|"Jeannie Wright has spent many years practising transculturally – initially in multi-cultural England, then New York, Fiji and Aotearoa New Zealand. Here she reveals the costs (financial but emotional too), challenges and joys of working in cultures that are completely alien to our own in the western world, and how ill-suited the fundamental assumptions underpinning western counselling ethical frameworks are to these contexts. She offers some words of hard-won advice to would-be transcultural practitioners" |
Colin Feltham interviews Jeannie Wright about transcultural counselling, cultural identity and wanderlust
Colin: Your two examples of ‘transcultural sites’ are Fiji and Aotearoa New Zealand. To what extent can these be compared with other sites and peoples, say in Africa or South America, and to what extent are they unique?
Jeannie: That might be more of a question for an anthropologist, or an expert in comparative religion and myth, like Joseph Campbell, for example. It’s unwise to generalise, isn’t it – unless you’re Hugh Masakela, the South African jazz musician. He said, at a recent concert, that we are all from somewhere else, migrants living where we didn’t start out.
Colin Lago’s latest edited book, The Handbook of Transcultural Counselling and Psychotherapy includes a section with personal descriptions of cultural identities and the impact of heritage and migration. Each person’s experience is unique but it would be naive to deny the power of colonisation and the possibilities of drawing comparisons between sites and peoples.
Sara Ahmed, Professor in race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths College in London, talks about diversity being a mobile word. It’s a good starting point. In writing the article I wanted to draw on my own experience, within particular cultural envelopes.
Colin: Can you say a bit more about the differences in ethics and identity in both these places? Are confidentiality/sharing and individuality/community ‘uniformly different’ from the UK in both places?
Jeannie: In Aotearoa New Zealand at least, there was a unique treaty, The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between the colonial settlers and some of the Maori chiefs – two sovereign powers. In Fiji there was no such treaty and the colonial history there is very different. Ethics and identity can’t be viewed in a political or cultural vacuum.
There’s a great edited book by three New Zealand practitioners/researchers and teachers of counselling and psychotherapy, Kathie Crocket, Margaret Agee and Sue Cornforth – Ethics in Practice: a guide for counsellors. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to answer this question. It situates counselling ethics in Aotearoa New Zealand and therefore the partnership, the Treaty of Waitangi, is central.
Flicking through the contents pages, a lot would be familiar to UK practitioners: the chapter on ‘Ethics and the law,’ for example, or ‘Communication with other professionals – referral and other practices’. But, there are significant differences, even in those chapters. When it comes to chapters such as ‘Responsibilities to others in a client’s life’, it is clear that the family and community are much more to the fore than in similar UK texts. The New Zealand Association of Counsellors (NZAC) espouses values unique to Aotearoa New Zealand.
I don’t know about being ‘uniformly different’ from the UK. In practice, I observed that the historical traditions of counselling and psychotherapy in western and ‘medical models’ tend to privilege the individual.
So, again I’d prefer to answer your question by signposting interested readers to the local literature. Plus a recent special Issue of the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, on counselling practice in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Colin: You ask what has attracted you to such places and you mention Rogers on chance, risk and expansion. But I wondered if you had any psychodynamic or other aetiological views about your ‘wanderlust’?
Jeannie: I’m not sure about psychodynamic views or other aetiology. I’ve always hated the British climate and the class system! Every time I come back, it doesn’t seem that either has got any better.
Colin: ‘Making no assumptions’ seems to fit well with the person-centred approach but perhaps not with many other western models of therapy. Is this the case and, if so, do you think it implies that other (non-PCA) models don’t or can’t readily work elsewhere?
Jeannie: There were thriving psychodynamic and CBT practitioner/research groups in Aotearoa New Zealand, so clearly both are working. I was more making the point that culture is always present. Narrative approaches are very strong in taking a social constructionist view of self and, of course, narrative therapy originated in that part of the world. I think the narrative stance of curious ‘outsider witnessing’ fits well with what I’m saying about ‘making no assumptions’. Its conceptual roots are in anthropology, so I suppose it’s not surprising that I could relate to it as an outsider, witnessing everyday practices.
Colin: I also wonder how atheists like me would get on in Fiji and Aotearoa New Zealand, given their pervasive forms of spirituality, but perhaps these are not monotheistic?
Jeannie: Colleagues in Fiji would attest to the power of the Christian missionaries and monotheism! One of the most powerful books I came across about Fijian spiritual practices is by Richard Katz, The Straight Path: a story of healing and transformation in Fiji.
In Aotearoa New Zealand too, the Mormons and religious fundamentalists have a stronghold, alongside a more familiar Anglican Christianity.
I noticed how commercially successful films like Whale Rider, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera presented one view of Maori spiritual perspectives. A strong and central ‘given’ in Maori scholarship is the presence of ancestors – the unseen and unperceivable. Some urban Maori youth would probably find some of these traditions as alien as you or I do. But then, I could feel just as alien in parts of the UK and Europe. Have you ever been to the May Day celebrations in Padstow in Cornwall? The ‘obby ‘oss tradition dates back to pagan and mediaeval festivals and there’s a strong and pervasive spirituality there, as well as accordion music, maypoles and fertility rites.
Colin: There being no distinction between physical, spiritual and emotional distress, this is another huge difference from western medicine and (much) therapy. In what ways do the people there think they need imported western help to add to their own indigenous methods?
Jeannie: Imported western help is highly regarded and of course there is no denying the power of some western medicine. However, I saw some painful examples of indigenous methods and a whole way of life, including the food people eat, being thrown out of balance by ‘western help’.
To illustrate what I mean: a student born in a particular island group in Fiji returned to do some health-related research. Young people were being helped into formal secondary level education, through development aid. A very good thing, you might assume. Here’s the problem: one observation this student made was that to go to school meant leaving the outer islands to travel to the capital, which depleted the population left at home. There were fewer people to grow food and to fish, and those skills were dying out. She saw young children eating raw packet noodles, imported food rather than locally grown and caught food. Even with the best of intentions, western help can sometimes make matters worse in unforeseen ways.
Colin: Your experience of loss and discomfort probably echoes what most of would feel and reminds me of what is happening with ‘wild therapy’ or some forms of radical ecotherapy where the client is sure to feel discomfort. A lot of this seems to be about ‘getting back to nature’ – a nature that the west has sacrificed. To what extent do you agree with this view?
Jeannie: It seems that wild therapy and some forms of ecotherapy take a therapeutic relationship into a powerful and different dimension.
It raises questions about some of the ‘taken for granted’ stuff. In Fiji, in my naivety, I was at first shocked by some therapy taking place outside, under a tree, where students in fact felt more comfortable than sitting inside in an office. Also in Aotearoa New Zealand, some of the school counsellors I worked with would take young people outside, walking, and on adventurous activities through some very inaccessible terrain. Adventure and wilderness therapy make sense to me, and I suppose there would be discomfort and physical challenge, as well as psychological and other forms of relational challenge. I never volunteered to go, so can’t speak from experience!
I certainly noticed a greater awareness of the interdependence of everything that exists in some Maori and Pacifika writing and cultural practices.
I’m sure adventure and wilderness therapy happens in parts of the UK too, from reading your interview with Nick Totton, for instance. I don’t know how much we’ve lost that sense of connectedness with landscape and with other species and entities in the west. For me, mystery wins over any attempt at mastery every time.
Colin: After your experiences, what do you think are the lessons for the west – particularly for British counselling, say?
Jeannie: I wanted to encourage curiosity. There is no one right way, and I get very nervous about dogmatic and ‘taken for granted’ thinking in counselling and psychotherapy. I’m not saying that’s just happening in the UK, by the way!
There is this fantastically rich literature, and in English, emerging from Aotearoa New Zealand practice and research. I wanted to signpost British practitioners to online journals that they might not have come across before, such as the New Zealand Journal of Counselling
Another point I wanted to make was that, if I hadn’t decided to work in other parts of the world, I might have been fooled into thinking there is one right way, the ‘given’ way. Even with the internet now so prevalent, I hadn’t heard of half of the resources developed in Aotearoa New Zealand. I wouldn’t have come across one of the best sites about depression and designed for young people I’ve seen (see www.thelowdown.co.nz).
Maybe it’s about being open to surprises. I’m no rugby fan, and coming across former All Black John Kirwan’s books and the website (http://www.depression.org.nz/content/staywell) where he talks openly about his vulnerability and experience of depression in a very tough, elite sport – that opened my eyes a bit wider.
So, I can only talk about experiences that have been risky and have expanded my thinking. And I wanted to point out some of the resources there for the finding, if UK therapists choose to look.
Colin: Do you plan to do this again? Might the spirit take you off somewhere, or are you settled in the UK permanently?
Jeannie: Settled – hmmmm. Paradoxically, I feel just as dislocated in some parts of the West Midlands as I did in Aotearoa New Zealand, but I have less excuse for not knowing.
Maybe there is no such thing as permanent. Aotearoa New Zealand is less consumerist, warmer, there’s less traffic and I now know some of the words, rather than humming in Maori, so I’d be sad not to go back at some stage.
I’ve also got an idea about finding out more about therapy in Cuba…
Nicola Banning is an independent BACP accredited counsellor. She has a specialist interest in workplace counselling and is a member of the BACP Workplace executive committee Colin Feltham is Emeritus Professor of Critical Counselling Studies at Sheffield Hallam University