Aug 2015 12

New innovations in trauma counseling – A conversation with our counselors

Posted in News

By Richard Okidi and Norah Brinkerhoff


GRG’s counselors Richard and Norah sat down together to share their thoughts and vision for GRG’s mental health programming for the groups. Coming from very different backgrounds, they sometimes watch each other’s sessions.  In this blog they share some of their experiences and what they have learned from each other and from GRG’s 21 groups.

Norah: Apwoyo Richard! Ityeni-ning? Gang tiye maber? Lutinotiye? Mama Carlos tiye? [These are typical Acholi greetings: How are you? How is home? How are your children and wife?]

I always love it so much that when you meet someone or visit them you first have a really relaxed introduction and exchange greetings together. In the Netherlands [where I am from], you would just say ‘hi’ and get down to business. Here I feel that with everyone, including our clients, you can start off really gently by just greeting and making some jokes. This for me makes everyone start the entire session much more at ease: instead of performing, you work more on relationship building. It’s something I have learned watching you, Richard, work with our groups, and it has made it much easier for me to build rapport with my clients. I think one of your greatest strengths as a counselor is your ability to win people over by making even the heavy topics somewhat approachable, by involving everyone in group discussions. Your positivity reminds the groups of their resilience and that solutions can be achieved. Your approach is really quite different from [what I learned in] my previous training in Netherlands. Tell me, is there anything that you see as a big difference in my style compared to yours or to between our different cultures?


Richard: Oh yes, the first time I saw you, Norah, I thought it would be very hard for us to work together given the nature of our groups, the language barriers and our different upbringings. It was difficult to imagine working with a white lady in the field, as I knew the groups would expect you were going to give them something or pay their children’s school fees. But I have been so impressed with your patience to let groups air out their problems, asking you to fix them, but then that you explain that you are a student and are here to learn, and that counseling is a way to fix some of the problems they face; that GRG is working to help them change their lives. … I got confidence [after] working with you the first three weeks when we spent so much time in the field. You quickly adapted to the system, and your character was a great asset for our psycho-social service provision. You ate the local dishes with no problem and mixed freely with the local communities. That is something I found quite remarkable about you and your style, and I very much like that. What is it that you like working most with these groups?


Norah: … That is a hard question for me because it is such a different world for me here, but I like many things. I love Uganda with its beautiful weather, beautiful landscape and beautiful people. People are so welcoming and friendly. When I visit clients at their homes, they are appreciative and excited that I came to visit them. … I am very welcome.

You know, that is what I like most: that I really feel that the work we are doing is appreciated.  There is virtually no other organization or government assistance [that provide] counseling in rural villages, so many of our clients have no way to get help except through GRG. When we do our follow-up visits, and people share stories about how they can use trauma-coping skills. Or going for a third or fourth individual session and the client telling you about how much they have gained and how they now are better able to care for their children or interact with their spouse.

It’s so different from my world at home, and it’s those little successes that make it easier to manage the huge scale of challenges we face in this work.

Working with people abducted by the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] or those who lost family members in the war, there are just so many challenges that you obviously know very well. What is one of your hardest challenges now that you’ve been doing this for more than a year?


Richard: The greatest challenge I have often faced is the difficulty in following up with the groups and our individual clients. People don’t live according to a watch here, so if you tell someone we are coming at 10 in the morning, they might only come back from the garden at 2 in the afternoon, and if you ask them what time it is, they aren’t really very sure or concerned. It makes it a challenge as we’ve scaled up our GRG counseling, and we need to be able to visit the groups more often. But we don’t have a big counseling staff, and we share the truck with our colleagues who are doing leadership training and other activities like savings and loans and entrepreneurship training, [but] sometimes it takes all day just to see one [counseling] client. It would be great if GRG could find a donor [to help] so we could add a motorcycle in the future. That way you and I could decide to go and meet this group or that one after one of their weekly meetings, to do a surprise check-in, or to be able to visit clients in one specific area on back-to-back days.

That’s one reason I’m so excited about our peer-counseling program: since we can’t be there every day with the group, if we can train a few peer counselors, then they can be the front-line support and refer specific cases—both group and individual—to us or to [our] other partner organizations …


Norah: I totally agree. I’m really excited for the peer counseling program to begin in September.  After we train five or six people in each area where our groups are based, … it will provide a huge resource to have peer counselors. [They will be] there to help when there are conflicts in the community immediately. We hear of so many cases of suicide, domestic violence, family members fighting over land. If we have the peer counselors in place, they can be the first person to calm down the situation, and then they can refer the situation to us or to other relevant support [services] through our referral networks. I’ve really learned here that while peer counselors may not have a background in psychology or a lot of academic skills, they understand the needs of the community and how to maximize the limited resources. I’m so excited that even before we suggested it to the groups—[based on] our own observations and strategies to make our counseling support more sustainable and to reach more people—it was the groups who suggested that we … train some of their members to help. Our groups have so much practical experience in managing and solving conflicts, learned from when they started as a divided group with LRA returnees on one side and those people who were in camps or were victims in other ways on the other side. But they’ve learned that working together and supporting one another they can achieve so much. I think the peer counselors will be great role models and will help not only our groups, but the entire community to achieve a lasting peace and to address the problems after the war.


Richard: You know, growing up in a war context, I was inspired to help my community to struggle for a peaceful future, and I know people in our groups have the same attitude. We saw too much war in northern Uganda, and it’s only us who change that for peace. If we train 50 peer counselors, it’s like putting a GRG counselor in every village. It won’t solve everything, and we still need to give … mentorship and counseling for counselors, but it brings something new that hasn’t been done. It gives the community the tools. Now it’s them [who can] do something that they never knew they could do before.


Norah and Richard will continue to share their progress as GRG launches peer counselor training among its other counseling activities in 2015 and 2016. Be sure to follow their blogs, and please send them your questions or words of encouragement.


To sponsor peer counseling or expanded trauma care in one of the villages where GRG operates, please visit

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