Art Workshops for Anger in Northern Uganda
From 1988 to 2004 the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) mounted a violent rebellion in Northern Uganda. Many civilians were killed, and many children were abducted and forced into the LRA. Boys were trained to fight and found themselves committing atrocities to survive. Girls were made to carry heavy loads until they dropped and were then beaten; some were trained in military tactics; they were also given to adult soldiers to be their ‘wives’ and bore them several children.
After this traumatic period was finally over, Grace Kiconco Sirrah began to run workshops for LRA victims. Like others seeking to help, she found enormous anger being expressed, and decided that some direct work on this was essential. She knew of Marian Liebmann’s work on anger management using art, and asked her to help.
They knew that no short-term training could remove the causes of the huge anger that had built up – this may take generations. So the training focused on strategies of handling anger, to help people to avoid making things worse for themselves, e.g. by alienating friends and relatives, or committing acts of violence. It was based on Marian’s work as an art therapist in central Bristol, UK.
Much of the success of the workshops was due to Grace’s thorough preparation on the ground. She visited community and church leaders, and ex-combatant groups, who in turn mobilized their communities to participate. She also arranged meals, accommodation, transport, photocopying and additional materials.
Altogether 68 people took part (28 men and 40 women) in three places. In Lira they worked in a church on the concrete floor; in Kitgum they were in a school classroom; in Gulu they were in a nearby village and worked under three large mango trees. The workshops were run in English, but as community leaders thought that many of those in greatest need did not speak English, they provided interpreters.
The exercises included: what is anger?, physical symptoms, the anger cycle, feelings underneath anger, early family patterns, anger and conflict, triggers of anger, ways of calming down – and personal and group action plans for the future. Nearly all the exercises were done using art materials, most of which Marian brought with her.
Evaluations showed that all participants had enjoyed the course a lot, and had found it especially helpful to express their thoughts and feelings visually. They were then able to use their pictures and clay models to explain these to the group. The art had provided a bridge to expressing painful experiences that were often difficult to put into words, and thereby helped to release some of their anger.
The picture shown was created by a woman who had been abducted by the LRA with her brother and taken to the bush. She had been made to run with heavy luggage and been slapped in the face if she could not run fast enough. She still had problems with her eyes. She escaped when government troops engaged the LRA in battle, and found her way home. Her brother was killed in the bush and her father was killed at home, so she relocated to the nearest town. She described having anger in her heart from all of this. In this picture she drew a neighbour’s goat destroying her crops – her first impulse had been to fight the neighbour with her fists. She also enjoyed using the clay, and in an exercise on ‘anger and conflict’, moulded two pots, one closed and one open to depict unhelpful and helpful communication styles in conflict. In her evaluation she highlighted the art sessions as particularly useful, and at the end said, ‘I feel released of anger.’
In 2012 Marian and Grace returned to all the participants, and ran a one-day workshop for each group. They also took booklets of pictures from the previous year’s workshop to give to all the participants. They asked about progress since the first visit and helped them revise the exercises with art materials. They also included a group picture on harmony. Participants enjoyed using the art materials again.
A 15-year-old boy came to tell of the changes he had seen in his father, who used to beat him and his siblings, so that they lived in fear of him coming home. He stopped beating them, and instead, when they made mistakes, taught them how to do better. Now the children no longer ran away, instead they tried to please him. Even their mother was now free. If there were misunderstandings, the family talked about them.
The grant-giving bodies for the project were all interested in sustainability of the work, and the programme included work on group plans. Members of one NGO planned to include it in their curriculum. However, most of the plans foundered for lack of funds to provide transport and food for meetings. But the project did achieve a different kind of sustainability: many participants described how they were passing on their skills and insights to relatives and neighbours as they met people ‘along the way’ in their daily lives. Grace was also able to use the remaining art materials to run workshops in prisons.