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It’s well known that yoga has a lot of curative properties and has physically and mentally helped a lot of people since its origin. With this in mind, a non-profit organization called Project Air thought that maybe this alternative medicine would be a very beneficial discipline to help more than 400 HIV positive women that survived the widespread rape that occurred during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
Due to its positive effects, what began with a temporary project four years ago, now is a basic activity that helps hundred of Rwanda women and their families in the city of Kigali every day.
Yoga instructor and author Deirdre Summerbell still remembers the faces of skepticism and confusion that women had at their first yoga lesson. However, as she said to the Huffington Post, the positive results were huge and immediate.
“After the third lesson, a shy woman came up to me, took my hands and said that she had slept for the first time in the 14 years since the genocide,” Summerbell said. “She wasn’t alone. Women will tell you that before yoga, they were crippled with aches and pains; they felt old. Now they crave yoga because when they feel physically stronger, they feel more confident and optimistic.”
In 1994 an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days, and hundreds of women were raped, as the Hutu majority tribe tried to eliminate the Tutsi minority. Since then their minds were full of war and terrible memories, that made them feel older than they actually were and without any life hope.
As Summerbell said to the Huffington Post, at the end of her first class a 28-year old Rwandan woman told her that yoga was for younger people not for them. Regarding this issue Summberbell said Project Air yoga classes have allowed women who have felt stiff and elderly to experience dramatic and immediate emotional benefits, as they jump and play joyfully during the class.
According to the outlet media, when the non-profit Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment told Summerbell about the project in 2007 she didn´t believe in it.
“I thought that it was silly and the last thing these women would probably need,” Summerbell said.
Their battlefield traumas, different culture and the fact that this type of physical activity is taboo in Rwanda, created obstacles to reaching great success from the very beginning. As Summerbell said, she saw her students’ symptoms, including disrupted sleep patterns and poor appetites, improve.
Despite the fact that not all the HIV cases were a consequence of the genocide in 2004, Amnesty International reported that that conflict contributed notably to the spread of the disease. As this non-profit organization estimated more than 67 percent of the victims contracted HIV and AIDS at that time.
The U.K. based Survivors Fund reported that many of the infections were planned, and that HIV positive men were used deliberately as a weapon of the genocide.According to a study by the Rwandan Ministry of Health, around one out of three Rwandans suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the genocide.
Project Air started at 2004 as one aspect of the holistic treatment offered by the non-profit organization called WE-ACTx, with the intention of amending the physical symptoms of HIV and AIDS disease and the PTSD. With the same purpose WE-ACTx integrates the mental health.
”Many of the women who have also attended [Project Air] yoga sessions say that the support they get from doing this with other women as well as the strength they gain from the physical exercise of the manipulation of yoga allow them to feel like they are able to move on and move forward from their PTSD,” said Dr. Mardge Cohen, the medical director of WE-ACTx
So far this is the first yoga initiative certified by the United Nations and is the only yoga project to be partnered with UNICEF. The organizers’ main goal is to expand the yoga program to other warring and post-conflict countries.
“The lucky ones eat every day, the unlucky every other day, and you can’t ask people with a low caloric intake to do yoga. So we feed them,” Summerbell said. “They couldn’t afford underwear, so we quickly regrouped and provided trousers.”
Project Air does not participate with only the yoga program. Since Rwanda is a very expensive country, coupled with a high poverty level, Project Air also feed people and provides them with clothing.