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Simone Lindorfer

Liberation Psychology

Approach to the Reality of Traumatization in East Africa


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 7/2008, P. 463-473
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The in 1989 in El Salvador assassinated Jesuit Ignacio Martín-Baró has adopted the basic orientations of liberation theology for psychology. SIMONE LINDORFER, therapist of family and trauma therapy and project consultant for psychosocial trauma work in Africa, presents that conception in the light of her psycho-social work in Uganda.


In our living rooms we are almost every day confronted with events in which people are in the middle of life-threatening abysses - whether by natural disasters or serious accidents, whether in wars or through other forms of violence. What such experiences connects with each other is their inherent deep shock of the faith in life as a matter of course and in the trustworthiness of the human community. Psychology has coined the word "trauma" (Greek wound) for the possible psychological consequences of such experiences. The well-known (though not sole) disorder as a result of traumatic events, the diagnostic category of the so-called "post-traumatic stress disorder" is meanwhile perfectly known also to non-professionals. The words "trauma" or "traumatized" for a long time have belonged to the disaster vocabulary of commentators and reporters.


Rape as Message to the Losers

In the past five decades the typical scenarios of war clearly changed. In the "new" wars in Africa just the civilian population is in the centre of a cruel warfare that is dominated by massacres and ethnic expulsions. The gender-specific violence associated with it, i.e. violence which above all women because of their sex systematically suffer by men, is a particularly destructive phenomenon. That form of violence has existed as long as there is war between human beings. But in the new wars it seems to be particularly endemic. The wives of the "enemies" then play an important part: Their rapes are powerful communications among warring men. Their bodies are "envelopes" which are delivered to the losers with the devastating message that they are unable to protect their wives from the humiliation by sexualized violence.

In East Africa, where I have been working for almost ten years as consultant for psychosocial trauma work, many church organizations are, more or less in a professionalized way entrusted with the care of traumatized people. Normally people just in existentially threatening life experiences look for help in religion and spirituality - whether in a church or in a traditional African environment.



The abyss of traumatic experiences in which the natural basic certainties about "God and the World" collapse, what the trauma psychology sums up with the concept of "shattered assumptions" {1}, can be a place of theology's highest creativity and an inspiring "sign of the times" in the sense of the Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes" of the Second Vatican Council. The systematic theologian Hans-Joachim Sander defines "sign of the times" in this context as follows:

"They are those events in which people must struggle for the recognition of their dignity; there it is decided whether a situation becomes more humane or goes down to inhumane violence. That is in the world of today significant for the presentation of the Gospel." {2}

The new wars in Africa and people's traumatic experiences connected with them are as "signs of our time" also highly qualified places of theology and of great importance for formulating its message.

Psychology from the Perspective of the Oppressed

Since the late 60s of the 20th century the Latin American liberation theology developed out of the reflection of its signs of the times the so far probably most consistent implementation of the theology of the Council and took the fundamental experience of poverty and oppression in Latin America as starting point for pursuing its theology. The Jesuit Ignacio Martín-Baró developed in El Salvador a "psychology of liberation" inspired by the basic intentions of liberation theology. Martín-Baró, theologian, psychologist and professor of social psychology at the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (UCA) of San Salvador, was one of those six Jesuits who on 16 November 1989 were together with two women brutally executed by the Salvadorian army {3}.

Martín-Baró criticized a psychology that uncritically and under the disguise of supposed scientific objectivity devoted itself to the service of existing power structures, and vehemently resisted having to do with the "safe and sterile small academic boxes" {4}, as he called that de-contexualised form of pursuing science. Have we ever seriously asked, so Martín-Baró, what psychology might look like from the perspective of the oppressed; have we ever thought to consider the work psychology from the perspective of the unemployed and the clinical psychology from the perspective of the marginalized?



His claim to scholarliness was that he who pursues science must be aware of how his own ethical decisions affect his psychological research, instead of denying them and pretending that there was a position beyond ethical options.

The three theological basic intuitions of liberation theology which Martín-Baró declares to be the inspiring basis for this redesign of psychology are as follows: First, the comprehensive understanding of liberation by the theology of liberation (namely horizontally from socio-historical oppression and vertically from sinful contexts), supported by a belief in the God of life, opens a new horizon for psychology. From now on psychology describes itself in that horizon as a contribution to the liberation from social and personal oppression. Secondly, Martín-Baró developed from the methodological option of the primacy of ortho-practice in comparison with (a certain narrow understanding of) orthodoxy a new epistemology of psychology: As the first act of liberation theology is based on practical doing, out of which then as a second act the reflection on this activity develops; so the psychology of liberation demands as first step the commitment to the poor and oppressed and resulting from it only then the forming of psychological theories. Thirdly, the preferential option for the poor inspires the psychology of liberation, which, inspired by that option, develops a new practice and as regards content an orientation towards this "objective": the poor and oppressed.

What does that mean in concrete terms? In his conception of university Martín-Baró demanded the poor should have a say in the development of the teaching curricula. Students of psychology should also first go into the "frightening reality of the majority" of people living in El Salvador and only then ask after meaningful analyses and theories explaining that experience {5}. His criterion of quality for the psychology of El Salvador was therefore its relevance and significance for the history of an oppressed people, whose position, whose suffering and hope should become the starting point for a revision of all theoretical and practical tools of psychology {6}. Martín-Baró also believed the liberation psychology was capable of supporting people in their liberation - in today's development-political correct use of language we would call that "empowerment" - from unjust social structures, even unjust structures in the relationship between men and women.

With it the concept of development of awareness ("conscientização") of the Brazilian liberation educational theorist Paulo Freire was of great importance. With his concept of education it is not about recognizing abstract letters and learning to read them as words but about developing a critical understanding of oneself and one's world. The poor and the oppressed, so Martín-Baró following Freire, internalize the unjust social structures,



do not believe in their personal potentials of change and often themselves become oppressors, for example towards socially vulnerable people to whom also women belong. To make people become aware of that with the help of psychological techniques, in which people learn to understand and overcome the mechanisms of violence and internalized oppression, means liberation. Only thus they can become actors of their own life and change those unjust structures.

Martín-Baró finally formulated as the central task of liberation psychology its de-ideologizing function, i.e. the unmasking of productions of knowledge that serve the establishing and maintaining of social power. Besides topics such as religion and fatalism he also de-ideologized the relation between the genders and the social myths of masculinity and femininity. He called the family a "safe harbour" and at the same time a "prison" for women, unmasked the myth of the "eternal feminine" as existential slavery, and demanded a plurality of options: women should be able to choose the form of their life without being in need to justify themselves in view of socially reproduced images of the genders, when they do not go the traditional path of marriage and family. The priest Martín-Baró was perfectly consistent in his criticism of institutions: The Church too had to de-ideologize its images of the genders based on natural law and stop to sanction in its pastoral the oppression of women as God-given order {7}.

The demand that psychology was to develop a new practice with the poor in its centre Martín-Baró admittedly defined with regard to his discipline, social psychology. But his statements can be translated into a methodology of trauma work that must fundamentally differ from an objectifying, a-historical and uncritical form of therapeutic practice: He resisted defining people as mentally "sick" with the help of a psycho-diagnostic category called "trauma", whereas the political and social "traumatogene" structures were responsible. He also recommended to examine psychotherapeutic methods with regard to their ability to break with the prevailing culture of social relations and to be able to replace them by healthier and more humane patterns of relationship. Trauma therapy must always be psycho-social work, since the traumatic wounds were on the one hand of social origin, and on the other hand just those wounds concerned not only the individual but also its relations {8}.

The subjects of his research, which all took their starting-point from the most burning psychosocial reality of the Salvadorian population, were highly sensitive to power and critical. His work has cost Martín-Baró, whom a reviewer once somewhat pathetically called the first and so far only martyr of the psychologists, his life.



Trauma Work in Uganda Inspired by Liberation Psychology

The examination of the Salvadorian liberation psychology made possible a deeper access to the Ugandan traumatic reality in my work with African colleagues at a training centre of the Catholic Church in the East African Uganda. Until recently in Northern Uganda a 20-year long bitter civil war raged, led by a rebel army called "Lord's Resistance Army", to whose repertoire of atrocities belonged among other things the systematic abduction of children and young people who were trained and forced to kill and to take actions against their own villages. The girls were also abused as female sex-slaves.

In addition to such extremely traumatic experiences the chronic conflict has also led to massive destructiveness in the daily lives of civilians and to a "militarization" of family relations, especially in the form of raging family violence: The years of survival in psycho-social impoverishment in many IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps in Northern Uganda, where at the peak of the violent excesses up to 80 percent of the population had lived, belongs to the sociogram of that war. From it not only but also and in a special way the men, who are often forgotten in the traditional understanding of "vulnerability", have suffered. But mostly children and women are seen as particularly in need of protection - and without doubt they are.

In comparison the psycho-social vulnerability of men is more subtle and more ambivalent. Men in northern Uganda - as in many others of the so-called modern wars in which the dividing line between civilians and combatants is dissolved - can no longer meet the classic attributes of what in the hegemonic cultural discourse about masculinity is regarded as "a real man". They cannot protect their wives from the rape by the rebels and their daughters from prostitution with soldiers. They are destitute and dependent on donations of international aid agencies and the supposed protection by the national army. According to the view of their own culture the Northern Ugandan men are "weaklings" - and not seldom they are seen so also by their wives and children. The complex experiences of powerlessness lead to a collapse of self-esteem and let the men become violent - towards their families and themselves. A study on suicide cases in those IDP camps showed for example that 72 percent of those who attempted or committed suicide were men with large families or many dependent family members {9}.

What does in such a context liberation-theologically inspired trauma work look like? We trained people in the country in the war zones and in IDP camps who in their village communities had natural authority and important functions which inspired confidence.



The simple techniques of psychosocial trauma work with the help of images and stories that are better understood by people who have little literacy skills were more than just communication of cognitive knowledge. We called it "psychosocial literacy". What mattered was to learn existentially to "read and write" the experience of violence, i.e. to understand mental wounds, especially when they include experiences that are particularly marked with shame, such as the endemic sexual violence. Besides, in many African cultures the memories which accompany traumatic violence and which are weighing upon people's mind and suddenly emerge (so-called "flashbacks") are often interpreted a signs of "sorcery". Not seldom traumatised people are regarded as "bewitched" or "crazy" and are out of fear and ignorance excluded from the social village community. Psychosocial work means here to break the silence about culturally sanctioned taboos, so that the excluded can regain access to their communities.

We worked on the images of masculinity and femininity and looked together with men and women in seminars for new models of relations between the sexes. Especially new images for the "real man", in which they could experience themselves as competent, protective and powerful in the middle of the limitations of the camps without becoming violent, were a major challenge for the conventional offers of psycho-social support. Such an approach does not belong to the mainstream of interventions of aid institutions that particularly concentrate on women and children. In this respect a trauma work inspired by liberation psychology can also mean to de-ideologize the leading Western aid discourse which is mainly based on the definition of "victim": it has per definitionem to be "innocent" and "helpless" in order to gain the qualification needed for relief measures. Men in the IDP camps are in this sense no "innocent" victims, because they too have become perpetrators towards their own families. But when aid measures are only directed to women and children the decrease of men's authority is continued, the destructiveness within families is increased, and so all parties are cut off from the main resource of stabilization that is at people's disposal in such a persistently destructive situation: support by a stable, understanding social environment.

In our work inspired by liberation psychology we also analysed people's needs; the researchers were not international professionals but plain educated people from rural communities, who culturally and socially had a good access to the target group. Guiding principles were the participation of all who took part in that process, the searching and the "searched into", as well as the democratization of and participation in psychological expertise for the benefit of people who can profit from that knowledge for themselves and their relations.



The experiences of participatory research methods had often an amazingly enlightening effect as regards awareness: The "amateur researchers" saw the positive quality of the contact with their counterparts in the participatory methods, and those who were surveyed experienced an appreciation in their "expertise" with regard to their own problems. They were not only injured and survivors of violence. They were perceived as actors in their competence and used as an important resource for their village community.

We trained church personnel, especially catechists and nuns who had repeatedly reached their limits in their pastoral work by the chronic trauma of the population, because they had no trauma-psychological tools for it. The result was quite ambivalent: on the one hand the trained enjoyed a large clientele because their pastoral work became existentially relevant and they learned to listen with empathy - instead of catechetically teaching the faithful without reference to their experiences. On the other hand, however, there were also fear and objections, for example by the priests who felt that this work had emancipatory potential. Questions of power of a political deaconate are seldom welcome in the African Catholic Church.


Cross-cultural and Interdisciplinary Contextuality

What lessons can be drawn from that seemingly random encounter of a Latin American concept of extraordinary originality with the realities of East Africa? The first is simple: Such meetings are worthwhile and stimulate the development of new approaches to one's own reality! It is then not about the levelling of regional and historical differences between the two contexts, on the contrary: The methodology of liberation theology as well as psychology precisely consists in a prior contextualization of their counterpart. This is why liberation psychology in the sense of its fundamental principles has a criteriological function and can in every context assess and sharpen interventions from those principles and the option "for the oppressed" they are based on, which must always be defined anew.

The second lesson: The interdisciplinary conversation between liberation theology and psychology, which Ignacio Martín-Baró rather described in the sense of a one-way street, namely that theology inspired psychology, became a multi-lane highway in both directions by the reflection on our practice in East Africa. For the liberation psychology can also enrich the liberation theology, of which some people think it had - due to methodological weaknesses and a historical paradigm shift - already resolved itself.



It can support the liberation theology more consistently to define its still relevant option for the poor, to identify in a subtle differentiated way the psycho-socially effective mechanisms of repression, and to create starting points for this horizontal form of "liberation".

Third, the liberation psychology finally is a valuable corrective to a pastoral practice that treats the wounds of violence in a trauma-insensitive way, and the actual objective of which is usually not the empowerment of the oppressed, especially when those "oppressed" are women.


The "Surplus Value" of Liberation-psychological Trauma Work

Can we now assume that a trauma work based on liberation psychology "works better" than a "just psychological" one? Is there such a thing as a "surplus value" of a concept of psychology that is based on liberation theology and that is missing in the current trauma discourse? Two directions for an answer can be found out: First, the liberation-psychological perspective critically examines every intervention about its underlying "commitment" and calls for a political commitment of those who intervene in favour of the oppressed. With reference to trauma work it can anyway easily be ascertained that it is always biased, because in its area it is about the definitions of being victim and perpetrator. It also takes place in a social environment that socially sanctions or politically stops those categories.

From my own experience in post-conflict countries I know: The stories of traumatized people include historical pain. Not all traumatic stories are politically justified by actual regimes. Just in that situation of social fragility of trauma work it must - as inspired by liberation psychology - deliberately face its political responsibility and say farewell to the myth of impartiality (Allparteilichkeit) that does not want to interfere in "politics". Every intervention is per effectum political, even that which declares itself per intentionem as apolitical. What matters is deliberately to form it by an option that is ethically justified. Unfortunately that awareness is often lacking in international interventions of trauma-therapeutical provenance.

In addition, I see yet another surplus value of a psychology which understands itself from its inspiration by the theology of liberation, namely just there where empowerment and therapeutic work reach their limits. With the subject of trauma there are absolutely points of contact of the disciplines of psychology and theology: that for instance spirituality is one of the most important resources in the treatment of traumatized people, is meanwhile everywhere recognized and made use of by trauma psychology. As much as it is to be welcomed that psychology discovers spirituality as an important '"resource", so much must also be warned



against instrumentalizing it in the trend of a therapeutic actionism and so deforming its transcendent quality to a mere vehicle of "good" emotions or "healing" cognitions. If a real encounter beyond therapeutic instrumentalized forms of spirituality is to take place, then also the reflection is needed on what a spirituality must look like that is in accordance with the argumentation of theological reason and with the necessary respect for the unspeakable.

Just as psychology should not use spirituality in the sense of a wellness activity, so theology too must, in view of the abysses of inhumanity which open with that issue, not be abused as a kind of intellectual airbag against powerlessness. Theology is just not allowed to get out of the argumentation by referring back to the message of Cross and Resurrection as 'theological joker' through which in the end "everything becomes good again" - if not in this world then still in the hereafter." The Ghanaian feminist theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye fights even against a (nevertheless misused) use of the Cross symbol as "blatantly patriarchal", and as a kind of theological tool for taming women, so that they keep quiet in relationships where violence is usual. The reality of the Cross, so Oduyoye, is much too serious for African women {10}.

What then could an in that sense critical spirituality look like in the liberation psychology? I got to this question an important impulse in an encounter that took place in March 2004 in Rwanda in the context of a study. There I talked with Jeanne, a very experienced therapist of a Rwandan organization. She told me the story of a 16-year-old client whom I would like to call Rose. Rose was six years old when militia came into her house and butchered before her eyes her parents and her brothers and sisters. At the end they also grabbed Rose, tore the clothes off her body and raped her until she lost her consciousness in her agony. She was found, brought to the hospital and had almost died from the bleeding and the internal injuries.

Anyway, a part of her had died - because when she came round she never talked about what she had experienced. Mostly she talked not at all and was always smiling. She ate, drank and grew up, but she was no longer accessible for relationship and had exiled her psyche into another world. That girl was a short time later diagnosed HIV-positive - a result of the rapes. Now, ten years later, she was, despite anti-retroviral medicines close to death. The therapist Jeanne ended that story quite moved:

"You know, I've been asking her for years how she is and she always just smiles and says, 'well', and looks beyond me. She takes the medicines and goes. But I stay behind and cannot stand it that I cannot help her, that I do no longer reach her, that nobody reaches her any longer. Nothing, neither love nor compassion nor anything else can reach her."



That scene has touched me, because like many of my colleagues I know that wound of traumatic powerlessness. We all come then in contact with transcendence, whether we call it so or not: i.e. we have no longer access to a wounded life and cannot heal it. That powerlessness "burns out"; as it were, a professional side effect of trauma therapy, which the technical language calls "secondary" or "substitute" trauma. The reason for it is empathy, the healing key in the therapeutic conversation and at the same time that opening of the heart which makes vulnerable. The Jewish psychoanalyst Dori Laub says about the listening to survivors of violence that only by it their story begins to exist at all and is recognized in its authenticity. But this being a witness - here once again the inherent political dimension of trauma therapy becomes apparent - means also participation in the pain, in the defeat, and in the silence of the victim {11}.


Compassion of God and Humility in the Trauma Therapy

In those experiences of the helpers themselves becomes therefore clear: Trauma is the place where we stop to be well-trained professional therapists and human rights activists with our therapeutic techniques and objectifying research methods. Trauma is not a cause for therapeutic triumphs, but often a place of failure and a permanent lesson in humility.

But in this work we come also in touch with tales of woe of people who have their own dignity. From a Christian perspective - if you decide in favour for this view - those stories converge with the stories of the Bible, with stories of despair and hopelessness, and even of God's absence in that Tale of Golgotha. The biblical testimony is this: God is on the way with his people, he hears its plea and in Jesus Christ sides with the helpless. But that gives to the therapeutic work, in spite of all failure which we often experience in it, a dignity that goes beyond psycho-diagnostic and therapeutic engineering: it takes part in God's compassion with the helpless.

A critical spirituality in the liberation psychology is not distant or apathetic. It rather means a passionate and sympathetic co-wailing with the survivors of violence. It does not want to explain the theological abysses away; paradoxically, it experiences them even more painful. To believe in a God who "so wonderfully rules over everything" makes the conversation with Rose from Rwanda not simpler. God always also remains withdrawn from us and the totally different one, especially in the encounter with the wounds of suffering; he remains close and absent at the same time. But where we deliberately recognize the fragmentary character of hope in that experience



also the desire grows for a world in which - as the Marxist philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) puts it - the murderer does not forever triumph over his innocent victim {12}. Without that fragile hope trauma work seems hardly possible to me, if burnout and cynicism in view of the "evil world" are not to win the upper hand.

The voices of the awareness of political responsibility and at the same time of the potential of a therapeutic humility and of a "deputizing" hope in a spirituality of liberation psychology - no matter how those who intervene do actually define it and fill it with life - are therefore at present painfully missing in the chorus of international trauma work. Both would certainly weaken the mania of therapeutic feasibility and, paradoxically, even make it clear that we as those who intervene have a much greater responsibility than our therapeutic settings make us believe; but it would again give more genuine room to the suffering of people.



{1} See R. Janoff-Bulman, The aftermath of victimization. Rebuilding shattered assumptions, in: Trauma and its wake: The study and treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, hg. v. C. R. Figley (New York 1985) 15–35.

{2} H.-J. Sander, Die Zeichen der Zeit erkennen u. Gott benennen. Der semiotische Charakter von Theologie, in: ThpQ 182 (202) 27–40, 38.

{3} To the following see above all: Towards a Society that Serves its People. The Intellectual Contribution of El Salvador’s Murdered Jesuits, edited by J. Hassett and H. Lacey (Washington, DC 1991); and: Writings for a Liberation Psychology. Ignacio Martín-Baró, edited by A. Aron u. S. Corne (Cambrigde 1996).

{4} See especially Towards a Society that Serves its People (note 3).

{5} See I. Martín-Baró, La Liberación como Horizonte de la Psicología, in ders., Psicología de la liberación (Madrid 1998) 303–341, 313.

{6} Martín-Baró (note 3) 17–32, 25.

{7} See for instance I. Martín-Baró, La imagen de la mujer en El Salvador, in: ECA (Estudios centroamericanos) 35 (1980) 557–568; the same, La ideología familiar en El Salvador, in: ECA 41 (1986) 291–304; the same, La familia, puerta y cárcel para la mujer salvadorena, in: Revista de psicología de El Salvador 9 (1990) 265–277.

{8} See above all I. Martín-Baró, War and Mental Health, in: Writings for a Liberation Psychology (note 3) 108–121; the same, Political Violence and War as Causes of Psychosocial Trauma in El Salvador, in: International Journal of Mental Health 18 (1990) 3–20.

{9} Unpublished study: "Report on suicidal tendencies in IDP camps in Northern Uganda" (2007), by order of Caritas Gulu.

{10} See M. A. Oduyoye, Alive to What God is Doing, in: The Ecumenical Review 41 (1989) 194–200, 199.

{11} D. Laub, An event without a witness, in: Testimony. Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalyses, and History, edited by S. Felmann and the same (London 1992) 79.

{12} M. Horkheimer, Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen. Ein Interview mit Kommentar von H. Gumnior (Hamburg 1970) 61f.


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