The bashed up Nissan appears on time – nods of approval and respect from the onlookers. This doesn’t happen often! Bumping along on sandy tracks into the centre of town, we pass women with massive plastic buckets balanced firmly on heads, filled with more plastic – shoes, flip flops and kitchen rolls. Her vibrant dress sways with her head held high. Boundary between car and pedestrian, between oncoming traffic and us is blurred to the point of questioning – are we driving on the pavement? Is it right or left hand traffic here? And bump, another dust cloud billows into the car and plasters our sweaty bodies with a film of dirt.
We have a meeting at the Army Headquarters to speak to the officers about the importance of yoga for the army and for the country. Their corporal and many of his soldiers are participating in the course, inhaling every word, every suggestion. Their motivation is unified – “to make the country great again.” After two decades of unimaginable suffering, Sierra Leone is determined to find peace, especially within the army, where they were in the frontline of horrors only known to us through video games, leaving many deadened and numb. These soldiers see greatness differently from our brothers n the WEst, when asked Corporal Felixon says “I believe passionately that yoga can unify us, bring love and peace into our hearts and when we have it in our hearts, then others will follow – schools, hospitals, everyone!”
Kammasel, has just finished his GCSE’s – he is a 21 year old son of a Professor of English, his mother is illiterate. It takes a while to get through school here as it is costly and everyone needs to pull their weight and earn money all the way along. He is taking the course, because, he says “ I want my country to be great again, I want to study Sociology so I can join the government and be a politician who is not corrupt. I believe yoga will show me a way to peace in my heart so that I can share it with my countrymen.”
The past looms large in every life in the room, family members lost, homes destroyed, tribes uprooted, but it is the future they focus on.
Angela looks glum after a meditation exercise “the images just keep coming, my mother…. “ her voice dies off… I give her an exercise to help her strengthen her mind. I know she nursed her mother to her death through the ulcerations of Ebola. She now takes care of her little ones, and tries to earn enough for them to go to school, a luxury she herself had to forgo at the precious age of 13. A time described as a time of terrible and constant panic and fear.
Bodies relaxing on the floor, vulnerable, at peace, we scan to see Joseph twitching and suddenly jolting out of the relaxation – the tell-tale sign of trauma. Reading his face, his intrusive thoughts bother him, his stress response is on high alert – we give him a breathing exercise to relax his body and his mind, so he can let go a little more.
Mohammed, a counsellor from the provinces, working with orphaned children asks what to do about one girl who is having sex with her father – what should he do? They love each other, they lost her mother in the Ebola. The main problem is the kids, he says, who leave home, because they are being “flogged” and they live on the street, where they get into all sorts of trouble.
But this story full of woe does not paint the true picture. This is a room of laughter, of tactile fun, of handstands, partner yoga, lounging, learning, yearning for a better life. These souls are hungry for knowledge, hungry for understanding and hungry for tools to help their country and themselves.
This is a joyous place where the hearts are bigger than the room – leaving my heart heavy at the thought of leaving and returning to an organised, clean and “civilised” society.