Cankuzo, Burundi - Amidst palm trees and brick houses, about fifty women and men are gathered in a rural remote village in Cankuzo, eastern Burundi, some few kilometers from the country’s border with the United Republic of Tanzania.
Standing in a semi-circle, they are captivated by a skit depicting a typical situation of matrimonial life, played by a duo of dynamic actors.
Suddenly, a cheerful laughter rings out from the audience. For *Brigitte, it has an unexpected flavor.
“I laughed to the point of hearing my own laughter’s voice in my laughter! I was surprised, I couldn’t believe I was laughing,” she explains.
As she laughed, for the first time in a very long time, *Brigitte realized the progress she had made. A few months ago, she would never have imagined feeling comfortable enough with her fellow hill residents.
*Brigitte left her home province of Kayanza for Cankuzo together with her husband and two children from her previous marriage in search of land to cultivate. She sold her family plot in Kayanza and spent all her savings.
But what was supposed to be a new start soon turned into torment for Brigitte.
"It all began when my husband told me he wanted to leave me because we hadn’t sired children together. He soon threw me out of the house, along with my son,” Brigitte explains with tears swelling in her eyes.
Her son Aristide has a severe disability.
“I shut myself off more and more. I didn't let Aristide go out of the house anymore, I was afraid the neighbors would attack him because of his disability. When I had to leave, I would lock him in my house and when I returned, he would have soiled himself. Each time I found my son in this state, it affected mentally.”
Brigitte was deeply worried about her son and suffered from recurrent overwhelming anxiety.
To help people like Brigitte deal with mental health issues, IOM is implementing a project targeting Burundian returnees in four provinces bordering Tanzania through which community leaders are trained on active listening, guidance and referral for persons with mental health issues.
As a result, a community focal point detected Brigitte's psychological distress and referred her to IOM’s mobile team of psychologists.
Brigitte remembers her first individual interview with the psychologist.
"I cried my heart out, I was relieved to talk about my sadness to someone outside of my hill.”
After a few sessions, Brigitte felt confident enough to join the women's therapy group.
These groups, formed by IOM's Mental Health and Psychosocial Support team, allow participants to come together in a caring, usually in a single-gender environment, to share their experiences and feelings and to express their different emotions.
Often, interactive theatre techniques are used to introduce the sessions. The psychologists rely on theatre to explore different issues according to the theme of the session, ranging from gender-based violence (GBV), or problems related to relationships, self-esteem, family communication or the difficulty of verbalizing a problem. The team works with actors who perform skits, and sometimes join the group sessions led by the psychologists and participate in role playing with the beneficiaries.
"Since then, I have felt lighter. I realized that I felt alive again, and the feeling was getting stronger every day. I could laugh, I felt more tolerance towards my peers in the therapy group. I finally understood that the other women did not hate me. They showed me empathy," says Brigitte.
The trust built within the groups, and the support received, gives members the opportunity to help and empower each other. Cases requiring more follow-up and psychological support can be referred to other more specialized structures working in the relevant sector.
At the end of the project, Brigitte's group came together to carry out an income-generating activity. By pooling their resources to finance a small fruit and vegetable business, the women support each other and take turns supplying and selling. This allows them to set up a common savings bank which helps them to meet their needs.
Brigitte feels fully part of the community and has even been involved in a community dialogue. This activity coordinated by IOM consists of a discussion workshop bringing together community leaders and beneficiaries of psychosocial support with the aim to find sustainable solutions to deal with situations that may affect the mental health of community members after the project ends.
"Today, I breathe more easily. I let my son go out, I don't have the fear that someone will kill him anymore," concludes Brigitte.
Thanks to the support of her community and the guidance of IOM, Brigitte has better resources for Aristide's care and well-being. Brigitte was offered support on how to help her son, including ensuring he had access to the same opportunities as children without disabilities. Brigitte realized there was no need to hide him, her son was a child like any other. As a result, Aristide is more fulfilled and has even become friends with the children in the neighborhood.
IOM is collaborating with the Government of Burundi with financial support from the United States The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) to implement these activities in nine other provinces.