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
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.
will feel more relaxed.
2. They will have increased self-esteem.
will be more cooperative.
4. They will have new tools to use in relating with
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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
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.
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).
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).
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.”