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Journals from Africa by Gloria Simoneaux
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Journal Six

July 13, 2007

CONNECT Training (Harare, Zimbabwe)

The workshop with CONNECT had been arranged via email several months earlier and I was eagerly looking forward to working with therapy students. I had been told that CONNECT (Institute of Family Therapy offering a three year degree program) was one of the more sophisticated local operations with a strong infrastructure. That appealed to me tremendously. I was looking forward to a smooth, constructive day. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

It was a Monday morning and Rodgers, our driver, dropped us off at the CONNECT office at 9:15. It turned out that the training was being held elsewhere, and so we piled back in car and drove to another site. OK. No problem…so far. When Michelle and I entered the large conference room there were about 35 people sitting around in a U shape behind desks and they were just finishing introducing themselves. There was a sense of irritation and several groans, when I said, “I’m sorry but you must do the introductions again.” (Why they didn’t wait for us in the first place is beyond me. Never mind.)

We were informed that the power was out (what a surprise), and that tea would be delayed. Let me explain something…tea is not just tea. Tea, with biscuits, is IMPORTANT in the Zimbabwean culture (let me just say right now that the entire day was becoming really wacky and basically never let up). With tea being postponed, people began to get grumpy. I’m sure that many of them hadn’t eaten anything that morning, and actually the free food seems to be as much of a draw as say, woman comes all the way from America to teach us art therapy skills.

At noon the power finally went back on (briefly) and tea was served, but there weren’t enough biscuits to go around. I myself was really hungry and when I reached the biscuit area and noticed the lack of them, I became a bit crazy. I was counting on the damn biscuit. I also felt really badly for ½ of the group that remained hungry. There was one white guy in our class of 36 students (my least favorite). Turns out that he is a missionary, but the important part is that he was talking with someone, and he was HOLDING A BISCUIT. I stared at it intently and practically pounced on him. I guess it was obvious, because he handed me the biscuit and I tried to break it in half (and offer him some) but he didn’t accept. I gave a piece to Michelle and kept the biggest half for myself. We continued the training….many people still hungry. Suddenly I remembered the package of Trader Joe’s Japanese rice crackers that I had in my bag for an emergency. I took them out and distributed one to each student, saying, “These crackers are from Japan and after you eat one, you will be able to speak the Japanese language.” They didn’t like the crackers but they loved trying to speak in Japanese…laughing wildly.

During the morning it became clear that most of the participants were very logical, in their heads, poorly trained and up tight. The men dominated the group. I had started the training in the same way that I always start, saying, “We will be doing many experiential exercises today and I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. If you don’t want to join in at any point, just sit quietly and observe.” Big mistake. What they heard was, “Just sit at your desk all day long and do nothing.”

Everyone was sitting still and looking around uncomfortably. They were worried about doing the wrong thing or not drawing well and I had to change my approach, FAST. Next little speech…”You know what I said fifteen minutes ago? It’s not true. Everyone HAS TO do everything that I ask you to do, use all of the colors and other materials and I am going to challenge you today…you may feel really uncomfortable. In order to work well with children, you have to EXPERIENCE playing and drawing without worrying and thinking…AND, there is no right or wrong way to express yourself. Everyone’s expression has the same value.”

We were supposed to break for lunch at 1:00 but the power was still out. By 2:30 there was still no lunch in sight and I was GRUMPY. The training was being affected negatively by the lack of power and the lack of FOOD. The “organizers” (joke), had no idea when the food would arrive or where it was coming from. Michelle and I decided to walk to the nearest store and buy food for the group in order to get things moving.

We started to walk to the store through a lovely park. There is not much in the way of sidewalks (as we know them) over there and so one must be really vigilant to avoid huge holes. We arrived about fifteen minutes later feeling edgy. There was a VERY long line of folks waiting for something inside the store. As it turned out, they were on line to purchase sugar. Within two minutes, a group of more than 25 very young military BOYS dressed in camouflage uniforms and carrying large guns that looked real, stormed into the market and pushed their way to the head of the line. Michelle and I panicked a bit (especially her) and she told me to hurry.

The feeling in the store was volatile and scary particularly because we had read so many warnings about staying away from crowded areas. I ran around collecting apples, warm rolls, biscuits and peanut butter while Michelle nervously kept our place in line. Meanwhile, as soon as we arrived at the cash register we were told that she was closing and we had to find another register, and another long line. At the same time, the lines were beginning to fill up with the very small boys in uniforms with the BIG guns. They each hauled enormous loads of sugar, packaged into dozens of smaller packages. Finally, the civilians weren’t able to buy any.

All of this took place within ten or fifteen minutes and meanwhile, (Michelle was very shaken) we ran into Power, one of our beloved street boys, right there in the store. Of course we gave Power some of the food, and then we started walking back to the training site. Suddenly we ran into another of the street children, Tatenda! It was wonderful to see him and of course we also gave him food, so that our supply was diminishing rapidly. It took us fifteen minutes to walk back, and when we arrived we realized immediately that the real lunch had arrived. Everyone was deliriously happy to be eating, and it was a great meal. When they saw us arrive, the “organizers” went to get the best pieces of chicken, which had been carefully saved for us. We put our store bought food aside but during the afternoon it walked away. Who knows where it ended up.

After lunch we started up again, but it had been such a nutty day…running around town looking for food…and it wasn’t easy to re-engage. One of the students offered to lead us in an “energizer,” which consisted of forming a circle, and everyone taking a turn trying to make the person next to them laugh. As we went around the circle, the ones who laughed had to step out and those who could keep a straight face continued to play. It was deeply touching to see how much fun they were having.

One of the many things that I love about leading trainings in Africa is the need to CONSTANTLY be on my toes. I may think that things are progressing fine, and then in a flash I realize, “no one understands a word of what I’m talking about.” I have to think fast, keep people’s attention and re-invent the direction in an instant. It means having sharp observation skills, being really present (requiring the very best of me), and on top of that, having the confidence to accomplish all of that.

There is usually a vast range of skill levels and experiences among training participants, and of course, every training has its own set of surprises. To be a great trainer requires flexibility, a willingness to be wrong and a willingness to be vulnerable. On many occasions I have said to a group, “Thank you for your patience with me. I have so much to learn from you” (which is, of course, the truth). I love it when they feel safe enough to tell me that what I have suggested doesn’t work for them (for example, in Zimbabwe…the grandmothers who were being trained as teachers, because most of the teachers had died… told me that “respect” does not apply for children. Respect is reserved for elders in their culture). Agenda? Fine, as long as you know you won’t use it.

The CONNECT training was attended by first year students, practicing therapists and a whole range in between. Not so easy to match everyone’s needs. But in between running around looking for food we did a lot of good work. First exercise of the day was to draw a tree of life. People were directed to draw themselves as a tree; the roots are those who have supported you in your journey, the trunk represents where you are in your life now and the leaves represent what gives you meaning in your life. The fallen leaves and fruit on the ground represent your losses and what you have learned from your challenges. They began to loosen up as they described their tree drawings. Other exercises included:

1. Draw a safe place and draw a scary place.
2. Draw a safe place within yourself.
3. Draw a happy memory and a sad memory.

The exercises themselves don’t have much meaning...the meaning comes from the trainer’s ability to create an atmosphere…assuring that everyone feels seen and safe. That’s what determines the efficacy of the exercises.

I gave them each a small colorful letter of the alphabet and I asked them to think of something from their childhood that starts with that letter…draw it, write about it and then act it out in front of the group. Throughout the training it’s important to create an experience of childhood play. The Zimbabweans are, on the whole, a playful and creative culture and they appreciate being encouraged to be silly and use their imagination.

We did many role-plays, and I was shocked at the lack of understanding of therapeutic intervention and listening skills (the key to therapy, to begin with). During one role-play, I had asked a man to play the therapist and a woman acted a child who had been abused by her uncle and had shown up at school irritable and angry at other children. The “therapist” said to the little girl, after she confided in him, ”You must go to see the priest. He will help you.” That’s a pretty easy way out, I thought. There was no reflecting back, no empathy or warmth, no nothing. One of the challenges of teaching in Africa (or anywhere, for that matter) is to demonstrate alternatives without making the students wrong. It’s a good challenge.

The CONNECT group loved playing with puppets and we used them a lot. I asked, “How did it feel when you were talking through the puppet instead of person to person?” Someone said, “It felt easier to talk that way, less threatening.” “YES!!” I shouted. Sometimes the questions really surprised me. One woman asked, “Should we look at the puppet or at the child while we are using the puppet?” “Great question” I respond (always). “What do you think?” And sometimes the comments put me over the edge, thinking to myself, “I am on another planet.” I was showing my slide show of artwork that I’ve collected over 30 years by homeless and children with cancer. One of the images is a very compelling and evocative painting of a baby painted in black and blue. The story accompanying the painting simply reads, “A black and blue baby rocks in the cradle.” After I showed that particular one, a woman in the group raised her hand and said, “multi racial.” I just stared at her and said, “uh, yes.”

There was a man in the group who continuously challenged me, particularly during the slide show, by making comments such as, “That doesn’t look like a house” when the child’s story was, “Me in my new house.” I didn’t have much patience for him. At the end of the workshop he came up to me, and said, “Now I will argue with Gloria.” Wrong,” I said. “There’s not going to be any arguing here.”

Several days after the training I went to visit Dennis (CONNECT Executive Director) at his office to discuss the training and next steps. His students had requested a week-long workshop, (open to advanced students only), for next year.

I invited Masimba (DrawBridge International, Art Facilitator) to accompany me to the meeting…I had an idea. “Dennis,” I said, “I have a deal to make with you. Masimba is a man who I admire enormously and he wants to study psychology. Accept him as a student in the degree program that starts in September…no fees, no application, based solely on my recommendation, and I will continue to volunteer as a trainer for CONNECT.” Dennis looked me in the eyes for a moment, and then said, “OK.”

Masimba is now officially a CONNECT student…quite a wonderful honor. As we were leaving, he looked at me lovingly and said, “Glow, how do you do these things?”

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