On 7 August 2014 I left Innsbruck for Algiers, the capital of Algeria, a country that means a lot to me due to personal, historical and family reasons. Nassima Dzair had invited me there to take part in the first edition of the Social Leadership Academy (SLA) she had founded a few months earlier. With a background in medicine, Nassima is also a student in Peace Studies, for she strongly believes that peace and health are interrelated.
Born from Algerian parents in Norway, she created an Algerian start-up in 2014, InterBridge, which itself gave birth to the SLA as a means to develop the potential of the Algerian youth, who represent 65% of the population. This is an “invaluable human capital” according to Nassima who believes that “personal empowerment is the gateway to collective leadership”. Consequently, InterBridge’s mission is to develop and promote leadership in the various sectors of society. Its slogan is “Activate your potential”, a task that the SLA has proposed to fulfill.
From the four corners of Algeria
To that aim 33 young Algerians, aged between 18 and 30 and originated from different social and geographical backgrounds of the country, were selected. The language used at the SLA is English, which is already innovative and audacious knowing that, as a former colony of France (1830-1962), Algeria is the second largest francophone country worldwide where French is widely used in politics, culture, media and high education. As part of the selection process, the candidates had to fill an application form and send a one-minute video. Among other questions they were asked what are in their opinion the most important social issues in Algeria and what solutions they would suggest to address them. More personally they were questioned about what inspires them in life and what they wish to improve about themselves. As a member of the selecting team, I was amazed – and moved – by the genuineness, the dynamism and the critical mind of the candidates, as well as by the excellent command of English many of them proved to have.
A mosaic of facilitators
On the evening of Sunday 10 August 2014, coming from all corners of Algeria, the 33 selected gathered in the outskirts of Algiers, at the coastal hotel Riadh that was to host the whole event until 18 August. So, then, when the Opening Ceremony started, 33 expectant young people with shining eyes and bright smiles were standing in front of us, the organising and training team. We were composed of about 15 Algerians and Europeans with different (his)stories, ages, geographical origins and educational backgrounds: artists, educators, entrepreneurs, consultants, social and medical workers. Beside our diversity though, at least two common factors had all brought us here. On the one hand: our faith in human potential, on an individual as well as on a societal level, and our will to contribute to its development. On the other hand: our belief in Nassima’s initiative and vision.
Journey through three pillars
The programme was organised around three main pillars. The first one, named “Me, Myself, and I”, was aimed to encourage the participants to discover themselves and strengthened their potential. They were posed the following question: How am I connected to my inner voice? Be it by drawing, acting or telling, they would expose their self to each other. For example, they discussed their life-paths, values, fears and desire, strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I co-facilitated the first workshop of the week titled “Storytelling”. Among the activities my colleague and I offered the participants, three in particular remain etched in my memory. The first one was the active listening session which I myself took part of. My partner was an 18-year-old participant who so genuinely opened up to me that I perceived him as a pure raw gem and thought to myself how rare and precious that is. The participants were trustful and avid to share confidences with their partner. Further, I facilitated a meditation by which the participants were invited to visualise their personal life journey so far and inwardly answer the question: What brought me where I am today? That exercise created a space for everyone to contemplate and integrate how each particular existential event – be it painful or enjoyable – has a reason for being, a legitimate and unique place in each individual life puzzle. It led to another activity, the personal journey map, by which the participants could draw the life journey they had just visualised in the meditation.
The second pillar, “Me and My Relations”, was motivated by the question of how the participants interact with their entourage (family, friends, colleagues, etc.). In other words, it focused on their interpersonal connections and interactions, which is to say communication with others, intercultural dialogue, personal perceptions and emotional intelligence. Within that frame two workshops that drew on elicitive methods ran in parallel: “Sound and Music Discovery” and “Theatre of the Oppressed”. The latter was the workshop Nassima had requested me to prepare for the SLA, which was an honour for me. I had had the chance to be introduced into that method by David Diamond, Birgit Fritz and Michael Thonhauser. Nevertheless, it was an enormous challenge to facilitate a workshop of my own. I had one day at my disposal, which amounted to only half a day per group of about 15 people. I started both sessions with various warm-up and preparatory exercises, before shortly introducing Augusto Boal, the concept of oppression and two main techniques among Boal’s tools – Rainbow of Desire and Cops in the Head – focusing on forms of internalised oppression. The rest of the session was dedicated to the Rainbow of Desire. Among the stories the participants offered, each group selected the one they considered being the most representative of Algerian cultural issues, namely a man torn between his wife and his mother and a young woman forced to marriage. In both cases, the fears and desires of the respective Protagonists were explored. The participants’ commitment and concern was astonishing! The experience was deep, constructive and transforming. I felt blessed when one of the story tellers confided to me that our work had helped him to stop feeling like a victim. I thank Nassima for the trust she gave me.
Both the music and the theatre workshop led to the analysis of crises and paradigm shifts and to the third pillar, “Me and My Society”. The latter concentrated on the participants’ societal interactions, which involved environmental consciousness and responsibility, crisis management, negotiating and making one’s voice heard. The following questions were raised: What is my role in society? How do I communicate to society? In that respect a World Café was set up around five stations. Each of them invited the participants to a personal and group reflexion on the Algerian society.
Balancing spirit, body and mind
Regarding the form, every day started on the beach with yoga, meditation, swimming or running, one of the principles of the SLA being the balance between spirit, body and mind. After breakfast, a check-in gathered the participants who then joined their respective workshops from 9 till 18 hours, with a two-hour lunch break in between. That space was meant for them to freely design their time and have the opportunity to be alone, get together or talk to the facilitators.
After dinner, the evening offered a platform for various events. One evening, for instance, every participant had a chance at performing a free expression, like playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, declaiming a self-written poetry, telling a story, etc. That evening is still vivid in my memory as a deeply touching moment. Some participants surprised everyone by revealing their hidden talent or story. Another evening, an atelier was set up by two Algerian artists who then invited the participants to paint their self-portrait on individual canvas. A multi-coloured and multifaceted expression of creativity! Another time, an Algerian cultural evening was organised for the participants to dress in their regional costume and perform a traditional dance.
On Monday 18 August the Academy was crowned by the Closing Ceremony to which relatives and officials were invited. Before that however participants, organisers and facilitators had their own ceremony where I offered to facilitate a wonderful ritual learnt at a Peace Studies’ Closing Ceremony. A deeply moving experience for everyone that fulfilled me beyond expectation.
Personal discovery and transformation
After three terms as a Peace Studies student, it felt extremely enriching and gratifying to work “on the other side” as a facilitator and put in practice some elicitive tools I had acquired in Innsbruck. And the SLA gave me that opportunity! Remembering how the Peace Studies facilitators had accompanied me throughout my own doubts and crisis was a real source of inspiration. Therefore, having the privilege to be there for the participants, welcoming their words with an open heart, helping them to see things in another light, observing their transformation(s) embodied a kind of outcome and therefore a new opening in my life.
Concerning our team, a colourful bunch of beautiful and loving people, we had to deal with intercultural and interpersonal conflicts. For some reason, though, I personally felt emotionally balanced and neutral; I could really understand everyone’s point of view and feelings and was in the here and now. I was happy. Admittedly, my position within the SLA constellation was unique: indeed, among the Europeans I was the only one who already had beforehand a strong connection to Algeria, due to my French origins and my family, as explained underneath. So, beyond the SLA, getting to know Algeria was one of my old dreams and I did feel in my element. Further, I have lived in extremely different countries. During several years, I even literarily “commuted” between Innsbruck and Buenos Aires, going constantly from structured and predictable Austria to chaotic and improvising Argentina, and vice versa. Additionally, in the past years, I got the chance to take part in socio-artistic projects in West-African countries. My partner himself is from Senegal. All in all, the conflictual issues at the SLA allowed me to fully appreciate how much my intercultural experiences had brought me: comprehension for the respective expectations of my North-European and Algerian colleagues, as well as for the administrative and infrastructural vagaries of the country. Organically, I thus became a kind of “emotional support” to the team before I was even aware of it. When the team chose me as their mediator, I was speechless and honoured. It was not an easy task, but I was in tune with myself and discovered that I want to explore that field. I am deeply grateful to the beautiful role my colleagues gave me.
Yet, the most significant and eye-opening experience was my encounter with the Algerians and Algeria. As mentioned above, Algeria has long been a sensitive topic for me. On the one hand, issues such as the perpetual existence of oppressors and oppressed, majority population and second-rank-citizens, the way(s) how and why people respond to conflict, humiliation and discrimination have always been important to me. Henceforth, from an early age I started to enquire into the French colonisation system, in particular the case of Algeria and the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), sadly famous for the cruelty of the methods the French Army then inaugurated. On the other hand, in 1937, my paternal grandfather served as police officer in what was called at the time French Algeria. His love for the Algerian people often cost him the contempt of his colleagues and superiors. Somehow, my trip also meant following in my grandfather’s footsteps. As a matter of fact, I was both excited and nervous to travel to Algeria. How would the Algerians perceive me for being French? Well, my encounter with them was extraordinarily transformative. Not only was I received with open arms and heart, but I even felt privileged. Thus, I could get rid of some of my ghosts related to the colonial past. I was heard and I got answers. Certainly, a few SLA participants later confided in me that they were full of prejudices when they first met me, for they “did not like the French”. Yet, they were able to look above my nationality and see me. It definitely changed something, they said. Among the messages they wrote to me, one in particular healed my soul: “When I am with you, I feel at home”.
Leaving Algeria and its people was heart-breaking. One day Inshallah I will return.
I would like to express my profound gratitude to Nassima for inviting me to contribute to the SLA and opening me the doors of her beautiful country.