PACEs champion Rebeccah Ndung’u launches trauma-informed schools in Kenya

[Ed. note: This is a continuing series of articles about people who are involved and contributing in the movement to implement practices and policies based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences.]

Growing up as the eldest daughter in a family of three girls and three boys in Nairobi, Kenya, Becky Ndung’u and all her siblings attended school, which is mandatory for children ages six through 14. Her parents—both farmers and her father also a lifelong government accountant—were committed to providing all their children a good education.

Her education began in a public school, followed by a private high school. Our conversation was conducted in English, but Ndung’u is also fluent in her native languages, Kikuyu and Kiswahili.

After graduating from high school, the young scientist earned a “higher diploma”—equivalent to a bachelor’s degree—in analytical chemistry in 2000 at what is now the Technical University of Kenya and then went on to earn a higher diploma in soil science in 2003 at what is now the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

Not able to find a job in her field, she opted to work in schools as a science lab assistant, organizing and teaching lessons in biology, chemistry, and physics. She also prepared students for the exams they needed to matriculate from secondary schools.

She recounted that during this time, she was often asked to teach biology and chemistry when the teacher was absent. As a result, she says, “I learned a lot about how school systems work, their challenges in terms of teachers being overworked, discipline in learners, poor academic performances, and the struggles of parents to pay school fees.”

From Science Assistant to Educational Psychologist

But she had no desire to become a teacher herself. “I wanted to help the schools but not as a teacher,” she explains. “My focus was helping learners improve their academic performance and acquiring the discipline to avoid dropping out of the school. But in Kenya, there is no provision for educational psychologists in the education system.”

After earning a diploma online in educational psychology and emotional intelligence at the University of Ireland in 2020, she started working on her own as an educational psychologist. She acquired students by word of mouth from parents. “Amazingly,” she said, “I was able to help kids with behavior problems, learning difficulties, poor academic performances, and learners with special needs.”

Before learning about the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), Ndung’u’s knowledge about emotional intelligence (EQ) opened her eyes as to why children acted out and misbehaved in the classroom.

She recalls having to remove two sisters, ages six and eight, with severe dyslexia from the classroom because they couldn’t read at their grade levels. She used her EQ skills to get the sisters to open up and talk about their issues. She also involved their parents so that they could understand what their children were experiencing and to explain what needed to be done. She secured the students a special needs teacher, who home-schooled them for eight months. Later, they were both successfully integrated back into the schoolroom.

Learning About ACEs

While working with children, the trauma educator heard a talk by Dr. Angie Yonda-Maina, director of Green String Network, a nonprofit dedicated to peacebuilding through practices related to trauma, justice, spirituality, and security. Ndung’u was struck by a poster presented in the doctor’s talk that included a reference to ACEs.

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The Intolerable Cure

As a survivor of interpersonal trauma, commitment and intimacy have never been easy, which is why I never did remarry after my first marriage fell apart. That is until last October, when my boyfriend who had been living at a comfortable distance (measured in thousands of miles) suggested I pack up my apartment and ride out the pandemic with him in Hawaii. Thus began an adventure that had me breathing into paper bags and him warranting a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I get bent out of shape easily. On days when I haven’t had enough sleep, I’m particularly vulnerable to being disgruntled and snappy, finding everything about my partner annoying, right down to his very existence. I usually seek refuge in elaborate plans of escape. (No doubt on those days my husband is similarly engaged.) I dream of a light-bathed studio giving onto a beach or a small cabin perched by a lake and surrounded by pines. The scene changes, the head count doesn’t. I am on my own.

For many trauma survivors, “avoidance”—a symptom of post-traumatic stress and driver of my escape fantasies—is the only way to make our lives feel manageable.

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes avoidance as “efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings” and “external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations)” associated with traumatic events. But what if the source and reminder of the trauma is other people? And what does that mean for our relationships?

The essential dilemma for survivors of interpersonal trauma is that, as Judith Herman has written, “recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.” It makes sense that for those of us who have suffered abusive relationships, safe, stable relationships would be the cure, in the same way someone who has been poisoned might flush out toxins with pure water. However, as survivors of interpersonal trauma, getting close to people also feels inherently unsafe. In many cases, our trauma stems from the fact that the people who were supposed to love and protect us instead hurt us. We learned—sometimes at a young age—to distrust and fear the very thing we need as humans to survive. In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry writes:

“Being harmed by the people who are supposed to love you, being abandoned by them, being robbed of the one-on-one relationships that allow you to feel safe and valued and to become humane—these are profoundly destructive experiences. Because humans are inescapably social beings, the worst catastrophes that can befall us inevitably involve relational loss.”

Even more worrying, the inability to tolerate close relationships not only impedes trauma recovery but may even shorten our lifespan. A 2015 Brigham Young study reported that isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of the impact on our mental and physical health—and ultimately our longevity. The daily pain of social isolation is very real; it actually registers in the same region of the brain as physical pain. For some trauma survivors, isolation can be “iatrogenic”—meaning, the remedy is worse than the disease.

Some people get around the need for emotional connection with other humans by befriending other large mammals: dogs or horses are regularly used in trauma therapy. For those of us who dare to dip a toe into the potentially tumultuous waters of relationships with other humans, the experience is probably best approached as a kind of exposure therapy, where you face the thing you most dread in small increments until your brain is rewired and you no longer sense a threat. The problem is that marriage—to go back to my own situation—does not work like that. You can’t be married for say, one day a week, until you build up a tolerance. And, quite apart from your own ability to tolerate this unaccustomed state of being close to another person, unless your partner understands trauma well—and, like my husband (thus far), has enduring patience—there is a serious risk that the relationship will end up imploding.

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