Fading nightmares with games and listening

For those recovering from violence, UNICEF offers psychosocial support, adapting its response to needs & ways of life.

By Anne Kennedy

27 May 2019

“I feel better now,” says 12-year-old Hassanatou*. “When I arrived, I was tired. When I arrived, I had done something I had never done.”

The thing she had never done before was walk, with her family, in 40 degrees Celsius, for twelve days through the center of Mali.

“We left at night, seeing flames in another village. It was after that I learnt my village had been burnt: that is the story I know”

Hassanatou, 12 years old

“We had a fear of the road, so we went through the bush to arrive here,” explains her father, Moussa, about their decision to avoid the roads where he feared they would be attacked. He had to ask Hassanatou to do it and “despite her fear, she kept walking.” When they finally arrived, he saw his daughter sit, exhausted, her feet swollen.  She was exhausted for days. When she slept, she had nightmares.

Her story is not unique: over 70,000 people are displaced in Mali’s central region of Mopti, making it the region of Mali which now accommodates the highest number of internally displaced persons. A sharp increase in insecurity and violence in central Mali, including the unprecedented attack on Ogossagou village in March in which at least 46 children were killed, has been the main driver of displacement. All of this is affecting children’s safety and wellbeing – including their mental health.

“For the thousands of people who have fled violence, beyond their physical needs, their recovery hinges on having specialized assistance.”

Ahmed Ould Sid’ahmed Ould Aida, Chief Field Office, UNICEF Mopti

In response, UNICEF, through its partner COOPI, sent a social worker to assist the recovery of children like Hassanatou, who are now living in an informal settlement in Banguetaba. Three times a week officially, and many more times on her own time, 35-year-old Alimatou Berthé, arrives to help the over 100 children here.


She uses a UNICEF kit, which contains specially chosen board games, puzzles and skipping ropes, and a vast repertoire of Malian games and stories.  Board games give a foundation for math, skipping and football get the children active and working in teams, while stories allow them to discuss their feelings. The games were instant favorites, with skipping being Hassanatou’s favorite. Alimatou sees the immediate difference the games make: “When I come, the children are relieved. When we play, they smile and forget. They’re very engaged. We work with their problems, their needs, we listen.”

Psychosocial support activities put in place by UNICEF have already reached over 600 displaced children in Mopti and Sévaré towns. The results are already visible: children have gained in confidence, are building trust in others again, and their anxiety and nightmares are fading. Alimatou remembers meeting Hassanatou for the first time: “The first day that we met, she was a little shy. Now it is she who comes up to me! I’m happy.”

Hassanatou’s mother Binta has noticed the change in behavior in her daughter too. “This is a very good idea because the children can have fun and learn.” The classes have not only given Hassanatou a space to feel safe and forget her traumatizing experiences, they have also set up a foundation for her formal education, making her curious and interested in learning. Alimatou also sees her beginning to be more confident.

“She learns by doing,” says Alimatou. “I demonstrate a game in front of her, she follows me and does the same thing. She is good at math. Her intelligence is noticeable.”

Children are better able to recover in an environment they trust. For Hassanatou that means staying together with the others who have fled to Mopti from six semi-nomadic villages, in their own settlement in Banguetaba, rather than in the official IDP camp in the town center.

By staying within the settlement, Hassanatou can try to recover surrounded by the sounds and smells of her home: cows lowing, millet cooking, goats bleating, and children who speak her language to play with. Hassanatou likes it.

I feel better here. I am not threatened here and there is a lot of children with whom I play.”


Hassanatou’s nightmares have stopped now, her mother Binta explains. She puts the change down to the new atmosphere around her. When she had told her to pack on the night they fled, Hassanatou had asked no questions. Her mother felt she knew they were in danger. But now, she says, “She sees no signs of fear and threat. She sees herself in safety.”

For Hassanatou, despite knowing her village has been burned, she would prefer to go home. “I want to return, because it is where I grew up.”


Her career ambition has, however, changed; now she wants to become a social worker. Pointing at Alimatou, she says she too wants to become a social worker - “the type of that plays games” - for the simple reason that “that is what I like doing.”

Her failure to yet win at the newer games does not intimidate her. In a calm tone she asserts: “I am learning.” A small step on the longest of journeys, to recovery, has begun.

*Some names have been changed