Umbumbulo, a rural village near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, was the scene of brutal conflict in the early 1990s between the Inkatha Freedom Party and African National Congress, which left orphans, widows and a shattered community in its wake.
But a new therapy being piloted at six schools in the area may help heal those still nursing the psychological and emotional wounds. Called The Journey, the therapy aims to help people overcome their past traumas by confronting these painful emotions, a process that can yield both physical and psychological relief.
Ngenzeni Duma, a head of department at Mdumezulu Primary whose brother was violently killed, vouches for the therapeutic advantages of the technique. She says her family has battled to find closure with his death.
“I was devastated and was always consumed by anger towards the perpetrator who lives in our neighbourhood. I could not concentrate at school and would just cry for no apparent reason,” she says. But things changed for the better when she and her colleagues attended a workshop facilitated by the pioneer of The Journey, Brandon Bays.
“The first thing that struck us [at the workshop] was a bundle of tissues in the room. We couldn’t figure out what they were there for. But when the session got animated we saw some of the participants breaking down [and crying] and we started to take things seriously,” Duma says.
The experience profoundly effected her, and she was able to forgive the perpetrator and convince her family to do likewise. She says she even plucked up the courage to go to the place where her brother had been killed – a road she had avoided for years – and put flowers on the spot where her brother had died.
Sibongile Ngcobo, Duma’s colleague, says she has also benefited from The Journey. She, too, experienced personal tragedy she was only able to deal with through this therapy.
“I became a changed person after the workshop. And my family was the first to notice this long before I could even explain. I now feel free and open and have actually learnt to say ‘I love you’ to both my kids and husband.
“Culturally, we are not the types who externalise our emotions. Love or affection is an implicit thing and is very rare to utter words like these,” she says.
The Journey uses a variety of therapeutic techniques, including visualisation and group interaction, to help connect people with their inner emotions. Says Bays: “These techniques help one to connect and access cell memories that have formed an emotional block.”
“The result is greater peace and freedom which enable the person to reach his or her true potential,” she adds.
Only learners in the intermediate phase are exposed to the therapy, and Ngcobo is one of six educators at Mdumezulu Primary who have received training in The Journey. She took her class through the visualisation process: “Sit in groups and close your eyes. Think about what you did before you came to school this morning. Now we are going to climb the staircases before you. Can you see them? Ok, now climb them slowly. What do you see and how do you feel? Now, climb down, again slowly. Open your eyes and look the person next to you in the eyes. Tell him or her that she or he is beautiful and give them a hug”.
Learners also have something positive to say about The Journey. After losing her mother in June 2003, Thando Mzobe (12) has been battling to handle her grief. “I used to be reserved and depressed most of the time,” she says.
“But after I was introduced to The Journey I feel different and have learnt to be serious about everything I do, especially my school work”.
Siyabonga Sishi (12) shares her enthusiasm. His grandmother, with whom he lives, has cancer.
“I was also struggling because my parents do not live with me and only visit on weekends. When they leave I feel lonely and a little depressed. Thanks to The Journey I have accepted this situation and can feel relieved, and my concentration level has improved,” Sishi says.
Ngcobo says she has seen dramatic and tangible changes in the academic performance of learners.
“Since the abolishment of corporal punishment, we did not know how to deal with issues of discipline. But after we adopted the therapy, we have seen levels of absenteeism dropping, late-coming is no longer a problem, and learners’ performance and participation in classroom activities has improved”.
Project coordinator of The Journey, Jayshree Mannie, enlisted the services of the education unit of the University of KwaZulu-Natal to monitor and assess the impact of the project in schools. Its report notes that there is generally a positive impact on learners’ behaviour, academic achievement and discipline.
But provincial Minister for Education Ina Cronje is cautious about expanding therapy into more schools. Says Cronje: “I cannot use our precious children as guinea-pigs to promote a programme that has not been approved and recommended by the Health Professions Council of South Africa, and it will be irresponsible of me to do so”.
She adds: “The discovery and [process of] facing hidden personal truth can be a traumatic and retrogressive process if it is not undertaken with the aid of a trained and experienced counsellor it would be tragic if ‘lay counsellors’ were to implement procedures at schools that resulted in trauma, psychotic withdrawal [and] or suicide.”
Lourens Schlebusch, an expert in stress management and suicide prevention at the department of behavioural medicine at Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, believes that the therapy techniques of The Journey could go some way to help people cope with traumatic experiences such as political violence and HIV/Aids.
“People – especially a young child who suffered a psychological problem – tend to repress those feelings,” he says.
“It is therefore very important to get in touch with an expert who can help process those emotions. We need to teach our youths how to deal with their emotions.”
But Schlebusch also emphasises the need for training, especially since enormous sensitivity is needed to help people process their raw emotions. He advises educators who feel they can’t cope with certain cases to refer to better-qualified people or institutions for help.
Despite a dedicated directorate for psychological counselling services in the provincial department of education, the provision of school-based therapy is woefully inadequate in relation to the need.
Janevra Thusi, principal of Mdumezulu Primary, says the department’s psychologists only came once at the beginning of last year to introduce themselves – “and that was the last the time they paid us a visit,” she says.
Until such services are meaningfully expanded, schools’ access to any form of psychological therapy will remain in very short supply. Road to happiness Brandon Bays, a New Yorker, pioneered the technique called The Journey after her own personal odyssey in which she overcame a life-threatening illness.
Diagnosed with a tumour the size of a basketball, Bays was told that surgery was her only option. But instead, Bays opted for a different path to healing herself naturally. The journey she embarked on confirmed her belief that an emotional pain that has been internalised and repressed is often expressed in the form of physical illness. By confronting her emotional and spiritual pain, Bays was able to clear her cells from the emotional issues that were causing her tumour, and heal herself without drugs or surgery.
She believes that physical pain is caused by dead cells that result from past trauma in ones life.
“When people have strong emotions and repress them, this allows a chemical to be released in the bloodstream and this will enter cell receptors and block them,” says Bays.
“The Journey helps you clear and finds those cells to release the pain and heal it. The Journey can be used to go inside oneself, not only to discover old pains but also clear them,” says Bays.
The Journey gives you practical tools to deal with emotional pains, and its consequence is greatness of peace and the ability to reach your true potential. Bays believes her therapy is suited for South Africa because “its people have had their fair share of violence and trauma”.
“The [South African] people are real and they want to heal, hence the need for The Journey and forgiveness,” Bays says. The therapy is currently being piloted at some schools in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Educators have already received training in order to help learners who experience learning difficulties or personal problems.
She says this helps learners to clear their emotional baggage and thereby enhance their academic performance. Bays says that to become an accredited Journey therapist, one needs to have a demonstrable passion to work with or for humanity.
The course covers seven different modules and its duration varies from 10 months to a year. She says training is free for those who meet certain criteria. While in South Africa the therapy is currently used in schools, in other countries such as Australia, England and the United States, it is being used in hospitals and other medical centres as a complementary healing technique.
The KwaZulu-Natal education department is transforming its psychological services in line with the White Paper on Inclusive Education, which means: Redefining the role of specialist staff working within the system;
In KZN, 15 field psychologists have to serve more than 180 000 learners. The current specialist staff lacks qualifications to deal with language and cultural barriers. Given the situation, the department is unable to provide services that are based on any medical model.