Back to Africa, Episode 2 – April 2017
My 2017 Movement Medicine journey in Africa: Episode 2.
Thoughts, reflections and feelings…
The last South African leg of my African journey has left me touched, disturbed, grateful and thoughtful. South Africa and Mandela’s “rainbow nation” is in a hot and troubled place right now. The systems of government are struggling and corruption is acknowledged to be widespread. Violent student protests have closed universities. The country is not happy.
I want to try and talk about my personal journey to do with diversity, colour of skin, race and history and all that awkward and often very painful stuff. I’ve learnt that my feeling of clumsiness is “par for the course” and doesn’t mean that I’m wrong to try and articulate my thoughts and feelings. And that doesn’t mean I’m not risking offending people and “putting my foot in it” over and over again. My apologies if I do so, it’s not my intention. As a white woman working in Africa it feels important to me to acknowledge the wider context and to include my own story; my pain, my longing, gratitude, love and hope.
On one level, this theme of “race” is about belonging. I heard this question from the mouths of many white people in Africa this time: “Do I have the right to be here, to live here, to work here?” I felt a version of this in myself: “Do I have anything of value to offer here or is it more post-colonial imperialism to imagine that I have anything that is needed here?” Even keeping my precious childhood vow of 46 years ago to “only return to Kenya when I had something meaningful to share” came under question and I’m not certain of the answer.
Why do I have such a longing that our workshops here are diverse? Why was it so important and wonderful for me personally that most of these workshops were at least somewhat mixed? What is my need here? Do I want black people to show up to prove that I am doing something worthwhile in my life? To make me feel better? To assuage my guilt? To make me feel that I am allowed back to Africa? Why would I imagine that I have anything that can be of value that is not already available in one form or another in the black community?
As you may have read in my previous article (“Back to Africa: Part 1”), I felt a deep homecoming in Kenya, especially with the Swahili speakers. The rhythms and melodies of that language, the style of laughter of the people and the quality of shared heart that I experienced there assuaged a very particular loneliness that I think I have carried unconsciously for decades.
My family lived in Kenya when I was as a child (only for 3 years, from me being 4-7 years old). And then our parents brought us home to England. They felt that, as English people, England was the place of our roots and that post-colonial Kenya should properly be left to the Kenyans. They had gone to Africa with a sincere (but, they later felt, naive) wish to “help”. When my father’s job contract as an architect for Nairobi city council, came up for renewal, they took a weekend apart to both feel into their individual sense of whether to stay, or go back to England. They were surprised to discover that they felt the same, and had both come to feel that their wish to help was part of the ex-pat post colonial mindset. They wanted their children to grow up knowing who we were, with one root in one place and not to become accustomed to the luxurious ex-pat lifestyle of privilege. I respect these reasons now, but at the time I was desolated. However, Africa had already got me. I’m sure that is where I contracted “dance fever” which, as you know, I’ve never recovered from. I became what I call a “bridge” child, at home in many places, but never entirely fitting in any one.
What I recognised in this journey is that my own soul feels connected to Africa and my own soul feels at peace and at home in racially mixed groups. That was true in my kindergarten (Parklands) and primary school (Hospital Hill) in Nairobi. That was as true in London, where as a student in the 1980’s I studied West African dance with Orchestra Jazzirra in Stoke Newington, or on this journey now. And I am, of course, white. Driving past a settlement in South Africa to be told “this was where, in the Apartheid era, it was designated that ‘coloureds’ had to live” felt like I was hearing something from a bizarre, surreal sci-fiction fantasy. Who would have made up that categorisation? What were they on? And yet I know what they were on. The idea of race has a horrid, long backdrop in the European history of ideas.
And my people, my country (Britain) and my continent (Europe) were the ones who inflicted this differential categorisation, the slave trade and often genocide on the world and on our brothers and sisters of different colours everywhere. I feel the deep sorrow. The hideous cruelty of our forefathers in Africa, in America, all over the world; this cannot be ignored.
Elephants, trees and the hearts of people have been key themes of this journey. I was given the book “Elephants of Knysna” (thank you Petra Bongartz and Jenny Gardy-Levine) about the extraordinary survival of a very few wild elephants in the forests of the most southern part of Africa. In this book the author recounts the cruel and indifferent mass slaughter and destruction that the white settlers brought to the indigenous San people and their precious culture, to the forests, the elephants, and other wildlife alike. I feel the grief and horror.
I am recognising a parallel context from our part of the world. In our English landscape, though the genocide was not the same, bio-diversity was also destroyed and people were dispossessed of their historical relationship and belonging to and with the land. When I walk from where we live onto wild Dartmoor, I’m also walking in a post-destruction landscape. Dartmoor was once a huge oak forest teaming with life and bio-diversity. “Dart” means “oak” in Celtic. This great oak forest was largely chopped down in the 17th century to make the ships that conquered the world; 3000 oak trees per ship. The modern day Dartmoor though starkly beautiful is mainly bare. It is inhabited by sheep and ponies and a few birds but carries only a remnant of the bio-diverse richness that thrived here pre de-forestation. In the few valleys which are still forested with the original indigenous oak, the bio-diversity is some of the richest in England.
On the same theme, most of our English farming ancestors were wrenched from living on what had been common land in the clearances and enclosures. Others were the “wrenchers”. Later, industrialisation turned most of our forefathers into machine working units in a labour force designed to create wealth for the few. Pretty well all of us have been dis-inherited from our ongoing relationship with land, community, working by hand and delivered into cities, consumerism and individualism.
Another aspect of this pain in our own European ancestry is the several hundred years of the ‘witch burnings’. Tens, some say hundreds of thousands of women and many men were tortured and killed; often burnt alive for being “witches”. This long running horror was initiated by the inquisition of the Catholic Church and made it dangerous for any woman to be seen as a healer or herbalist, to be strong, outspoken, sexy, eccentric or different. Through the witch burnings much of European indigenous wisdom and shamanic heritage was exterminated or at least went deep underground. One can understand this as the European “dark ages” from which we emerged into the “enlightenment” and scientific revolution. Or we can see that this time was another significant step towards the separation consciousness (separation from real connection to the land, to the local ecosystem, to the heart) of the European psyche, that has led to the ruthless domination over and destruction of other peoples and lands. My sense through my work with my own healing is that the horror ground of the burning times has much to do with the fear I have had as a woman, to stand and be seen in my own power and connection.
In recent healing work between Ya’Acov and myself, we have also discovered the deep pain from the men’s wounding from those times; how devastating it was for those men to not be able to protect the women (their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters) they loved and how this in turn broke their spirits.
In 2016, after experiencing strong visions of this time in European history, Native American Dine Medicine Woman, Pat McCabe, who we recently met and discovered many mutual understandings with, brought potent healing ceremony to Europe. I believe she has come to the place of feeling that the healing of the world pain is not possible until the roots of this particular European horror story are brought to healing light. Thank you Pat.
At the same time, as Yuval Noah Harari (the author of the book ‘Sapiens’) reminds us, it wasn’t an idyll back before all that. Strong communities were often oppressive, conformist and anti-individualist. It was dangerous to be different and to risk being ostracized or targeted. To discover more harmony and freedom we’d probably need to go back to the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer days when our population density was low enough to “live in the wilds” in what Marshall Sahlins called “original affluence”. When a band’s survival depends on being a small, mobile group of people, as it does for gatherer-hunters, there is much less possibility for the accumulation of wealth and possessions, and societies stay much more egalitarian. This much I remember from my Anthropology degree, and, as far as I know, that has not been found to be untrue. Even then I’m sure we were not free of our human weaknesses, but it must have made a difference not to have the huge differentials of wealth and power. Once we made the transition to agriculture about 10,000 years (which is very recent in terms of the long history of our species) we were ensnared in backbreaking labour, frequently at risk of famine, plague and war and the history of massive differentials of wealth, power and ownership of land began.
It’s a complex context. What I am wanting to acknowledge is that, although as a white person in Africa I am from the colonising “race” I am also from a people who has been colonised and whose ancestors were dis-inherited of their own sense of place and belonging, way, way back. I do not want to make excuses. But it seems important to acknowledge the brutalisation, loss and separation which may be part of what lead to the callous, destructive and inhumane behaviour exhibited by our people.
Malidoma Some, a shaman from the Dagara people of Burkina Faso, says that in trying to understand the white colonists his people perceived that the only explanation for their violent and disrespectful behavior must be that they were people who had a damaged relationship with their/our own ancestors. I think they were right.
In the last Professional Training we found ourselves speaking about our bodies as colonised bodies; colonised by “outside in” ways of living. My thanks to Carmella B’Hahn for this way of naming of it. These ways of living have become normalised so that we do not even recognise we are missing something. They include a focus on how our bodies should look rather than how we actually feel from the inside. And they include trans-generational trauma and our necessary survival strategies to cope with it, often making us numb to the actual sensation of life being lived. As I go on learning and exploring my own psyche and the history of my own family and people, I am struck again and again by the horror and traumatic impact of the first and second world wars. This “numb out” makes us insensitive to our own and others’ emotional experience, greedy for risk free sensation (i.e. great consumers) and holds us back from deeply experiencing life in all its wonder and preciousness.
Africa was colonised by the Europeans. And before that, I think that Europe was colonised too, by the Europeans, or maybe more accurately, by what the Achuar of the Amazon call “the dream of the modern world”. As I know in myself and as I see in the world, this dream has seductive power. It’s a fear-based assumption of separateness, which leads us to want to control, rather than participate, in the web of life. And, looking at history, there is reason to fear the power of this dream. Making a choice to act from love rather than exert “power over” takes a huge inner strength.
In this context, I see Movement Medicine as a way that Ya’Acov and I are attempting to meet this historical picture in a healing way for all our relations. It is one way to re-sensitize and re-inhabit our bodies, to reclaim the feeling, the sensation, the aliveness of body, heart, mind as a unity of being: an embodied soul living as part of the inter-connected web of life, as part of the community of life on the living earth.
We are all in this together. In some ways, maybe all of us have lost our own indigenous nature and we now have an opportunity to try and re-claim it in a way that is appropriate for us and for life now. I am not trying to avoid the reality of real differences of privilege and power on many levels both personally and collectively, but to inquire into the inner suffering which may have been part of the European “hunger” too. Domingo Peas, one of our friends and inspirational leaders of the Achuar (of the Ecuadorian Amazon) says; “In order to find our way as a species, we need to integrate the best of indigenous wisdom with the best of modern knowledge.”
I returned to Africa in two senses. Firstly, I was returning to a place in which, as a child, I had experienced an essential encoding of wild life, of people and of dance. Secondly, I returned as a human being going back to the place of our deep ancestry. As Homo Sapiens, we all come originally from Africa, from what has been called the African Eve and the African Adam. In the “Arc of Time” workshop in Switzerland, which was the last workshop I did before my journey to Africa, we were on the Joanna Macy-inspired deep time journey back to our common African ancestor at the juncture between apes and Homo Sapiens, between forest and savannah. As we travelled back in our “journey of the embodied imagination” I was suddenly aware that I was travelling in that time machine to the Rift Valley, where I would soon be going physically, and that the next time I led this ‘Arc Of Time’ workshop journey would be in Zimbabwe. That was strong to realise and profound to experience.
So, what did I experience? What can Movement Medicine bring to this continent and its peoples?
The workshops in Kenya and in Zimbabwe and in Jo’burg were all substantially mixed. In our work in previous years in South Africa it’s been a very strange thing for us to find ourselves working in Africa with groups that are almost all (and thankfully not completely) missing people of colour. We’ve recognised how hard it is for people of colour to come onto dance floors which are almost all white, and have been finding different ways to open that up and make our work accessible. Thank you to all the people involved. So, though these groups this year were not anywhere near being proportionate to the actual demographic mix of their countries, it was a profound relief for me to find myself, in Africa, on dance floors which were substantially mixed. I want to acknowledge that it seems so weird to talk about it like this. Part of me wants to say: “surely it doesn’t matter!” I feel almost tarred with a racist brush to mention someone’s colour as if it matters. You are you, a unique and beautiful soul in a human body, whatever the colour of your skin. But I know that it does matter, in this world, and it does matter to me that our dance floors are mixed, and if you are a black person coming to Movement Medicine, I imagine it matters if you are the only black person in a sea of white, or whether you are part of a diverse multiplicity, which is always how we have dreamt it. So these workshops were significant steps for me and for Movement Medicine and I bring back that energy to our work here in Europe. I acknowledge that there is a long way to go and thank everyone involved in helping MM break out of the white ghetto.
So, let’s get back to the Africa story. With the trust that had been built through long association and friendship, people from different communities felt able to risk stepping onto the dance floor together. And we travelled deep, really deep. We developed trust, slowly at first and then faster. It was such an honour for me to witness and support the mutual allowing to see and be seen in the vulnerable, tender places of each other’s hearts. Being able to welcome and honour each other and to see how we all ‘need’ that was a gift. Through this we were able to nourish a deeper possibility of working together and for bringing together the best of our different cultures. We found joy in each other and in seeing and welcoming each other. I was told that this level of mutual disclosure and sharing was un-precedented in their experience and was as special to those experiencing it as it felt to me as a witness.
I want to thank the organisers and “bridge-makers” whose long-term friendships made this possible: Sveva Gallmann, Maaianne Knuth, Sian Palmer, Bunie Matlanyane Sexwale and Lesley Palmer.
In both Kenya and Zimbabwe after the workshop itself I was able to offer something more for the local community. In Kenya it was a resilience supporting structure for the staff of the conservancy, and in Zimbabwe I offered a “Village Dance” for all of Kufunda (the learning village) from babes in arms to youth, mature people and elders.
These were beautiful steps for me. In this “Village Dance” I found myself in a small minority as a white person. It felt so familiar, easy and as if I’d been unconsciously longing for it for a long time. Last weekend after I got back to the UK, I visited my father and we looked at his old slides of our life in Kenya in the 1960s. I saw that inmy kindergarten and primary school I was one of a very few white children. I hadn’t even remembered that, I think because it was just normal. But it made sense of how “at home” I suddenly felt in the Village Dance at Kufunda.
I feel honoured by the trust placed in me by people of such different stories. And I’m grateful for all the life and teaching experiences, which meant I was able to relate. It was also so important that I’d done the volunteering I had in schools which meant I wasn’t fazed by lots of children as part of the dance group. I felt that the whole journey of my life contributed to the 2 hours of the “Village Dance” in Kufunda: nothing wasted!
We practiced various aspects of Movement Medicine: Tree of Life, Leading and Following, Unity and Freedom and the “Yes! Dance”. These practices gave a way to explore systemic intelligence and self-organising capacity through dancing, as well as to celebrate life together. Working with that group of people who are still pretty rooted in rural village life, but at the same time are people who have chosen an innovative, learning focus for life, was heaven on earth for me. They had the embodied awareness, sensitivity and joy of their dancing Shona people AND the interest in social development of their intentional learning community, to be awake to the social organisational links and skills we were practising. I saw many light bulbs lighting up. From what I’ve heard, seeds of ideas that formed that weekend and in that village dance are being planted and hopefully will go on to bear fruit, with the good care of Maaianne and that whole community. See her article in the May newsletter.
At Kufunda, apart from everything else, I was able to offer an honouring of the cultural gifts of laughter and dance. I didn’t have to teach or remind the people there how to do either of those things, but I could offer a methodology to bring together more traditional and more innovative forms and could offer them a western world reflection of the value of these traditional skills.
At the conservancy it was not about the dance, but about a particular ‘talking stick’ circle structure to support their team resilience in the hard times of drought and conflict they are going through. If you are interested, see the video “As I understand it now”. Since we were there the crisis has got much, much worse. Look up Kuki Gallmann, or the Gallmann Conservancy on FB if you are interested. Your support can make a real difference right now. Thank you!
What I received in Africa was the companionship of people who I can laugh with in a particular way, dance with, share with in a way that is special and deeply soul-nourishing to me. Some part of me feels much less alone after this journey. I am very grateful. And this is only the tiniest beginning next step. We will see where it goes.
On the plane on the way from Harare to Jo’Burg, I found myself sitting next to two Zimbabwean gentlemen. I overheard them talking about their desire to pass on a better world to the next generation, and my ears pricked up. We ended up having an extraordinary conversation. They had both lived in the US for some years as part of the Zimbabwean Diaspora, and had decided to come home to serve their country in a time of great need and chaos. They are working politically to register young voters and to fight for political accountability. We spoke about the political corruption that I had been made aware of in Kenya, and then again in Zimbabwe. As a British woman, I apologised for the horror of colonialism and the mess it has left them with, and how much the breakage of traditional systems of accountability and governance and the trauma in the national psyche must still be impacting the way politics is being enacted. Noah looked me in the eye and thanked me for my apology. And then he said: “However, we cannot go on blaming you guys. Now we have to take responsibility for our own mess. This is us now. And it’s up to us. We need every Zimbabwean, whether black or white, and we need all of us to work together to make an accountable system of politics where the young people have a chance to lead the way”. These felt like courageous, groundbreaking and even surprising words. Words that, in the context of Zimbabwe, only a black Zimbabwean could say.
My experiences have helped me to recognise the power of trans-racial connection that is possible, if we gently and sustainedly build communication and personal disclosure.
There is one particular possibility I want to tell you about. At the Jo’Burg workshop “Ceremony in the City” the people who came were all ready, willing and able to rise to this challenge. Sian Palmer and Bunie Matlanyane Sexwale have an ongoing friendship that opened the door for some stunning young dancers from the townships to arrive on the dance floor as part of the group. Bunie is an elder of considerable gravitas, and her assurance of “though this is going to be full of whities, it will be OK” was enough to enable the youngsters to feel that they could risk taking this step.
Afterwards, Bunie and I spoke. She told me that for Black South Africans to access this kind of work they have to enter a (chiefly) white world, i.e. this kind of work is simply not available currently in the black world. As I honoured her and her colleagues for their courage to journey onto this dance floor, and we all thanked Ryan and Sian for making it possible, I found myself thinking about the sponsorship fund. I spoke to one of the young dancers who lives in the township called Sharpeville. We both acknowledged that there are hundreds of thousands of people in her township that would never make it into the “white world of the workshop” (Bunie’s words) as she had. But, if she could train in this work, SHE could bring it home to them.
I mentioned the existence of the Sponsorship Fund to her, and asked that if she ever thought about wanting to train, please not to assume that it was out of the question. That we have the sponsorship fund and that it is set up for precisely this reason. She burst into tears telling me that this was the answer to the quest she set out on in this ceremony. It is likely that you will hear lots more about this young woman and her comrades. If Movement Medicine is to have a chance to offer its healing in those communities, it is people like her who will bring it. I didn’t know whether it is needed or appropriate there, but when I meet people like Bunie and her friends, and I hear and see their response to this work, I have to bow to reality as I witness it. It is up to them, of course, if they chose to embark on this path.
If they do, will you join us in supporting this step?
The School of Movement Medicine offers a free scholarship place on our Apprenticeship and training. The Sponsorship fund pays the costs to get someone there. This is carefully worked out so that there is no financial gain for the School from the Sponsorship Fund.
I want to thank my parents for giving me this gift of belonging and not belonging in England and in Africa. It is a gift that gives me an unusual something that I can bring; a combination of being of there and not of there. I am thoroughly English and at the same time I have a vibrational link and an ease with being in Africa through my time there as a child. THANK YOU Mum and Dad!
And thanks so much to everyone who has enabled this journey, who has joined me on the dance floor, who has opened your heart, your hand, and laughed with me. From taxi drivers to waiters, from political people on planes, safari guides, guards, gardeners, cooks and mechanics, I have felt so welcome and happy in your company.
Thank you dear organisers: Sveva Gallmann, Maaianne Knuth and Kufunda, Ryan Klette and Samantha Brauer.
Thank you dear assistants: Petra Bongartz (twice!) Eliza Kenyon, Benjamin Tree, Maaianne Knuth, Sian Palmer, Samantha Brauer, Jenny Gardy-Levin and Hannah Richter.
Thank you to all the people, in the UK and in Africa and America who have assisted me with growing my awareness of these subjects and helped me to dare to write about this. Thank you to everyone who has read this article and given me feedback and helped me articulate what I’m trying to say about these deeply so sensitive subjects.
Thank you dear dancers!
Thank you dear Africa!
And thank you life that I could experience all of this and come home to my beloved Ya’Acov. Thank you Ya’Acov for being so alongside me on this journey and for the work we do together with the pain of the past. To be able to come home to the land of our dreams and to each other is an incredible blessing.
One more episode to come about my time near Plett and the work in Cape Town and what has been happening since I left in Laikipia in Kenya. All being well, it’ll be in next month’s newsletter.
News about the unfolding situation in Laikipia and what you can do to help is on Kuki Gallmann’s FB page, or the Gallmann Conservancy’s FB page if you are interested. Your support can make a real difference right now.
Susannah Darling Khan