Sheila Davidson shares her incredible experience of the healing power of group process from a magical journey through Namibia.

60,000 years and we’re back where we started

The anthropologists tell us our species, Homo Sapiens, first appeared on the African Savannah about 60,000 years ago. They say that they worked in small nomadic groups that shared feast and famine, and that it was a highly successful group dynamic lifestyle that sustained for 90% of human history.

So, last year, when I was invited to take part in an international mission to Namibia, I jumped at the chance. As a psychotherapist, I was fascinated to see if we could still find that effective group dynamic in a diverse group of people more used to our complex world.

The Background

The purpose of the mission was threefold. Firstly, to continue The Silverlining Charity’s positive and affirming approach to brain injury through helping others; secondly to use our group energy to help with painting, maintenance and lessons in a Namibian rural school; and last, but not least, to have some fun in the process.

To give you a bit of background, we were a varied group of 22, ranging in age from twenties to sixties. Most of us had never camped, never mind camped in Africa! About half of the group had suffered a brain injury at some time in their lives, the other half were their “buddies”. Though some of us had met, no one in the group new everyone, with the possible exception of Kathryn, the group leader.

In the six months before the trip we met four times, for a couple hours each time. At the first meeting we were less of a cohesive group and more of a set of individuals with doubts and uncertainties, giggling through clumsy introductions. However, with each meeting as we swapped ideas on raising the money for the trip, and how we might structure the lessons at the school I could see the beginnings of an effective and functional group forming. By the fourth meeting a nascent safe group dynamic was clearly in place, with mutual encouragement and shared ideas soaking up many personal self-doubts and insecurities.

Reality Bites

Arriving at the airport suddenly made whole thing seem very real and I’m sure many of us had unspoken fears. For some it was the fear of flying, others worried about coping with the trip and I bet some wondered why they were there at all! But being at the airport was also a definitive beginning, giving us all a significant shared experience, which further underpinned the process of forming a safe and cohesive group.

Africa was, of course, amazing. I’d never been before, and it more than lived up to everything those television wildlife documentaries promise. If you get the chance to go, go. But for me the most significant memory is the extraordinary effect a group dynamic can have on even the most entrenched psychopathology. One of the brain injured members of our group began the trip presenting as depressed, angry and confused, feeling worthless, with no apparent sense of self – or not one that he particularly liked. The powerful dynamic of the group changed all that within 10 days, as he worked with the children, supported the group, as well as allowing himself to be supported by the group. There was a visibly growing sense of self-worth as he solved practical problems and basically got stuck in! It was a remarkable and positive outcome, which, in my professional opinion, would have been considered an achievement after a year of regular therapeutic intervention.

And this was by no means an isolated case. Through chats around the campfire, by sharing ideas on lessons to be taught in the very deprived school, and through other group activities that were challenging for all, it was beautiful to see a new infectious group energy emerging. Infectious energy is one of those “the more you give, the more you get back” things, and it soon exponentially blossomed into a positive force that everyone in the group could build on.

As I watched over the days, my camp mates used the energy of the emerging shared group dynamic to meet their combined and personal challenges. It helped them through the tough times. It also showed itself as warmth, fun and shared laughter as new, lifelong friendships were forged in the magical Namibian desert.

Positive Power Is The Way Forward

One thing is for sure; I am now even more convinced than ever that the need for the positive power of the safe group dynamic is as important to us today as it was to our common African ancestors whose footsteps I walked in all too briefly.

Sheila Davidson