‘We need systems that will support Nigerians’ resilience to trauma’
Maji Peterx is the Country Director, Equal Access International (Nigeria) with over 20 years of experience working on peace building, governance, trauma healing, youth development, community resilience, social cohesion, restorative justice and Preventing and Transforming Violent Extremism (PTVE). His works also include developing and training lay counselors as first responders to traumatised persons, particularly victims and survivors of mass atrocities. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, Peterx speaks on his activities around victims of trauma, sexual and gender-based violence.
How did you discover your passion for what you do?
I came into the idea of peace building and conflict resolution at the turn of the century around 2000. I was a victim of the crisis in Kaduna and I just felt I wanted to do something differently. I was invited to an alternative to violence training, and since then I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I did peace building, alternative to violence and then I went into trauma resiliency. Because I realised that when people have this there is a trauma impacted on it, I came into countering violent extremism and I started developing modules around preventing and transforming violent extremism. Over the decades, I have had a swim through the process of peace building and associated disciplines around peace building. Now I am very passionate about trauma resiliency.
You said you were a victim. Kindly share just a bit of your experience?
I was attacked and my family house was attacked. Incidentally, no human life was lost; my dogs were killed, my books and credentials were burnt. They brought out all my things and set them on fire. It was a religious crisis caused by a faith difference. When that happened, knowing that was a place I had lived all my life with my people, I just felt like it was impossible to continue that way. I wanted to know what could be done differently. I was a victim of sectarian crisis, and that was my push into the work that I do.
How are you able to find your niche with trauma people as it is not a field a lot of people pay attention to?
Trauma itself is a very new field. The whole idea of trauma started after the Second World War. When it was realised that the people who went to war came back with a behavioural pattern, which was associated with their vile experiences. But naturally, in African indigenous culture, whatever we can’t explain, we affiliate it to either witchcraft or spirits or something – so we don’t have trauma, which is why there is no African language that has a word for trauma. But overtime, we have come to realise that there are emotional impacts that events and activities have on us. And there are times when you feel very distressed by things you can’t point your hands to, and we realised that there are other things we can do to help.
When we started working around trauma, around 2008, even amongst the civil society, people thought we were wasting our time. So it was the rise of acts of terrorism, violent extremism, the large displacement of people and the perpetrators of mass atrocities. A lot of international partners have come into the country to work and highlight the need for psychosocial support – this is when trauma began to have it’s right of place.
When somebody is traumatised and the person doesn’t get a chance to deal with it, and the trauma has not been processed, the person could always have triggers. Even when the trauma has been processed, the fact that you have been traumatised once doesn’t mean you cannot be traumatised again. Some people say that Chicken Pox can only be experienced once in a lifetime. For trauma, it is not the same. You can be re-traumatised. You can be re-traumatised by the same experience. There is a problem with trauma and re-traumatisation. When you fail to confront the issue that traumatises you, it can re-traumatise you.
When it comes to trauma, how many places can people go to seek help?
That’s one of the places where we have stigmatization. This is because for a lot of people, the only place that referrals happen, a lot of times, is psychiatric hospitals. Right now, we have a lot of organisations that have trained psychiatrists, we have people that have therapists – we have a lot of people towing that line. In Kaduna, we have an organisation called Care Front in Nigeria – they are very strong and deep in trauma issues. Then in Kano, Kaduna, Plateau and Benue, Equal Access International has a project around certain centres where people could have disclosures. Now, we have a lot of other international organisations who are creating space for counselling, community spaces and the rest of them. I think the awareness is coming up and there are more patterns for referrals now outside psychiatric hospitals.
How much of an impact does it turn out at the end of the day when someone gets that support from a trauma expert?
There’s a thing we call ‘grounding’, there are also terms like ‘building resilience’ and ‘the journey to trauma healing’. When somebody is able to do that and you are having a deeper understanding of trauma, you are able to build personal resilience and know how to help yourself. The impact has been massive, because we have talked to a lot of people. We have done trauma impact assessment in a population where over 80 percent of them are traumagenic. Thereafter, we have sessions with them – you come back and realise that the trauma impact has really dropped. I think that there is a success story.
With the state of our correctional facilities today, do you think that the people who end up coming out after serving their term should also deal with trauma?
Yes. When they change the system to start calling them ‘correctional facilities’, I was excited. I actually went to one of the training colleges to create training for trauma awareness for free. But they insisted that they only needed skill acquisition. I think there is need for a lot of understanding around it. This is because there are people who are incarcerated, especially people who can never be proven innocent even if they are, as well as people who might be guilty and they are out there, but somebody else is serving their term. Apart from that, even for those who are guilty and incarcerated because you’ve taken away human liberty, freedom and the things that keep them going, it has an impact on their mental wellbeing. There is need for us to have systems that support people around trauma resiliency. When they are incarcerated or coming out of incarceration, they should have a transit unit that helps them to reintegrate into society.
Let’s talk about the sense of responsibility around sexual and gender-based violence. This has been ongoing over time. How do you think people should approach the menace in our changing times?
I think we should realise that it is becoming an epidemic, and if it becomes an epidemic, we need to do something very drastic before it consumes all of us. There is need for us to speak about it, to de-stigmatise victims. We need to realise that it is hurting all of us and we need to talk about it and deal with it. There is a need for policies and laws that will help curb it, and there is need for us to promote the rights of people who are victims and ensure that they get justice and fairness.
There have been calls for stiffer penalties by the Minister of Women Affairs, and even the Kaduna State government recently passed a law that supports castrating perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence? Do you think it is a smart move? If not, what do you think are the appropriate measures to reduce the menace in our society?
0I think that there are many things we can do to reduce it. Firstly, shaming is very important. When we are able to shame people, when we make people do the work of shame around their communities and people could point at them, when we know that it stigmatises not just the person, but his entire family, there will be reduction in cases of the crime. But my fear is that, when we create a punishment that looks very vindictive, and at the end of it we are letting go the perpetrator of the crime, we are exposing the vulnerability of the victim. For instance, if you talk about castration, and we castrate the man and thereafter the man is walking about on the street, can we guarantee safety of the person that was victimised initially? Are we not making the person become a target of attacks because of this individual who now walks around impotent? Are we not creating societal rivalries and war between the families of the criminal and victims of the crime?
I want us to look at it from that perspective, so that when we are thinking of punitive judgment, we should think also of restorative justice, and not just punitive justice – Restorative, transitional and transformational justice. I am happier in a community where everybody is feeling a shame and feeling that it is not really a classy thing to rape and violate women and to have gender-based violence. Some men are being violated as well. We’re creating a system where we’re thinking about morality, ethics and upholding tenets that promote our integrity.