January 22, 2024

Putting words to a life-changing experience in Kenya: The Play Therapy Great Migration

It's been over five months since the play therapy experience of a lifetime: The Play Therapy Great Migration in Nairobi, Kenya.  Many people have asked,  "How was Kenya?" and my response is usually "life-changing" to which people expect some follow-up details but I rarely provide any. Other times, I might say, "we saw a lion eating a giraffe" which is usually enough to move the conversation along to something else. 

It isn't that I am trying to be evasive or elusive.  It's just that putting this experience into words that are as powerful as the experience itself feels impossible.  And the task of writing something meaningful that would not risk jeopardizing the sacredness of that event or the privacy of the participants felt like a task beyond my ability. 

Putting words to a life-changing experience in Kenya

This lack of words for the experience is something that I heard from other participants as well.  It was one of those "you had to be there" type things. If you know, you know.  

But that feels worse - elitist and othering in a way that is also not okay. 

The whole point of the Play Therapy Great Migration was to bring the world together - to make a circle with play therapists from other parts of the globe.

The circle isn't to keep people out (or in).  It was to show how we are all alike in our belief in the powers of play and how we are also so different in terms of our day-to-day experiences.  There's so much to learn from one another. 

Finding meaningful words from another (much better) writer

I stumbled upon an old book written by Paulo Coelho, the author of The Alchemist that helped me put words to this life-changing experience. 

This book, Aleph, is an autobiography originally published in 2011  about a journey Coelho took in 2006 across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  This real-life journey was something like nine months and nine thousand miles with his friends and colleagues, but he waited four years to write the story. The reviews of the book were mixed - it feels hard to believe that it is a non-fiction.

But that is what is so difficult about life-changing journeys.  They feel suspicious to people that were not there - they feel, well, fictional.

Coming back to reality after a life-changing journey

Aleph helped me understand why writing about our play therapy conference in Kenya in 2023 was so hard.  Coelho describes his feeling as his journey is coming to an end:

"In another three days time, it will feel as if we had never left and never made that long journey. We have the photos, the tickets, the souvenirs, but time - the only absolute, eternal master of our lives - will be telling us: You never left this house, this room, this computer."    Paulo Coelho

It's like trying to catch a bubble.  The more you try to describe it, the harder it gets. There is one part of me that only hears a never-ending loop of Notorious BIG saying, "it was all a dream..." or Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz pointing at my children saying, "you were there, and you, and you."  

But the magnitude of the experience coupled with a mild traumatic brain injury that I incurred just a few weeks after our return makes me sometimes question what is truth and what is fiction. 

In Aleph, Coelho continues to describe returning from his epic trip by saying:

"Two weeks? What's that in a whole lifetime? Nothing has changed in the street. The neighbors are still gossiping about the same old things; the newspaper you bought this morning carries exactly the same news; the World Cup about to start in Germany, the debate over whether Iran should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the latest celebrity scandal, the constant complaint about the things the government promised to do but hasn't."  Paulo Coelho

And, this could not be more accurate.  We returned to a pile of mail (mostly junk), to an empty fridge that was quickly refilled and jumped right back into summer camp and work.  The people who had become like family during that week all back in their corners of the world opening their mail, getting their groceries, doing their jobs.  

That's what happens when you come back from vacation.  But this time it was a little different - because there were 27 of us (24 Americans, 1 Canadian and 3 Nigerians) that made this journey to Nairobi to meet 32 Kenyans who themselves were coming in from places all throughout Kenya. And the time we spent together - learning, singing, dancing, making puppets, telling stories, seeing zebras outside our conference room window - it was an alternate reality for that one week. 

Again, Coelho had a similar experience during his journey as he writes in Aleph:

"No, nothing had changed. But we - who went off in search of our kingdom and discovered lands we had never seen before - know we are different. However, the more we try to explain, the more we will persuade ourselves that this journey, like all the others, exists only in our memory.  Perhaps we tell our grandchildren about it or even write a book on the subject, but what exactly will we say? Nothing, or perhaps only what happened outside, not what changed inside."  Paulo Coelho

What else is there to say about The Play Therapy Great Migration to Nairobi, Kenya?

I could write a book about it. But, another participant told me that you wouldn't want to read it. And that is why my stories of Kenya are reduced to "a lion ate a giraffe" or "I thought we would never get off that airplane."  

There's so much to say about our trip to Merab's school, the African storytellers, the groups that wrote and performed original therapuetic stories, the reporter that came to interview us about our work, the people who were strangers but became friends.  Even, the actual amount of hours that I slept that week or the total of the bills.  And then there was the meltdown that I had when it was all coming to an end.

If I tell you what we learned from Dr. Janet Courtney and the team at the Association of Play Therapy Kenya (APTK) and all of the people who participated in the Play Therapy Great Migration, you probably won't believe it.  

There's so much more to say about Kenya - but for now, that is all.  It was so much more than a hungry lion and a long flight, but "what exactly will we say?" 

The collaboration of a lifetime - with The Association of Play Therapy Kenya, Dr. Janet Courtney (and me, Jen Taylor).

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About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

  • Jenn…this was so helpful….having traveled to Kenya so many times, this really helps me understand on a whole other level why it is still difficult for me to tell the stories of Kenya when I come home.

  • Jen,there is always so much to learn from you.What you say is so right the challenge of telling our stories.
    Yes great migration was a a wonderful experience for me and l have kept postponing writing.However you have now given me some impetus to seriously think about it.
    I once visited South Africa 20 years ago and memories of that visit flash in my mind to this day.
    I would want to share the school visit and the impact it had .
    Let’s keep writing.
    All my love to you and your family.
    NB did you receive my mail for the list of supervisor attendants.l would be happy to share a call with you today at a suitable time for you.

  • Jen,you know you are the writer.The stories from you flow like a river.l would like to be able to spin stories like this but like you say it may not be as easy as it looks.Thank you so much.

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