How can we get better as groups at learning from the experiences we go through? I have been wondering about new approaches to care and this question has been much in my mind since interviewing members of the public during a project about the “word on the street” in Liverpool in 2015. It was a sobering month in which I came to know personally just how disaffected and disenfranchised the public felt about anything changing for the better in England. In a comment on the Edgeryders community call on improving how we support each others mental and spiritual health, I wondered if “everyone who lives in a distributed area is in some way involved in processing the emotions experienced in that place”. I feel a great potential for technological networks to create rituals and bring people together to process experiences in new ways. Generally, I’m talking about creative networks for coming back to life: networks that invite people into a social experience to care about themselves and other people, to keep hold of their hopes, to understand beyond their own spheres of experience and to find support in being the magician of their own life. This is speculative stuff, I realise, so I’ll anchor my offering to this strand in real examples and share work that I know of and am making.
A frank admission to start: the subject of networks of care is relatively new terrain for me. I’m no expert and there are long histories and contexts that I cannot represent here. I really welcome feedback, criticism, references and most of all, examples of working networks already in place. There are many excellent examples and the diversity of reports shared on this site - the variety of food sharing initiatives, performance and storytelling circles, maker spaces and innovative support systems - is informing my learning around this subject.
One of the areas that show most clearly the positive effects that community interventions can have are post-conflict efforts. In this post, I want to tell you about the powerful work of theTrust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH) who developed a program with survivors of the Nyayo House Torture Centre and other centres in Kenya. In a follow up piece I will look more at digital systems with a mind to exploring how elements of ritual and and formalised events for expression and listening might be tapped into in new ways to support communities through online means.
Facilitating Forgiveness: the hardest job there is?
I met Denis Ngala when I was doing some work in Timbavati, South Africa. He is a tall, radiant and infectiously joyful character, utterly grounded and with a sense of spiritual authority having spent most of his twenties studying in a seminary. He told me a lot about the work that he was doing in Kenya with TICAH and the problems that faced victims of torture returning to society after they had been released.
Details of the intense suffering and the physical and mental abuse that went on in Nairobi’s Nyayo House torture chambers and other places of detention during President Moi’s regime are still emerging decades later. Ngala was working at facilitating meals for torture victims and their perpetrators where they could have honest discussions in an attempt to heal these old wounds. He told me that often the victims and perpetrators of the violence were people who grew up in the same village and had studied at neighbouring schools so he was often bringing together people who had known each other throughout their lives. The kind of emotional resolve and resources needed for either survivor or perpetrator to face the horror of the past and sit down together, share food and listen to each other’s stories is frankly extraordinary. But Ngala describes his methodology when convening these meetings as based on simplicity: “it is rooted in listening to one another and honouring each life story.” His role as the third party, guiding the conversation, ensuring that each person spoke and was listened to has had truly beneficial effects. He tells me that some who have gone through the process visit each other and share their childhood stories or are able to meet at public occasions.
One very illuminating aspect of this work is that the focus goes beyond the individuals directly involved. TICAH has looked to help educate the wider community to understand what had happened and how to support it. This was necessary as without intervention communities often closed up, and rather than accepting the survivor back into social contact they viewed the returning survivor with unease and distrust, creating a situation in which survivors sometimes found themselves ostracised, left to deal with the experience alone.
TICAH met this situation with interventions that emphasised embodied communication and the creative body. They invited those effected to walk a labyrinth together in a peace ceremony and organised body map workshops that brought together different survivors to share their stories. The body-mapping workshops use art skills to trace participants’ bodies and then map elements of their life stories onto this body map: visual elements are added that stand for the individual’s aims, what supports them, the traumas they have lived through and their strengths. These visual records are a way of introducing the details of what happened in captivity back into the community to be held by everyone. So the labyrinth walking and the body-mapping make the real lives, bodies and experiences of the victims a public experience and enable the wider community to listen to and appreciate how these survivors managed to live through painful and unbelievably challenging times.
The Human Element
This is incredible work - through these interventions TICAH help communicate that the process of recovery is not the problem of the victim of torture alone, but is in a very real sense owned by the whole community. One striking aspect is the emphasis on accepting the seriousness of the situation - dealing with the very worst of what humans can do to each other - with vital, dramatic, expressive interactive meetings. The labyrinth walking is profoundly beautiful group ritual and the body mapping opens up the assembled individuals to listen to the challenges that others have lived through, and it does this in a joyful and creative way. Reconciliation over food feels innately right. The activities though almost timeless in their simplicity are unusual and unexpected, and generally unlike anything that any of the participants have done before. The act of doing something new is particularly suited to transforming problems as there are no painful memories attached; it opens up new horizons and is perhaps more likely to lead to a renewed present.
When I ask Ngala what networked technologies could do to help these efforts he replies that they could help facilitate expression: “In this work there are problems, most of them could be solved through sharing. When survivors are given opportunities to share their stories they heal fast. Networks would provide a good platform for people to share their experiences. Sharing could be done through writing or be spoken. Narrations could be recorded and later could be used to make short clips.” I think of just how possible this is as it is poses a clear and actionable technological problem, but looking at Ngala I wonder whether he realises how key his presence is to the process and the quality of the interaction. What forges the profound shifts in people’s experience is how their expression is received, listened to, validated and responded to. When speaking with Ngala, a man with vast generosity of soul and focused attention, you really do feel stronger. He beams at you and honours your presence in a way that is rare. In conversation with him you feel that your words matter, your life is respected and that miraculous healing is possible. Popular culture tends to talk about purging emotions, as if emotions are toxic material that needs ejecting from your system, but what Ngala’s work shows is that the magic is in the courage to speak honestly and the grace of being heard: that’s when emotions turn into understanding. The human catalysts at TICAH are so much a part of why these reconciliation attempts have been successful and any attempt to extend the work through technology needs to factor this in at the centre.
Simplicity of invitation, creative expression, embodied shared experience, working and listening to others, ritual time and focus, the unexpected, all these feel like good leads for designing a transformative care network. TICAH’s emphasis on shared humanity and that each person is a human being with a different story encourages survivors and perpetrators alike to stand strong in themselves, to understand the past and live a better day. I think of post-conflict creative efforts like http://reflections.org.np/ that creatively depict the subjectivities of Nepali people in the aftermath of the earthquake. There is a courage in projects that present every person, even though they may have lived through horrendous circumstances, as a human being with a unique story and power.
Digital Networks for Creative Care
Strong mutual care is essential not only in places seeking to recover from atrocities, but generally for people working together and sharing space, especially if they are “living on the edge”. Change is difficult and every group liable to conflict. E.C. Whitmont writes in The Symbolic Quest that “The seeming inevitability of conflict among the archetypal “powers” can cause us to experience life as a hopeless, senseless impasse. But the conflict can also be discovered to be the expression of a symbolic pattern still to be intuited.” There’s a potential that we can reach into the intuitions that come out of difficult experience and grow understanding of group dynamics to create pathways that do not end in violence, abuse and waste. The sad cases of suicide, sabotage, ill health and conflict that we know of in digital tech, startup and hacker cultures show that forging wisdom in this area is important.
I feel the need for strange networks of care: unusual, compelling networks that don’t attempt to fix anyone but make healing and self-understanding an adventure and help individuals back into the simple joys of communion and creativity. To explore group dynamics and coherence in recent projects I’ve been involved in, I’ve worked with beans http://www.rootbeans.com/, with dreams (following the method of my mentor Apela Colorado) http://oneiricarchives.tumblr.com/ and with storytelling http://www.thehaguecenter.org/pathways-project-2/. Back up in Liverpool we’re improvising on Stafford Beer’s work on group dynamics in public meetings. Whether it’s VR group therapy where you experience your own body and other people in highly unusual ways or group Skype rituals for reconciliation the whole notion of care networks is wide open for innovation and renewal. As a guiding design point I think the only answer to questions like how can ritual time be held online or how can digital networks provide the intensity of feedback of live interaction is bold creativity. If you have examples of creative online systems to faciliate group communication and support that go beyond a message board or online forum and become something more vital and “live” please share them. I’ll be at 33C3 if there’s people from the Edgeryders community who want to meet around the theme of hacking strange networks of care. There’s also an option to organise a session: https://events.ccc.de/congress/2016/wiki/Static:Self-organized_Sessions
Learning in Doing
There is a huge amount of trauma recovery material and contexts for group psychology that I do not know about. It is challenging terrain. As much as it’s essential to tread carefully, it is also necessary to create. The outpouring of emotional pain, anger and concern after the American election makes clear a need for strong communities of action and bold ways for participating in new stories. As worrying as is the prospect of making mistakes around mental health, the more worrying prospect is not creating networks to meaningfully connect up alienated, isolated or suffering individuals. Local actions, online networks and communities are all growing this November: each network has a different focus. Involving digital technology to reimagine group psychology and care (beyond Facebook) is just one of the potentials to help these evolving networks support themselves.
Ngala’s experience shows that targeted and bold ventures can reboot the community’s ability to support and that there is the possiblity of even the most horrific of violations healing. The greatest thing that I learnt from Ngala is the scale of his belief. When I ask him what has been the most illuminating discovery about human care through facilitating this work he replies: “The most amazing thing is we are all human who heal despite all the experiences we have met in life”. His belief is born out by his experience. It is vital not to miss the transformative quality of having one person believe in another. I consider the enormous amount of work and transformation needed in the decades ahead to meet the problems of our time and then I think about three human beings sitting down for a meal in Kenya and have the sense that great tasks are possible if we learn to work together.
Links on article:
http://www.ticahealth.org/files/TICAH-nyayo-house-torture-body-maps.pdfInterview with TICAH’s founder Mary Ann Burris with details on body mapping: http://practicalmattersjournal.org/2011/03/01/burris-interview/
Photo: Denis Ngala in South Africa
The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships - an ongoing program for community contributors during May - November 2016.