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Journals from Africa by Gloria Simoneaux
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Journal Seven

July 15, 2007

Langata Prison & University of Nairobi

One of the reasons that I was excited about returning to Kenya was to work with the women and children at Langata Prison. Maggie, a dear friend and country director of The International Child Resource Institute, had written over a year ago asking me to do an art therapy project in the prison. Most of the women are imprisoned for petty crimes and sometimes they remain two years or more before they are even sentenced. Those women wear white uniforms, and they are many. The true prisoners wear striped uniforms and they often receive sentences of over five years. Maggie told me that women commonly receive a five-year sentence for having an abortion. That says it all right there.

Langata is one of the most congested prisons in Africa and the women have their children live with them until age five. At age five, the children are basically sent out on the streets, unless there are relatives willing to care for them (not often the case). I was beside myself with anticipation, looking forward to working with the women and their children and I had collected all sorts of materials to incorporate into the work.

The morning that we arrived at Langata, I noticed groups of women busy on various work crews, but more disturbing were the many women, sitting around doing nothing in groups or individually, with their heads in their palms looking hopeless. I felt so sad and even more determined to bring some joy and relief into their lives.

We had to meet with several officials to explain the project and that included long stretches of waiting in small depressing offices. I watched the prisoners through the window. Grace, the “Prison Matron” was out of town for several weeks and so we finally met with the second in charge; a scary looking, big woman with an expressionless face, in uniform. She gave me an opportunity to explain my goals and I gave her a list of excellent reasons of how art therapy would benefit the prisoners.

1. They will feel more relaxed.
2. They will have increased self-esteem.
3. They will be more cooperative.
4. They will have new tools to use in relating with their children.

While I was talking I realized that she was unimpressed and didn’t have the slightest interest in the well-being or emotional state of the prisoners. She got up and said, “Wait here.” Almost an hour later she returned and said, “Permission denied.” That was the end of the prison project. What can you do? This is Africa…you never know what will happen next, and anyway, there is plenty of need everywhere you turn your head. I was disappointed, but immediately started to look elsewhere.

My hotel was two blocks from the University of Nairobi and I passed it every day while walking around town. It was fascinating to watch the students coming and going…their choice of clothing (quite formal), the large range in ages and their general proud demeanor.

One day I decided to explore the campus and I found the psychology department on the fifth floor (walking up, of course). The stairs were crumbling and half missing and I had to be really careful not to fall and break my bones. At room 547 I knocked on the door and was soon speaking with two administrators. After my introduction, “I work with children in California using art and play therapy and I teach at a University. Would you be interested in a lecture?” they quickly had the head of the department on the phone. Priscilla (who later became a good friend) enthusiastically asked me to show up a couple of evenings later to lecture 3rd year psychology students.

The lecture hall was packed with about 60 young and middle-aged people in suits. Priscilla introduced me, saying to the group, “As you know we have been studying human sexuality. It’s like art therapy.” I stared at her in disbelief, and I said, “I never heard that before.” She smiled at me and added, “You have to be creative to do both…you had to come all the way to Africa to learn that.” Everyone was laughing and that was the moment that I fell in love with Prof Priscilla (as she is called).

The lecture began, and once again (same as the CONNECT training in Zimbabwe) I realized early on that the students are being taught through lectures and books...no experiential learning. They are logical and academic, and it was pretty clear that they had no clue as to what I was talking about. Again, I gave the little speech about “I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable in this training etc.” and everyone looked puzzled, nervous and so FORMAL. I quickly realized that I had to give the next speech, the one that goes: “You will be challenged here this evening and everyone must participate in all of the exercises.”

In Kenya there is no encouragement to explore creativity, imagination or intuition. People go to school, study hard to pass the rigorous exams and then they work to put food on the table. Art? For what? Interestingly, I discovered that it was even more rigid than Zimbabwe, where students were able to tap into their creativity more quickly and the children were shockingly inventive with art materials. In Kenya it was more of a challenge, …art and play is simply not valued.

I had brought eyeglasses with me, decorated with cardboard elephant tusks and tiger whiskers and I passed them out. Everyone had to wear them during the training and as you can imagine, with an elephant trunk on your nose you can’t take yourself too seriously. The group began to relax.

We started off with a drawing exercise…a happy memory and a painful one…and I thought to myself, “These folks are psychology students. I can move into some challenging material.” Wrong again! Later, one of the department professors shared with me, “When we drew at first it was so intense. None of us had ever done that type of thing before.” They were asked to share their experiences and drawings with the group and nobody (out of 60 students!) volunteered. I had to push and coax and finally insist, saying, “You must share here this evening. Otherwise we won’t learn anything. PLEASE volunteer!!” Pointing at someone, “You. Thank you for being our next volunteer.” Slowly people started to share their very intense and personal stories. The majority chose to remain quiet. We used puppets, did role-plays and laughed. I showed my slide show (of art work collected over thirty years of working with traumatized children) and talked about my experiences with children around the world, how similar all children are, about art as a non-threatening medium for communication, about our interconnectedness and about the wisdom that children hold. I also gave the speech about left brain/right brain and how we need to develop both sides in order to be balanced human beings. I kept thanking them for being so open to new things (a bit of an exaggeration on my part).

After the lecture I was invited to join the other professors (four men and Priscilla) from the department in the student lounge for a drink. They were all delightful, funny and very appreciative of my lecture. We sat on old couches in a dinghy area with the TV blaring (soccer game) in one corner, drank beer and talked about their hopes and dreams (personal, for the country and for the continent).

Shockingly, the University three-year degree program offers NO courses in child therapy (How can that be? There are children dying all over the streets) and of course no courses in expressive arts. They want me to return and teach. When I asked Priscilla, “Do your students go through their own therapy and explore their pain? You can’t be an effective therapist if you don’t examine your own fears.” her answer was, “We don’t have the capacity. No therapists. When you come back you can do that also.” Peter, one of the professors, said to me, “It was such a captivating talk. You are so practiced…it just happens. You know how to create a safe environment, just like that.”

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