Milcah Lalam: Theater helped people heal from trauma in South Sudan

Milcah Lalam, left, co-facilitating a trauma recovery seminar for civil and religious leaders in South Sudan. Photo courtesy of Milcah Lalam

A Christian peace worker explains how drama, music and dance can help people struggling with deep trauma -- and why lament is healthy.

When Milcah Lalam pursued theater studies in college, she always thought of the art form as something more than just entertainment.

“I was looking for the value that it may hold in transforming communities,” said Lalam, who has worked with people suffering from trauma in South Sudan. “You reach not only the mind but also the heart with theater.”

Lalam was inspired to help people understand and recover from trauma in part because she suffered a tragedy as a child when her father and sister were killed in a car accident.

Encouraged by the success of using the arts to educate people in Uganda about HIV/AIDS, Lalam began using a model called “playback theater” to help people understand and heal from their trauma.

She holds a master’s degree in development studies and theater from the University of Leeds in the U.K., a bachelor’s degree in drama from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and certificates in trauma awareness and theater and peace building from Eastern Mennonite University.

Today, Lalam is the regional coordinator of the Great Lakes Initiative (GLI), a nonprofit headquartered in Uganda that brings together Christian leaders from seven countries in East Africa’s Great Lakes Region to work toward peace and reconciliation.

Lalam spoke with Faith & Leadership while at the Summer Institute of Duke Divinity’s Center for Reconciliation, which is a partner of the GLI. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You are trained in theater, and you’ve used that in helping people heal from trauma. How did you get started in that work?

When I finished college, I met the leadership of RECONCILE International, and I talked to them about research among Sudanese refugees on how the arts, music, dance and drama could be used for healing of the emotional and psychological wounds, especially among children.

They invited me to help them start their program in trauma recovery. We used to go out into the communities to reach out, particularly to religious leaders, but also to civil leaders, like chiefs and women leaders and youth leaders, who had been working on the issues of return integration among those who had stayed during the war and those who were returning from refuge.

We found that drama particularly was appreciated, because we could reach people across different languages very easily. The actions could speak for themselves, and people would be able to relate to what was going on.

It was an exciting time. We helped organize school theater festivals. We would work with the teachers and see which are the most pressing needs of the community of this particular district, then put that into one theme that the students could prepare these materials around. We would prepare music pieces, plays, dances around a theme.

That gave a lot more avenues for awareness on how trauma presents itself and what are the ways we can build community support networks. There was no medical intervention for psychiatric cases.

By providing that awareness of what trauma is, how it presents itself, people would know, “I’m not going crazy. This is just a symptom of what I experienced in the war.”

Q: Why are the arts important in a place, as you say, without even basic psychological services?

We felt that we would be able to reach larger numbers of people very quickly, because everybody is drawn to music. It’s part of the culture. We felt that its effectiveness would be more far-reaching than any other means of communication.

Radio was not very widespread at that time. About 96 percent could not read and write.

Q: Was there a model for this?

In Uganda, during the time of the intense HIV epidemic in the late ’80s, early ’90s, they had used drama to change behavior. People would convey those messages very effectively with high school students. So looking at that experience, I thought, “This is something that can work well in South Sudan.”

Q: What is your feeling about the situation in South Sudan now? Do you feel as hopeful as you did at that time?

In the midst of all that work, we were always conscious of the historical traumas that people were carrying. I knew that even when the country divided -- North went its way and South became its own country -- we had not had enough time to really help the citizens to completely recover from historical trauma.

We knew that there was just a trigger point waiting to happen. We didn’t know that the magnitude of the destruction would be what it is now.

One of the things which gave me comfort was that we had been able to embed in every community individuals we called “community mobilizers” who we had trained for a three-month period.

They had formed a community network, so even when the violence broke out, they would write and say, “We managed to escape to this place, and now we are ministering to the people. We’re able to give them this information.”

With those community mobilizers on the ground, I feel a sense of comfort and confidence. It doesn’t mean that the trauma has gone away, but there are people embedded within these communities that can help and can offer that immediate first aid and can help people know, “You’re not going crazy. This is just a normal response to these abnormal situations.”

That is one side of hope I’ve seen.

Q: How did you see this connection between the arts and healing and reconciliation?

When I started studying theater, I kept on thinking, “How can this be used beyond entertainment?”

In my family, we have a famous writer who is a poet, Professor Okot p’Bitek. He had written famous books of poetry, “Song of Lawino” and “Song of Ocol.”

Having that history and seeing that power of how his poetry moved people even across other cultures, I imagined that there can be a use of theater beyond entertainment. I was looking for the value that it may hold in transforming communities.

Our family suffered a tragedy when I was 4. My father and sister were killed in a car crash. I had not been able to process my grief well. It was countercultural to talk to children about grief.

With theater, I saw a way in which you could present information to parents that this was the effect of loss on a child and help parents work toward helping children with grief.

That really became the entry point for me for using theater in this psychosocial and emotional recovery.

Then I heard that there were refugees from South Sudan (at the time Sudan), in a district maybe 40 kilometers away from where I was studying [in Uganda]. I was interested in going there and seeing how music, dance and drama had helped them to cope with this displacement, with the emotional turmoil of losing family, losing friends, property.

What I found was really, really fascinating.

It had played actually a bigger role than even just sitting down and being counseled, or other interventions like sports. I began to see ways in which, if that information was shared in that way, many more people would get the benefit than trying to sit a couple of people down in a workshop and talk to them.

You reach not only the mind but also the heart with theater.

Q: So it serves to educate and raise awareness, and also is therapeutic. Do you use different forms of art to address one or the other, or are they mixed together?

Sometimes they’re mixed together. At other points, it’s just purely educational.

Where it becomes therapeutic, we actually go further and engage in what is called “playback theater.” We do that a lot with our community mobilizers, because we wanted them to be at a level of healing where they would actually be able to take on other people’s trauma.

As a caregiver or a trauma healer, you can take on secondary trauma from what you’re hearing. If your own traumas are not yet resolved, you can be deeply affected and may reverse in your own journey of healing.

Q: How does playback theater work?

The person who had the traumatic event would narrate their experience. Then we would request from the audience anyone to volunteer to [role-play] the moment of the story that the person wants to work on -- not the entire story, but the part of the story that they feel they need to resolve so that they can move on.

The person [who had experienced trauma] would then narrate it, and the person who was playing that role would just repeat what had been said.

They would take the voice of this person and give it life. All the characters in the story would be there, right before the person whose experience you were playing back. He would be hearing his own voice, what he would say, what he wanted that person to reply.

In hearing that, there was a liberating power. A lot of people broke down, because that would be the first time they’d been able to verbalize it.

It always leaves us so drained that we can only do at most three stories a day and then just close it in prayer and lift up those individuals.

Q: Did you invent this method, or is this a method that was created elsewhere?

It was created elsewhere. It existed already; I just learned it and applied it to our context in South Sudan.

Q: You are now working with the Great Lakes Initiative, which also is engaged in South Sudan.

We have been able to bring together Christian leaders of all ethnicities. In January, we had a retreat where they were able to lament what had happened but also to build resolve on how they need to move forward.

Q: Why is lament important?

Oftentimes, the Christian belief provides an avenue for people to cry out to God because of the brokenness that they see and the desperateness of feeling -- “How long, how long, O God,” like Habakkuk cried out.

And that offers consolation for the soul, because you feel that as a human, you’ve done the best that you could and yet this horribleness keeps going on. You feel like evil has conquered.

But when you reflect on those passages where Jeremiah lamented, Jerusalem was facing destruction from the Babylonians, and it felt the same way. People were starving -- famine -- and Jeremiah was saying, “How long, how long?”

He had been given a prophecy that a remnant would remain, but still it didn’t stop him from crying out. He knew that that would come to an end, but he still had to cry out to God, and also to confess the brokenness, the sins of omission and commission, things that we failed to do that led us to where we are.

That’s the discipline of lament, of being in silence and waiting -- how will God bring an end to this? How will it turn out?

It truly offers a Christian comfort, even when it may not seem so, that you know that your crying out is not in vain. That you’re not just crying out because you’re helpless and hopeless, but you’re crying out to God to be heard.

You’re not bottling it up. You’re not keeping a stiff upper lip, like the British would teach us to be, but being human.

Lament offers that spiritual connection to our brokenness, and just letting it out is healthy.

Q: What other roles does the GLI play in fostering reconciliation and peace in South Sudan?

We are working together with them, and every day we are in touch through email, through social media, and seeing how each of them is making an effort to reach and lead at whatever level.

I was really encouraged, because at the time before we signed a peace agreement (which has now collapsed), these individuals who are linked to GLI -- each one was working with someone they know who is a commander or a military man and trying to convince them of the reason to seek peace and the reason to come to the table to be able to negotiate and to talk.

I feel they played a very big role, even if not seen by the world, in convincing the leaders toward coming to the table.

For me, that’s really very critical and important -- that it’s not only those that we see on the front, who work at the top levels, but even those that work in the middle and the grass roots toward reconciliation.

When we see only what’s happening at the top, we do not see that actually the roots underneath are the ones feeding what’s on the surface. The fighters come from the civilians in the grass roots, so it’s important to build peace from the bottom up, and also from the top down.

That’s really been a gift that GLI brings to that situation in South Sudan.

Q: Do you think that they will be successful in bringing people to the table again for peace negotiations?

In every country, there are moments when things reach a stalemate and may seem not to be moving forward. But small efforts have been made toward the bigger initiative for them to come back to the table. We are not giving up and saying that we failed. We’re still about to find new ways of working with the leaders to again bring them back to the table.

This is not the first time that ethnic violence broke out among the people of a common heritage, and again, the church worked to bring them back to the table.

It might seem difficult. It might seem impossible from the outside, but when those small, important steps are made, they eventually add up. It’s like when rain falls, it doesn’t make a flood just by being little, but those millions of drops add up.

That’s how we see the work that we are doing -- that all the small steps or drops that we contribute to this bucket add up into a significant volume.