Q&A: Healing Touch

An Oahu psychologist brings mental-health services to Rwanda.

Dr. Caroline Sakai leaves the Islands each year to help genocide survivors in Rwanda.

Photo: Kevin Blitz

Over the past three years, Honolulu-based psychologist Caroline Sakai has worked with hundreds of survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In the past, Sakai served as chief psychologist at Hawai‘i Kaiser Behavioral Health Services; today, she has a private practice, which allows her time to volunteer. Here, Sakai speaks about her experiences and why she leaves the Islands each year to help.

Q: How did you become involved with relief efforts in Rwanda?

A: In 2005, I traveled to New Orleans to help with the trauma relief of Hurricane Katrina survivors. While I was there, Paul Oas, a psychologist and pastor from California, told me about an orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda. Out of the 400 children at the orphanage, 174 were direct survivors of the genocide, meaning that they actually witnessed such horrors as the killing of their parents—or others in their villages—by people with machetes. So Paul asked me to head a clinical team to help treat their trauma and also work with others who were affected by the genocide.

Q: How long of a trip is it from Honolulu to Rwanda?

A: The trip takes about 24 hours, going through London or Brussels to Kigali.

Q: Were the children and teens excited to see you?

A: Once they got to know us and understood that we were there to help, they would eagerly run up to the van to greet us.

Q: What did you learn about the Rwandan culture?

A: They taught us how to dance to their songs and rhythms. We learned how they cook outdoors in large kettles over firewood. We marveled at how they balance large containers of water, or bundles of firewood, on their heads and walk long distances. They taught us how to sharpen pencils with one tiny turn of a sharpener so as not to waste any of the pencil.

Q: Tell me about one of your fondest memories.

A: We were impressed with their wanting to give back for things they appreciated. For example, a boy who had been afraid of the dark wanted to share one of his three marbles—his only worldly possessions besides his clothes, slippers and blanket—for getting his life back without nightmares.

Q: Next month, you plan to return to Rwanda on another trauma-relief mission. What motivates you to continue to go there?

A: Contributing to the relief of such intense suffering gives me a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. I have a different perspective on life now. It’s easy to focus on what you don’t have. But when you see people that are able to adapt creatively to such limited resources, and who show so much gratitude for what they have been given, you understand that, in many ways, they are in fact richer. They have a greater ability to forgive, to move forward and to embrace life.