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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
(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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
3. Draw a happy memory and a sad memory.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?”