Sunday, April 21, 2013
The following piece was difficult to write since it appears to make a tall claim. All I can say is that it is based on events that actually took place, and is true.
What started in Nagaland…
It was in the fourth workshop in Nagaland, in 2000, that participants stopped me and said they had something to share. All the education stuff they were learning was certainly very useful but what they valued far more was this: People from all the 16 tribes of the state were present in one room and, for the first time, they said, were not fighting! The process had somehow led all of them to feel like a family and they cherished this even more than the curriculum that was emerging from it.
How did this happen, I wondered. It was not being attempted (and in fact there was not even the awareness that something like this was required in the first place). So what went right? A little probing led to the realization that not being aware of who was from which tribe or occupied what social / professional position, the facilitation process could not distinguish between participants – no one was treated as being more ‘important’ or ‘different’.
A second feature was that much of the process revolved around generating a common set of experiences such as activities, school observations, classroom trialling, and intensive group discussions around key questions that had a larger canvas while also affecting state-specific decisions and implementation. The opportunity to evolve a common vision, agree upon the aims and objectives around which the curriculum would be built and developing consensus around the practical means to be adopted – all this led to ‘feeling like a family.’
Could this effect - that had happened ‘by mistake’ - actually be deliberately implemented? That is, could disparate groups who believed they had conflicting interests be brought together to ‘feel like a family’ through a consciously implemented version of this process?
It was not long before an opportunity to test this presented itself – in Afghanistan.
…Continued in Afghanistan
‘My brother from India,’ said a fearsome-looking senior member of the National Resource Group in Kabul, part of the Teacher Empowerment Programme, in 2003-04. It was the first effort to implement a country-wide in-service teacher training programme after the war. ‘My brother from India, do you know that we have in our group some people who are bandits! And we have to develop training with them!’
Before I could respond, another equally fierce gentleman thumped his desk, stood up and bellowed, ‘Our professor from India, when we were fighting the Russians in the mountains, some people were sitting in luxury in the USA!’ No one else seemed discomfited by this except me. How do you work with a group where members seemed intent on settling long-standing personal scores through you?
Once again it was really useful not to know who was exactly what. During the security briefing, I had been given a small chart depicting the various factions that had been at war with each other and now comprised the post-war nation. I had carefully put the chart away without looking at it. And had then thought about the kind of questions would work with this gathering of conflicting factions.
Therefore, as in many other places, the first question the participants got to work on was: ‘What games did you play as a child? And can you name at least 40 of them?’ In just a few moments the mood in the group had changed dramatically. People were gesturing, doing actions of the games they were describing, prodding each other to remember the names of the games they could recall, smiling more and more as their childhood seeped up and transported them into another time when they didn’t have this animosity. From then on, over the next several months, the process continued, with the fearsome gentlemen becoming less and less ferocious till they were actually good friends, and contributed greatly to the outcomes. Along with them, whatever factions that might have been there within the group also shed such reservations as they might have had about the ‘others’. By the end, in fact, it really was difficult to make out the groups that might have been there earlier….
And in a very different setting
Could there be a more difficult situation than Afghanistan? Actually, there could. During the thick of the LTTE-Sri Lankan Army war, I found myself in a workshop for writers, about half of whom were Tamil with the other half being Sinhala. Tamil writers arrived late to the venue, a few hours away from Colombo, as they had been held up again and again along the way by police and other security authorities – on the ground that they were Tamils moving around. One of the writers had just learnt that his brother had been arrested by the Sri Lankan police, on suspicion. Tamil and Sinhala writers were clearly unwilling to mix; in fact, there were many who did not know the other group’s language or English. It was the sensitivity displayed by the organizers and all others present that enabled the workshop to be held at all. However, a sense of awkwardness and whispered conversations pervaded the atmosphere and made it difficult to start.
Working through interpreters, one for each language, the challenge was to have a group that achieved some degree of comfort with each other and would relax sufficiently to enable a creative process to flow. Listening to lectures from the facilitator, however wonderful, was unlikely to achieve this. In this case the strategy of not knowing who was who was obviously not going to work…
What did work, however, was the use of ‘idea triggers’, which are ways to get people to think of things they otherwise would not. For example, take two completely unrelated words (such as ‘rocket’ and ‘goat’) and see if you can make a long and interesting sentence (at least 10 words long) that contains both the words. (Try this out a few times with the same two words and see what happens). Or, take an ordinary object – such as a spoon – and think of a place where it will usually never be found (e.g. on a branch high up on a tree) – and think of how it got there, what happened afterwards – and you will soon begin to get a story in your head.
As these ‘triggers’ began to be used, the ‘writer’ in the participants began to come to the fore. They bounced ideas off each other, laughing at the ridiculous and funny juxtapositions that were cropping up, teasing them into ideas for stories, applauding each others' creativity and slowly forgetting that that they were two peoples affected by being on the opposite sides of an ongoing war…