A personal reflection

For about three weeks in June and July, TFT was in Papua, Indonesia (find it on a map now before reading on). We were completing the last leg of a two year process of accompanying a community of mountain and island people as they continue to find their voices to tell their own stories, read their reality, analyse their environment and source local solutions. In the past two years, 67 participants from Numfor Islands and the mountain Highlands were trained, 20 of whom were women. Amongst the participants were six provincial officials responsible for village development.

There are many highlights for me from this brief journey with a community on its road to transformative development. These include the warmth and hospitality of the Papuan people, the humility of the traditional leaders, the growth in women’s confidence and ‘voice’, and the recognition of the need to reclaim traditional beliefs and practices of spirituality that have long been “downpressed” (as Bob Marley would say). But, I must confess that the biggest highlight has been a deeply personal one. I arrived on the island still reeling from the xenophobic violence in South Africa, feeling bewildered and tired, with much of my years of work as a trauma psychologist in the refugee community seemingly undone in a couple of weeks. So, I was feeling a little ‘undone’ myself and more than a little disillusioned with our ability not only as Africans, but as humans, to cherish the freedom that we and those before us have worked so hard to achieve. This trip to Papua has nourished me on various levels. I have been deeply restored by an unexpected reminder of the meaning of Ubuntu and by the energy of a community whose fire has been sparked by the TFT process, a people whose belief in the dream of freedom and their role in claiming it, has been rekindled and is now blinding in its audacity and fervour. These people of the highlands and islands are now on fire, in the best way possible and I too have come home with a new flame. I must say that I have also been nourished with some of the best food I have had in a long time: fresh fish daily, braised papaya flowers, water spinach, cassava, sago, wild yams, tender coconut flesh, coconut water and sweet, sweet bread…should I stop now, because I could go on?! Ntombi watched in amazement (and a kind of maternal satisfaction) as I ate more and more at every meal! I came home three kilograms heavier and have just finished planting more banana, papaya and yams in my garden.

It was unusual to experience a place as strange and yet familiar at the same time. I kept on seeing faces that looked just like my cousins or uncles and aunts. There was a lovely older gentleman, bless him especially, bapa Simon, who was a thinner image of my late father. We formed a special bond and I so treasured our morning and parting greetings, where he would find me and smile and gently say (what I imagined was):  “my daughter”, in his mother tongue. Being in this place was like having daily devaju, a sense that was my home, a home I knew and remembered, until someone says: “Selamat pagi” in bahasa language and I realise I cannot understand or respond with a single word! One of the days an elderly man, who was not one of the regular participants pitched up to attend the workshop for the day. He was well dressed with a well-coiffed moustache and a certain air about him that seems common to grandfatherly gentlemen of a certain generation across the colonised parts of the globe. He attended the following day as well, bringing his five year old grandson with him. He explained that he had told his grandchildren of all the amazing things he had had learned ‘at school’, taught by two African ladies. His youngest grandchild had insisted on accompanying him, wanting to learn as well and to meet “the Africans” (truth be told, in translation it came across as “the negroes”, but we’ll let that one get lost in translation!). After being introduced to us and a having ride on Ntombi’s back, the child said to his grandfather in mild disappointment: “But papa, they are just like us!” Indeed, out of the mouths of babes. We share the same struggles and desires, the same longings for justice and freedom and desires for a good life.

At the risk of reinforcing essentialised clichés of indigenous groups, I want to say that I have rarely experienced such honest and authentic engagement within a group, especially around challenging themes of development aid, violence against women, leadership, colonialism and traditional ways of worship. The group (facilitators included) came out on the other side of these conversations wiser, more informed and with a more critical analysis – I guess this is the power of conscientisation.

The codes (pictures, body statues, dramas and mimes) seemed to have ten times more power than they usually do and participants unpacked them and spoke about them for days. It was a little funny when we were leaving the island and at the tiny local airport, to have one of the participants turn up, speeding on his loud, music-blasting motorcycle, wanting to have a conversation about how meaningful one of the codes was to him personally, just as we were about to board the plane. Generally, the participatory methodology was received with high enthusiasm and energetic response, again reminding us that this is the only way to go in facilitating group processes. But there was also something special about this group, as I guess there is about every group. Their concentration and focus hardly ever wavered and men and women showed impressive stamina in individual and group work, some staying later after the end of a long, hot day to complete tasks or do “homework” or prepare for the following day. It was so encouraging to see and feel commitment to discipline and hard work. I have only seen a snippet of this two year Papuan journey in this last phase, but I have been stunned by the growth of the women participants. If empowerment is seen in clarity of vision, confidence to speak, courage to challenge and commitment to hard work in the service of vision, then these women of The Highlands and the Islands are undeniably empowered. It was amazing to see male elders and traditional leaders listen intently and respectfully to women, sometimes much younger than themselves, and to see these women, young and old, take initiative in small groups, leading the discussion, scribing for the group and representing the group in plenary feedback, with the seeming support (and I think surprise) of the men in the group. The constraints of patriarchy is still a huge undercurrent in the lives of Papuan women, evident in the relative normalisation of gender based violence as well as the burden of reproductive roles, with many women giving birth to up to twelve children and high maternal and infant mortality rates. So, the increased visibility of women, as they step forward in bolder, more vocal and participatory ways in the transformative process and community structures bodes well for the longer struggles against violence against women.

Another area that left me deeply moved was how the group grappled with the ways in which spirituality had been affected by missionary intervention and colonisation. There were deep discussions on the levels of violence that have historically been done to the ancient and sacred belief systems and cosmologies of indigenous peoples. Witnessing conversations on what had been lost or given up that used to be life giving and affirming was unexpectedly painful for me and when groups literally brought some of the traditional sacred practices into the room it felt like my heart was being twisted and breathed into at the same time (sorry if this does not make sense, words fail me).

It has been a long time since I have seen and felt solidarity in such an intimate, almost visceral way, in a people’s commitment to keep working towards the dream and “re-membering” from whence they have come, a simultaneous process of moving forward and looking back. This trip was yet another profound reminder of the words of Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

It has been an honour for me to be part of this journey and I look forward to being a witness from afar as this community so far but so near to our hearts in terms of our struggles, finds (and continues to demand) its rightful place in the world. Let Freedom Reign!

By Jude Clark