Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Home But Not Home

I am home but not home.

My mind wonders to the noisy streets of Gbarnga and Voinjama
the muddy and bumpy roads to Foya and Bellefini.
I find myself sitting
in the Peace Huts in Kalahuan and Gbattilla
listening to stories
of suffering and hope.

I look out my Minneapolis window
I expect to see lush green wild terrain
red and yellow flowers
mountains in the distance.
I only see manicured lawns
bare trees and flat, flat land.

I walk but do not hear "Hello, white man."
I hear nothing not even "Hello."
I look for dark faces but
mostly pale white faces pass me
only occasionally does a rich deep dark
skinned human being come my way.

Yes, I am home but not home.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Trip Home

Cars quitely cruise through the streets of Chicago and for the first time I recognize the peacefulness of Chicago.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Movement, Healing, and Story

Musicals intrigue and often amuse me a scene unfolds a group of people talk to one another and go about their business when suddenly everyone spontaneously burst into song and dance.

In teaching storytelling I feel the most healing aspect of storytelling comes about in the creation of story and secondarily in the hearing or telling of story. In three workshops in Liberia I presented a method in which the participants create a story using their body energy to create two characters. The first character arises out of a process in which the participant identifies an area of discomfort or distress in their body and the second character is a counter character to the first. Both characters arise out of the awareness of the body’s emotional and physical energy and given expression with movement. The participants complete the process by writing and/or imagining a story in which the two characters meet and come to terms with each other and the participants then tell the story. I developed this method to work with individuals who were suffering from physical illness and for those with physical symptoms associated with various forms of trauma.

What I noticed in contrast to my usual American participants was that the African participant’s movement looked more like dance than a gesture such as a hand wave. So I had the participants as a group rhythmically do the movement of both of their characters individually and then slowly combine together the movements of both characters. And this was the point that I realized that musicals are for real and not just made up for screen and stage. The participants were encouraged to make a sound with their movement. Their sounds blended into a wonderful rhythmic beat and the movement and the beat combined into a celebrative community dance. In one group a call and response wrap type song burst out. This spontaneous combustion of sound, song, dance and movement lasted for about a half an hour.

At the end the participants reported a sense of healing, well being, and a different understanding of their physical discomfort. Most understood that the distress in their body was associated with trauma suffered during the Liberian Civil war. In the story the participants created a bridge between characters to help heal their trauma and in the movement and dance they reinforced that bridge. What I also realized was that the story and initial movement was an expression of individual inner healing and the dancing was a movement towards community and cultural healing. In African culture story and dance often go hand-and-hand. Simply the process encouraged movement from isolation to relationship with self, with community, and with culture.

So yes spontaneous outbursts of group songs and dance do happen not only in musicals but also in real life when people live in a culture that understands the connection between the individual and community, between dance, story and song, and between healing and celebration.

Two Works In Progress

Gazing Over the Atlantic

I have frequently sat
on the shore, gazing
across the Atlantic Ocean
self-assured, North to my left
America at my back
sunrise before me
imagining Europe and Africa
far away

Today, I quietly sat
on the shore, gazing
across the Atlantic Ocean
disoriented, North to my right
Africa at my back
sunset before me
imagining North and South America
far away

An Ode to Generators

The roar of the generator
disturbs my thoughts
an ever present
ceaseless drone
a constant unwanted
annoying companion.
Until darkness
steals light
from every corner.

A flipped switch
light fills the dark
empty spaces.
The roar of the generator
disturbs my thoughts
a ceaseless drone.
an annoying presence
but tonight a
welcomed companion.

Friday, November 2, 2007

I Come and Go

Minneapolis, Chicago, Brussells, Monrovia, Gbarnga, Belefenai, ZorZor, Voinjama, Kolahun, Foya, Massabolahn, Zorzor, Gbarnga, Bellefini, Gbartalla, Monrovia, Brussells, Chicago, Minneapolis

In Liberia a common phrase is “I come and go.” Since being here I have come not only to like the phrase but to use it. Let me explain. Three to four hours a day bouncing over dirt roads and cruising through deep mud puddles jumbles my mind to the point that some days I forget if I am coming or going. So the phrase “I come and go” personally expresses quite well the rigors of travel in Liberia and my confused mind.

In the thesaurus “go” is to depart and “come” is to arrive. So the phrase “I come and go” means something like “I arrive and I depart.” The statement seems very hopeful. We are already envisioning our arrival even before we depart. This optimistic perspective seems very useful in a land were traveling is minimally an extreme sport and at times even dangerous.

There are very few paved roads in Liberia and many major routes our simply wide dirt trails dotted with small mud hut villages through the bush. My own experience of traveling through seven foot mud holes, seeing trucks full of people stuck for two, three or more days and the tales of my colleagues taking two or three days just to travel 70 miles helps me to understand why for many Liberians even before education and health care roads are seen as their number one priority.

The access to education and health care would be dramatically improved with better roads. The ability to easily come and go to the local community markets would improve the economic conditions of individuals while supporting the local market economy. New roads will not solve the problems of Liberia but the roads would be a start. In a conversation with a government official involved in the Community Development Action Committee the suggestion was made that in Liberia there was a need for a Roads for Humanity Project. He agreed. In the mean time the hope implied in the statement “I come and I go” or “I arrive and I depart” will need to suffice until the national will, energy, and resources become focused on building roads.

It's Not easy Being a Stranger

One of my students in Africa said, “It is not easy to be a stranger.”

Within a few days of arriving in Liberia I realized how true this statement is. Though I would not have had the words until I heard her say these words.

I found myself wanting to go home. I was feeling very sick.

“Why did I come here?” I lamented.

And from the depths of my inner child I kept repeating, “I think I’m dieing. I want to go home.”

Maybe I ate bad food, drank tainted water, or a mosquito bit me and infected me with malaria. I didn’t know and I didn’t care.

I just kept repeating, “I am dieing and I want to go home and be in my own bed.”

My bout with illness soon passed, so to speak, and the death laments faded but part of me still longed to be home.

In the next few days I heard many times, “Hello, how are you?”

People wanted to know how I felt and if I would be okay. At first still feeing sorry for myself, I gave a short curt courteous response, “I am fine. Thanks for asking.”

However, as people continued to ask about my health I realized these people were truly concerned. They were not just being polite. Once I allowed myself to be touched by their concern I felt a little less a stranger. No, it is not easy to be a stranger but it is not so hard to begin to feel at home when so many people care.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bridge over St. Paul

The waters of the St. Paul River roil over ancient rocks through a maze of thick green covered land. An old steel bridge spans the waters. I do not drive over the bridge. I choose to walk. I hear the sounds of rushing water and as I take each step I hear quiet whispering voices. They speak softly and sadly.*

“I lost her on the border of Guinea. I never saw her again until I discovered she became a rebel’s wife. She was hard and I did not recognize her.”

Another step,

“I saw them cut off my brother’s head then kill my sister. They chopped her children into little pieces. I will never forget.”

Another step,

“I was forced to be a rebel’s wife and forced to work even when I was sick. I was determined to escape.”


“My children went with my mother and I hid in the bush. Lost, I thought I would never see my children again. Rumors were heard by my family that I was killed. Thank, God my brother came to search for me and found me.


“My papers, I lost my papers and I did not think. I ran back to get them. I heard gunfire.”


“They yelled at me because my baby was crying. We were hiding in the bush and they were afraid we would be found and shot.


“There were pregnant women every where giving birth but we could not stop they were left to themselves and the cries filled the night.”

Another, step

“They said they would cut off my hand or my leg if I did not do as they said. They gave me a choice. Thank God, I escaped”

With each step I hear more voices and they tell me tragic stories and the sadness overwhelms me.

As I walk across the bridge in my imagination I see women, children, and men crawling to avoid the cross fire of the rebels and others in terror jump from the bridge into the river to their death. I see parents holding infants, and men protecting spouses. I also see those so numb with fear that they are absorbed only with their own survival. Most of all I see a determination to cross this river -the border between Lofa County and Bong County and a willingness to accept death rather than be captured by the rebel armies of Charles Taylor. I turn and gaze across the bridge and sadness fills me. I cannot believe and I cannot imagine. Yet I know the stories to be true. I have heard the stories with my own ears. As I take my last step off the bridge I hear a cacophony of voices calling to be heard. I am sad and silent.

*None of these stories represent any one person but are a synthesis of the many stories of survivors I heard over several weeks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Story Circles:Recieving Support and Learning Story and Counseling Skills

One of my major tasks in being in Liberia was to explore and experiment with the CVT counselors to find ways to integrate their tradition of storytelling with their clinical training. In Liberia this was important because storytelling is a natural way to teach and communicate. The need was to find a format that would be culturally appropriate and sound clinically. The desired outcome was that the counselors would deepen their clinical understanding by seeing their work through the perspective of storytelling and grow their skills in using story in their counseling practice. In addition the process had to be co-created with the counselors to insure ownership. Their participation led to the surprising to me but what should have been obvious was their deep desire to tell their stories and to be heard. They expressed this as a need and as a means of gaining support. The challenge, therefore,was to create a culturally appropriate process that would enable the counselors to receive support;to cultivate an awareness of and the skills to use cultural, literary, and personal story in their practice; and to provide an opportunity to learn new stories.

The natural format was a group process and this was both clinically and culturally appropriate. Liberians in general feel strong ties to their clan and community. Also the counselors work in teams and usually work clinically with groups. Finally, storytelling and receiving group support were a natural fit. As we shared the term Story Circles was adopted as the name of the process.

To begin the story circle the counselors developed a ritual of calling each other to attention. Each group of counselors chose their own way of doing this. Some chose song, others a call and response, others very simply chose to start with a “Hello” in their own language, and one group chose to begin with “Once Upon a Time.” As a fairly religious community with strong ties to Islam and Christianity for the next step each group chose prayer. The prayer could be said or song and they agreed that the prayer could be either Christian or Moslem. The telling of personal story would be next and each person would be given three to five minutes to tell their story. The topic could be about their work or from their life past or present. Once the story is told the group would acknowledge the person telling the story with a “Thank you,” The group for fifteen minutes ends this segment of the Story Circle by sharing what they personally gained from hearing each other’s story.

The second half of the session is focused on learning a story. The story is told or read and several steps are taken to encourage the learning of the story. The second phase is a discussion about the story and then the circumstances when to use the story and with what type of client. This discussion encourages critical analysis of story both clinically and personally. (I have not fully described this part of the session because of the complexity of the approach.) The session ends with an opportunity for each participant to briefly tell the group one thing they are taking with them from their time together.

As the clinical supervisors experienced how well the process was working for the counselors a decision was made to adopt the Story Circles for use throughout Liberia. In the next two weeks I will be intensely training selected clinicians in the details of the process and conducting story circles in all of the counties served by CVT.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Meeting the Imam

Each morning a distant chanting voice enters my window and gently summons me to be for a moment awake and then the gentleness of the sound lulls me back to sleep. I do not understand most of the words but just as I enjoy the ringing of church bells I enjoy this melodic unfamiliar sound. I do however understand the word “Allah” and each time I hear Allah I know that I am in a different world. I have known many Moslems in my life but their culture submerged in the overwhelming Western Christian culture barely breaks through the surface. Here the Islamic culture permeates the lives of everyone Moslem or not.

Recently, I visited the town of Massabolahn in the Kolahun District in Lofa County. When I stepped out of the vehicle I heard a drum. At first I could not locate the person drumming but eventually I saw a young boy beating a drum and in front of him was an entourage of about twenty men, women, and children. In the center walked a tall bearded man with his head covered with a red stitched Middle Eastern scarf and wearing a long black robe covering a yellow undergarment. As he moved through the streets people showed their respect and people came out of their homes and businesses to greet him and the others in his entourage. As he approached he stopped and greeted me in Arabic and I returned the greeting. We shook hands and he asked what nationality I was. I told him American. He smiled and nodded. We shared a few more pleasant glances and smiles since neither spoke the other’s language and then with a hand shake he moved on. I watched him as he moved continued down the street meeting and greeting everyone along the way. I later discovered that this man is a very important local Imam, a teacher of Islam.

I find the followers of Islam in Liberia firm in their belief and with a strong determination to lead good and exemplarily lives. For the past three weeks during Ramadan I experienced the followers of Islam maintaining a schedule of work, family, and prayer while fasting throughout the day until sunset. During this time they have absolutely no food and often nothing to drink. I found myself a little embarrassed when I thought about my feeble attempts at fasting and praying during Lent and Advent.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Something within me spoke and I saw myself running back for my things. Picking them up was the first time to hear real bullet passing by my ears. I quickly hurried to Musu and we jumped into the nearby thick bush. There was no specific road. We were desperate for survival and so entered the forest in order to distant ourselves from where people were being shot and killed. It was now getting dark and there was no flashlight…. S. S.

When I am told a personal story of a person who survived the Liberian Civil War the sound of their voice enters my ear but my mind at first resists and refuses to allow the story to enter. Eventually the story does enter and imprints an image on my mind. I hear the stories of the senseless deaths of wives, husbands, children, uncles, aunts, and grandparents and the stories of those who will not recover from this tragic war. However, when I allow the whole story to enter and not just the suffering and the tragedy I witness resiliency and experience hope.

I also have plans now to apply for re admission at the University of Liberia for the coming 2008/2009 school year( through the grace of God), in order to continue my studies. S.S.

The level of hope that many of the survivors carry within them amazes me and their courage encourages me. I did not know what to expect when I came to Liberia or who I would be when I returned to the States. I am beginning to sense the change but I am still waiting to see what it is. However, my sense is that it is for the good.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

My Mud Story

On the road to Voinjama after working with a group on story and clinical practice the driver and I came upon a seven foot deep mud hole in the road. In one lane a truck tipping precariously to one side wallowed in the mud and in the other lane mud covered people dug, pushed, and pulled a car trapped in the depths of the huge mud puddle. My driver determined not to be delayed pulled to the front of the entourage passing several vehicles. He got out and began to discuss the situation with the other blocked travelers.

Quickly he and the others came to a decision. He unhooked the winch with the intention of pulling the two day stuck truck out of the mud. My driver along with several others began to give directions including to me and I soon found myself behind the wheel of the vehicle.

In the mean time the muddy people in the other lane managed to push the car out of the deep mud hole. My driver immediately assessed the situation and realized that we could not budge the truck even with my expert driving. He quickly detached the winch from the truck and was about to position us to use our four wheel drive to navigate through the now empty hole when a small two wheel drive car dove into the hole.

Now this common practice allows the driver to receive all the necessary help he needs to get pushed or pulled out of the hole and to be able to go on his way. So we or should I say my driver quickly positioned us to pull the car out of the hole and once out to place our vehicle in line to be the next to take the plunge. Once we pulled the car out my driver quickly unhooked and rewound the winch and drove our vehicle to the edge of the hole. In our four wheel drive vehicle we launched forward and careened straight down into the seemingly cavernous mud pit. We bounced off the walls of mud and sloshed through the water. I must admit I loved it. And the good news with the four wheel drive and the expertise of my driver we made it through to the other side. However, this was not the end of the story.

Just before we were to take the plunge the UN Pakistan forces arrived with heavy trucks and winches. They introduced themselves shook hands and assured everyone they were there to help. Once free and speeding down the road I felt less guilty leaving the others stuck in the mud. I knew the UN forces would free everyone we left behind in the mud. Well, at least for that particular mud hole in that particular moment.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Reflection on Storytelling in Liberia via Alaska

In Alaska I met a tribal doctor who worked for the Native Medical Center in Anchorage. In our conversation she shared her story and her history of dreams and visions.

I asked, “Do you still have dreams, visions and a story?”

She said, “No.”

When I asked, “Are you living your dreams, visions, and your story?

She answered. “No.”

I was perplexed.

She then moved forward in her chair and touched her heart and said “I am my dream, I am my vision, and I am my story.”

I realized how short sighted I was. Always thinking of a story as something I was going to tell or as my unfolding story that I was creating. Her straight forward response, “I am my story,” captured the essential nature of story and the relationship of story to identity.

At times when I share this experience with others they look puzzled and say, “I don’t get it.”

In one incident the response was “How arrogant can you get? To think you are the story.”

As I shared this experience with Liberians, I found that most understood the significance and meaning of the tribal doctor’s response. They know they are their story and that each person is a story. They also are quick to point out that they are not the whole story. Their community including family, town, and clan are the story and the stories are not separate. In spite of being torn apart by war they still see themselves as one story.

The Liberian people in general romanticize the modern United States and some downplay the traditional ways. In the past village storytellers told stories in costumes but many of the young people have not experience this because of the war. Most of the people in Liberia were displaced, refugeed, or experienced some traumatic event. In spite of the total disruption of life, within Liberians remains a natural affinity for storytelling as a means of conversation and seeing life. The traditional forms of storytelling may be lost for some but the informal art and essence of storytelling remains strong in the Liberian culture.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?

The poet’s neighbor who said “Good fences make good neighbors,” never saw the fences of war.

Surrounded by thick fences I stay hidden tending my own small garden. Hiding behind fences embedded with sharp glass and razor wire so no one dare climb over to visit. Fences too high that I never see my neighbors faces though I hear their voices. Fences that open to those I already know, to those who are safe, to those who do not threaten me. Once they are gone a guard closes the fence gate; and is vigilant night and day so I am not disturbed as I tend my garden.

The poet’s neighbor who said, “Fences make good neighbors,” never saw the fences of war. He never saw how long those fences take to tear down.


I wrote this prose poem in response to the hundreds of compounds in Liberia and the fences that surround them. The description of the fence in this poem depicts a blending of the many different types. There are reasons for them. The aftermath of the war necessitates the use of fences often because of poverty. Hopefully a day will come when these fences and compounds are no longer a part of the landscape. As I travel the roads of Liberia I do think of Frost’s question about fences:

Why do fences make good neighbors?
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out?

I too wonder what is being walled in and what is being walled out and not only here but in the USA with our fenced in gated communities. No, Frost’s neighbor never saw the fences of war nor could understand how long these fences of war take to tear down. It will take time before Liberia’s literal and metaphorical fences of war are torn down.

Vionjama Street Market

Went to market
in the heat of the day
under the hot African sun.
Got lost in a maze
of mud huts,
shabby booths,
dingy shops.

Went to market
in the heat of the day
under the hot African sun.
Got lost in a maze
of meandering people,
playing children,
starring gazes.

Went to market
in the heat of the day
under the hot African sun.
Got lost in a maze
of my doubts,

Went to market
in the heat of the day
under the hot African sun.
Got lost in a maze
of humanity.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Peace Hut Storytelling Circles

We walk towards a small round building with a tin pointed roof. As we enter I notice colorful mats laying on the ledge that circles the inside parameter of the room. Three small square shuttered windows give views of a beautiful mountain, a blue and white school with children playing, and an abandoned, scorched, and blackened church. This simple structure is one of the many Center for Victims of Torture Peace Huts in Liberia. These simple structures provide for clients a safe place of refuge for their healing work, to share their stories, and to reclaim their lives, however today will be different. Nine trained peer Liberian counselors in Kalahoun will explore stories. We sit on the mats, say an Islamic prayer, do introductions, and begin.

I explain I am there to gather stories for the CVT Story Project and about the upcoming training session on using of story clinically. To start the conversation I tell a personal story of how I would sneak into a room of adults to listen to the stories about World War II, the depression, and the old days. The group responds and shares their stories about listening to story. An older man tells of the storytellers in his village who dressed in traditional garb would tell stories. The younger members of the group express interest; they have not experienced storytelling in this way.

As we continue the counselors focus the discussion primarily on their clients telling their stories and the need to create a safe, empathic, and supportive environment for their clients. They speak of storytelling as a way to make a point, teach a lesson, or inspire someone to be strong. The counselors give several examples of such stories. I recognize that the training session has begun.

One of the stories is of a man who is in despair for he has lost everything but a loin cloth. He is about to throw himself into the river. He hears a voice from behind a bush. And he sees that the man is naked.

“Dear sir…” the naked man says, “if you are going to throw yourself into the river may I please have your loin cloth. For you see I have no clothes.”

The man in seeing that another man is worse off than he, does not throw himself into the river but realizes that he need not feel sorry for himself. As the story finishes they immediately began to discuss the meaning and the lesson of the story.

When asked how they would use the story the conversation returns to the lesson of the story. Discussing story and the lesson and meaning of the story comes naturally to the counselors however, reflection on how to consciously and intentionally use story to foster healing and to teach life skills, such as critical thinking does not.

As the morning continues they tell more stories, experiment, and analyze different stories from their traditions. The counselors stay until they must go and come back as soon as they can. As the morning came to a close a discussion begins on ways to continue. I mention an experience in forming a story circle with a hospice group. The hospice workers would gather once or twice a month to tell the stories of their stories and the stories of their patients. The counselors like the idea and also want to use the time to share other to use with their clients. I agree that for the time that I am in Liberia I will help to facilitate the development of the Peace Hut Story Circle in Kalahoun.

As a side note this experience in Kalahoun is unexpected and is later repeated in the towns of Voinjama and Foya. The plan now is for me to facilitate these groups throughout Lofa County.

Liberian Sounds

In the morning the singing of men and women floats through my window. I do not know who is singing or what is being sung but I feel comforted by the gentle rhythm. The chatter of people, birds, and insects vibrate continuously. Prayers chanted from the local mosques fill the air and cars, motorcycles, and trucks announce their presence with the grating, whiny, screeching honking of their horns. Chickens cackle and crow and dogs bark their discontent. Generators contribute their loud persistent beat and music punctuates every moment. As night falls the sounds fade a calm quiet persists with only an occasional reminder of the music of the day.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Road to Voinjama

As we travel the road to Voinjama my body moves in rhythm with the bumps and rolls of the land cruiser. We slip and slide through four and six feet deep holes of murky water and red mud. My breath disappears each time we drive over a crest in the road. Lush green mountains, trees fifty, sixty feet tall with long graceful limbs reach outward, and blue sky dotted with huge white unfolding clouds demand my attention. As we sink into the valley the green engulfs us and the grey tree trunks scarred with black scabs and deep wounds bleeding white blood into small cups lining the side of the road speak of years of use. Villages pass quickly -mud huts, shabby stands selling anything and everything, and sadly, once beautiful buildings now with their own blackened scars of untold atrocities and abuse. Most of all I notice the people. Women dressed in multi-colored garb carrying baskets, pales and wood on their heads , men often in shorts holding machetes for cutting road side vegetation, and children some naked and others in neat pink, blue and green school uniforms walk on the side of the road or just sit and look as we speed pass. Their faces, their eyes, their stares grab my imagination and I cannot forget their gaze.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Story about Teaching Story in Liberia

The two ceiling fans swirl pushing the stale air in the room. The sound of the generator quietly drones in the background. The fans will help keep the participants cool as the day warms in Gbarnga, Liberia. Fourteen Center for Victims of Torture client service providers –all Africans- gather to learn about the use of story with their clients.

“Ka-twa,” I say to the group in Kpelleh.

They answer, Ya’twa.”

And so the day begins with a greeting and hello in Kpelleh.

I begin by telling the story of “the Snake and the Holy Man” a tale from India. The tale works and evokes their stories. The participants begin to share a story from their heritage. They also tell when they first heard the story, from whom, in what language, and the lesson of the story. The stories connect us and we now exist together in the realm of the imagination and story.

We review two case studies presented in story form that demonstrate the use of personal and cultural stories in counseling and teaching life skills. They naturally grasp and respond to the stories but struggle to analyze, contextualize, and reflect on story within a therapeutic context. Slowly with encouragement they bridge the gap between their cultural inheritance and understanding of storytelling and their clinical knowledge and training. The participants share nuances that only people acculturated or well studied in story are able. Together we learn and deepen our understanding of the use of story in treating war and torture survivors.

As we continue we explore with exercises how our stories shape our relationship with others and our environment, affect our perceptions and interpretations, and the multiple levels of narratives and stories that we carry with us in our daily lives. I struggle to find the words to describe the transformation of the service providers. The exercises further awaken a awareness on the reflective level of what they already know naturally about story. The energy in the room rises and many abstract terms such as transference and projection become real and the concept of being non-judgmental makes sense within the context of story. They continue building a bridge between their cultural experience of story and their clinical knowledge. We begin to frame clinical concepts within a culturally familiar storytelling frame and we shape a culturally story centered understanding of clinical theory and practice. The connections are made and the discussion opens up.

We further explore issues of boundaries and respect. The providers investigate the clinical definitions of boundaries and respect from the perspective of narrative and story. We discuss the way that personal stories are fluid and ever changing and thus personal boundaries constantly change necessitating constant adjustments by the clinician. They speak about respecting boundaries beyond rigid rules of do’s and don’ts. The excitement rises as they make various connections between their therapeutic practices and the art of storytelling. They see new ways to foster healing using story within their practice and see storytelling as a tool to support individuals and the community in creating new lives through stories. I share their enthusiasm and remember when I awoke to the possibilities of using story as a therapeutic tool and no longer just an incidental tertiary part of my practice.

As we finish the providers spend a few minutes using a simple technique to write their story and then in dyads they tell their story. Then twice the listener tells the story back mirroring and giving witness to the teller’s story. They feel the power of having their story heard and witnessed and express pleasure and a joy that their story is being heard.

At the end we share once more that story is an oral activity of the imagination and as along as we can tell and create story there can be a meeting of heart, mind, and spirit and in this there is hope.

When we are done, I say in Kpelleh, “Ka-mama.” (Thank, you all very much.)

In return I hear, “Isseah.” (thank you)

And Yes, I am very thankful “Ka-mama” for the experience of being with these people and their stories.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ya-Tao, Whiteman

As I walk through the streets of Gbarnga I am often greeted mostly by the children with a smile and the salutation “Ya toa, white man,” or “Hello, white man.” In response I say in Pali “Ka-tao” to a group and “Ya toa” to an individual.

In the early seventies I lived in a Black neighborhood and my experience was of being alone and somewhat isolated in the neighborhood. However, as I walked beyond the boundries of my Black neighborhood I was once again in the midst of white America. No more and no less isolated than most Americans. Here there is no such transition only rarely do I see another white face and usually of Gwen, an American CVT clinician from Wisconsin and David a UN worker from Boston.

I find myself both amused and troubled by being a curiosity. I now understand how some of my friends in the states from other countries feel treated as if they are exotic. I saw this particularly in the Tibetan community with everyone being treated as the Dali Lama rather than the person they were. Whenever human beings are romanticized they soon disappoint. I too will disappoint those who think I am a rich and powerful or have special knowledge. All I can hope is that I do not disappoint them as a human being.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Visiting Belefani in Bong County

An old country fair atmosphere enveloped the market of stick structured booths. Plantain, fish, and corn cooked over charcoal fires filling the air with a sweet aroma. Shirts, dresses, and shoes hung from the booths. The woman dressed in colorful fabric busied themselves packing away their goods for it was the end of the day. The men tied bundles of charcoal, containers of gasoline, and food to their vehicles to take home or to the next market. These were the images that filled my senses as we drove into Belefani in Bong County.

Belefani is a small village. The village proper rests in a valley and houses dot gently rising lush green slopes. This village brutally ripped apart by Charles Taylor’s rebel forces is a sign of the complexities of Liberia’s healing. The people of the village fled throughout West Africa. Soon after the war ended in 2003 the people began to return to their homes and slowly are rebuilding their lives and their village. In Belefani there are signs of progress with new buildings and elections in January. However, there are security issues, thefts, and problems of domestic abuse.

An elder of the village showed me the new communication tower, the present blue colored health center and the grounds where the new center would be built. He pointed out the new brightly yellow colored market pavilion. This elder carries within him a pride that his people survived and had returned. Most of all he speaks of his faith that his village will return to prosperity. He holds within what most Liberians carry within their hearts, hope.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Story Work

Today I shared with the CVT-Gbarnga service staff about the story project and gave an overview of the inservice I will facilitate on Friday. Much to my relief they understood the nature of the project as having its roots in the values of people rooted in the oral tradtion. They specifically focused on the notion that the story always belongs to the person and the community that tells the story and that when the story is shared the source of the story needs to be acknowledged. The service people are now finding individuals within the community who want to share their stories.

In a sense today is the beginning of the project in earnest. The first week which ends today was my preparation and my adaptation to my new surroundings. What is obvious is there is never enough time. The best part of this day is that I will be going out to meet individuals throughout the county of Bong.

as always,

Monday, October 1, 2007

From Monrovia to Gbarnga and then to Voinjama

The city of Monrovia is an endless sea of houses, appearing to be made out of concrete and stucco. The houses were colored brightly but most are faded or are stained with the ravages of war. Goverment, UN, and NGO's buildings line the main roads and most are surounded by high walls and razor wire. There are homes with new paint but few; and new buildings of concrete blocks are being built throughout the city. The streets are crowded with people and cars but few trees. At times as you drive through Monrovia you will see the ocean. However, even the shorelines are filled with reminders of war and discarded articles. Most buildings in Monrovia have ramshackeled storefronts facing the street advertising phone cards, food, shoes, sunglasses, gallons of gas in glass jars, and every other imaginable object.

The road to Gbarnga (boong ga') is lush, green and beautiful. Along the road are small communites of brown mud huts sometimes sprinkled with the stucco houses once brightly painted but now stained like the buildings in Monrovia. The mud huts are a series of vertical and horizontal sticks tied together and than packed with mud until a final brown coating is spread sometimes with colorful designs blended into the coating. The road to Gbarnga is lined with the same type of small vendors that are found in Monrovia. The only difference is there are the green spaces inbetween.

Gbarnga ia a very small town of three thousand people. Though it is spread out and not so tightly packed as Monrovia it is similiar. There are people everywhere and the vendors hawk their wares. The town has the feel of a small western town in the States. The roads are a light red clay and motorcycles instead of horses move up and down the street with an occassional car honking its horn to warn people out of the way. In fact horn beeping throughout Liberia is so prevelant by all vehicles I believe it was studied it might actually qualify as a language.

This week I will began preparations for a workshop here in Gbarnga on Developing a Story Awareness in Working with Clients. I will also began my conversations with individuals to find stories. I am looking forward to this part of my journey and when I leave at the end of the week to Voinjama. I have a feeling that my blogs will be shorter.


Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sticker Shock

Today I needed to buy supplies. A dollar seventy-nine for a can of tuna that in the USA would be 69 cents and yet last night I spent thirty dollars on a meal for three at a local restaurant. Rather reasonable considering the cost in the US to feed three even at McDonalds. I wish I could tell you that I had an African dish but I didn't. Liberians are entranced by everything American. I had pork and French fries. I could have been at any outside patio restaurant in the US. The most uniquely Liberian part of the meal was the Liberian made beer and the pepper sauce. The liquid was a light amber and was cool and tasty. I drank a little more than usual to help me cool from the warm day. The pepper sauce was hot and delicious and made the barbacued pork truly tastey. I have been promised that I will soon dine on Liberian-African food.

My guide for the day once again took me through the streets of Monrovia and this time we walked. Young boys and men gathered around storefronts watching soccer on television. Women bathed their children and combed each others hair. Craftsman worked on cars, motorcycles, and to tell the truth on objects that I did not know. Children carried display boxes of candies and chewing gum roaming the streets and at traffic stops encouraging people to buy. Everywhere I saw children working. Most children work out of necessity and many cannot go to school because of work/poverty. Those who do go to school are fortunate.

The images that I carry with me today are of the many men who have limbs missing because of the civil war. The homes that are mere skeletons in which people work and live. The multiple ways that the Liberian people, young and old, work not only to survive but to reconstruct their country. The image that touched me most was that of a small child with her grandfather. The grandfather was blind and his hand rested on his grandaughter's shoulder. The grandaughter was four maybe five. He gave directions telling her which way to go while she acted as her grandfather's eyes as they walked through the maze of activity in the crowded streets.

As the day ends for me I am tired and thoughtful. Liberia is a complex country. Monday I begin my work on the project. These few days of orientation have helped prepare me for the project and helped me to see how much I will need to learn.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Monrovia Tour

Writing today about my tour of Monrovia is really impossible and I have a sense that I should not even try. Monrovia is a city devastated by 12 years of civil war. There is hardly a building not bearing damage. Yet there is building and repair work no matter where you look. There are people everywhere and there is continous movement -people, cars, motorcycles, carts, and wheelborrowes.

I have begun to hear stories but not in a formal way. If you are willing to ask, people are willing to share their story. The stories are of tragedy, faith, atrocities, and hope. I asked my security guard and my driver "What gives you hope?" Thier answer was the goverment seems to really be trying; the international community is present and working to make a difference; and Ellen Johnson the first woman president and first person with indigeneous heritage is honorable and cares about the people.

I am not sure that I want to describe the poverty -the poor housing, lack of electricity, running water, or the need for everyone in most families to work. Focusing on these issues would take away from understanding the resilency of the Liberian people and yet, one must share the tragic events of the civil because that knowledge allows one to understand the spirit of the Liberian people.

I am still not sure what city or county I will be sent but I will learn soon. Life here has a way of rapidly changing while slowly moving.

For today....

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Here I am...

I landed in Liberia Wednesday evening. The airport was busy, small, crowded and a wonderful cacophony of the voices of people speaking many languages. The ride to Monrovia from the airport was fast and exciting. My kind of driving to be honest, except for the people dangerously close to the road walking at night. The airport reminded me of a trip i took to Bethel, Alaska. At night the airport and the roads were so similiar I could hardly tell the difference. And as in Alaska the people in Liberia are gracious. I find the similarites interesting and yet the land is so very different. Cold barren tundra versus hot moist green.

Now another phase.

Ooops... As i write I realize I have not mentioned my day in Brussells but it does not matter. I am here in Monrovia, Liberia and Belgium seems far away and unimportant..

I am well and content... except for one thing. And that is getting use to a french keybooard....

take care...andre

Friday, September 21, 2007

a weekend

I am now ready to go and am really starting to believe that I am going. I will be in Liberia from the end of

Monday, September 17, 2007

One week to go...

I am grateful for the support that I have received from people. I also have had pleasure in hearing the different responses to this trip of those I have spoken. I have learned much through their responses about people and about myself. There are those who are clear that they would never go to a place that is clearly so unsafe; others who feel that any such work is heroic and “Mother Therese” like, while others become nostalgic about their peace corps experience or other volunteer experiences, and finally there are those who see this as a great adventure.

I am not sure which perspective I most identify. I do want to do some good and make a difference; I know there are dangers; and it is an adventure. As far as nostalgia, yes, for the work I did in Alabama in the late 70’s or more recently my trip to volunteer at the Bethel Indigenous Dance Festival, Cama-I, in Alaska. However, maybe the truth is that this journey on my part to Liberia is selfish. I do feel at a turning point in my life and have a need for something different.

As i thought about the reason for taking this journey today I reflected on the ideas of Alasdair McIntire. He describes human beings as “storytelling animals” and that each human being is on a narrative quest. He means by this that each one of us is on a perilous journey seeking to author a life and a story that is meaningful and is moving towards the good and the essential. His insights have some truth for me. I do sense this journey is a quest to experience the essential and the good in a place different than what I am accustomed. However, as I thought about his notion of the narrative quest there was something that did not quite fit.

As I read several of the seed stories from the CVT Story Project I felt tears on my face. In the moment with the stories and my tears I realized that I do not know why I am going. I can speculate all I want but my analyses is only empty mind-chatter. I have a sense that I really will only know after the journey. Maybe shortly afterwards or maybe even months or years later, and maybe never. At this point it doesn’t matter. What does matter is for me to go, to be open, do the story work, take in the experience, and do the best I can. And the rest will take care of itself. andre

Monday, September 10, 2007

Liberia: A Short History Part I

Liberia is in Western Africa and is bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire. The history of Liberia (Place of Freedom) is complicated and does not follow the usual pattern of most African nations. Liberia was populated with freed slaves in land purchased from the indigenous tribes by independent societies in the USA. Ethiopia is the only other country not founded by a nation-state. Only later did the United States government become involved and support the independence of Liberia. The area now known as Liberia was populated in the 1800’s and before by numerous indigenous tribes. In 1822 the American Colonization Society negotiated for land and free born and freed ex-slave Blacks from the USA began to be sent to settle the area. The abolitionist and slave owners contributed the moneys for their passage and supplies. The Abolitionist felt a responsibility to restore the Negro to their homeland and the slave owners feared the potential political power of ex-slaves. In 1847 because of pressures from Britain who had colonized neighboring Sierra Leone Liberia was recognized as an independent nation. However, the history of this area now known as Liberia did not begin with the American-Liberians.

Between the 12th and 16th century there were waves of migrations from the north and east of Africa. In the 16th century the Manes came from the Ivory Coast and the Vai later came but were stopped by an alliance of the Manes and a tribe known as the Kru who dominated the Atlantic coast. When the American-Liberians settled they established western type economic, social, political, and cultural structures and even though they represented only a small proportion of the population (5%) they dominated the whole of Liberia. This division between the American-Liberians and the indigenous people and the colonizing of Africa in general are major contributors to the long suffering of the people of Liberia. (For a brief historical overview:

To be continued….

Your comments and corrections are welcomed...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Center for Victims of Torture Story Project

I would like to share with you a little about the CVT Story Project. The purpose of the Story Project is to gather the stories of individuals and communities who have been affected by torture. The stories will be used to help create an understanding of the complexity of the culture, communities, and the hopes of people who have experienced political torture. The methodology of the project was developed at the Minneapolis CVT Center over two-years.

The process of gathering stories for the CVT Story Project is rooted in the values of oral culture and storytelling. In a conversation with Liberian storyteller Vera Oye Yaa-Anna she stressed that for Liberians storytelling is “an oral activity of the imagination.” As our discussion continued we agreed that storytelling happens within one’s imagination and when the story is shared orally with another the listener is then able to imaginatively live within the story. In oral cultures storytelling is a natural way of communication, an interaction between people, and is not about performance. Therefore the project’s process is rooted in the realm of the imagination, memory, conversation, and the connection between people. The stories are not recorded and only a minimum of note taking is done. The person being interviewed determines the content of the story and the intent is to preserve the story that the person desires to tell. Most importantly the story always belongs to the teller and not the person who at the end of the process writes the story. The writer is only the conduit of the story.

The transition to writing the story is the most difficult part of the project. Once a story is written the story is outside of the person and no longer has the same internalized imaginative quality. There is a power that spoken word has that written word cannot capture. Therefore only when the story is rooted in the imagination of the listener is the story written. Once the story is written the teller reviews the written story to see if the story remains true to teller’s experience. Only then can the story be shared in the written form. At the end of the process the teller receives a copy of their story and are asked how the story can be used.

There are limitations to the method. The method is time consuming but the process is not just about producing stories. The process is about creating understanding between people and giving witness to the teller’s story. The hope is that the stories can help people understand the consequences of political torture and create the change necessary to end all forms of torture.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Three weeks to go

My preparation for my trip to Liberia is entering the final stages. Three weeks before I leave. Today I spoke with a Liberian storyteller living in D.C. We talked of the importance of the oral tradition of storytelling and how important the personal relationship is between teller and listener. "How to develop respectful relationships with the people I meet on this journey," has been my main question to those who are Liberian and have worked in Liberia. The answer is usually be attentive and be yourself. So this will be my main intent to be attentive, be myself and to keep my eyes, mind and heart open to what is in front of me. Chekov ends one of his short stories with "We shall live and we shall see." And that is exactly all i can do. I will live and I will see where this journey takes me. Lastly, I have a sense of the person who is taking this journey, however I am not sure who will return. andre


I would like to acknowledge the University of Minnesota Center for Human Rights for their generous fellowship, St. Thomas the Apostle Church for their grant, and a number of individuals who have given their moral and financial support. I appreciate the Center of Victims of Torture's confidence in and support of my story work and providing the opportunity for me to first hand experience their healing work in Liberia. I am grateful to Crisis Connection for giving me a leave of absence from my work. The generosity of all these people reminds me that we do nothing on our own and I acknowledge that without them I would not be able to take this journey.