Thursday, 30 July 2015

World Fellowship Centre and the Kimpa Vita Institute retreat

World Fellowship Centre and the Kimpa Vita Institute retreat

I flew into Boston international airport last week Monday night, and eventually would reach the World Fellowship Centre in Albany, New Hampshire in the early hours of Tuesday morning where the Kimpa Vita Institute retreat would be taking place for the week. I was asked to run a couple of workshops focusing around art and activism, and writing. I was really excited to deliver this workshop. I was well prepared for this, but not for what else would unfold.

I woke up Tuesday morning at the centre where we were staying. I had yet to meet anyone else apart from the two guys from the retreat who came to pick me up at the airport, and neither of them where anywhere to be seen. So I showered and dressed then went for a walk around. There are lots of activities going on at the WFC, and a lot of other families and groups are around taking part in different things. I still had yet to see anyone I knew, but what I immediately noticed was just how friendly everyone who I didn't know was. There, you could not pass someone without them, or yourself, saying “good morning/how are you?” And not the ‘give me the short answer I'm busy’ very London-esque type of greeting, but the genuine kind. The kind of greeting that felt as though if you were having a bad day, you could tell that person and they would listen and support you. I found this bizarre and although I firmly believe in this aspect of human interaction, acknowledging each other's existence, being so heavily entrenched in a London/metropolitan hustle and bustle culture leaves you with very little energy to practise it as it is so unenthusiastically reciprocated.
The morning greetings from the people I had yet to know instantly surprised and uplifted me. There would be more. I continued to walk around and take in the beautiful scenery.
It was breath taking. The sun shone in clear sky through the trees and lit the grass with a golden glow. The awe inspiring mountain in the backdrop, and the fresh fresh air, all around a spacious campsite, which, to complete it, had a basketball court to the side. It felt personally designed.

 I finally met with the Kimpa Vita Institute retreat organisers and participants and was introduced. For those who do not know, the KVI is an organisation that helps to educate, organisation and train young Congolese into becoming leaders within the community, empowering them with the knowledge and the skills to empower others. (If you would like more information please visit - http://institutkimpavita.org/)
There was an anticipation when I arrived, one that I also did not expect. I was introduced and asked to say a little bit about myself and answer some questions that everyone had been asked, the kind that evoked memories of home. It was quite personal, and had to bring up memories that I do not get the opportunity to think of regularly.

At the WFC everyone has dinner collectively at the main canteen. The food is organic and fresh. And it tastes good! People are encouraged to sit in a group different to the one that they are with so they can interact with others and engage. There are usually announcements held during dinner to inform people of activities around the centre should they wish to get involved. Andy, who is one of the day to day managers of the WFC, usually makes the announcements. Andy is a softly spoken man but his voice captures the room, bearded with a 1990s style cap, clear frame glasses, and a t-shirt that always some kind of meaning, he is never without his wit and humour. That night he gave a brief history of the WFC, which was outstanding. Essentially the WFC’s motto is “where social justice meets nature”. It was founded in 1941 by utopian socialists with the ethos ‘in times of war, prepare for peace’ and is an “independent, very not-for-profit” organisation. It has had to fight to stay open. Many times has it been attempted to be closed down by the U.S. Government. But it remains standing today because of the will of the people.
(If you’re interested and would like to know more, please check out worldfellowship.org)

Everyone I came across there was socio-politically aware and that way oriented, whether it was on issues regarding racism – which was the discussion on the first night I arrived but missed – immigration and refugees, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Congo and the mineral conflict war, and so forth. If the people did not know about the issue, they wanted to know and educate themselves, as well as show solidarity and support. It was incredible to see the kind of people that we could all be if only we showed compassion and humanity. One of the other talks that surprised me was “I’m a white and progressive; I don’t need to worry about racism” – which amazed me, and is a discussion that I’ve not witnessed anywhere else, that is to say, a majority group actively combatting their own privilege.
You really feel the humanity in such a space and it inspires you as to how our communities could be.

The KVI put on a presentation to the rest of the WFC explaining to people a bit about the history of Congo and different surround issued. I read the poem tell them (they have names) to close. It was so well received. I could feel a tenderness in the air. As I sat back down, I noticed across from me sat a woman who had her hands to her face as she wiped her tears. Seeing her cry made me cry and there we were, being human.

I delivered my workshop on art and activism the following day. It was incredible. Essentially, the focus of my workshop was on how art is humanising, and this is the reason why in conquest violence was not enough; they would also destroy or steel your art, your literature, burn down your libraries and cultural institutions. If imperialism, colonialism etc, was just about violent domination, this erasure would not be necessary. But thus is the power of art – by which I mean all expressions – it humanises.  I showed examples of how art has consistently been one of the strong forms of resistance, and spoke about how it is important, arguably now more than ever, to write our own stories. The discussions and conversation that came of it was very progressive.

There was a film screening that night which centred on raising awareness of the experience of refugees in the New Hampshire area. It showed the reality of their experiences; otherness, racism, internalised racism and self hatred. A really thought provoking debate was had afterward.

The following day we continued with the workshops but had the opportunity to also go on an excursion. We first went for a hike through the woods which eventually brought us to the beautiful lake. We then went canoeing on the lake. It was huge. This was also my first time canoeing. Some people decided to go on, others stayed on sure. After a battle with my ego, I dug up some courage and decide to do it. Bare in mind, I haven't swum since my teens and I have never actually canoed. I’m a city boy through and through. I got in tentatively, rocking at first but then slowly regaining stability and then eventually mastering – in the most amateur fashion – the row.  We made our way around the small island in the centre of the lake, and as I looked up the mountains played a beautiful illusion as if they were moving to the side. It literally looked liked it was moving, a few others could see it, but not all. We went around and made our way back safely to shore, I kept my hat on the whole time and did not capsize once! Another achievement all on its own. 

The excursion continued. We made our way to have lunch by the river where there was built a beautiful wooden 19th century archaic bridge and a beautiful stoned river beneath.
Then came the grand finale. We got in the van and drove approximately 15 minutes to the mountain peak where I would be delivering another workshop, this time on writing and story telling. As we arrived, I looked up and was immediately captivated in a time suspending awe. I felt a familiarity, a déjà vu, as if I had been here before. Not only been here but known here. I delivered the writing workshop and had to stop intermittently just to make sure that this was actually real. It was breath taking. One of the most beautiful things, was that not only were so many of the participants able to write their pieces and share, but one in particular wrote what turned out to be a full length poem that told an enthralling story. The memory of the writing workshop on the mountain will be one that I will always treasure.
I felt really connected with everyone in the group in a way that words do not suffice to say. It was as if there was some intrinsic experience that we all connected to that made us feel each other's humanity, something that was both in the past and present, as well as the future. It was the true definition of community = common unity, and it manifested in so many beautiful ways.

We returned back to the WFC for “Fun Night!” which was the centre talent show. There were many talented performers from young children, and teenagers, singing, dancing and playing instruments, to adults doing the same. I was starting to be known as the resident poem, and so I was requested to perform a couple of pieces, and to my joy I did. To honour a request, I performed refuge and please do not run, fly to the audience cheering “FLY!” Every time I directed them with a flying motion. It was beautiful. And just to top it off, everyone finished the night dancing “ya mado” a popular Congolese song and dance.

There were so many people who could relate to my poems and supported my book WORD and said that it was exactly what they needed, without knowing that they needed it. I had so many beautiful life enhancing conversations (Edy, Andy, and the stars, much love to you). I may be returning sooner than I know.

The following day included workshops, activities and programmes, each more engaging than the last. I had a really profound conversation with an African American elder and Congolese elder who had both been part of the movement in their own respective ways. I was told about the speeches of Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement and how King was very active and centred around economic empowerment, which we really don't get told about, as well as what life and Congo was like underneath Mobutu’s dictatorial regime and how it went from 1 Congolese France being worth 2 U.S. Dollars, to current state of economic depravity we are witnessing today. Also about the hope for the future and the incredible potential that the country has.

The retreat came to an end on Sunday morning, and after a ceremonial conclusion, we made our respective journeys back to our cities. The most beautiful thing about this trip is that everything came as a surprise. Each day unfolded something more beautiful, something that helped you to hold onto life a little bit more and make you more resolute on your purpose and passion. I was at peace and purpose here. It was something that I loved that brought me here, and though I was nervous of what could happen, given the relative recent history of the U.S. particularly in regards to police brutality etc, however the WFC provided such an enlightening progressive narrative, one that countered the divisive propaganda we experience in the media.

In essence, the WFC and KVI reminds us that when we are in touch with our humanity, and we live for it, we can create and maintain communities that live for and support each other's causes. I saw the true meaning of humanity and solidarity here, one that will inspire not only my return to the WFC/KVI once more, but also to seek, create and connect with other places in the world, or in our own communities where such an ethos and culture can thrive. And I would encourage anyone to do the same.This is the very definition of self determination. Empowerment comes from within, from what you build up among you and put out there.

Here are some more pictures for you to enjoy. 

(this is where the writing workshop took place)

1 comment:

  1. An absolutely wonderful story. I have been going to WFC every year for 24 years and it is a place I love dearly. I'm sorry I missed you and the others from the Congolese retreat. In spite of my own strong feelings about WFC, I have never read (or written) any description like yours. Thank you for sharing the specialness of this place and of your experience on the retreat. Alice Levine, Boston