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Surprise! Open minds open eyes

Surprise! Open minds open eyes

28 juli 2014

Posted on August 28, 2014 on www.konterragroup.net/surprise-open-minds-o...
Occasionally there are those real life experiences in the field which genuinely surprise us; they add an unexpected dimension to the frame of reference each of us develops through formal education textbooks, and professional standards. We’re far more likely to encounter such a surprise if we start with an open mind and a willingness to connect with and learn from the people whom we are ‘helping’.

The team of humanitarian staff worked in a conflict zone, so they were
rather too well acquainted with violence. But then they became a target.
A group of thugs violently attacked the team; some were severely beaten
but, thankfully, no one was killed. Shortly after the incident, the
organization called on me to help team members process the traumatic
experience. Two weeks after the incident, I spoke with one of the guards
(as so often happens, the guards and the drivers were the worst
assaulted). The robbers had tied him up, threatened to shoot him, and
then beat him until he lost consciousness. Though physical recovery
occurred quickly, emotionally he was still terrified. I asked what kind
of help he had received. He mentioned the financial assistance from the
organization – he used it to buy rice and sugar for his children. He
also visited a psychiatrist in the city who prescribed medication. When I
asked if the pills had helped him, he hesitated. Just before he
replied, I knew I had raised an embarrassing question, and I realized
why. Somewhat ashamed, he quickly regained control, looked me straight in the eyes, and with dignity replied: “No, they did not help. I had to take those pills three times a day, with a meal.” For this man and his
family, one meal a day was all they could realistically expect.

A more recent incident taught me again how surprising insights spring from personal descriptions of traumatic experiences.
I worked with a team of an international organization in Mali, shortly
after French special forces had intervened and stopped the advance of
rebel militia. There I met a cheerful woman who told me in detail how
she had been able to survive the crisis. She had lived and worked at the
epicenter of the conflict; violence took place literally in her street.
Rebels shot their guns. At whom? This was not clear. For two days she
hid in her house with her children. She knew she had to get away, but
not via the road. Her neighbors were killed because rebels at a
roadblock mistook their car for a similar car used by people belonging
to an enemy group. She decided to flee – evacuate it is called
officially – via the river. This lasted longer, but was more secure.
With her children and with what they could carry, they left for safer
places. The journey took four days, with all the hardships and
inconveniences, and without food. When I asked her if she had been
afraid of being killed herself , she looked at me and with her best
smile she said: “I will tell you something about our country. You know, I
belong to the people of the Songhai. The Arabs would not kill me, I
knew that. If I would have been a Bambara, then I had reason to be
afraid, I would certainly have been killed. But being a Songhai, you
know, this is different. The Arabs have a long tradition of trading and
selling Songhai as slaves, so they do not kill us.”
As usual, at the end of the work, there was a party, for employees and consultants, a wonderful barbecue, with lots of food and music. With her warm smile that by now was familiar to me, my Songhai friend brought me a plate of food. “Joseph, eat,” she urged me. “Soon the food will be finished, and you never know when you can eat again.”