Telling Our Stories

We arrive in the only transport available– an ancient pick-up truck, the interior worn down to the metal, door handles to stubs, too many cracks in the windshield to count. Waiting to greet us in the late afternoon shade, is a group of young men and women.

We’ve traveled two nights in planes and all day on the worst road I’ve ever been on in my life to get to this town in Northern Uganda. We’ve never been here, don’t know any of these young people. Yet they know our friend and are eager to learn what we have to share about peer counseling. In less than an hour we are scattered around the yard in groups of three, sharing life stories.

The idea of taking turns listening to each other is pretty simple. I’ve done it tons of times. I listen to what’s on your mind and you listen to what’s on mine, without interruption, without criticism, without advice. If we get good attention, just the telling helps. If we have a chance to vent some of the feelings it helps even more. We get more space in our brains and in our hearts. I’ve listened to all kinds of stories– about hard days as work, love-life angst, fears about the future, hard times with children, hard times with parents, physical injuries, embarrassing moments. I’ve told my share as well.

But I’ve never done it in a dirt poor country in a region where civilians have borne the brunt of a horrible civil war for over twenty years. The process is just the same, but the stories are a little different. There is the young man who was abducted at age nine to serve in the rebel army and escaped at twelve, orphaned and stigmatized; another whose three little cousins were taken, the youngest one killed, the others returned years later, badly damaged; another trying to help a young woman from his village who was abducted and robbed of her childhood and is now raising an unwanted child of rape.

I don’t know which is harder– providing a container for these stories, or taking my turn, with problems that feel inconsequential to the point of non-existence in comparison. I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter. They don’t want my story to be as hard as theirs. They’re pleased that we came from so far to visit, happy to get a little attention. They find the idea that they’ve been traumatized very helpful; it puts their personal experience into a larger context. The idea that healing can come from listening well to each other’s stories and to the feelings that lie beneath is a powerful one. It gives them a new way of helping friends and loved ones. They are both challenged and intrigued by the idea of letting people find their own solutions. Mostly they are eager to be part of the healing process.

For two weeks we meet with these young people daily. We find games to play that let us laugh together. They love giving and getting hugs. Individual personalities, strengths and passions begin to emerge. Stories of giving loving attention to others come back to us within days. This process of taking turns listening and showing our caring, which has come to seem so ordinary in my life at home, here in northern Uganda has become something very special and precious indeed. I’m challenged to treasure it in all its stunning simplicity. I want to learn from my peers in Northern Uganda to cut through the layers of daily worry and irritation that are often the substance of my stories, down to what really matters, to the essentials of life that are so close to the surface here. I want my story to be one of accessing the deep well of love in my heart and putting it to the service of my world.

Pamela Haines