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When home is so far

I grew up in Kampala, close to my paternal grandparents.  Family was very important to my grandparents, and often when we had gatherings the extended families of their children’s spouses were also very much part of the celebration.  In fact the term ‘extended family’ was not part of our language.  We were all family – even close friends became family!  The culture of gathering was part of who we were – at whoever’s home – Christmas, Easter, new year, birthdays – or just because we could.  Family chais – tea parties – were common.

family gathering in the late 60s or early 70s

Now as my generation is taking over the role of the elders in the family, we still come together to celebrate weddings, at funerals, graduations, collective birthday parties and …  just for the fun of it.  We understand –  in spite of little arguments, alliances, misunderstandings, silences, spokens that make up family – that we are fundamentally tied together by love, that we have been handed down the baton to keep together no matter what  and so we do.  And yes, like in all families, we have our divas, our black sheep, our clowns, our peacemakers, our recluses – that make the process colourful, and we love them for who they are.  And we have lots of fun together.

Today, being far away was so hard.  You see today is my father’s birthday – and May day.  Taking advantage of the long weekend the family in Kampala decided to get together at my grandfather’s home in Munyonyo to pray, clean the graves and play together.  It’s what we do.  We were all invited.  People cooked and shared food.  They worked, and prayed and sang and had a soccer match.  And when the photo update started to arrive, on our Whatsapp group, a soft spot that I thought had healed opened up, and tears welled in my eyes.  I missed Daddy.  I missed home. Memories flooded back – of that place – Jajjas’ home.

  IMG_4767_2            IMG_4769_2

I remembered the trip to Munyonyo – over the years we have used different routes, and the old, original road does not exist any more.  I remembered Jajja John and Jajja Maliza welcoming us and sending us home with a prayer and a song. The 11 mango trees (one for each of their 9 children, and themselves) that we climbed as children to harvest juicy fruit.  The cow shed that housed their cows – and the Balaalo who looked after the cows and knew each one by name.  Estella and I trying to milk the cows that holiday we spent in Munyonyo.  The bottles of milk they would send to us.  The lusuku of matooke, with beans planted in between.  Jajja Maliza’s cupboard in the dinning room in which she kept little treats.  The yellow enamel potty that she had for us so we did not have to use the outside toilet.  The verandah – oh the verandah!!  As children it was so high we loved jumping off it.  The grownups would sit on the stairs – and Daddy, Uncle Hugo and Uncle Jack – would sit on the stairs – cigarettes in hand.  We would often sing on the verandah with Aunty Jane taking the lead.  Or listen to Aunty Betty tell us family stories.  I remember holding baby Moses, with Aunty Winnie close at hand, to make sure I did not drop him.  Fay and Chris sat on the verandah in their wheel chairs… And always in the distance, Lake Nalubaale (Victoria)… and the gentle breeze.  The land has become smaller over the years, and many of the new owners have built modern houses next door, but even in its smaller version the spirit of the Jajjas’ home remains – a place of love, of homecoming, of getting to know family – a place to return and laying to rest.

Picture 103

Today I would have loved to be there – to drink the spirit of family, to feel my roots sink deep, to have my children share stories and games with all the other children, to be with their aunties and uncles, to be part of the family ritual of taking care of the graves.  Today, I would have loved to just fall into the bosom of family and be held there and know that I belong – without question, without explanation. To just be. Instead, I curl up in a chair, in my home, in South Africa, blinking back the tears, as I look into my heart and find that I carry within me that special place – Home.

Where were you 21 years ago?

I woke up early on the morning of 27 April 1994 and switched on the TV to watch South Africans vote in their new democracy.  My husband, two and a half year old daugher and I had been living in the Flat B51 in the Doctors Quarters at Tygerberg Hospital for almost a year – probably the first black African family to live in the Doctors Quarters.  Together we watched Mandela put his vote into the ballot box.  We saw the joy of the old lady who was supported as she walked in to make cast her vote for the very first time – in the evening of her life.  We watched lines that snaked around buildings, with voters, calm and waiting to change the history of their country.  I went outside with my daughter to see what was happening at the voting station at the Nurses Hostel.  Tears streamed down my face – it was hard to believe we were witnessing such a momentous event!

I felt such a strong kinship to my African brothers and sisters.  The South African struggle had been on our radar for years – in the news, in the music (Makeba, Masuka, Bra Hugh, Stimela, Sankomota, Bra Caiphas and Sis Letta), in the literature we read (Alex la Guma, Lewis Nkosi, Eskia Mphahlele, Paton, Fugard, Mazisi Kunene…) and even though we had not really fully understood the complexity of the society we wanted them to be free! In University in Nairobi we had put on performances of South African poetry and drama – Sizwe Bansi is Dead remains etched in my mind.  I had attended the 10th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising at the Cathedral in Nairobi in 1986 – and the concert that evening.  I was in Lesotho when Mandela was freed and we watched that on TV and celebrated!  The South African struggle was the our struggle.

I related to the first time voters because even though I was 30 years old, I had never voted in my homeland Uganda.  Amin came into power the year that I turned 7, and for many years there were no elections (and I was too young to vote).  By the time they had elections and I was old enough to vote I was not in the country.  I wanted so badly to be able to vote, to help shape history but all I could do was watch from the sidelines.  It felt as if everyone had been invited to a party except us.

I really wanted things to go smoothly – for a miracle to happen. The lead up to the elections had been tense.  We had watched the CODESA negotiations go forwards and backwards; the assasination of Chris Hani and the leadership that handled the situation with grace even as they felt the pain; the fighting between Inkhata and the ANC in Gaueng and KZN;  the AWB storming the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park in an attempt to derail the negotiations; the AWB ‘invading’ Boputhatswana – and being stopped in the tracks by the brave soldier who dared to shoot and kill some of the members after they had killed many people; the attack on the St James church in Kenilworth.  I sometimes joked with Victor saying, “Thank God Tygerberg is near the airport. If things go wrong, we just might be able to make it there and go back home!!!”  So I watched, and I prayed and waited for a miracle – and it happened.  It was the most peaceful elections I had ever witnessed!

21 years ago I was a foreigner in this country cheering on in the sidelines, so proud of my brothers and sisters and what they had achieved.  In the years that followed I started to understand the legacy of apartheid – the deep scars it left on the souls of the people – as I worked with schools in Khayelitsha, Lwandle, Nomzamo, Khayamandi, Mbekweni and on farms in Paarl and Wellington; as I lived in the grounds of a hospital that was built to keep people seperate; as I worked with NGOs, Government Officials, UCT and UWC.

Today I look back and see that a lot has been achieved.  Oppressive laws have been changed, houses built, access created.  There are more black people in places – whether it is in descion making positions in organisations, or when you go to the Waterfront or a shopping mall or a University – and a lot still needs to be done.  As things go, South Africa is still a very very young country.

Today’s celebrations are coloured by a lot of new debates and protests.  There are the Xenophobic attacks that have reared their heads again creating responses from all over the world.  There are the increased racist attacks that have happened in the past year.  There has been a vast number of service delivery protests that have taken place lately. The shadow of Marikana looms large.  There are the movements in many of the Universities challenging the lack of real transformation. There are many officials who have been charged with corruption.  There is the rise of South Africa as an economic power on the continent AND the obstacles that South Africa has created in the visa process for visitors from other African countries – even though South Africans can visit most of those countries without visas.  A large focus has been put into the setting up of new laws and policies to create a legal framework that can support change.  It is now time to also work on the process of healing the nation so that the self-hatred that leads to black on black violence can become self-love.  It is time for South Africans to really embrace Africa – after all they are one of the few countries that have Africa as their surname!

When the night is unsafe … life goes on


Student ID

Kampala in the 1980s…
It was a time of road blocks manned by irrational scary soldiers, of ‘panda gari’ (police swoops on neighbourhoods to arrest young men who were suspected of being guerillas), and pop-corn disco (gun shots at night). And we still went to parties and clubs, to discos, people got married, we celebrated important occassions – it became more important – perhaps an affirmation that life was more than that?  Often the parties were ‘trans-nights’ – all night affairs that started before dusk and ended when the morning light licked the skies because then it was safer to travel in the day.  But we still travelled at night – knowing which roads and neighbourhoods were safe.  Life goes on in times like this.

It was 1983.  I had finished high school, and was taking a gap year because my year group in Kenya was doing national youth service. I stayed in Kampala, was an occassional student at Makerere and met Victor. He asked me to join a band, The Elements, and I did. We had a blast, performed at the Neeta(?) with the late Flo Sebalu, Mahela, Estella Muyinda, Maggi, Vikki, Liz, Tim, Steven Nsubuga, Andrew Kasirye, Allan, Semakula, the late Arthur Kasirye, one of the Serukenyas. We sang songs we loved, had costumes sponsored by Lady Charlotte and made no money!  Mr. Serukenya (a well known Engineer, singer, composer and also Victor’s Uncle) loved our performance and asked us to come and perform at a Roko party in Kololo on New Years Eve. We were excited and although we couldn’t all make it, we agreed that those who could would. Victor picked Maggi and I up at home on Sezibwa Road in Nakasero. My parents reluctantly let us go. We packed ourselves into the little Honda Accord (which we called Engo – the Leopard) – Victor, Steven, Anne, Maggi, Tim and I and left quickly before they changed their minds.

The party was on Summit View Road in Kololo – right on top of the hill. We had a rough idea where it was (no google maps those days) so we drove up Kololo Hill Drive slowly, looking out for Summit View with the windows open and ears pricked to hear the loud music. We came to a T-Junction and knew we were close.  It was either on the road to the left or on the road to the right.  We took a gamble and turned right. We passed two men walking but did not think to ask them for directions. We drove on – windows open, listening. Then suddenly a man in camouflage army fatigues dropped out of a tree and stood in front of us, cocked his gun and shouted, “Simama!” Victor stopped the car and we all jumped out, hands in the air, hearts beating and stood there.  A few more soldiers appeared.  We had taken the wrong turn, and were at the army camp that was on top of the hill!

The soldier who had stopped us stood there.  His eyes bright and blood-shot darted around, and his hand on his gun was restless.  Who were we and why were we there? He wanted to know.  We tried to explain but he did not care.  Anne was the most articulate of us.  The soldier’s body seemed to vibrate with anger – his voice sitting somewhere between talking and screaming.  We stood there waiting.  Then he said, “Wapi pilot?” (Where is the driver?) So Victor came forward, and was told to drive the car forward, beyond a boom – and into the camp!  Victor sat behind the wheel and tried to talk to the soldier but he said, “Shut up!” and moved to hit Victor with the butt of the gun.  Luckily Victor inched the car forward slightly, and the gun hit the door.  Anne tried to negotiate but he kicked her and told her to be quiet.  Victor drove in and we followed on foot.  They made us squat in front of the car, headlights shinning on us and asked for our IDs.  They asked us where we lived.  Victor, Anne, Tim and Steven all lived in Makindye, and Maggi and I lived in Nakasero.  This baffled them.  They wanted to know why we were together if we lived in different parts of town.   ‘ Who is your boyfriend?’  they asked Maggi, Anne and I, with snide laughter.  We were all starting to feel very uncomfortable.  Suddenly the two men we had passed came into the camp and joined us.  They were in civilian clothing.  They asked what was going on and the first soldier saluted and  explained that he wanted to punish us – we were not supposed to be there.  The two men said it was okay, they would handle the case.  The red-eyed soldier was not happy.  Some where in their interaction we realised that the plain clothes men were Lieutenants. They told the red-eyed soldier that they would have to take us to the army barracks in Makindye for our punishment.  He said okay.  We looked at each other – Makindye barracks?!  Everyone knew that most people who went to the Makindye barracks did not come out.

One of the Lieutenants got into the car with Victor, and asked him to drive deeper into the camp.  I asked, “Where are you taking him?”  And the other Lieutenant laughed and said that they were just turning  the car around.   They came back and we got in – there were now 8 of us in the tiny Accord!  “Tunaenda Makindye,” one of the Luietenants said to Red Eyes, and out of the boom we drove.  The air in the car was charged  – you could smell it.

We drove down Kololo Hill Road, and at the bottom, the men told us to stop.  They got out and told us to go, and to never come back up there. We said, “Thank you.”  And drove away.  And then someone said, “Where are we going now?”  We had left home about an hour earlier.  If we went back, what would we say? We couldn’t tell them what had happened because they would ground us for life – Kampala was not safe at night.  We finally went to the Kicementi – a shopping block whose shops turned into bars at night.  It was relatively safe, and we needed a drink.  After a few drinks, and a debrief we decided that t it was our new years eve and we were going to celebrate after all we almost did not make it.  We got into the car and drove to our favourite disco – Chez Jozef – and danced the night away.

Our parents only learnt about this years later.

Easter in Addis Ababa, April 2014

Ethiopian Orthodox Church  Celebrating on the night of Holy Saturday

Close to Midnight on Holy Saturday, April 2014. Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Photo taken by Odoh Diego Okenyodo

What a different Easter Weekend this has been – on so many levels.  In Ethiopia most Christians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and it has been interesting to be immersed in the city during the holy week.  The work I have been engaged in has been on a secular, social level, and yet the spiritual has been alive, so alive.

During Lent many Christians fast.  Here in Ethiopia the fasting is very much like the way the Moslems do during Ramadan.  Everyone knows that the members of the Orthodox church are fasting.  One evening I was out for dinner with one of the colleagues who is a vegetarian.  She asked for a meal with no meat.  The waitress immediately asked, “Fasting? Orthodox?”.  My colleague replied, “No, vegetarian.”   The waitress repeated her question, and so we smiled and said, “Yes, Orthodox.” because it was easier.  Last night we went to a restaurant with a buffet, and the food on one side was marked ‘Fasting Food’ and the other ‘Non Fasting Food’. The non-fasing food have no meat and no eggs.  Through out the week there were subtle signs that it was Holy Week.

I am not sure what happens on Good Friday because we worked the whole day.  I know people went to church, but I am yet to do my research.  Most of the local staff were not at work, and the area around the Institute for Security Studies, where we are working was very quiet.

Holy Saturday is very different from the way I have experienced it anywhere.  Early in the morning, the Priests from each Orthodox congregation, together with a Deacon or two, go out into the community.  The Deacon carries long, flattened reeds, and they walk around ringing a bell.  The Christians open the doors of their homes and receive reeds, which they wrap around their heads.  Everywhere we went on Saturday we would see people walking around Addis with a reed wrapped around their heads.  The reeds symbolise Jesus’s grave-clothes.

Abel celebrating Holy Saturday

Our Ethiopian colleague, Abel, celebrating Holy Saturday. Photo taken by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa

And the most important Easter service is at midnight on Holy Saturday (see picture at the start of the post). I missed that celebration but some of my colleagues attended the beginning.  The whole community gathers at church – they start with song, and then at midnight they go into prayer – and have a 3 hour-long service.  It is believed that Jesus rose at around 3 am.  They do not go to Church after that.

This morning, Easter Sunday, I went on a different journey.  I wanted to go the Church they way I normally do.  I grew up Anglican and so I went to the church that we went to when I lived in Addis – St. Mathews Anglican Church, between Aratkilo and the Ras Amba Hotel.  I believe the last time I was in that Church was Christmas Day 1980!

St. Mathews Anglican Church, Addis Ababa

The Altar at St Mathews Anglican Church, Easter Sunday, 2014, Addis Ababa Ethiopia – picture taken by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa

The service was much smaller and simpler than the last service I attended at St. Mathews.  When I was last in Addis, St Mathews was very High Church.  So while it  followed the Anglican tradition that I had grown up with, they also included the burning of incense, bells and the like in the service.  I remember the first time I went there it felt like I was at a Catholic Mass.  Well the church has changed so much!  It is more Anglican Evangelical – no incense, no bells – and the songs are more modern.  I noticed how the congregation had fewer Africans, and more Australians and New Zealanders.  It was the same in many ways and different in others.

I enjoyed the service.  And as I sat there, I kept thinking of my late parents and brother and sister – Fay and Chris.  I felt their presence.  I kept thinking of Aunty Lerlyn, a good family friend born in Trinidad who is married to a Ugandan and is Ugandan.  She was very active in the church.  And the style of service reminded me of my congregation at the Bellville Presbyterian Church in Cape Town – and had touches that reminded me of All Saints Cathedral in Kampala.  As I left I reflected on the different Easter traditions.  I wondered if we had lost anything, those of us who have fewer outward rituals to keep us grounded.

Happy Easter everyone.  Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed.

The power of gentleness


In most of the cities I have been too there is a clear distinction between where the middle class live, and where the working class and the poor live.  And the middle class is often afraid to walk alone in the areas where the poor and working class live.  They carry many assumptions about safety and ‘otherness’.  This is not so in Addis.  Right next to the palace is a shanty town.  Right opposite the Jupiter International Hotel we are staying in (next to the Raddison Blu) is a shanty town.  The people of Addis live side by side in harmony – the geography of the city dictates that.  There is no sense of fear as one walks down the streets, not really.  Except maybe that conditioned sense of ‘I must take care’ that is born out of living in large cities like Cape Town.  In crowded places one must be aware of are pickpockets, the beggars who are very persistent and  the con men who hang around the hotels.

The other evening I was with two of my colleagues waiting for the rest of the team to come.  We were standing across the road from the hotel, close to some shacks, next to the minibus taxi we were all going to use to go to a Jazz concert.  It was dark.  A man with very beautifully twisted dreadlocks came up to my colleagues and started to speak to them.  At first they ignored him, then they said they were not interested.  He was pushy so we decided at that moment to wait inside the minibus.  He followed us, and wanted to open the door and get in but the taxi driver sent him away. Someone said ‘He is just trying to con you guys.”  And we left it at that.

He walked away, and then came back, and tried to come in again.  We all started to get a bit agitated.  Did he not understand that we did not want to talk to him.  I could feel my own inner security bells going.  I wanted to tell him, “Go away.”  The American lady, being closest to the door, then raised her voice slightly and speaking very firmly asked him to leave.  She was holding the door closed.  He became angry. He walked to the passenger door and tried to open it.   Another colleague sitting in that seat held that door closed.  We were all starting to get angry, and to speak.  And then one of our Ethiopian colleagues, a petit young woman leaned out of the taxi and spoke to him in the calmest, kindest voice.  And he backed away, said it was all well, and left.

I later said, “You handled that so well.  You were so kind.”  She smiled and said, “That’s how it is here.  You just need to speak to someone nicely and they will understand.”  So I asked her what did you say?  And she said, “I explained that you guys were not from here and you did not know how things worked, that you just wanted to be left alone. And he said okay.  Just tell them to talk to me nicely.”  And that was that.

The course I am on is about using art to build peace within the community.  It is really about seeing and listening to people, and helping them see each other, see themselves, see possibility.  My Ethiopian colleague really demonstrated how communication and gentleness are sometimes the most powerful tools we may have.


The Artist as Peacebuilder in Africa: Part 1

I am in Addis Ababa doing a course called ‘The Artist as Peacebuilder’ through the Institute of Security Studies.  We are an interesting mix of participants – all 25 of us.  From 15 countries – Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Togo, Cameroon, The Gambia, DRC, Malawi, Egypt, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Bourkina Faso and Morocco.  And representing different Arts and roles – we have visual artists, photographers, musicians, poets, storytellers, performing artists, film makers and a ‘nature’ artist who works with permaculture.  Then we have peacebuilders who work as journalists, and civil society activists working in a range of areas –  environmental issues, youth,  women, gay rights, street children, sex workers, identity, diversity and so on.

The Artist as Peacebuilder, Addis Ababa, April 2013

Day 1: Mapping African Peace and Security Challenges

The first two days the facilitators lay down the theory that will underpin our work over the next two weeks.   One of the questions we grappled with, and are still working with is ‘How well do you know your continent?  Or your country, or neighbourhood for that matter.’  I found this question very interesting, and am still thinking about it.  It made me realise that there are many things I assume I know, that I do not really know – and things that one takes for granted that one should not.  And things that I know that I did not know I knew.  I was grateful for my East African education.

In one exercise we were given a map of Africa with all the countries outlined but with no names.  The task was that each of us writes down as many names as we could.  It wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be.  I named about 38 and got 28 of those correct.  The highest got 44!  Of course I started with the East African region where I grew up, and went down South. I was so upset that although I had put Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe in the correct general area, I mixed them up.  The Easter part of North Africa (Egypt and Libya) were easy but West and North Africa were not as easy.  With some countries I knew the general area they were, but not the exact spot.


Naming the countries is just the beginning of really getting to know the continent.  The process though,  reminded me of the time the OAU was hosted in Uganda. I was in primary school, and we took the time to get to know the countries in Africa, to know their capital cities, their presidents, their national languages.  I used to sit with my neighbours, Alex and Michael, and play a game where we would ask each other questions like, ‘What is the capital of Angola?’ or ‘Describe or draw the flag of Gabon’.  I havent paid attention to any of those things lately.

How well do you know your continent?  What do you know about the countries – beyond their names?  Is what you believe about certain ethnicities in your country true, or is it prejudiced?  Do you see your people through knowledge and information that you can verify, or through the eyes of the media?  Are you able to entertain another perspective?

I have decided to take time to learn more about the rich and diverse peoples of my continent.  And I will stop getting angry with people who say to me, “Oh, you come from Uganda?  I have a friend who lives in Ghana.  Do you know them?”


Return to Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa        The little blue and white taxi        Addis from the workshop room

On Sunday I left Cape Town to travel to Addis Ababa – a soul journey back to a place of my youth – and to engage with other artists.  I was last in Addis in January 1981 when we left to return to Uganda.  As I boarded the Ethiopian Airlines plane in Johannesburg I realised that the last time I boarded a plane to Addis things were very different.  The air hostesses walked around the plane with a plate of sweets before take off and landing, to give you something to suck so your ears would not block.  In those days we were still able to go and visit the cockpit to see how the pilots fly the planes.  Smoking was still allowed in airplanes, and there was a smoking and a non-smoking area.  We still got little packs with socks, eye pads and toothbrushes on airlines.  And in the toilets, in the airplanes, there was soap and lotion.  And if you went on a long transatlantic flight, chances are you would have your toilet bag with you in the plane. It was a very different time.

There was a buzz in the plane – passengers talking to each other, laughing…  it was not like some of the flights I have been on where everyone seems to mind their own business and everything feels so impersonal in the plane.  I think many people on the flight knew each other, or got to know each other, and the Ethiopian Airlines staff created an atmosphere that was just pleasant.  I kept feeling as if I was in someone’s lounge.

We arrived in Addis at about 9 pm local time.  As we taxied down the runway, I remembered how Daddy used to wait to hear the plane flying over our house before he got into the car to come to the airport.  We lived in Bole, very close to the airport.  I thought I might be able to see where we lived as we drove out of the airport.  I noticed, as we got out of the bus that the airport building was bigger than it had been.  And as we drove out of the airport the empty spaciousness that I remembered along Bole Road was filled with buildings, cars and people – tall buildings with multiple storeys.  The road had also grown – it was much wider than it had been.  I think that the houses in the area, or many of them, were broken down to make way for the new buildings.  Our hosts said that all this development happened in the last 6 to 7 years.  Addis is growing very fast.

But somethings don’t change – at least not totally.  The little blue and white taxis that drove up and down the streets in 1977 are still there – a crucial mode of public transport.  They have changed just a little. In 1977 most of them were Fiats but now they are Datsuns or Toyotas.  Then there is the  quirkyness of Addis – with its upmarket housing next to low-cost housing.  In this city people live side by side – they always have.  I remember when we first came here we were surprised at the shacks that were so close to the Palace.  The suburbs don’t really exist.    It’s a conscious plan to enable even development, and to ensure that the rich and poor are integrated.  The discomfort that people from the suburbs have when they go to the poorer parts of town in other countries does not exist – and I like that.


View from the window of the course room                  the primary school below the workshop room, Addis Ababa, April 2013








Honour those who show up

Labyrinth by Francois Korver


A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were supposed to facilitate a one day workshop for some clients in Johannesburg.  It was the last session of a 7 month leadership programme and I had been asked to lead this final day using Story as a tool for reflection and planning.  I was excited.   Then things started to go wrong.  With all the previous leadership cohorts we worked away from the organisations premises, in a guesthouse with a lovely quiet garden, but because of the current financial context they were saving on costs and so they used their own premises – a distribution hub with lorries passing outside of the windows of the facilitation room regularly.  It was not the most conducive venue.  The dates had been changed in January, but somehow not all the participants received the new dates until a week before the course!  5 days before we were to facilitate the day was almost cancelled because of poor attendance.  Then, for some reason, they decided that we would go ahead.  So we were flown to Johannesburg and on arrival at the airport, both my colleague and I had two different shuttle services come to pick us up at the airport.  One organised by our administrator in Cape Town, and the other by the company!  We got to the B and B, and they were not expecting us because the client had not confirmed the booking.  Luckily they had rooms for us and this was sorted. Things were not looking good at all.

On the morning we were to work we got an email from the client to say that the numbers had dropped …  We were now expecting 6 or so people – from a possible 14.  We looked at each other and wondered what to do – cancel or facilitate? We had designed a very interactive process – time for reflection in small groups – to practice leadership skills of listening, asking incisive questions, sharing insights.  This required time but with only 5 people, it would be a short day – and would the design work with 6 people?

As we ate our breakfast and planned our day the thought came to mind about honouring those who came.  People had cleared their diaries, some had travelled as far as we had to be at the programme.  If we cancelled because ‘there weren’t enough participants’ what were we saying to them? And how many is enough? The saying, ‘whoever is there are the right people’ (from open space technology) came to mind, and I said to my colleague, “Whoever comes, lets facilitate what we have prepared.  We can tweak the exercises to suit the numbers, and we will most probably finish earlier than expected, but we would have honoured those who came.”  And that is what we did.

We ended up with 5, not 6 people – all men.  As we gathered to start people spoke about how angry they were with the way the course had been organised internally – and how upset they were with their own colleagues for not making the time to be there.  It was not a good place to begin the course.  So my colleague asked us to sit still, close our eyes, and she lead us through a visualisation which centered us and helped us to focus on the purpose of the day.  We worked with the Hero’s Journey, using it to reflect on the 7 months leadership journey they had been on.  And then, instead of the sharing in small groups, all 7 of us sat in a circle, and each participant shared their journey with such honesty and integrity.  And then – in a very unexpected turn – each of the listeners gave the speaker feedback.  I was struck by how aware they were of each person’s journey.  For everyone in the room there was someone who had seen their struggles and successes within the organisation, and was able to reflect this back to their colleague.  They gave statements like, “You took a job no one wanted to take.  In fact we thought you were crazy, and you have worked wonders.  Now everyone in the organisation is looking at you.”  Or “You made a decision that made sense to your family, but could have been a career limiting move.  And you have made it work for you and for the company.  You are a real inspiration.”  As we sat there, my colleague and I knew we had made the right decision.  Here were people in leadership, in an organisation, that understood each others challenges and were supportive of each other, who were able to speak openly with each other.  It was clear that these 5 people had the potential to make real differences in the organisation.

It was such a fulfilling day – all the challenges leading up to it faded away, and I realised three things:

  • Whoever comes – these are the right people and one should honour the effort they made to be there.
  • You have no guarantee what impact your work will have, but in being present, and giving your best to those who came – something will change.
  • Story is a very powerful tool to work with.  Each person told a personal story – in fact one person made it into a myth, but it was based on the organisation, and everyone recognised parts of it.  Through the storytelling they were able to articulate the movement and growth of each individual, and the challenges that lay ahead in a way that they would all remember.


From my blog in 2008: Shifting, happening, becoming

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Emotional Intelligence

Last week I was involved in two different workshops – one as a participant and one as a facilitator – both dealing in some way with concepts of emotional intelligence, and how this helps us to live more fully as human beings.

The first was a workshop, hosted by UNICEF and the Department of Social Development where they brought together people who have been involved in working with Orphans and Vulnerable Children (or their caregivers), particularly children who had been affected by HIV/AIDS and with an interest in the provision of psycho-social support for children.

The purpose of the meeting was to share what various groups were learning about the process of providing psychosocial support and to also begin to think about the principles that need to guide the process. Four projects presented their work: Firemaker, run by drama therapists, and using drama and other creative modalities to provide caregivers with tools to work with children; Storywell, which I am part of, which uses story and other creative activities as a medium; REPSSI, which works with hero books, digital storytelling and other modalities and produces a whole range of materials for use – they also showcased the work of MAD about ART, which uses art to work with young people, and has had some powerful impact; and ROBS which has a very long name (can’t remember it) and works with grief counselling, and has teamed up with a project in Australia that makes dolls… (I will find their websites so that any one who is interested can actually log on and see what they do).

The second was a two-day workshop which I facilitated, in a corporate setting, working with managers around the concepts of emotional intelligence – drawing on life, on theory, on the movies – to learn together, to reaffirm what was often known, but not practiced, and to meet oneself again.

What struck me about the two workshops?

·The importance of expressing (some you might want to read dealing with) our emotions be they grief, anger or joy – and understanding what has triggered them. In both workshops there was an acknowledgement of how our emotions trip us up when we do not express them. (working with children is, of course, different from working with adults, and one has to understand how children of different ages understand things and express things)

·Working with emotions is both a rational and an intuitive process – the head and the heart need to work in concert with each other – neither is superior, they just provide different insight, and support. The problem is we often elevate the intellect or rational over the heart or emotional or vice versa, instead of seeing them as important aspects of being human.

·The recognition that emotion is an important human response to the world, and in most cases, with the support of people who care, we are able to deal with intense emotions. However there are moments when it becomes pathological – and then we need the support of health professionals.

·The power of listening and being listened to!!!! For most people this is the most important thing – because when you are heard, you are seen, and you reality is acknowledged. It is one of the simplest, and most powerful gifts we can give each other – at home, at school and at work. And it is often one of the hardest things to do! Nancy Kline, in her book, ‘Time to Think’ says, we are often afraid that we won’t get a chance to be listened to, and so we do not listen to other people. When we know that we too will get a chance, then we listen to others.

·The sense that we are all in this together – whether it is working with the orphans, or working in an office, or teaching in a school, or parenting, or being a sibling – we all contribute to the well-being of the people around us AND we can, or should all be able to draw on them for help and support.

·There are many simple and powerful things that we can do to support ourselves and each other – and many of them have to do with being ‘present’, creating structure and support, being creative, listening, giving voice to those things that need to be given voice and listening.

Working with emotions means we should all be ready to be a little vulnerable with each other – and often when we do take that risk we reap incredible results! It is hard work and yet rewarding work.

new poem, reworked poem

Aunty Violet


She was a tall, dark

voluptuous woman

with big eyes.

Waiting outside his office

She sat still and upright

Hands folded in her lap.

Only her eyes hinted at the fire within.


Finally they let her in.

Mr Bob sat across the desk

His face pink and sweaty

On this humid afternoon.

‘Where is my husband?’

She asked quietly.

Her eyes glinting.

Her body, very still.

‘I don’t  know’ he replied.


Very slowly she leaned forward

And said,

‘You have taken him


and I have come to fetch him.’


‘I do not know your husband.’

His thin pale lips

Twitched as he spoke,

His eyes, cold and empty, 

Staring back into hers



She stood  

And pushed his desk up

Against his big belly

Pinning him helpless

Against the wall.


Her eyes blazing

She said

“Bobu!  Tukooye okutuyisa


My husband has done nothing wrong

and I will NOT leave here without him!

I will NOT raise my children alone.



Mr. Bob’s eyes opened wide

And he gasped!

Face ashen,

pinned between the wall and the desk

Unable to move or breathe.

He looked into her burning eyes

Her tall body towering over him

And suddenly

he remembered her husband

… and where he was!


“Please Madam,

Let go of the desk,”

He wheezed. 

“Your husband will

be here soon.”


That day

Her husband came back home

And was never taken again!


Going home (formerly known as In a Foreign Land)


At the dinning table

shoulders hunched.

Quiet tears .

A soft moan .


Two aunties next to her

hushed words

taut faces.


A child

leaning against the wall

Eyes flashing, fists clenched

’What did they say?’


Nabutiiru says

‘I’m alright.

Khukhu passed away last night.’


The child   

Wraps her arms

Around her Mother

Mourning her Mother.


Nabutiiru.looks around her.

Their homeland

Fast falling into war.

She dislocated

With three of her children.

Far away from home.

The older two

wheel-chair bound.

Minds alert

Unable to speak, or walk,

Or care for themselves.

The younger one, 13.

The caregiver barely 19,


She must go.

Can she leave the children alone?

Bury her Mother

Will she be safe?


Her husband kilometers and kilometers away,

Her eldest child further.

The second born at home –

maybe she will be at the funeral.


An aunty speaks.

‘What if the soldiers get you? Stay.’


Nabutiiru stands.

‘I must go.

I must bury my mother.’

‘We will be alright.’


Bag packed.

She gives the child some money.

‘I’ll be back soon.

If you need anything

Call Aunty.’


Nabutiiru travels

In a Matatu

Through the Rift Valley

Towards Busia


She remembers

The last words her mother,

Hand on cheek, she had asked:

“Nabutiiru, will you manage

With the children in a foreign land?”


Nabutiiru crosses Manaafa,

The river of her home.

The floodgates open up

Tears wash over her.


At the homestead

They wait.

Coffin lowered into

The grave.

They wait.

Corrugated iron sheets over grave.

They wait.




As the sun sets

She steps out of the car

Into the homestead.

They see she is here.


The voice of an old woman

Singing a dirge

Rises through the air

One by one

They move,

As if dancing,

To the grave.


Nabutiiru is here

She will bury her mother.

They will be alright.


And far away

In a foreign land

The children now wait.

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