The First ACT Training Workshops

After discussions with local people about common practices for workshops in Sierra Leone, two three-day ACT beginners’ workshops with groups of around 30 participants each were conducted: one in Freetown and one in the countryside (Bo), to incorporate more remote areas of the country. Two to three counselors from a range of local organizations were invited so that participants could continue to assist and support each other after the workshop. As there were no existing guidelines about how to apply ACT in an African culture (or in non-Western cultures in general), the workshop format comprised didactic instructions led by facilitators with role plays in front of the group and then dividing them into small groups to practice. Participants were invited to share specific problems that they wished to address, and they were also encouraged to modify ACT techniques (e.g., metaphors) according to their cultural context. The overall focus was on assisting participants to develop broadly applicable skills and to adapt the ACT techniques introduced during training so that they could better support local people to live their lives according to their personal values and to deal flexibly with possible constraints from the past or in the present, while acknowledging their history and current circumstances. The workshops centered around three main ACT processes: (1) acceptance of circumstances, feelings and so on that cannot be changed (e.g., war-related experiences, poverty), (2) taking new perspectives on oneself and on life situations, like the perspective of being whole and complete versus being damaged (which individuals affected by trauma might experience) and (3) becoming aware of valuable directions in life and to act according to them. These processes were presented in a mainly experiential way with some didactic parts. Participants were encouraged to consider whether they found the processes helpful for themselves and for their work with clients.

Language was potentially an issue as English was not the first language for most participants or for some of the ACT trainers. However, trainers made concerted efforts to communicate clearly and to repeat important information, and participants did not report any language barriers. The metaphors that are typically used in ACT did not always apply to the Sierra Leonean context (e.g., ‘being on autopilot’). Participants were creative in modifying and inventing metaphors, which were topographically different but functionally the same. They also created their own metaphors. For example, ‘make your sad thoughts your friends’ (‘make then you mind padi’ in Krio) was developed by participants to help clients who become entangled or ‘fused’ with their thoughts and expend a lot of energy struggling to change or avoid them to adopt a new perspective or strategy, namely acceptance.

The participants easily translated their new knowledge and experiences into the local context and applied it to their personal concerns and their clients’ needs. One participant who attended the initial training workshops, a qualified social worker, experienced counselor, and co-author of this chapter, Hannah Bockarie, relays her experiences of the first ACT training workshop below. Hannah has since become commit and act’s local partner in Sierra Leone.

I had been struggling with a personal sad experience for many years as I had been caught by the rebels during the civil war. When I attended the ACT training with commit and act, I came with an open mind as I hoped to find something valuable in this workshop that would help me. On the first day of the workshop I shared my experience with my colleague who had come with me. He encouraged me to open up and so I began to use the mindfulness exercises that I had learned in the workshop. I had not done mindfulness before and I practiced working with the mind instead of pushing the mind. As I did this [1]

  • [1] realized that the thoughts were just there and I could simply observethem instead of struggling with them like I had before. I made them ‘myfriends’ instead of putting all my effort and strength into putting themoff me. I practiced it more and more and it became easier for me. Afterthe three-day workshop I experienced a drastic change. I began to relateto life in a different way. Over time and with more ACT training andapplying to it myself and my work, I developed willingness to face difficult thoughts and feelings, and acceptance to allow them and to givethem space. I became more flexible as my actions became less influencedby my thoughts and feelings and more by my values.
 
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