At the invitation of Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers, I travelled to Kigali to work with a group of peaceworkers committed to healing their country.  The lead NGO, Memos, had assembled a group of fourteen participants for an Introduction to Council training workshop, culled from 10 local NGOs.  These fourteen were to participate in the upcoming Bearing Witness Retreat, offered as part of Rwanda’s commemoration of The Genocide Against the Tutsis that took place 20 years ago, in 1994.

The Rwanda government has been very active in promoting this commemoration, launching a variety of initiatives labeled with slogans like “Rwanda Proud” and “Never Again.”  Rwandans are deeply engaged in a healing process that impacts the entire population, including the generation born in the post-trauma period and very much touched by it; NGOs are profoundly aware of the challenges of reintegrating the perpetrators of genocide, many of whom have served twenty-year sentences and are approaching the end of their punishment, ready to return to the communities in which the crimes were committed.  Many communities are already addressing this reintegration issue, as “perpetrators” and “victims” have already returned to co-habitating in neighborhoods, as well as places of work, and communities are struggling to find deep healing.  It may be, in fact, that the focus on these labels has both helped frame the current commemoration preparations and reactivated an “us”/”them” sensitivity amongst Rwandans.  In any case, the modality of council – and its invitation to go beyond attachment to knowing who is who, beyond what one thinks about another member of the circle, and how it might be to set aside all we believe we know to be truly present with the emerging moment felt like an important and challenging practice.  I asked Siri Gunnarson, another Council Trainer certified by Center for Council, who had been working in Kenya, to join me in co-leading this training.

Council practice will be part of the activities of this retreat and developing a core group of Rwanda NGO workers trained and ready to facilitate council circles was the primary goal of the workshop.  The NGOs invited to participate were eager to have staff trained in innovative tools and modalities for peacework and council represented an intriguing new technology.  The participants were enrolled, eager to learn and somewhat confused about what the workshop would entail.  What unfolded was an extraordinary journey into a way of being in community, supporting deep compassionate listening and the emergence of a practice of embodying peace that was in some ways new and at the same time fundamentally a remembering of something deep and familiar.  What may have seemed like an opportunity to gather some tools for the challenging work ahead gradually expanded into a profound group inquiry into a deeper intimacy with our wounds, an experiential exploration of the nature of our healing, and a witnessing and celebration of the emergence of a practice intended to foster the deepening of healthy community.

(Day One of a Five Day Council Training being offered in the Peace Room of the Kigali Genocide Memorial.)

The training began with an invitation to enter this space together and an acknowledgement of all who made it possible for us to come to this place and be together for these three days.  Siri and I gave some basic context and then invited the group into a “silent council,” in which folks were asked to offer their positive regard to each, in turn, as the talking piece was passed.  A candle was lit and a welcome offered and the field was set.  Each participant held and felt into the powerful, sometimes uncomfortable, attention of the group.  The debrief of this first plunge into council evidenced the group’s willingness to explore embodying presence and deep listening, as well as their keen interest in learning new forms and pedagogy.

The rest of the day wove games, activities and a review of the five elements of council (Circle, Center / Talking Pieces, Threshold In, The Four Intentions — speaking and listening from the heart, spontaneity and leanness — and a Threshold Out.  We ended with another council, in which we named and brought in the relations and family and the gifts they have provided us with.   Throughout the next few days, we alternated between games, councils, teaching pieces and group activities and explored our experience of being in circle of being seen (and being invisible) and of Speaking and Listening from the Heart.  We explored a variety of council forms together (fishbowl, spiral, web, dyadic, response…), discussed check-ins and witnessing and we noticed a few themes emerging… reading the field, Siri and I invited an exploration of the experience of blame (blaming another, being blamed for something), which proved a rich and evocative theme.  We looked at gender identification and shadow, at “agency and communion,” at leadership and stewardship – and how maintaining a position of “not knowing” may be the most important skill a council facilitator can cultivate.

Introducing “Fishbowl Councils” on Day Two of our workshop

Our assumption had been that most of the participants would have a good understanding of English – and that we would need to slow down and translate occasionally.  Rwanda has recently made an official switch from being a Francophone nation to an Anglophone one; the schools are teaching English, many street signs and directions are now provided in English…  But the comfort level with English was lower than we had expected and much of what we said was met with blank stares until one of our hosts translated into Kinyarwanda.  (Interestingly, English seemed to improve dramatically as the days progressed; we did our best to learn a few words here and there, but my sense is that as our speech patterns became more familiar, as we were slower and more deliberate in speaking and as the affective barriers lowered and sensitivity to non-verbal communication increased, the information and experiences we were exploring became clearer to all… Whatever the case, many more nods were apparent as the days progressed and almost all participants had shared a bit in English by the end.)

My sense of the first days was of gradually lessening trepidation, but it was clear that resistance was up for many in the group.   Much of the approach, languaging (in as much as it was clearly translated) and practices embedded in our work were unfamiliar.  The concept of leadership through attentive listening and service, of the value of letting go of agenda and “tools” and inviting the group to pause, settle and open their hearts to the emergent field was a shift that required attention and practice.   The participants were often asked to settle, ground themselves, listen for what was in the room, beyond the room, in their hearts and to wait – and this caused an initial tension.  Where was the teaching?  What was the assignment?  How is this a tool for healing?  Where can this be used?  What this group gradually found their way to was the inner work required of us all as we step into the challenge of being with deep wounding and grief.

Gently, and through activities and story-telling, each participant was asked to connect with places in themselves where they were healing, growing, evolving.  Activating, witnessing and celebrating that healing was revealed in the exercises and experiences the workshop presented and led to a deep understanding of the connection between our own relationship with healing and the work we carry.  In some ways, a fundamental shift to the curious, the open-hearted, the compassionate inquiry on a very personal level positioned each of the participants in a deeper intimacy with our own healing.  This required a letting go of all that we had thought was expected of us, of all the “answers” we were expecting to get from the workshop, of all we thought we knew.  As participants moved toward “not knowing,” a tender and fecund field was revealed.  This group field felt incredibly nurturing, safe, connected and resourced.  It was a simple but powerful adjustment that all felt and tracked and it led the group to a place where they expressed feeling more alive, more connected to their true selves, more excited to come together, unify, cooperate, collaborate and build together.  It was a fundamental experience of interconnectedness that was achieved through a willingness to try something new.  And the trajectory of the workshop accelerated with new energy, clarity and optimism about how this work might serve the individual healing, the community work and the country’s deep need for healing.

Without going into detail, the stories shared, the witnessing expressed, the loving actions that arose, the transformation that was celebrated are seem to me to be testaments to a powerful and successful journey.  It was exciting to see the online activity of “The Rwandan Council Team” pop up on Facebook within hours of our last session ending; an opportunity to continue the conversation and celebrate the unfolding work and growth. Witnessing my own heartbreak, grief, sense of support and friendship, experience of connection and love, inspiration, surprise, affirmation, energization and deep calming, I am left with a deep sense of gratitude, awe and confirmation.

 It’s hard not to be moved to tears by these extraordinary, courageous, motivated change agents. Visit their Facebook Group is now at: 


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