A talking wall and yoga

By Nina Hendricks, Hope Exchange, South Africa, 2019 Introduction Course

My name is Nina Hendricks and I am a 3rd year social work student at the University of Cape Town. I have been placed at an organisation called ‘The Hope Exchange’ for my field practice. Part of the academic requirements for my course was to undertake a community work project. As Training for Transformation is part of the prescribed reading work, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the TFT Introduction course.

The Hope Exchange offers ablution and social services to the homeless community of the Cape Town Central Business District (CBD); as well as a shelter for 40 men at risk of homelessness. They work in partnership with other organisations to serve the homeless people of the CBD with a vision of bringing hope through dignity and opportunities for change. My experience of working at the Hope Exchange was exhilarating from the start. My supervisor took me into the community, and we met people where they were, where they slept or lived. I was encouraged to go out, find out people’s stories and truly listen. No matter how excited, enthusiastic and eager I was to learn, the community took long time to trust me and let me in. Homeless people often experience such rejection and trauma out on
the street and have been through so much in life, that I could understand why it wasn’t easy to trust this very chipper person every Monday morning. One client even showed me with a gesture to turn the volume down.

The initial project I had come up with was a Photo exhibition where people experiencing homelessness could share their photos, stories and experiences so that the public could get a better understanding of what it’s like to be homeless; and that each person has a story that is very similar to each of ours. The community then decided that they no longer wanted to do an exhibition without getting paid and the project fell through.

I attended the TFT course and with my new learnings I did another round of meeting with community members to find out their most pressing needs and what they wanted for their community. I established a steering committee to help make decisions and I never made decisions without them. They found that community members were stressed and needed leisure time. At the same time, they still wanted people to know what they experience. So, after many meetings, they came up with the idea of a ‘talking wall’ and a yoga session.

On World Homeless Day 10 October 2019, the paper was put up and student volunteers helped community members to write whatever they wanted on the talking wall. A yoga instructor offered a free yoga session with deep relaxation exercises because homeless people do not have the opportunity to get good sleep and properly relax.

At the end of the project, the feedback was that everyone loved the yoga session. Even a homeless dog joined and took part in the exercises. The community wanted to do yoga more often and said they didn’t know what their bodies were capable of. The yoga instructor not only offered to go back but also offered legal services to the organisation as she is also an advocate.

People had mixed feelings about writing on the wall. They said they felt good to say how they feel and have a voice, but some felt that nothing would come of it and that their messages would fall on deaf ears. The pictures were shared on social media and some members of the public commented that they were deeply touched by what they had read and had no idea that this is what life is like for homeless people. One of the community members that contributed most to the artwork on the talking wall asked for paper and pen to continue documenting experiences of homeless people.

TFT taught me that community work must be for the people by the people. I now value everyone’s different knowledge and contributions far more. I also have a better understanding of Max-Neef’s Fundamental Human Needs and how they all work together. That made me realise that taking one need away like leisure (that initially I felt wasn’t as important), had a huge impact on the other fundamental human needs. I can also see how much impact the community themselves can make even without money and other resources. What I realise is that community work is not always easy. There were many challenges, people have different needs, the community I worked with was fractured and steering committee members didn’t always attend meetings. But in the end, after all the challenges, it was totally worthwhile and life changing.

The TFT training has changed me as a person. I was so inspired by this community, what they made happen and by the group of trainees who were present from different countries, organisations and religions. When I look at people now, I always want to find out about their knowledge and experiences and can see their strengths and what we can do together. As a group of TFT trainers, we shared many personal experiences and grew close so quickly. I have heard experiences of women in war, of women on farms, of people who are achieving great things through their struggles. That gives me the hope to carry on and the confidence to form networks with people who are different to me and the inspiration to try and make things happen.

Thank you TFT.