May 8, 2006 — St. Croix's Carolyn Keys has been working to heal wounds from the Burundi genocide. She has been to the African country three times and plans to return again soon.
Burundi does not get the attention some of its neighbors — the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda – get, but Keys told a gathering at St. Croix Reform Church Sunday that the killing there was every bit as bad. According to the CIA World Fact Book, ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi factions has claimed over 200,000 Burundians during a dozen years of war.
Keys said that Burundi is in a way like St. Croix, where its neighbors to the north get all the attention.
She also said in working with people in the Central African country, about the size of the state of Maryland, that she saw another similarity between there and St. Croix. She said, "It could happen here. We can be very cruel to each other." She said that some groups of people on St. Croix felt "disempowered" and many groups were suspicious of other groups.
Keys arrived in Burundi in 2000, although most of the violence had subsided by then, she said there were nights when she and her hosts "hearts beat fast" as they saw tracer bullets being fired from one side of the village to the other.
Her skill and expertise is in helping people recover from traumatic events – accidents, abuse or torture.
Before going to Burundi, she worked in the field stateside for nine years.
Her first visit to Burundi lasted two years. She said, "I trained people to recognize trauma and how to respond to it."
She said when she first arrived there, as part of a Quaker Peace Team, there was only one office dealing with trauma victims. No one at the office had a vehicle the first 17 months, so staff did a lot of walking.
When she returned to the country later she found that 24 offices had been established in the country of 8 million people.
She said life expectancy in the country is only 41 years. The CIA's estimate is 50.
No matter, each calculation is more than 20 years shorter than the life expectancy of a U.S. resident. Keys said she was considered an elder there and treated with great respect. She celebrated her 62nd birthday in the country.
The Quaker program, of which she is part, is the African Great Lakes Initiative. The Kagera, which runs through Burundi, drains into Lake Victoria. The other great lake in the region is Lake Tangankay.
The initiative, according to the Quaker Web site, "strengthens, supports, and promotes peace activities at the grassroots level."
As Keys seems to have a hard time getting the tragedy of Burundi out of her system, she also has a problem staying away from the beauty of St. Croix.
She came for her honeymoon in July 1969. She came back for her first anniversary and stayed for the next 19 years.
She came back for good at the end of 2002. What she says she likes about the island is "the diverse cultures here, the people, so many long time friends, the beauty of the place–the skies, the sea, the hills. It's my home, I started my marriage, birthed and raised both children here, had many wonderful though challenging years here."
While living on St. Croix she has worked as a medical and psychiatric social worker at the Community Mental Health Program. For five years she had a private practice as a clinical social worker. She also taught classes at a private high school and sold real estate for a few years.
During 12 years in New Jersey, she worked at two physical rehabilitation hospitals — Kessler Institute and Children's Specialized Hospital.
She said Sunday night, "Now I'm a retired social worker, doing what I really love: volunteer work."
That volunteer work covers a broad spectrum. She plans to go back to Burundi, as a consultant, perhaps September this year, for the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services.
She is also the volunteer coordinator of the Alternatives to Violence Program, which she introduced here and which is now a program of the Interfaith Coalition of St. Croix.
It is not hard to find what motivates her. She wrote in an e-mail, "It is my Quaker faith that inspires my involvement in my community which is the whole world, wherever the openings occur to live out my testimonies of simplicity, justice, truth, working against war and the causes of war, poverty, oppression and injustice."
She ended her Sunday morning talk with what she called a commercial. She said much more help is needed in Africa and anyone interested should contact her at via e-mail.
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