Sunday, 16 October 2011

Counselling and International Development: the White Parrot Sings no Answers

A draft of an article for Therapy Today - please give me your comments!

When I left Britain to spend two years for Voluntary Service Overseas in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, I thought the skills I would need would be those of the English or TEFL teacher, or those of the Professional Development Trainer. And no doubt, without those skills I could not have been effective. But, in fact, I have relied far more on my Counselling Skills. Without those I could not have crossed the cultural boundaries and made some sort of contact.

Not, in fact, that any of us really cross cultural boundaries. It’s more a matter of love than movement. More a matter of a sudden unconscious glimpse, like a dream image that suddenly breaks upon consciousness. In an instant I find that something that has, until now, been puzzling or different or foreign, suddenly is ‘of course!’ It’s very like, if not exactly the same, as the experience we as counsellors wait for and work for in the room: suddenly we see what another human being has been experiencing, and how they’ve made organic sense of what they’ve experienced. And, when we have such insight, then sometimes we can share it, whether in words or body language or imagery, and the person we are with may choose to grow and change, because he or she now knows they are not alone, and not ill or the victim of ‘issues’ or ‘problems’. It’s a kind of psychic evolution, born always of those moments when we realise we are not isolated and individual.

The whole experience has left me reconsidering what Counselling Skills are, and realising that Development - personal development, group and community development, or international development - only happens when the core conditions exist. I will, in this article, use slightly different terms for what I consider the core conditions to be: empathy, certainly; compassion, so much more resonant a term for me than unconditional positive regard; and honesty, lack of professional front, and a transparent but sensitive presence which is always focussed on the other person and his or her needs - this means more to me than congruence, though that is a vital term too. To these, however, I need to add a bit of ‘magic’, the creative component without which human growth is stifled. Whether this comes from dream, the ability to listen to our core metaphors making sense of our state of being, or from myth, or just from an occasional level of communication in which unconscious processes are acknowledged and valued and listened to, is often a matter of serendipity. But being open to it is a sine qua non.

I’m writing this looking out at the 2000 metre mountains of Simbu Province, Papua New Guinea. The beauty of the peaks is stunning; the settlement at the foot of the mountain is a no-go area. The ground between me and the settlement is stained with bouai, the blood red betelnut juice of this country’s favourite addiction. I’m back here on my third placement with the Simbu Education Division as a VSO volunteer. And today is Independence Day: PNG became an independent country 36 years ago.

I’m thinking back to my first contact with counselling skills,  a Berkshire County in-service course entitled Education in Personal Relationships, and led by the inspiring Moira Dunn of Marriage Guidance, as it then was. I’m remembering how it was counselling skills that led me to re-evaluate how I approach teaching. I’m remembering Mechanical Techicians 1 on that Friday afternoon when I returned from the EPR Course: the relationship was somehow all different because I was not preaching and arguing and telling; we were exploring together. Somehow, I had begun to learn to listen.

But let me tell you about another ‘first contact’. It was less than 80 years ago that the first contact between ‘Whitemen’ - the Leahy Brothers prospecting for gold, on the one hand, and Fr. Schaefer, a German Catholic priest exploring for souls to save, on the other - and the indigenous people of this region was made. Prior to that time, the Europeans who made colonies of the coastal regions understood the interior, cut off behind high and apparently impenetrable mountains, to be uninhabited. In fact, it was the most densely populated part of the island, and had continued, as far as we can make out, in its way of life for perhaps 50,000 years. The people - hundreds of  tribes speaking hundreds of different languages - used no metal, digging their ‘gardens’ (small agricultural plots) with wood, and defending and attacking with carved arrows and spears. The first Europeans to meet them thought them primitive, ignoring the fact that these were among the first people on earth to use agriculture, and use it so successfully that change since had rarely been forced upon them. They had a way of life; it worked; why change it? But then, ‘First Contact’, and psychic evolution could not be avoided on either side.[i]

Now my job, as a VSO Volunteer in Simbu Province in 2006, was to help teachers to improve English Exam results for Grades 10 and 12. In their final exams, at these important school-leaving stages, students were on average achieving in English Language two grades below their results in Maths and Science. I had two main questions during my early months of research into what was going on: firstly, were the exams fair, valid, and reliable; secondly, were the teaching strategies effective for the students involved? The answer, in short, was obvious: no, on both counts.

But that scarcely begins to deal with the weight of impressions which were borne in upon me during those first months. Here are some pieces of anecdotal evidence which may give you some flavour of what those impressions were:

The Principal of the school we were based in came one day to talk to us about what he chiefly wanted us to teach his staff: time-management. He wanted us to tell his staff to manage their time better, and come to meetings on time. Yet he himself was constantly late or absent for staff meetings because he was tied up with important people from the neighbouring communities. One day, he kept all his staff, four VSOs, the Pacific Region Co-ordinator for VSO, and the Education Programme Manager from Madang waiting for more than 3 hours while he dealt with a Board of Governors problem. It was not that we saw him as wrong, though what he did and what he preached were so far at odds. The problem was that he was caught between two different ways of doing things, school and traditional. That conflict, I’m afraid, led him, a good man, to an early grave. But at the time, our chief emotion in dealing with him and other staff was frustration: if you don’t want what I have to offer, why did you ask me here?! But, as always, within the frustration was the nub of the matter: our conflicts were as nothing, compared to those of the people we were getting to know. No wonder that they didn’t even attend their classes half the time!

English, we were told, is the language of government, education, and business within the country. There are about 850 different languages spoken in this country - not dialects, but separate languages. Many of these are now dying out, despite attempts to teach all early years in Tok Ples, or the language of the place in which the Elementary and Primary School is located. The main lingua franca used between tribes and in almost all daily dealings, is Tok Pisin, or Pigeon Talk, an amalgam of English, German, Dutch and other words, with its own syntax. Educated PNG Nationals call it, often, broken English, but it is a curiously alive and interesting language. On the other hand, its roots as a slave drivers’ way of giving orders to workers from different tribes are all too clear, and I am convinced that its limited grammar and vocabulary stifle conceptual development.

So picture, if you will, a Grade 12, very intelligent class, and my wife and myself helping them revise for their final English Language paper. One of the readings was, for some reason, about poverty in a district of New York City. We went over every sentence with them. They clearly understood all the words. Yet there was an air of complete bafflement in the class. My wife realised first what was going on: “What do you understand ‘poverty’ to mean?” she asked. “It’s lack of resources,” a student answered. “Right! And why is there a lack of resources in this place?” “They don’t have enough land for their gardens.” For these students, food is what is grown in the family ‘garden’. South of Kerowagi Secondary School, the Silku Tribe does not have enough land for this traditional pattern to support the population. All the facts in their exam passage, about drug addiction, AIDS, and food welfare for primary school children, were being filtered through this basic mind set about the problems they were faced with on a daily basis. And there’s no criticism in that; in an English school the filter might have more to do with consumerism or ‘gangsta’ youth culture, which might be existentially a good deal more removed from their realities than those of a Silku youth.

It became clear, then, that the problem is not just inappropriate exams and poor teaching methods (most classes in 2006 sat in silence while their teacher talked at them and wrote notes on the board; this has already changed a great deal.) The problem is that whole patterns of thought, emotion, and values are tied up in language.

Now you may well be asking why these students should be learning English at all. In fact, the Secondary School Inspector for Simbu, Mr. Pinaga, makes this point frequently. “The Australians won’t take us as workers,” he avers, “so why do we need to learn their language?” And I have great sympathy with his point of view. But it still leaves a major question: in the land of 850 languages, and with Australian, Chinese, Malaysian and other international interests exploiting the fantastically rich natural resources of the island, what linguistic skills will help these people take control of their economy, let alone their destiny? The simple, if rather unfortunate fact is that English is not only the language of international business, but is also a complex, rich, and unique amalgam of ways of expressing human experience. It does not even belong to the English. Nor the Americans. It is, at the moment, the nearest to an international language that we have.

So, fine, I decided, we need to improve English Language teaching, and have fairer means of assessment. And I began work with a group of English teachers in Simbu Province. I found that they were anxious and worried, not only about poor English results, but about the new, ‘reform’ syllabus which was to begin in Lower Secondary Schools in January, 2008.

Now it is at this point that my wife and heart partner, Demeter Kraaij, reminded me that I needed to walk my talk. It was no good preaching student-centred learning using teacher-centred methods. I should have known that, as a trained counsellor, but my mind set was as closed as any of theirs! Anyway, I managed to hold back trying to  give answers, and instead asked the teachers: ‘what are you doing now that you don’t want to lose?’ And I reflected to them the anxiety and depression which was stopping them from teaching better and being confident about what they were doing. Like the Principal, they were desperately trying to find a way through their conflicts.

To cut a long story short, we held a series of meetings and workshops (and to my amazement, they did attend!) and those teachers wrote down their best ideas for exercises and teaching strategies for the new Grade 9 syllabus. I edited what they wrote, formatting and correcting and suggesting ways of saying things which might help students and teachers begin to think about what they were communicating, and how they chose to communicate it. The result was a complete book of resources for the new course. It was, at that stage, in a ring binder, printed from my laptop on a portable inkjet printer. Then came a surprise: one teacher, Matilda Dimo, virtually hijacked the binder - it found its way to local administrators and political figures, instead of to the Education Division printshop. As a result, money was raised to print it as a proper textbook. Matilda has gone on to sell the book to the National Department of Education, and AusAID, so that the book that the Simbu English Teachers’ Association created is now the official Grade 9 textbook for the country, distributed to all schools, more than 26000 copies.

The latter success is down to Matilda’s entrepreneurial skills, but the actual creation of the resources was made possible because I was able to listen and to hear, first from students, then from teachers. My compassion for the teachers’ conflicts and frustration led them to have more compassion for themselves and their students. My presence was congruent enough that (thanks again to Demeter for this) what I did and what I said added up to an example of how development works. And together we, the teachers in the Simbu English Teachers’ Association and I, created a bit of magic that still amazes me. A dream, as it were, grew amongst us. That dream, perhaps, is best summed up in another small anecdote: one of our teachers, Peter Kepa, had written a short story, when he was a student, and it had been published in a book by his teacher. Peter brought the story to me during a workshop. I had been feeling lost and unsure where we were going, this roomful of teachers working in small groups, generally apparently quite lost. The central image in Peter’s story, “The Wind”, is a white parrot. I found myself saying to Peter, “It seems that you realised that parroting the whiteman’s ways led your hero to disaster.” Peter claims that I was the first person to have correctly interpreted his image (I guess whether that is literally true is not the point!) The image and the interpretation spread around the room: I think it helped the groups realise that the resources they were creating had to reflect and make sense of their own reality, not ‘do it right’ according to some whiteman’s version of reality.

The problems faced by both teachers and students in this place are daunting. Last night I went to a pre-exam meal for Grade 12 students in Kerowagi. Probably only one or two at most, out of every 10 of the 292 students there will find formal work. The others will have to make a way of life that fulfills them, and serves their community in this ‘consocial’ society. Many will fall, and ‘steam’ (a lethal local form of moonshine whiskey) and drugs will lead many into crime and fighting and quite likely madness or death. But Simbu is a place of intelligence and resourcefulness, and some students as well as some of their leaders are coming up with answers. Those answers are not imported from Britain or Australia or anywhere else: Papua New Guinea is, as all of us are, unique. It must find its way to survive and develop and yet retain its identity. The White Parrot sings no answers. I wonder, in fact, if PNG is not doing a great deal better in its psychic evolution than England or America. Have we even realised that our way forward, socially and communally depends on a psychic evolution, on the core conditions being recognised and valued?

So, I have come to believe that Counselling and Psychotherapy is not a branch of medicine or social work. It is, quite simply and no matter what belief system you espouse, spiritual good sense and good wisdom. Without such wisdom, we cease to grow and develop, personally, in our families, communally, or politically in our global village.

So, I submit this to you all, counsellors and therapists and teachers and just folks: let us continue to grow and develop. And let us listen to the supposedly primitive spaces within and around us, to help us do so.

[i] Obviously, from an anthropological point of view, this account is over-simplified. But I would suggest that it catches the esssence of the shock of ‘first contact’. For a fuller account of what ‘first contact’ meant to both sides, see
 Like People You See in a Dream (First Contact in Six Papuan Societies) : Edward L Schieffelin, Robert Crittendon et al, Stanford University Press 1991: ISBN 0-8047-18997
, which documents the evidence of what initial contact meant to Australian and Papuan tribespeople during the Purari Expedition in the 1930s.

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