Learning How to Heal: Displaced by War, World-traveling Pharmacist Seeks Peace

By schwartzsa | November 21, 2012

Photography PEDRO LEAL ’13

As a pharmacist in the midst of major conflicts, it’s crucial to hold just the right skill set—lives are at stake. While working as a humanitarian pharmacist for French-based nonprofit organization Pharmacie et Aide Humanitaire (PAH), Prudence Manirakiza ’14M realized that in order to do his job well, he needed conflict resolution skills.

In 2009, recently assigned to a humanitarian mission in Comoro, an island nation off the eastern coast of Africa, Manirakiza received a call from his brother, Patrick Gedeon Hakizimana ’10M, a master’s student in Arcadia’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) program. Discussing Manirakiza’s new position and career trajectory, Hakizimana mentioned that skills in conflict resolution might be of use to anyone working as a pharmacist in a developing country. The seed was planted.

“I took his word for it,” says Manirakiza. “It was during my time in Comoros that it really became a reality for me, confirming for me that my brother was right.”

Just two days after landing in Comoros, Manirakiza joined two Comorians on a team charged with evaluating the monthly drug inventories of the country’s five principal hospitals. The task proved to be more difficult than Manirakiza expected, as he found himself in the midst of a politically charged conflict. Many physicians refused to collaborate. Due to past experiences, they had no confidence in projects conducted by the Ministry of Health, and so they refused to cooperate.

“Even after our meetings, this conflict continued to make things hard for us,” he says. “I didn’t have the appropriate skills to deal with it, to identify its roots, major stakeholders, or find a more effective methodology to rebuild their confidence in the ministry’s plans. From there I applied to Arcadia.”

He was unaware that this new experience would force him to confront painful elements of his past.

A History of Violence

Born and raised in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Manirakiza is no stranger to conflict. The Rwandan war began when he was just eight years old and lasted four years. Millions died. Manirakiza and his family lived in a hot zone, in harm’s way near the Ugandan border.

Fleeing for their lives, Manirakiza and his family lived as refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). They stayed in tents for three years, fed and protected by international organizations, until war broke out again in Congo when the Rwandan army invaded. When he finally returned to Rwanda, Manirakiza found his home country destroyed. And in the chaotic aftermath of genocide and interior war, he discovered his academic credentials weren’t recognized by the new system in Kigali, the capital and largest city in Rwanda.

“In such a difficult situation, one can imagine how important it is to be an open-minded person,” he says. “I learned to see things from a different perspective and live with much less than I had before.” Manirakiza left his family for boarding school at Groupe Scolaire Officiel de Butare in the Southern Province of Rwanda, far away from his family, only able to return home for vacations. But Manirakiza made the best of the situation, learning to relate to and collaborate with classmates from various backgrounds, which served him well as he pursued degrees all over the world.

After Groupe Scolaire Officiel, Manirakiza went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Université Hassan II-Mohammedia – Casablanca (Morocco) and then studied Pharmacy at Université Mohamed V-Souissi – Rabat (Morocco), ultimately earning a doctorate degree from Université de Caen Basse – Normandie (France), specializing in Pharmacy and Humanitarian Aid.

Learning to Heal

Today, a seasoned pro at adapting to disparate cultural and geographic environments, Manirakiza says that every day in the United States is full of surprises. He remains amazed at the diversity of the U.S. population, including the range of accents and customs.

“Every day, I learn different ways of thinking and dealing with issues from my classmates, and we work collaboratively together,” he says. “This enriches my experience working effectively to bring about change in communities with people here from different backgrounds.”

This collaborative environment has forced Manirakiza to address the ways his past experiences have shaped his current identity. Many instances that qualify as “trauma” within his course content are scenarios he considers to be simple realities of life. So now he is working hard to overcome his biases and sensitize himself to the impact of these conditions.

“The concept of trauma is known in Rwanda, but many Rwandans have limited knowledge of trauma-healing skills,” he says. “Living in such extreme trauma situations on daily basis made many believe that trauma maybe a part of life—something that you can live or deal with by yourself.

“Although I am actually more aware of trauma situations, I am still very limited in the ability of helping people healing from trauma,” Manirakiza admits. “I find it difficult to connect immediately to the depth of what they feel because of my background.” He suggests that this may also be due to his educational background.

Manirakiza found a perfect way to bridge his educational experiences when he discovered that Arcadia offers a dual degree program in IPCR and Public Health. He switched his major in spring 2011.

“Arcadia’s dual degree curricula added a strong pillar to my career perspectives of working in transnational NGOs for development and state-building,” he says. “The fieldwork component that IPCR provides is unique and gives an opportunity of visiting different countries and studying their models of dealing with conflicts and developing themselves while cooperating with various NGOs.”

So far, he’s gained hands-on experience through two short-term field study courses: International Experience: Peace & Reconciliation in Ireland and Minority Rights, Nationalism, and Ethnic Conflict in Kosovo and Serbia. The experiences illuminated important elements of his Public Health curriculum.

“These [experiences] opened me up to different ways of participating in community- and state-building in respecting minority rights. MPH filled in a huge gap (understanding behavior, social determinants of health, etc.) that I had as a pharmacist focused on the biomedical aspects of participating in health planning for a lot of people.”

As Manirakiza works towards broadening his career into the nongovernmental organization sector, he notes that his ultimate goal is to work as an independent consultant. After graduation, he hopes to strengthen his experience by planning and implementing health programs in developing countries with transnational NGOs, improving health conditions and positively impacting areas of conflict.