A country traumatized by decades of war; a people full of life and dignity; an active and courageous civil society; a project to help transition from fear to trust. We speak with Alberto Pennella – counsellor, poet, blogger and expert on emotions – about his extraordinary experience in Afghanistan.
Where does the project ‘Body and Emotional Mindfulness’ come from?
I travelled across 45 countries. Five years ago I worked for the Bank Europe Foundation – a foundation dealing with ethics issues – and decided to put this international experience to fruition, combined with interviews with representatives of various religions, directors, psychiatrists, etc., by building a project on trust and feelings. From there a “work in progress” was born which I tested in various countries, including Portugal, Slovakia, Romania, the United States and Mexico. Until in June 2013 Fiorella Lattuada, who had lived in Afghanistan fifty years ago and wanted to go back there, asked me to accompany her.
That trip was a turning point…
Yes. I love Asia and the Afghans have always struck me for their profound dignity, which sustained them against centuries of invasions. Their culture is Persian, not Arab. In my personal interpretation, Sufism began as a fascinating mix between Islam and Buddhism. The first trip was exploratory: I was mostly in Kabul, but also travelled to the areas of the Sufis and to situations of war. Then I had an intuition: what I do could help, my work here could have a big effect.
In September, I went back for a second stay. At first I thought about organizing something with foreigners working for the UN and the NGOs, people who live in guarded compounds, but then when I was in Herat the project changed: I was being hosted by volunteers of the Movement of Young Afghans, despite the fact that having a foreigner in their house was dangerous, as there is a constant risk of kidnapping or retaliation. To reciprocate their hospitality in some way, I offered to hold a four-day course to 14 of their activists, including female students of psychology. When those students asked their university to invite me officially, the University of Harat did so. So I held a course for 50 people; instead of the scheduled 15 days it lasted for two months. I also worked at a high school and attended a conference on violence against women with the university students.
They asked me to come back another time and in March of 2014, thanks to the support of GUNA, I held two free seminars (as part of the university curricula) and opened a counselling center at the university. One of the courses was a repetition of the one I had already done the year before; the second one, which was more advanced, was aimed at those who had attended the first, as well as professionals working in the field. In all there were 112 people. This time, in order to avoid putting my friends at risk, I rented a house near the mosque (and found myself close to a bomb explosion).
It’s important to remember that the Department of Psychology at the University of Herat opened just six years ago and together with another one in Kabul is training the psychologists who will have to deal with the traumas of the last three decades of war.
Before and after the seminars we had a test to verify its effectiveness. All indicators were encouraging: anxiety, depression, feeling worthless and even suicidal tendencies had decreased while concentration, pleasure, love for oneself – in one word, happiness – had increased.
What has changed since that first intuition about the usefulness of your project?
Essentially that early intuition proved correct. I and all seminar participants had the confirmation that psychology is not just an intellectual matter, that you can change and gain confidence in yourself, in life and in others; that not all people are dangerous and that society can change. Mine is not just a job on emotions, but also on beliefs – first of all the belief that change is impossible – on listening to body language and increasing the level of attention. These latter two aspects were key to my relationship with the participants, as I held my seminars in English, with translation into Persian. I’m studying the language, but I don’t yet know it well enough to use it in courses and counselling sessions.
There was a chain effect: in addition to the university counselling center, which had been going on in my absence, a group of students went to work in a reformatory. I’ve trained two people to hold seminars, one of whom is a university professor.
Was there a moment that particularly impressed and moved you?
There were so many. So many. I was moved to see people who thought about suicide and then found happiness. I have never received so much gratitude for my work as I did in Afghanistan. It was wonderful to feel so useful and effective. And despite the differences in origin and culture I have formed deep friendships. In a society in which the risk of being judged and face harsh consequences is very high, the confidence of many people, including many women who came to speak to me spontaneously, was an unexpected and precious gift.
The image we have of Afghanistan is that of a violent, corrupt and backward country, but your stories suggests a different situation.
The corruption is a serious problem and there are still Taliban strongholds in the villages, but in the cities the situation is different and women go to university. Of course, they belong to a privileged class, who can afford to attend courses and do not need to work. And then there is a vibrant and active civil society, with thirty different organizations that joined in a network to deal with issues such as violence against women and the fight against corruption.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to return in May to train others to hold the courses, but the details have not yet been decided. The organizational aspect is not easy, but in any case the Afghans are a people full of life. Every time I go back to Italy after staying in Herat everything seems slower.
Anyone interested to learn more about the seminars can find a detailed report in English and Italian at this link: http://albertopennella.com/category/afghanistan-riflessioni-sullesperienza/