More than Words
by Berni Georges
Children playing on the beach at Chandarapadi, south-eastern India
(inset) Berni Georges draws with children during a community meeting
Berni Georges, a member of the International Headquarters Communications Section, tells in words and pictures how The Salvation Army is using various methods to bring together communities ripped apart by the Indian Ocean tsunami
HOW can I be of any use here?' I thought. 'I have so much to learn. How can I relate? I can't even speak the language.' These and other doubts raced through my mind one hot April afternoon, outside a Salvation Army building in the fishing village of Srayickadu, Southern India.
Though there was much evidence of reconstruction work, it was hard to believe that 14 months earlier this beautiful area had been devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami and the community had suffered the pain of losing loved ones, homes and livelihoods.
Today there were smiling faces, children chasing each other and sounds of excited chatter as the local Hindu villagers mingled with groups of visitors from different parts of India and abroad. They were preparing lunch for their guests and my senses were overwhelmed by the vivid smells, the heat, the bright colours and patterns of the women's saris and the explosive rhythms of people's voices. This was a special day for the villagers as they were celebrating the opening of their newly rebuilt community centre – the Signal Club, funded by The Salvation Army. I was there to help with some of the counselling work, using my experience of mime and acting as a way to help people deal with their experiences.
As my feelings of being an outsider grew I noticed a group of teenagers chatting, jostling each other and watching what was going on. Some were singing songs together that sounded colourful and exotic to my Western ears.
I smiled and said, 'Namaskar!' – 'Hello!' in Hindi – and within moments I found myself in the centre of their huddle, laughing and joking around. We communicated with a mixture of sign language, facial expressions and mime.
They were curious about their strange British guest. They bundled me away to sit by the sea and soon they were teaching me their names and singing songs. My fears fell away as I felt embraced by their warm, noisy welcome. Taken by their exuberance, at that moment I felt I was starting on a journey of discovery.
The previous year I had taken part in Emergency Services training back at International Headquarters in London, with the view of possible deployment. I had learned about disaster response and the importance of relating to people you are serving, and here in India I felt I was getting to learn about it for real. I was beginning to understand the connection between people of vastly different cultures.
The young people of Srayickadu wanted to take steps to help rebuild their community. This part of India was particularly badly hit by the 2004 tsunami and The Salvation Army was quick to respond with medical help, provision of food, water and shelter. Following further help with new fishing nets and boats, there was still a sense that more work was needed within the community itself, and that help was needed from outside.
The people had contact with various relief agencies but decided they wanted to continue working with The Salvation Army. This was, they explained, because the Army sat down with people and really listened.
At first there had been feelings of suspicion and even hostility towards the Army – a Christian organisation working within this strongly Hindu community – but the community members saw that Salvation Army personnel showed genuine care, concern and an openness to understand them as capable people rather than victims.
On the occasion of my visit, the villagers were graciously hosting a group of young people who, through The Salvation Army, had travelled from different parts of India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea. They were young volunteers involved in some way with children's work back where they lived.
Some were Salvationists and Salvation Army officers, others students and relief workers – all volunteers gathered for a series of training workshops to equip them with tools to help them to counsel young people. They were also able to share their experiences and encourage each other.
Each team member had in some way been affected by the tsunami and wanted to work with young people. More than a year on from the tsunami some of the children from the affected areas still find it hard to cope with what happened. There is understandable fear that it could happen again and many children find it hard to sleep, suffer from anxiety and struggle at school.
The volunteer counsellors wanted to be involved in the healing process, using whatever creative methods fit their personality and skills. I had some experience in teaching mime in schools back in the UK and I could see the great potential in engaging children in drama and movement as a way of helping them to express their true feelings. If they could have fun in doing this, then all the better!
I had also been involved in painting and drama with street children in Uganda and had seen how wholeheartedly children embrace those forms.
Even so, this was India and I didn't know how things would work in this totally different culture.
As I began my workshops with the teams, with the help of translators, I realised I had to work hard to adapt my approach to be culturally relevant. The response overwhelmed me – many of the participants took hold of some of the ideas, released their imagination and lost their initial inhibitions.
The main purpose of my being there was not for me to hold workshops for children – although I did have an opportunity to do that – but to work with the visiting volunteers and local community members and teach them how to use drama and mime in their own counselling ventures.
Other workshops looked at using art, games and music to help children understand their own feelings and begin to deal with them.
An important part of trauma counselling is getting people to tell their story, to express the pain and grief they feel, their concerns about the future. There is a need for others to listen and understand. Art, music and drama were simply ways of helping that process.
|Above left: children play during a community visit in Uzhavar Nagar; above right: team members take part in games to help children address social issues|
Right: People at a community counselling meeting in Uzhavar Nagar; far right: Parameshwari, who lost four children in the tsunami, in Chandarapadi
As the workshops progressed my fears proved unfounded. By the third day the room I was using for the mime sessions became too crowded and we ended up going onto the beach.
It was a magical experience. We were in this idyllic place, in the sun, with cultural barriers broken down by a common purpose. The people I was working with took my ideas and used them in a way that was relevant to their own culture, with storytelling and music that would engage the children in their own communities.
Beyond a few ice-breaking games, my intention wasn't to give them specific ways of working to take back to their communities but rather to reveal how they could use drama and mime to break down the barriers people put up.
I wanted to encourage them to thread together all the other creative forms as well, all the variety of ways to explore personal and social issues, in a fun and unthreatening way that young people could relate to. It was so rewarding when people came up to me afterwards and said they wanted to apply some of the approaches back where they lived and that they wanted to learn more.
A large proportion of the members taking part was from the village itself and I was thrilled by a comment from one local woman who said, with a huge smile on her face, that taking part in these activities made her feel like a child again.
The approach to working with children was just one element of the whole spectrum of community counselling activity undertaken by The Salvation Army. The more I saw the close interaction between Army teams and local people, the more I was moved by this attitude of listening, being vulnerable and learning. Something struck a chord and I began to ask myself, 'Why is this kind of work so important?'
One Salvation Army officer based in Nagapattinam in South East India – Captain Moses Durairaj – told me how he had been involved in the task of recovering dead bodies washed up on the coast and the initial stages in disaster response – distributing food, clean water and temporary shelter.
He also had to assess the situation in his area and draw up a proposal of what The Salvation Army could do to help. This included distributing cooking stoves, providing new fishing nets and engines for the boats, and building new boats and homes. As he mixed with the people who would receive this help he came to realise that their loss reached far beyond their material posessions.
They grieved the loss of loved ones but the emotional hurt went even deeper – many people had lost their whole identity. Their communities had been torn apart and with them their sense of purpose. The international agencies could build new houses, but they would be occupied by hurting, displaced people. He saw a great need for some kind of community counselling.
Clinical psychologist Claire Campbell and HIV/Aids counsellor Bobby Zachariah were asked to visit the affected areas and explore ways of introducing community psycho-social counselling. They listened, built relationships, and formed teams of local volunteers in various parts of India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. These volunteers receive on-going training, support and resources so they can apply the approaches in their local villages and carry on the work long after the international teams have gone.
|Right: volunteer trauma counsellors; far right: young team members enjoying a time of singing|
|Right: a local fisherman at a community meeting; far right: local volunteer counsellor in Srayickadu|
I had the privilege of travelling with Claire, Bobby and Indian team members to other coastal communities in Tamil Nadu, south-east India.
As they facilitated community meetings I was blown away by what I witnessed. Emergency relief had been used as an entry point to form close relationships with the communities. Strong relationships were a foundation on which new projects can be based.
Probing questions stimulated the local people to talk about their real concerns, their vision for the future and practical ways to achieve that vision. The sessions helped to draw together the various strands that make up the fabric of the community. And all this was achieved using methods and systems the people themselves can apply time and again.
This counselling process was hard work in sometimes stressful conditions. There were struggles and disappointments, but also great rewards as after months of work the counsellors gradually saw many places making real progress.
In the village of Chandarapadi disparate groups have been brought together, family rifts been healed and there is a noticeable increase in mutual love and support. There was a recognition that to survive and move on the villagers needed that strength of mutual support, a strong bond of interdependence. Claire and Bobby were also beginning to see the ripple effect of this work as communities like these were making steps to reach out to neighbouring villages to pass on the skills they had learned.
I spoke to a woman, Parameshwari, who had lost four children to the waves. Her deep shock and distress caused her mental problems and she spent the first six months of 2005 in hospital.
Though she was suffering incredibly deep trauma, at first the community did not give her the support she needed, for various reasons. But through The Salvation Army's community counselling initiative, people came to understand more fully the value of caring and looking out for one another. They began to sit with her in hospital and later at her home when she was discharged.
Through their care and counselling she began to regain her will to live and sense of purpose. She now feels strong enough to help others and is taking steps towards adopting a child who lost his parents in the disaster.
Another local woman, Maleathy, became a volunteer counsellor. She described how her father had escaped the waves by clinging on to a coconut tree. But she felt the deep loss of others in her community, and the loneliness it brought.
Becoming involved in trauma counselling helped her to feel reconnected to the people around her, and it gave her personal fulfillment to be learning new skills and putting them to use among her own people.
One of the vounteers, Joseph, had run towards the beach when the tsunami struck in the hope that he could save the children who were playing there. He said he had not been afraid for himself because he came from a fishing family that was used to living off the sea.
His reason for becoming a volunteer helped me to see the value of the work I was a part of. 'If people can come from so far away and show so much love and concern,' he explained, 'then I thought to myself: “Why can't I show that for my own people?”'
One of my lasting memories came during a visit to a village where many people had lost their lives and families were mostly living in government shelters. That afternoon some children had taken part in an impromptu mime workshop we held inside a hot tin hut. Later that day, under a cooler evening sun, they let me join in their own games and songs. As we held hands, laughed and played together on the dusty ground I listened to the rhythms of their songs. They were teaching me something valuable – the resilience and courage of children and the way that communication can be more than words.
The tsunami was a tragedy on a massive scale. So many people lost their lives that it's hard to see how the communities along the coastlines of the Indian Ocean could ever survive.
And yet what I discovered was that in the midst of this tragic event some wonderful stories are emerging.
Wealthy and poor people are working alongside each other to rebuild their communities. The Salvation Army is providing practical assistance that will help, but the counselling I was privileged to be a part of is drawing people together and giving them ways of helping each other that will make them appreciate and depend on their community more than ever.
Gradually, the healing that is taking place can make these communities stronger than they have been before.