Storytelling and Healing in Liberia

Andre B. Heuer

From 1999 to 2003 Liberia experienced a devastating civil war that destroyed the infrastructure of the country and large segments of the population were displaced or fled to refugee camps. Most Liberians endured torture and war trauma including rape, physical mutilation and the murder of men, women and children. As a result of these experiences many of the victims experienced psychological trauma and exhibited multiple physical symptoms such as back and stomach pain, headaches and digestive issues. In 2007 I received a Human Rights Fellowship from the University of Minnesota to work with counselors from the Center for Victims of Torture in Liberia. I conducted trainings for lay counselors in the use of storytelling to treat war and torture trauma victims. The following is a description of one part of the training that focuses on the use storytelling to foster healing. The workshop was originally developed for individuals facing the challenges of acute and chronic physical illness.  

The counselors started the creating of their story by turning their attention to their physical symptoms and making a list of words that vividly described both literally and metaphorically their symptoms with the descriptive words the counselors chose a sound and a movement to portray the symptoms. They used the words, sound and gesture to develop the first character of the story. The second character was created by the counselors making a list of words that contrasted or were opposite to the list for the first character. The counselors were then asked to become aware of the words in the second list and connect the words to any body sensations and find a sound and gesture that portrayed what they were feeling. The words, sounds and gestures were then used to create a second character. In the training the counselors were instructed and given time to have the two characters meet, befriend each other and learn from each other. The interaction between the two characters gave rise to a story usually in the form of a folk or fairy tale. The counselors then paired off and used a telling/listening technique to share their stories. After the telling/listening exercise the counselors in a group began to do the movement and sound associated with their two characters moving back forth between the two sounds and gestures. The cacophony of the sounds of the counselors blended into a rhythmic beat and their movements merged into a celebratory community dance. During the dance a counselor would sing a meaningful phrase from his/her story and the other counselors would sing the refrain back in a call-and-response style of song. The dance lasted until the counselors each sang their refrain. 

This storytelling experience fostered healing on several levels. The development and the telling and hearing of the story provided an opportunity for personal healing and resolution. The dancing, along with the call and response facilitated community and cultural healing. The whole process encouraged movement from isolation to relationship with self, community and culture. At the end of the sessions the counselors reported feeling freer and experienced a lessening or a disappearance of their physical symptoms.

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Andre Heuer D.Min. LICSW is a storyteller and a licensed clinical social worker. He has conducted trainings in the use of story for healing for war and torture victims in Liberia with the Center of Victims and in Thailand with SalusWorld. He also uses his storytelling approaches to work with individual’s suffering acute and chronic illness. He has conducted workshops in storytelling and healing across the country.