Listening First and Responding
I’m in Cameroon on another iACT trip, supporting their work with refugee and local teachers, students, parents, soccer coaches, and players. Sara-Christine (co-executive director at iACT and my amazing travel buddy and friend) and I are back in the capital, Yaoundé. We are flying back to the US tonight (Nov 2). I wanted to give a quick overview of what we have been doing here, especially my experience sharing mindfulness with the folks we have met on this trip.
We began with an 8-hour car ride out to a small town called Batouri where we stayed for 9 days. We ran 2 rounds of 3-day Little Ripples preschool teacher trainings for approximately 52 men and women (and 12-15 babies and toddlers), who are the preschool teachers and cooks in the local villages.
iACT trainings emphasize safety (not only with a space clear of danger, but also free of violence in all forms) and fun with the belief that when kids feel safe, have fun, and are engaged, they will learn easily. Another important piece of the curriculum is mindfulness. The teachers are encouraged to weave in simple mindfulness practices in their curriculum throughout the day in order to support emotional regulation, literacy, and the overall cohesiveness of the group. Many of the teachers are solo with 45-50 three-, four-, and five-year-olds! Learning these skills is enormously helpful for them personally, as well as for regulation of the kids individually and as a whole. It is continually thrilling to me to witness the simple power of sitting quietly, with attention turned toward the natural rhythm of the breath for a few minutes, and then taking a few deeper inhales and exhales as a group. I often wonder how it will land going into it, if they will find it strange, etc. But so far, between my time spent in Chad and Cameroon, it always lands.
Cameroon is mostly French speaking (there is English spoken in the north, but we were in the south). Our words were translated from English to French, to a tribal language, and back again. I speak and understand enough French to be able to understand how what I said was translated. I have come to actually love this process, as it has forced me to be clear and concise in my own explanations and to have time and space to pause and reflect as the translation is happening. The translation slows the conversation significantly and allows for more thoughtfulness.
Besides the simple practice focused on the breath, we shared other mindfulness exercises including walking meditation, hum like a bee, tree (in a sometimes windy forest), rain (this starts by all together slowly slapping our own legs and increasing speed and intensity to downpour and back down to silence), and others. Some of these exercises can be used to build energy and engagement; some help the children to settle. Again and again, these practices and the reactions of the participants show me the simple universal human response to turning inward with gentle attention and curiosity.
“When I see how agitated the children are, I pause and breathe for myself.” -Hadija, LR preschool teacher
“With the children we do the three breath exercise and we ask them how they feel and they say, ‘I feel good,’ I feel calm,’ ‘I want to sleep,’ ‘I see darkness,’ or ‘my heart is free,’ and they come back to me more easily.” -Hadija, LR preschool teacher
After 2 successful and very full rounds of teacher training, we spent the next two days going out to the villages, visiting some of the preschools and teachers (such fun reunions!), and meeting with parent groups who volunteer in support of their local preschools.
The roads are all dirt in this part of the country—a rust-colored, apparently very fertile dirt, as this area is so lush and green. It is the rainy season, with rainstorms popping up once or twice most days. The roads are rutted and very slow going, another thing I have come to really appreciate. The pace, like the pace of translation, slows significantly, allowing us the time to take in what we are passing.
The parent groups are mostly men and, at first glance, stern looking. We chose to begin each of the meetings with ice breakers, similar to the ways the teachers and students begin their days. When the ball is tossed to you, you say your name and favorite game as a child then toss the ball to someone else. “Ice breaker” is the perfect descriptor. We laughed together, enjoying each answer, picturing each other enjoying soccer, dancing, climbing trees, etc.
Part of these meetings included sharing a couple of short mindfulness exercises so the parents would have an idea of what their kids were doing at school. Again, I was a bit unsure how it would land. We did a simple breath practice and then the fun rain practice. There was warmth, connection, and enthusiastic appreciation each time.
I heard from these parents that the reason they are involved is because they see the value in early childhood education for their own kids and for the community. They want more opportunities for education for their kids than what they have had. To say my heart is overflowing is a huge understatement.
Finally, we traveled to Gado, a camp on the border with Central African Republic, temporary home to roughly 20,000 adults and kids who fled rebel violence in their home country of CAR. Most of the people we spoke with have been living in the camp for 4-5 years.
iACT supports soccer programs here for boys AND girls ages 6-13, this is the only organized sporting option in the camp. Mindfulness is a component of this program and the coaches say it is a useful and important part of what they are sharing with the kids.
We were there for two days and on the second day were treated to a big soccer festival with short games played by kids in the different age groups. There was dancing, endless handshakes, and playing with the hundreds of spectator kids who were not playing that day.
They started the whole thing with mindfulness and asked me to lead it. In the center of the field—surrounded by hundreds of players, coaches, students, and teachers—with my mic in hand, I led a simple breath-centered practice in French, followed by the fun rain exercise. It was so humbling and thrilling to come together in this way, sharing humanity, presence, and aliveness! Play ball!
This blog has gone on much longer than intended, but there is so much to share. I leave more inspired by the practice, by the opportunity for respectful and kind connections with people, and with a deep appreciation for our shared humanity. Thank you Trudy Goodman, Joslyn Hitter, and all of you at InsightLA who have supported this area of practice for me and others. I’m so appreciative of our shared dedication to practice, compassion, and living full and meaningful lives. I leave with a deep bow to you all, and to iACT and Sara-Christine for the beautiful work of respectfully listening first and responding.
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