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Back to Africa – March 2017

  |   News, Susannah's Posts

When I was 7 and my parents took our family back to England from Kenya, I felt torn up by my roots. Now, I respect their reasons for bringing us all back to the UK, but then, at the age of 7, I was furious. I promised myself that I would never go back to Kenya as a tourist, but would only go “home” when I had something meaningful to share. In case you are wondering, their reasons were about not wanting to participate in a post-colonial continuation of colonial dynamics and wanting their children to grow up in the place of their ancestral roots.

I’ve waited 46 years to keep that promise. When Sveva Gallmann and I met at COP 15 in Copenhagen at the civil society climate change convention and felt a kindred spirit connection, I felt a door opening. This visit to Kenya was the result of her invitation to bring Movement Medicine to Nairobi and to the Gallmann Nature Conservancy that is her home and life’s work. I’m hugely grateful for the workshop and the exchange that followed, which brought me ‘home’ into relationship with this land and its people in the personally significant way that it did.

Sveva and her partner Nigel run the Gallmann Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya in a way which bridges the traditional division between social development and ecological protection. Their work and connection with the local tribes is deep and based in personal connection, conversation, care and being long term parts of each other’s lives. One of Sveva’s projects is the “4 Generations” project: a methodology to inspire the youth of a tribe to discover and document the stories, songs and wisdom of their elders.

Right now there is a massive crisis engulfing their area, with the effects of drought being brought to a boiling point by the “cattle invasions”.  Huge herds of cattle, desperate for grass, are invading the wildlife conservancies, whose methods of ecological management mean there has still been some grass left on their carefully stewarded land. At times this is leading to unrest and violence between the herders and the staff of the conservancies. And this  seems to be being exacerbated or provoked by people who are invested in the divide and rule politics that are intensifying in the run up to the general elections in August.

The traditional way of life of the pastoralists was to move their cattle between pastures as the seasons dictated, which was sustainable and worked. In the last 10 years, cattle numbers have gone up by 70% and wildlife numbers have come down by 65%. In a recent census it was found that 80% of the cattle are owned, not by the local people who act as their herders, but by powerful people in the country who keep their wealth in cattle as a way to avoid tax, launder money and gain status. Young men are given $1 a day and an AK47 to guard cattle. Naturally the financial and political advantages of owning cattle, rather than keeping wealth in more traceable forms, means that the traditional balance between available grass and cattle numbers has become distorted. This also means that many of those within the political establishment, to whom those responsible for the conservancies would wish to ask for help, have got vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

This was the context in which I arrived at the Gallmann Conservancy in Laikipia. We had considered re-locating the workshop, but Sveva was clear that due to their strong relationships with the local people, it was safe where they were and that it would be good to bring the energy of movement to the field.

As we drove north from Nairobi airport, I was touched to hear names of places I didn’t know I knew, such as the hills known as the Aberdares. My driver, Matthew, turned out to be a wonderfully clear and patient Swahili teacher, which I needed as my brain grappled with anchoring words and phrases at the same time so familiar and yet difficult to grasp. I kept calling my father to tell him where we were, and felt so in touch with him and his love for Kenya. We both wished that he had been there with me.

Matthew brought me to the gate of the conservancy and dropped me with Ali, a wildlife guide from the conservancy who picked me up in the jeep and drove me, wrapped in Masaii blankets to ward off the night chill, to the lodge in the centre of the conservancy. Arriving at midnight in the simple and exquisite lodge of rammed earth that Sveva’s family has created, I felt tearfully grateful and touched that life was offering me this experience. The workshop which followed brought together a rather extraordinary and diverse mixture of people. Together we danced into our inner and outer wildness. On the dance floor, overlooking the Rift valley, with music from Kenya cross-fertilising with music from around the world, I witnessed as people from incredibly different backgrounds dropped into depth meetings with each other, themselves and the spirit of the wild.

I am very grateful that Petra Bongartz (Qualified Movement Medicine teacher from South Africa) was there to assist, and that Celia Bray, Open Floor teacher and fellow family constellator was there participating and supporting in many generous ways.

In the days that followed, I had the opportunity to deepen my dialogue with Sveva, Nigel, Ali, Pete and other staff of the conservancy. We talked about resilience in the challenging times which are upon them and which they expect to continue at least until the election. I was able to offer a structure of talking stick sharing to acknowledging the challenges, celebrate the team, and honour each other. This went down very well and it seems will be continued there as a way to support the team and develop new insights, strategies and possibilities.

Last July I went on my birthday vision quest to spend a luminous night on Ugborough Beacon, the hill behind where we live. There, I had a vision of making the work we have developed in MM available, off, as well as on, the dance floor. My intention is to make the benefits of the work we have developed accessible to a much wider range of people. The work I was able to share in Laikipia with the conservancy staff, as well as what evolved in Kufunda (the community in Zimbabwe which I visited next) has strengthened that vision in practice. This is what I am evolving in the Re-Source Life Lab. Those last days in Laikipia were deep and strong. In the hot springs of Mukatan I received another aspect of understanding my role in the world in terms of bridging, weaving, cross pollinating and connecting planetary meridians or “acupuncture spots”.

I was happy to learn a few more words and phrases in Swahili and to feel so at home in the vibration and rhythms of the language. I recognised three strong things that have come from Kenya into my life: the dance, the capacity to whisper, and a certain kind of laughter. My family do not dance a lot, but I got the dance bug strong. I feel that I was inoculated with African dance in those early years. And I learnt to whisper. In the bush, you see a wild animal, the car stops, the engine is turned off, and if anyone speaks, it is in a hushed whisper. The only other time my family whispered was when visiting cathedrals. So the two became associated in my mind: we whisper in the bush – we are in nature’s cathedral. It was beautiful for me to be with Ali, Pete, Nigel and Sveva and to feel the natural harmony of that quiet, reverent whisper. I’m very grateful to the Movement Medicine community for learning to whisper at events such as the Long Dance. And laughter. There is a physical way of laughing I have only experienced in Africa. Some part of me comes unstuck and feels accompanied and free – thank you!

The other highlights of those days was meeting and interviewing Thomas Ole Kaishu who leads the re-forestation project at the Gallmann Conservancy (his video is up on our FB pages) and talking with Ali about trees, elephants, wildlife and people. Again and again, when faced with this dilemma about how to take care of both people and the wildlife, trees seemed to be at the forefront of the answer.

Thomas and Susannah at his tree nursery.

I found it hard to leave Kenya again. The ripples and echoes of my time permeated my first days in Zimbabwe at Kufunda Village, until the particular rhythms, energies and magic of that place caught hold of me. “Kufunda” means “learning” in Shona. Kunfunda Village is a learning village which Maaianne Knuth has called into being and in my experience, a learning village is impressively what it is.

The workshop Maaianne had asked me for is “Arc of Time”, which interestingly I had taught two weeks before in Switzerland. “Arc of Time” is based in our adaptation of two of Joanna Macy’s deep time practices, one of which is a journey back through time to visit an ancient ancestor in Africa. In Switzerland this was a powerful and emotional journey for many people. There, I was poignantly aware that the next time I would lead this would be in Africa.

Working with a group of people, half of whom were of European descent, and half of whom were of African descent was an interesting challenge in terms of leading the journey back through time. How to give enough markers of the different time periods, whilst leaving space for the diversity of historical rivers? How to acknowledge the different backgrounds in terms of some of our recent ancestors in Africa as colonisers and colonised? And then finally, as went back through the time zones of human evolution, we were all back in Africa, at last journeying as one family. The participants in this workshop impressed me with how fast they got on a learning curve in terms of intimacy and letting down their “guard” and showing up for and with each other. By Sunday afternoon, after our journey forward in time to a possible healed world in the future, to commune with those that follow us 100 years hence, we were ready to drop into one of the deepest and simultaneously playful ‘unity and freedom’ dances I have ever witnessed. We then entered into a deep sharing of the treasure we had discovered in the journeys back and forwards in time.

“Arc of Time” participants: 12.3.17

This “Arc of Time” led to another step that I have often wondered about. On Tuesday, everyone was invited to meet at one of the participant’s houses, and there we shared what we had received on our journeys. There was much spoken about the power of being, sensing and feeling and many similar visions of trees and elephants as pivotal in our survival and thriving as a human species. One of the first initiatives sparked in this post Arc of Time sharing, was a joint action to support the planting of trees, herbs and flowers at the Waldorf inspired Kufunda village School. The next day we planted 30 moringa trees, each with a prayer, in the new garden which the children are designing.

And then, on Wednesday, we had the village dance. All Kunfunda village was invited, and around 45 people turned up, between 1 and 70 years old. Young and old, black and white, we danced. To Zimbabwean Mbira music, South African township music, and gospel and dramatic classical music we whirled and grooved. I am hugely touched by where we got to in those 2 hours; the kids, the young men and women, the older ones, everyone joining in. This ‘unity and freedom’ practice was something else again. A community revelling in its dancing roots and at the same time delighted to innovate and explore new possibilities together. We spoke about the transferable learning we can find on the dance floor, especially about leadership and support. Part of what I was able to offer was to honour what came so naturally to the people of this beautiful community, to play with form and freedom, and to see the social developmental potency of that. For me this was heaven. I’ve always dreamed of the unity and freedom dance as being a way to practice synergistic co-creation, and here I was with people able to take this to a new level as dancers, with such joy and naturalness. We ended with a deep moment of seeing each other heart to heart and with a deeply sweet sharing circle. Many voices spoke of, and celebrated, the applicability of this dance to collective and individual learning.

Above: Kufunda Village Dance: 15.3.17

Sharing this work was a profound privilege for me. I am aware of the huge level of trust that was placed in me by the people of the village, and that this is built in all the years of work there, especially all the work of Maaianne. My hat is off to her and to all of you, including MM assistants Eliza Kenyon and Benjamin Tree who are there at Kufunda now, both working on different projects (Young Women are Medicine and the Waldorf School, respectively) THANK YOU ALL!

Maaianne and Eliza and an incredible team are just embarking (next week) on a 4 week course called “Young Women are Medicine” an extraordinary journey which I’ve been privileged to sense through feeling its gathering energy. I wish them all the very, very best as they embark on this, and I tune into my next offerings on the African tour, in Jo’berg and Cape Town.

My thanks to everyone who has been involved in creating this journey, especially Sveva and Maaianne for inviting me so full heartedly into your amazing worlds. I am enjoying making little films inspired by this journey which will be emerging on our FB pages over the next days and weeks.

You can sponsor a tree to support the Gallmann Conservancy re-forestation work for $10

Please join me and become part of this important work:

And you can support the “Young Women Are Medicine” programme here:

I want to end with a few words from Sveva’s mother, Kuki Gallmann, whose words are so close to the spirit of Movement Medicine:

“I don’t own this land, I simply am a steward of it. It was here way before me, and will be here way after me. However, the way that it is here, after I am gone, will, in part, be because of what I have done and not done.” 

That is true for all of us. I wish you the power and fulfilment of alignment of purpose and action, life and meaning,

Thank you Kuki, Sveva, Maaianne and everyone,

With my love,

Susannah Darling Khan