By Elisabeth Rohrmoser
It’s not that I don’t like animals. I don’t like to share my personal life with them: my house, my food, my body. Accompanying a rural community in Colombia not only means living in close contact with my beloved neighbors. It has the side effect of living very close to their beloved animals. As my main activity here is to create space for campesinos in resistance, I have learned how to give space to animals. For example, by letting our cat have her kitties in my room, by trusting the horse I’m riding that it won’t throw me off in the mud, and by accepting that spiders watch me shower.
Two animals have been important accompaniers for my accompaniment work: giraffes and dragons. They are connected to mind-frames that have shaped the way I approach every-day life as well as work-related projects: Rosenberg’s method of nonviolent communication and the integral project designing Dragon Dreaming that I was taught by John Croft. This is the story of how these concepts interlink with my time as an accompanier of the peace community in San José de Aparatadó.
The giraffe, of all the animals living on land, is the one with the biggest heart. It weighs up to 26 pounds. The giraffe has become a symbol of nonviolent language to me and represents listening and communicating with a big 26-pound heart. Giraffe language means looking for an expression that doesn’t make me feel guilty for not liking animals that eat my food or watch me shower. Nor do I want to blame the animals for stealing food, nor my housemates who haven’t removed the spider webs in the bathroom for a while. Giraffe-style internal communication also means that I don’t want to bring myself into a situation in which I violently act against my needs for basic living conditions, such as personal space and a certain control over the way my day takes its path — without judging these conditions.
Giraffe communication is about listening to and looking at reality with empathy. A strong component of accompaniment work is listening. In my first nights in the peace community, I listened to the frogs, thinking they were illegal armed groups combating each other. I listened to the rats underneath the wooden floor and on the roof and pictured enemies placing bombs against me. I listened to the cow running by our house and suspected an armed actor. The sound of the horse chewing grass two feet from my ear sounded like a helicopter to me.
I hardly slept. After my first five days in this village I had my big backpack ready to leave.
Following the song line of my life, I came here as a peace student and idealist with the vision of stepping out of competitive dynamics and not playing win-lose games any more, on any level of existence. How could I agree to stay in a situation where I would have to violently repress my need for calm rest at night?
In my first blog, I wrote: “I have culture shock. I find it gross to eat out of plastic dishes. Small plastic hair would grow out of them and make our food taste a little plastic-y. I don´t want to accept falling on the muddy path and having dogs spread our used toilet paper all over the house.” One of my friends answered: ”Don’t you think that any resistance is egoistic? Trust life and give in to the mud!”
My first coping strategy had been to take advantage of my shortsightedness and not to use my contact lenses to avoid seeing disgusting things in all their details. The comment of my friend reminded me of the importance of looking closely at difficult things. I changed my coping strategy. One warm evening I sun-bathed on our front porch and stared patiently at cow shit mixed with fine plastic pieces swamped by the rainwater. That day I had bugs laying their eggs in my skin and afterwards I got a slight fever. I kept on looking and listening, imagining my heart growing and creating space for what I used to avoid looking at.
Accompaniment is about watching difficult and ugly situations and actions very closely. Watch them, document them, investigate different perspectives, and analyze them. Holding my presence and continuing to watch with empathy all the threats, deaths, armed groups, defamations the peace community experiences and the frustration it faces. It is about getting close to conflict.
The dragon represents my fear. My dragon is a shadow creature that has been carried on in my family since my father’s father was forced to be a soldier in the Second World War after he had given milk to a Jewish family. He died in Stalingrad and my father never met him. This horrifying dragon that my grandfather’s generation experienced in wartime grew from a fearful situation of waiting and hard work on a farm in the Austrian mountains. My parent’s generation put it aside, trembling from mistrust and tension during the Cold War, and it kept on growing, powered by the dynamic of efficiency that leaves no space for dragon dancers. The fear of war and conflict has been stored in our bodies. I have come to Colombia to perform this dance.
Dragon Dreaming goes back to the wisdom of Aborigines: “Where your deepest fear lays you’ll find your biggest strength. To liberate this power you need to dance with the fear, dance with the dragon!” Dragon Dreaming gives us a set of tools to create grassroots projects and make collective dreams a reality. Such as this peace community is. Dragon Dreaming looks to build collective relationships of solidarity. Such as we create as accompaniers of this community.
The magic dance begins in the moment we step out of our comfort zone. Here I am.
I have learned so much. I have learned that the concept of what I need for a good life is quite relative. Priorities can change. I have accepted that nonviolence in a war zone must be less idealistic. Thus, it is much more real and holistic. I came from a privileged perspective. I could choose my challenges, or decide to not look at them. I decided otherwise. Now I like to listen to the horses and the frogs at night, I have gotten used to our cats and love them. I walk by military camps with trust and watch armed groups walk by close to where we live. I mostly sleep well in hammocks when we accompany risky areas. It feels good to have my neighbors in my personal space, including their animals! Distance is such a culturally shaped concept. I have learned to come close to this community, their fears and their stories. I have learned to dance with the mud, the rain, the heat, the desperation, in this very limited space.
I have learned to accept that my presence here means life and security for my acompañandos and that big-hearted listening and fearful dancing are worth it in every moment. I haven’t danced the dragon away. At the moment we are evaluating a request for accompaniment in the paramilitarized valley of La Esperanza (Hope), which we have been accompanying in recent months.
The dragon of fear is here with me. The dance goes on.
Elisabeth Rohrmoser serves on the FOR team in Colombia.