Shiphrah Mutungi, one of the first students to earn a master's degree in counseling in Uganda, is now working towards a graduate certificate in conflict tranformation through the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. Mutungi, who has also trained in the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience program, is executive director of Reflective Learning- Uganda, an organization dedicated to fostering resilience through workshops and trainings. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Counselor and STAR trainer from Uganda teaches positivity and resilience through experiential learning

Trauma is not just something one experiences during a war or conflict, but can occur in a job, relationship or everyday interaction, says 2015 Summer Peacebuilding Institute participant Shiphrah Mutungi, who is pursuing a graduate certificate in conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP).

Even though “everyday” traumas are a normal part of life, if left undealt with, they can hinder one’s growth as much or more than the “big” life struggles, she says. Mutungi would know. Her conviction is rooted in personal experience that has defined her professional counseling career, both in Uganda and around the world.

She was born in a western Ugandan cattle-keeping community. When she was seven, her father died suddenly on an operating room table. He left her mother with eight young children. Life was difficult, but her mother, though uneducated herself, committed to sending all eight of her children to school, even the six girls. Mutungi says her mother’s resolve was remarkable in a culture that wasn’t supportive of girls’ education.

By the time Mutungi was in secondary school, stories of atrocities committed by the terrorist group the Lord’s Resistance Army began to filter south. Mutungi, in school in southwestern Uganda, says she was never personally in danger because the LRA stayed mostly in northern Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but she did witness the aftermath of the violence.

By the mid-1990s, Mutungi had graduated with a degree in social sciences from Makerere University and was working for the National Council for Children. “I had to visit areas that had been affected by the violence,” she says. “People were living in internally displaced camps and sometimes were missing parts of their bodies from torture or landmines.” The people she met struggled to cope with the aftermath of violence, displacement and a concurrent growing AIDS epidemic.

Driven by her desire to help people heal from trauma, Mutungi returned to Makerere University to earn one of the program’s first master’s degrees in counseling psychology. In Uganda, as in many other countries, counseling is an unusual profession (Mutungi says those who seek counseling are stigmatized as “crazy people”). So instead of working as a clinical psychologist, she worked as a health program manager of Peace Corps Uganda volunteers, many of whom were working with HIV/AIDS patients and in post- conflict communities in northern Uganda.

She saw that the need for helping people work through their struggles went beyond the work she was doing for the Peace Corps, though. Even people without devastating diseases or living in peaceful regions can struggle to manage whatever it is they are dealing with, she says.

Guiding from negativity to ‘positivity’

In light of this, Mutungi realized that healing must begin with the self before it can filter to larger society. Everyone experiences trauma, she says, but the key is learning how to respond.

In 2012, Mutungi left her Peace Corps job and founded Reflective Learning-Uganda, an organization that seeks to foster resilience in individuals and groups through a combination of workshops, trainings and individualized “learning journeys,” a 6-week program in which participants produce a reflective portfolio on a subject of their choice.

Reflective Learning Uganda utilizes a “strengths-based” approach developed by psychologist Tony Ghaye called participatory and appreciative action and reflection, also known as PAAR. (Ghaye is a founder of Reflective Learning International and related organizations in the United Kingdom, Italy and Nigeria; he is a chairman of Mutungi’s organization.). PAAR uses personal reflection and questioning to change negative thoughts into positive ones, a process that helps participants feel more empowered and resilient, Mutungi says.

“Positivity workshops” are particularly helpful in schools, Mutungi says, offering the example of, a headmaster of a rural secondary school who was worried his students lacked the hope necessary to continue their education and pursue “professional” jobs as lawyers, teachers or doctors.

“The headmaster wanted me to talk to the students about the responsibility they have to shape their own destiny,” she says. So she began a series of workshops to help students reflect on their past and ask questions about what they needed to do to change their attitude.

“The students became excited,” she says. “Some of them said they had never thought of themselves as having strength, just problems. The students ended up forming a group called the Positive Energy Group and planting trees as symbols of growth. The trees don’t grow fast, but if you water them, they will eventually grow into big things.”

STAR tools used in workshops

Another tool she uses in her workshops is Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) training. Since 2010, Mutungi completed STAR I and II and the first of the two practicums required to become a certified STAR trainer. In her first practicum, Mutungi helped facilitate a STAR training in South Sudan under the guidance of CJP professor Elaine Zook Barge. When she finishes her second practicum (at a yet undecided location), she will be qualified to teach STAR I to others.

“STAR is very important because it is a training that raises awareness about trauma at the very deepest personal level,” she said during a 2013 video interview. “While I had done training as a counseling psychologist and counselor at master’s level, I had not had an opportunity to have such an awareness about trauma resilience and how to get over such an experience before.”

Learning experiences such as those offered by the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, STAR and Reflective Learning, says Mutungi, provide a safe space to share stories people never felt able to share before. Participants learn they don’t have to carry their burdens alone and how to turn their struggles into strength.