Lifting the Burdens of Trauma in Nigeria

August 25, 2017 by Joshua Pease in

While the other children in the classroom drew, Martina began silently folding a blank piece of paper to form a box, a symbolic coffin. On one side of the box, Martina wrote her father’s name. Martina’s box was a makeshift coffin for her father, her attempt to give him the burial he never had.

Martina was one of a group of children participating in the Open Doors Trauma Healing Program in northern Nigeria. All the children had been asked to draw something that worried or scared them, but the tragic creativity of Martina’s project captured the attention of caregivers with Open Doors. In talking with Martina, they learned the all-too-common story of her father’s death.

Martina’s dad was a Christian and a policeman serving in Nigeria’s Kano State during the 2005 riots. Gangs of younger men swept through the area killing anyone suspected of being a Christian. The casualties of this brutal assault were so high, and the government so quick to move past it, that bodies were dumped into unmarked mass graves.

Nigerian culture dictates that when the husband dies, the extended family should look after the widow and children, but this is often ignored. When Martina’s father died, his family wanted nothing to do with Martina, her siblings or her mother. Martina’s mother had to fend for herself and her three children, of which Martina was the youngest. It’s not easy for a poor widow to manage a household alone, especially when this includes coming up with school fees for her children.

“She was the one to feed us, pay the school fees, everything. My daddy’s brother didn’t even care about us,” Martina remembers, her eyes welling with tears, her voice trembling.

She breaks down, covering her face, crying. Any connection to her father, even his family, has been erased from her life because of their faith in Jesus.

“I was 2 months-old when my daddy died. I have never really known him. But I have missed him so very much. Since I have grown up, I’ve wished I could have gone to the burial. I wished that I could have seen and known him. I wished to know the exact place of the grave in which they buried him. I used to think about my dad. Sometimes I asked my mom to take me to the place where he was killed. She would bring me there, but I never stopped thinking about him. When I went to school and heard my friends talking about their daddies, I used to ask God to give me a father.”

The Open Doors’ caregivers asked Martina to draw a specific scene. They asked, what should her father’s funeral have been like? Her drawing was simple: her two sisters, her mom and Martina, 2 months-old and strapped to her mother’s back. They are holding flowers and staring at a coffin with her father’s name on it—Mr. Joseph M. Agdo—printed in precisely-spaced, carefully-crafted letters. The details are sparse but meaningful: Martina’s drawing gives her father the funeral he deserved. A funeral where his life, death and the family left behind matter.

“Martina was able to get to the point where she could bury her father in her own way,” said Patience*, one of the caregivers who worked with Martina. “In her mind that was what was preventing her from really believing that her father was dead. She had to bring out that expression from her mind and unload the burden that she had been carrying for a long time. After that, she felt very relieved. She finally accepted the death of her father.”

“Since the first day I came here for the Trauma Healing Program, I felt at rest,” Martina said. “I felt normal. I felt the heavy load lifted from my heart.”

Stories like these are why Open Doors is building a Trauma Center in northern Nigeria. The center will have offices, a conference hall for trauma sessions, sleeping quarters for men and women, a kitchen and a dining hall. Outside, there is more than enough room where guests can play games that will help children and adults work through the traumas they’ve endured and find the healing and rest Jesus offers.

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