Inspiration and Heartbreak in my Visit to Brazil and Africa

In 1990, I saw a spray-painted message on a board in Berkeley: "American Dream; African Nightmare." These words have haunted me ever since. In April-May this year (2008) I had a chance to experience for myself some of the African nightmare as I visited South Africa for a day and then Ghana for 12 days. I am sitting here, still in Ghana, trying to capture what I have experienced, and words are failing me.To speak of poverty, I would not capture the extraordinary human dignity, ingenuity, and creative aliveness of the people I have met and the many, many more I have seen, who manage to survive and make life happen in conditions I know I would not be able to endure, and I would not capture the thick veil of the legacy of colonialism, which continues to leave people doubting their capacity to do things fully for themselves. The juxtaposition of all of this is what I am sitting here, heartbroken and inspired, with my daily experience for the entire time since I landed in this continent.

Miki working in Africa

The occasion - I facilitated the first summit of the African Alliance for Peace, which supports groups and NGOs in different African countries in establishing ministries and departments of peace in their countries. Using the tools of NVC in practice, I was able to support delegates from 5 different countries for 3 days in moving from a collection of individuals and country campaigns, to becoming an entity seeking to create and support self-empowered movements all over Africa to embrace the culture of peace. As one man from Sierra Leone said: "I came here a Sierra Leonean, and I am leaving an African." Not only did people establish unity, they also created a vision and mission statement, operating principles, started planning the next summit in 2009 in Capetown (which I am invited again to facilitate), named and started working on several objectives within 2008, and co-authored a press release, all in 3 days. It was breathtaking, inspiring, empowering, moving, and challenging. Using NVC principles to guide my facilitation, I am happiest about two things. One is that I managed to stay away from making any of the decisions, and instead guided them to make the decisions they wanted to make. The other is that in using and being transparent about my NVC facilitation methods, over time participants became aware and verbalized the principles, and started using them with each other even in small groups: everyone matters, so no decision can be made without everyone's agreement; and, when disagreements arise, listening for and understanding the essential meaning each person has for their position allows commonality and creativity to arise towards a solution that works for everyone.

Subsequent to the 3-day summit, and with the support of assistant trainers from the Leadership Program, I conducted 6 days of NVC training for many summit participants and a few others who had not attended the summit. At the end of the training I am exhausted, challenged beyond belief, and deeply nourished. My highlight was the day before last, when we worked with a real conflict that one of the people brought from the Liberian refugee camp where he lives. He told the story, then people broke up into 3 groups, working independently. The first step was to identify the needs of both parties to the conflict. At this point, they did that with total ease. The shift in consciousness that brings awareness to needs was already quite in place for them.

The second part was for the same groups to come up with requests that each of the parties could make to the other. In my teaching of NVC, I consider making requests to be one of the most challenging aspects of learning NVC, especially the distinction between solution and connection requests.

Only one of the three groups was entirely black Africans. Each of the other groups had at least one white person in it, European, South African or North American. The group that was all black called me for a consultation, and they ran one request they had come up with by me. I liked it, and told them so, and then started walking away. Then one of them asked me to hear the requests from the others, and I said I didn't need to hear them, I trusted them to do it on their own, they knew enough.

About 45 minutes later, the groups shared out loud the requests they came up with. And the requests from that group were the most enlivening and mutual. I was in awe. One that I remember: "could you tell me what part I can play in your support of my well being?" The other one had a similar flavor, of blending with each other, the two parties. I immediately sensed that there was some way that having no white person there supported them in being able to access their own cultural resources, and do something I do not remember seeing before.

Then, as we were breaking for lunch, I approached three of the people, and shared with them my delight and heartbreak about what had happened, expressing in full my feelings about the white-black thing: how I want the white people to have awareness of the effect of their presence on the black people, and how I want the black people to be able to access their full power and wisdom even when whites are present. Full open heart in expression, and they received it completely, we had a conversation about it, in which one of them acknowledged that sense of inferiority that had been inculcated in them, which is the legacy of colonialism, and how much it meant to them that I left them alone with trust. These moments of connection were worth the entire trip here.

Lastly, on the very last day of the training, all of the 12 people who were present in the room expressed enthusiasm and yearning to participate in the Leadership Program in 2009, a level of interest that completely shocked and delighted me. I am totally overwhelmed in the moment trying to mobilize logistical and financial resources to support this deep desire that all participants seemed to share: to learn more about NVC and then share it with others in Africa. Overwhelm aside, I am so moved by what I experienced in these days.

As if this was not enough, I went to visit the Liberian refugee camp. And as part of that visit, I met with three different groups: a small group of women who are learning to sew, a group of about 35 people (5 women and the rest are men) learning plumbing, and a group of local community leaders. With the first group, I just heard their experiences. I told them I wanted to understand, and I wanted to be able to tell others about their experiences. They want to be known, they want to be understood. Slowly, they started opening up in conversation, and I got to understand their fear about going back home (the camp is likely to be closed within six months for repatriation after 18 years of operation, and about 35,000 people will be going back home to Liberia), especially about learning a skill and not having the resources to get themselves started when they go home, not even money to buy a sewing machine. They told me about their conditions, which I also saw walking around the camp: no running water, and no access to natural water, which leaves them having to buy water in tanks and plastic containers; no ability to work, and very little income from the informal economy rampant in the camp. And I saw their eyes, the pain and the hope mixed together.

With the other two groups in the camp I basically conducted a short introduction. In each case, within minutes, someone presented a heavy-duty conflict for us to discuss. One group explored the situation of someone who is going back to Liberia knowing he is likely to run into the person who killed his father, and wishing to know how to ensure he won't harm him back. After sharing with this group the principles of NVC, and exploring the needs of this man and of the other person, the group became completely animated, with many people speaking and asking more and more questions. And so, without the opportunity to get into anything in depth, I nonetheless told them about the restorative justice project in Brazil, and the steps that would be necessary to achieve full reconciliation. Oh, what a heartbreak to leave them, knowing they got the principles and wanted more, knowing how much need there is, and having no imagination about what strategies could bring more resources to this group, to the rest of the refugees in the camp, and to the millions and millions of traumatized people all over Africa.

The second group, the community leaders, brought a recent situation that has been affecting the entire community: in the wake of a protest staged by women in the community, the women's community is now divided into four groups in conflict with each other. Once again I engaged the group in attempting to sort out the underlying needs in the conflict. This time we focused on 2 of the 4 groups, and did a role play mediation with one of the real participants in the conflict and another person playing someone from one of the other groups. During this role play, both sides were guided to empathically reflect their understanding of the underlying needs behind the other group's pain. Once again, the group was so eager to learn more, so clear that this could help. At least I know that three of the men from this community of refugees participated in the 6-day training, and are committed to continuing to share their newly acquired skills with as many people as they can, passionate about contributing to a peaceful Liberia.

My trip to Ghana was sandwiched between two visits to Brazil. Prior to arriving in Africa, I did intensive training with two groups. One is people in the South, in Porto Alegre, where NVC-based restorative justice projects, mostly in the youth criminal justice system, have been going on for 3 years. I worked with a group of people who have been key leaders in these projects, and who are now hungry to understand and implement more fully and consciously the roots of these projects in NVC.

The highlight of this event for me was making a significant real-life decision as a group which resulted in Dominic leaving early to go home to be with his family, and thus changing the hours so that we went until 10 canceled the final morning. It was the process, the awe-inspiring commitment to empowerment and community that these people demonstrated in how they joined us in navigating all the needs on the table, that have most stayed with me. It was a little piece of heaven, of what the world could look like if enough of us integrate NVC consciousness into how we operate in life.

I also got to meet the judge who was the instigator of the whole restorative justice project starting here in Porto Alegre. I had seen him in photos and video, and I felt incredibly fortunate to get to meet him, like magic. He radiates such amazing warmth. As soon as he walked in the door, I felt an immediate sense of familiarity and connection with him, and we had an amazing conversation, mostly IN PORTUGUESE, a language I love and was not aware I could speak. The sense of connection continued to flow, and included two of hours of supporting the judge and his wife in relation to their 4-yr old daughter.

The following week I met with a group of NVC practitioners from Rio de Janeiro and from Sao Paulo who have been practicing for a while and who are either already sharing NVC with others or getting ready to do so, for 4 days of intensive training. The total number of people who attended was 7. This was a small group, and the level of dedication was breathtaking. People wanted to work into the evening, were willing to stay with difficult moments, were happy to engage with everything that came up. At dominic's strong request, nothing was planned ahead of time, which was a bit challenging for me and also lovely.

I particularly appreciated, both in Porto Alegre and in Rio, seeing the fruits of Dominic's insistence on finding a way to shift the power dynamics of teaching. For the most part, I didn't experience the familiar way that people respond to me that has some disempowerment in it. I have a sense that these people feel responsible for their learning in a way I rarely see. A couple of times Dominic and I left people on their own for various reasons, and they self-organized to continue to have meaning.

I also appreciated, with having a small group, how much each person could get focused attention, and how much depth and companionship we were able to create.

Lastly, I loved being able to reflect on what was happening, and support them in seeing ways that what we did could inform their own projects. All in all, i was very satisfied with the intensity and richness of what we learned. For myself personally I shared a hope of being affected by being there, and I have a sense of that having happened. I came away with some deeper appreciation of power dynamics (domination and liberation was a big part of what we kept coming back to again and again), and some new specific ideas about how domination works, especially how the dynamics of childhood leave most of us unable to retain the deep power of knowing what we want and acting from within that knowledge. And while I am not quite yet able to explain how, I am confident that having this renewed clarity affected my ability to work in Ghana, and sensitized me to power dynamics even more than I had been before, a stance which supported whatever success I had in supporting self-empowerment for the people who came to the training in Ghana.

Because my ticket took me from Ghana back home through Brazil, I decided to break the long trip, and stayed for 2 more days. This time I was in Sao Paulo. I accompanied Dominic in two training sessions he did, and delivered two talks myself, both in some fashion related to the connection of NVC to the Culture of Peace, a framework which is growing in significance in Brazil, both in government and in community organizations. I had been hearing from Dominic about the school projects in the state of Sao Paulo. It was a whole other thing to see a room full of about 60 teachers coming from schools all over the region we were in, some of them traveling 100 miles on public transportation in order to attend the training. This is an entirely different scene from the familiar workshop scene I have become used to in the US. These were not individuals longing for life to have more connection, satisfaction and meaning. These were people working in tough conditions, who are volunteering to take this training because they want the children in the schools they work at to have different options, maybe because they want a different future for them. I am glad to have more immediate, visceral connection to Dominic’s work, to have more understanding of what it is we are supporting this year.

In this moment, sitting in an airplane on the last leg of this trip, from Atlanta to San Francisco, I am feeling immensely grateful and blessed. This trip has been quite challenging in more ways than I can describe, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And yet, despite it, what I am most connected with are the gifts of what I received. Primary among these gifts is the tension between sameness and difference. I started this trip unsure of what I would find, unsure of what of this work would carry cross-culturally. I knew I would meet people in immensely different conditions, with different preoccupations, different strategies for meeting life. And the differences indeed abound. I had little to prepare me for how familiar and similar so much would be for me. As we constructed a needs list together in Ghana on our first day of training, the same needs appeared as in any training I have done in the US. And when we worked with an imaginary conflict between husband and wife, in which they supplied the details, the same dynamics showed up as are familiar to me from so many people bringing forth their personal challenges in workshops in North America.

Sitting here, I am once again connecting with the mixture of heartbreak and incredible hopefulness that was the hallmark of my time in Africa. When I imagine several people from Africa and from Brazil attending the Leadership Program in 2009, I am ecstatic to think of what they can bring to their countries. And when I remember the conditions in which they live and work, my heart aches. I hope, more than anything, that I remember all the people I met, and those I saw and didn’t meet. I want to remember them in an active way, to remember their struggles and hopes as the fuel of commitment in times of despair, and as the fuel of joy and gratitude in times of celebration. Thank you for partaking of this by reading these words to the end.

By Miki Kashtan, CNVC trainer, California, USA

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