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.

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