Community conversations help healing and recovery
By Indra Nadchatram
LANGKAWI, Malaysia, 21 June 2005 – Lembut Hassan, Aminah Murad, Azizah Hashim and Embon Saad are facing a difficult and painful recovery process, forced on them by last December’s tsunami. But they are not alone in coping – they are helping each other, and their community, recover, through an age-old social institution: the community conversation.
These four women – each of them a wife, a mother and an entrepreneur – have known each other all their lives, as have most of the women who live in the villages along the tranquil coastal inlets of Langkawi. When the tsunami struck, they bore its wrath with resilience and an unswerving faith, and turned to each other to help overcome the uncertainties that followed.
Deep roots in tradition
According to UNICEF's Representative to Malaysia, Gaye Phillips, community conversation is a traditional process in which leaders help community members identify problems and jointly come up with solutions.
“The practice is rooted in the recognition that communities have capacities to care and change, and that relationships are the centre of society. Community ownership of their problems makes solutions sustainable.”
“The practice is rooted in the recognition that communities have capacities to care and change, and that relationships are the centre of society. Community ownership of their problems makes solutions sustainable,” she said.
Lembut, Aminah, Azizah and Embon are members of the Kumpulan Ekonomi Nelayan Wanita (Economic Association of Women Fisher folk), a fledgling organisation that supports the local fishing industry of Langkawi, an idyllic resort 400 km from Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Their newly-formed collective food enterprise suffered a terrible setback when the tsunami struck, destroying or damaging much of their equipment.
Six months after the tsunami, things are starting to return to normal. The men have mostly gone back to sea, the children are in school, and the association’s women have once again started making and packing fried anchovies to be sold to tourists to their island. Their work is an important occasion for community conversation, in an informal setting.
The best time for chatting
"Apart from earning additional income we also get to gather and talk. Women here are busy, we all have to take care of our children and the housework and most have part-time jobs. Working together is the best time for chatting," Embon said.
During these chats, the women share stories of how their families are coping with their fears, of how their children are afraid to play by the beach, and of a neighbour who cannot bear to step into her wrecked home. They discuss how they are preparing for another emergency, by packing bags with documents and other valuables for quick retrieval, should they need to evacuate their homes again.
"When we are at home alone, sometimes we feel anxious and fearful. But when we gather like this, and talk to friends, we do not feel so afraid," Embon said.
Focusing the conversations
UNICEF, in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and local organisations Pusat Jana Daya (Empower) and HELP University College, hopes to focus the community's dialogue on its tsunami experiences, and facilitate a process whereby community members identify the issues they have faced and the solutions they have found.
Through a series of preliminary conversations, facilitators from Pusat Jana Daya help provide direction to selected participating women. This helps empower them to analyse the problems the community faces, and come up with their own suggested solutions. Thereafter, formal chats are organised, involving more of the community at large, taking place in locations where they are already accustomed to meeting. Finally, it is hoped that the skills used in the formal chats will also be used during informal gatherings among members of the community, at homes and in the workplace.
Enriching the community in the long run
“Through the group discussions, we hope to scan the community's needs, problems and other issues relating to the tsunami,” says Pusat Jana Daya director Salbiah Ahmad, whose team has conducted similar sessions in other tsunami-affected areas in Malaysia with help from UNICEF.
“In one village, we found that it was the first time that the women had gathered to talk about their tsunami experiences. It is, in a way, a form of group therapy."
These community conversations are part of UNICEF’s program in Malaysia to strengthen the psychosocial response to the tsunami. Other activities planned for the coming months include forming psychosocial support networks and providing training for health workers, school counsellors, teachers and social workers. The training will enable them to provide effective psychosocial services for children and their caregivers.
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