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.

No comments: