After my first visit to Grace Centre, I was so touched by the work of these missionary volunteers to the children and families in need that I really wanted to help out in one way or another. Thus, besides my regular weekday work with the Amhara Regional Health Bureau on BEMONC training, I volunteer weekends at Grace Centre.
The premises are jam packed with kids, most of them are from broken homes, single parent families, if not being abandoned. For some, parents may be suffering from diseases such as HIV rendering them disabled to work or may even have died. Facing poverty and many difficulties in life, many of these children have emotional and behavioral problems.
Basic medical care is limited in Ethiopia, not to say mental health care. Awareness of holistic care and mental well being is on the rise and Ethiopia’s universities had produced their first batch of psychology graduates in 2011. Grace Centre was very lucky to have hired one of the fresh graduates to provide counseling services and emotional support to their children. Obviously demand is much greater than supply and the list of children requiring counseling and therapy is long. I decided to put on my other hat and wrote a proposal to start a weekend art therapy and counseling program for the children. In order for the program to be sustainable in the long run, it is important to start training the local staff as well.
Art therapy is definitely a very new entity to Ethiopia. So far as I know, this is the first art therapy program in Bahir Dar even though this is not the first in Ethiopia. From my limited google search, Artists for Charity is operating a children’s home in Addis Ababa. Deb Paskind and her 2 students from the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago had established an art therapy program in Awassa in partnership with Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights in summer of 2011.
It is a lovely experience working with the Ethiopian children and a great learning opportunity for myself doing therapy in a completely different cultural setting.
There are some significant challenges:
Language is a major issue. With my limited Amharic, I am conducting individual art therapy and counseling sessions with the help of a translator. Not many local staff can speak English, hence I have to pull them out of their busy routine duties to assist my sessions.
Understanding the children and their issues in their cultural context is another challenge. The children are overall shy. It is their cultural way to show respect not to have direct eye contact nor to speak loudly, not to say in front of a ferengi (foreigner). Ethiopian children are strictly disciplined, sometimes even by physical punishment. They are not very open verbally to express their emotions. (Art therapy just comes in handy as pictures is a universal language for communication and children can express themselves freely through their artwork)
Under normal circumstances in Ethiopia, art materials and supplies would be an issue. The local stationery stores do carry some color pencils and crayons. The only paper they have available is the A4 white paper for printing. I did attempt to search for paint in Addis Ababa, the capital, but the only paint I could find was for the walls. I discovered myself pretty spoiled working at Grace Centre. With volunteers bringing in donations from abroad, I was surprised they even had the luxury of different colour markers, chalk, and even foams for craft making. I did bring along some water colour, paint and brushes myself, so we are well equipped to have fun in art making. The only thing I miss is clay which is an excellent medium to use in art therapy.
Power outage is not a problem. We can always go for an outdoor session for more fresh air and sunlight. One day I was caught off guard as we were happily doing finger painting when the water supply suddenly went out. How could I clean up the kid with his face and fingers all covered with paint? OMG, the cleaning staff would be cursing me making all the mess without cleaning up the room after. The next week I was a bit more prepared saving up a small bottle of water and rationed it amongst the kids.
Last but not the least is the challenge of my own reactions as a therapist in witnessing the social problems that came along with poverty in the developing world. The most fundamental physiological needs in the Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs are not met. Food and other material supplies are scarce. These children are aggressive hitting their siblings fighting for a banana because they are hungry. They steal a loaf of bread as their family cannot afford. Common themes in their drawings include mostly food, house ( a strong desire to satisfy their basic physiological needs for food, shelter and protection) and cars. Food in Freudian psychoanalytical terms can also represent the oral needs for love and nurture.
With the language and cultural barriers, I am not quite sure about therapeutic benefits of my therapy on these children. However, I am glad that at least I can provide a safe and nurturing setting for them to express themselves and receive some one-to-one attention amongst a big crowd of kids (They usually have large classes of at least 40 children taught by one teacher) I am so happy to see these children so engaged in doing their artwork and their self confidence and esteem improving over the weeks. Some of them are even out of their “shyness” running up to give me hugs and high fives when they see me down the street.