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.