear any stories no matter how painful. I will celebrate each story knowing that with each narrative there is a little more healing.

It strikes me that my reaction to Rwanda is like so many other countries I have visited. It is the similarities, not the differences, which captivate me. As the staff begins to respond to me, I sense a familiarity in our discussions. I could be talking to my clients and colleagues in my office back in Canada. The pressures of a career, the concerns of a family, the nearly self-destructive instincts of a parent to put family and work before self, provide much to talk about. I use my handouts on stress, burnout and resilience to guide and encourage our discussions. We debate the literature, place value on the research, and discuss how to use this knowledge with our clients and most importantly right now, we examine ourselves.

When does stress become burnout? We discuss how stress can be the result of being over-engaged while disengagement is a result of burnout; emotions as over-reactive during stressful times and blunted with burnout. What are our triggers? It seems different for each of us. We look at risk factors such as work overload, lack of control, insufficient rewards and absence of fairness. We agree that personal reactions impact our work and our families and that not having enough resources can impact our abilities to cope with stress. We discuss what we can do to avoid the risk of burnout and increase resilience. We will practise the strategies we discussed and commit to: time with loved ones, finding balance, using humour, attending to our spiritual lives, engaging in physical activity and maintaining a sense of control.

In other workshops I am teaching communication skills which rapidly morph into counselling skills, parenting philosophies and self-discovery, as well as using advanced therapeutic techniques and interventions. I ask myself, how does a person learn to raise a family when their own parents and siblings were killed, leaving them and most of their friends orphaned? What do you tell your own children about resisting revengeful thinking? We have conversations about forgiveness, acceptance, and creating meaning from death and destruction. I hear a lot of laughter and hopeful talk about a better life and a different future. We discuss what concrete actions they are taking.

I think of John Krumboltz when we discuss how to make luck happen. Norm Amundson when we discuss listening to metaphors and hope. David Burns and Yvonne Dolan when reviewing cognitive distortions, especially those which are so deeply rooted from years of remembering and suffering in silence. I often think of Nancy Arthur, as there are many opportunities to have an impact on social justice and equality. It starts by simply contacting an organization, describing your skills and offering assistance.

I think I am of help. I wish those teachers who so generously taught and encouraged me could see their work being used in this tiny village, down this dirt road, with this wonderful staff who work every day with these brutalized families. I am aware that the staff has also suffered greatly, for no one escapes the impact of the genocide. As I listen to their concerns I see how hard they work, with so few resources, to help their beneficiaries create a different future.

I hope the staff will find some release and renewal in our work together. I think they feel my support and the support of their colleagues as they increase their skills and repertoire of interventions. Our discussions are animated as we apply the insights to ourselves, our families and our clients. I am aware of the differences between us; there are so many but I have also found similarities and felt a connection at Aspire. I think, for us, there is no greater work on Earth than to help people strive toward what they aspire to do and so find their lives transformed.


Jeanette Hung, MEd (Counselling) CCC, RCT is a founding Director of the Board of CERIC (Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling) and presently serves on CERIC’s research committee, was the founding Chair of the Nova Scotia Association of Professional Counsellors (NSAPC), and is the Co-ordinator of Career Counselling Services, Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS.