by Maya Fischer
In May this year, I had the opportunity of interviewing Beate Ebert, and Hannah Bockarie from Sierra Leone. Both women are psychologists and founders of the NGO “Commit and ACT”, short CAA. Since 2010, CAA is one of the very few organisations that uses psychotherapeutic tools like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Prosocial techniques to help people, especially women, in Sierra Leone deal with the trauma that they endured during war and rape. They empower people to actively create a better future for themselves and their children, all whilst leaving their culture and traditions untouched. People can decide for themselves what values they want to live by, CAA simply provides the tools. This interview took place during Hannah ́s visit to Germany earlier this year. Being a volunteer for Commit and Act and inspired by the vision that stands behind their work, I hope this interview inspires some of you as well to maybe support some of our projects or simply raise awareness of what powerful tools we as (aspiring) psychologists possess in helping people in need.
Maya: Hello you two. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me! First of all, could you introduce yourselves and explain what your role with Commit and Act is? Hannah: Thank you so much! I am Hannah Bockarie the founder and country director of Commit and Act Foundation Sierra Leone. I work with a team of 54 staff members in the Bo, Bombali, and Tonkolili districts in Sierra Leone. Beate: And I am Beate Ebert, from Aschaffenburg, Germany. I am a psychologist, psychotherapist, and trainer in my therapy method, which is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I am the founder and first chairperson of Commit and Act Germany.
Maya: Thank you so much! Being the founder, Beate, what motivated you back in 2010 to found the NGO? Beate: What motivated me was my vision! I had the vision that psychotherapy can cause transformation, not only here in Germany but in other countries as well! And that, when you create your life according to what you value, then you have power. Also, I really wanted to help people in crisis areas and help them face their daily challenges, gain new hope and perspective, and to empower them. That was my main motivation.
Maya: That is such a powerful vision and there is so much need for this! Hannah, how did you meet Beate, and what was your first impression of the work she did with “Commit and Act” in your country? Hannah: Back in 2010, Beate visited Sierra Leone with her team and she was doing a 2- week workshop for ACT. I was one of the participants in this workshop and I came there with the set mind, that I wanted to learn something that would help me cope with the trauma I had endured during the war in Sierra Leone. That workshop was perfect for me, and I was able to apply the skills I had learned through different exercises, not only in the context of this training. I took them and started applying them actively to my daily life and I started feeling better on a daily basis! I then started to share what I had learned with other people and especially other women that had made similar experiences during the war.
Maya: It ́s amazing to see that you responded so well to the training and it affected you so much that you went on to found Commit and Act Foundation in Sierra Leone. Since then, the foundation grew so much and you are now working on multiple different projects. Could you tell me a little about which projects you currently support and how all those projects work together?
Hannah: Commit and Act Foundation is involved in projects with different partners in
Sierra Leone and Germany. First, we have the girls shelter for abused girls, where they can find a safe place and shelter. The project is funded by the Kindermissionswerk and since its launch in 2014, we have supported about 200 girls every year. The project is based in four districts, and we provide the girls with legal aid and counseling following the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach. Furthermore, we have a project funded by One Day e.V. which is about supporting teenage mothers who have been sexually abused and had babies following that abuse. We provide them with food and medicine and, most importantly, social support. Then, we have a project in cooperation with German Doctors that focuses on preventing and educating about female genital mutilation (FGM). Up to this day, 600 girls from 5 chiefdoms take part in the project! Another project of ours is called Dare to Connect and it focuses on couples that struggle with violence. We help them to transition back to a peaceful life and to be able to peacefully manage whatever conflicts and misunderstandings. They learn techniques on how to navigate that. So, in total, we do a lot of training for community members and community engagement, and we raise awareness. Also, we not only work with the girls we take care of, but also their parents in order to evoke transformations in whole families. We have a lot of in-school-activities where we form school clubs for boys and girls to work together to end sexual gender disruptions.
Maya: I really love how your work and trainings address everybody, from girls and boys, their parents to all community members. I think that is so important for changes to have a lasting effect on a culture. In which way do you think the projects have an impact on Sierra Leonean culture itself? How do you ensure those impacts remain positive and don’t erase part of your culture itself? Hannah: Well, the issues in Sierra Leone are so huge, that Commit and Act can ́t work by itself but collaborates with different partners. We have community structures of social workers, volunteers, teachers, and people form other professions who we train. Volunteers, for example, take the work we are only able to practice with a few people in our workshops and carry it to other communities and members. That way, we replicate the impacts of our training in all of society. Also, if you look at the FGM project, for example, we are not erasing the values of peoples ́ cultures. We are just looking at the harmful parts of it, the cutting, and we only address that with our work. We realized that the culture of the people is vital, and no one has the right to remove any of that! So, we empower the people to look at the harmful side of their traditions, the cutting tradition for example, and all the other parts of this tradition, which are to socialise, to teach girls how to cook and so on, are good ones which we encourage and value a lot. We don’t change that. The female genital mutilation tradition is the only part of society where we have women in power, women who work to do the cutting, who are in charge, and who run all the affairs in society. So, we empower communities to keep women in charge in this tradition but to just look at the harmful part of it and empower them to change that one!
Maya: This mindset and approach is so valuable, to preserve culture and empower Sierra Leonean women to live by what they value. But on top of that, to also give them power and opportunity to change what harms them. Hannah: Exactly! And in doing this, we do not tell people what to do or what and how to change! By using the Prosocial Approach in our trainings and teachings, we simply create a platform for them to choose the values they want to live by and how they want to create their lives. They choose what to change.
Maya: Speaking of changes happening in the culture and values. Do you think it was necessary for people to already have some kind of awareness, that there were harmful issues in their culture and that something needed to change, for people to even accept the work and trainings you provide in the first place? How did you identify the issues you wanted to address with the projects?
Hannah: Basically, we have been walking in those communities we work with for a long while. Commit and Act beliefs in “building the blocks”. That means that we have projects that are interrelated, for example, projects that address child protection and gender issues. In those communities, people knew us already for we ́ve been going there for years to help with issues. It is about having constant engagement with the same community members, looking at the issues they face to see what ́s necessary. Then we can help them to find solutions how to deal with those issues and look at them differently. We keep building the blocks on communities and members we ́ve already been working with and who know us and then work from there to reach other people and communities with the approaches and methods we work with - ACT and the prosocial approach. Therefore, people don’t see us as new organisation, but they know us and rather see that there is a need to continue working with us in their own and other communities because it has so much value and benefits for them. It makes us so incredibly happy to see the positive impact of our work on those people and entire communities!!
Maya: Do the impacts of your trainings and its contents travel among communities? You said you work in the same communities over and over again - do people apply what they learn and take it to teach people from other communities? Hannah: Yes, people constantly spread the work we do and reproduce it in different communities. Commit and Act does something called the “Training of Trainers” Model. That means, we teach people and then they go and teach others, and so on. This way, we can have three locations in Sierra Leone - in Bo, Bombali, and Tonkolili District - where we work, but we can also cover the chiefdoms in all those districts because we train volunteers who then go and spread our work and methods and what they ́ve learned to those other communities.
Maya: All of the tools and techniques you work with – are proven useful in crisis. Right now, not only Sierra Leone but the world is facing many crises like war and so many people seeking refuge everywhere. What kind of tools and techniques would you consider helpful to use here in Germany, and in other parts of the world as well, in times of crisis? What should we, as psychology students, teachers, social workers, and so on, learn and know about, when dealing with crisis? Hannah: If I were to talk to psychologists that work in the field of serving humanity, I would say that one of the things I recommend is to use the ACT approach to address the individual challenges that people are facing. The ACT approach – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy - is very helpful for communities in crisis. And the Prosocial approach is another one that I can recommend for people to use, so that they can work together and look at specific issues together which are affecting their communities. The prosocial approach promotes group work and collectively looking at the issues of the crisis we are facing, for example in war. People need to work together to put an end to that! They need to work together to minimize that! Only when we see ourselves as ONE people, as one world, regardless of the location and situation we find ourselves in, then we can begin addressing some of the issues in community. As a team! Moving forward to the ACT approach: The challenges that people are facing, like the war in Ukraine, have left so many scars in the hearts of people. Therefore, we need the ACT approach to begin to teach people how to deal with those challenges. We need to help them to better understand how to remain flexible in the midst of these crisis as we all live in a disordered world. We wake up in the morning and hear on the news about all those things that are happening. So, promoting psychological flexibility to people would be the best thing I would recommend. Otherwise, we find ourselves in even more crisis, with more problems. Dealing with OURSELVES in the midst of those crisis is very important.
Maya: Thank you so much, Hannah! It ́s really inspiring to hear you talk about the need of dealing with those issues by using ACT and prosocial techniques. Beate, as a psychotherapist yourself, where do you think that we, as aspiring psychologists and as young people, hold a certain responsibility to shape life in our society and to promote the aspect of seeing ourselves as one people, as Hannah just mentioned?
Beate: I think, first of all, it is important to understand that we as psychologists have such powerful tools to deal with difficult situations, challenges and feelings. To understand how much we desperately need them in the current global situation. We can only think of solutions creatively when our head is free and not in crisis mode or feeling threatened. And we need creative solutions to solve the problems we face, like hunger or war! But we don’t even have to go that far. We can look at our own society and communities for a start: How do WE handle fear-provoking situations like rising inflation and prices, especially as students, a war so close by, or especially the climate crisis? How do we handle fear for our future in society? And there - to deal with our own feeling and thoughts in a way that we remain connected with ourselves, our life, and what we value in life, to remain flexible – there we can have a huge impact and contribution as psychotherapists. I think that even accounts to most workplaces nowadays. There are rarely any workplaces where you do the same thing every day anymore. Most workplaces demand flexibility. And when we use our psychotherapeutic tools well, psychological and behavioral flexibility results from that. We learn how to accept difficult feelings and teach others the same, to remain present and face things even when it ́s uncomfortable, and to remain true to what we value. We then have a basis to approach all challenging situations. Does that make sense? Maya: Yes, it does! I think that is also something to pass on to others - starting in our own job, our own social circle, and from there further into society. And those people we impact can pass that on themselves. Beate: Yes exactly. And we really need to think about how we can bring those approaches and mentality we have in therapies into society even more. We can ́t provide 50% of the population with individualized one-on-one therapy. We don’t have that capacity even though there are so many people who would need it. Even by now, 25 – 30% of the population is psychologically stressed. That means we need to think about other ways to provide help, for example, offer teachings/workshops in the prosocial approach in schools so that kids already learn how to deal with difficult feelings differently and efficiently. And I think another important thing is how we connect cultures. How we deal with the awareness that we are all different and unique. That can be really uncomfortable. For us, it is always easier to face something or someone similar to us. We immediately feel connected to someone who views things the way we do. But when someone has a different opinion or cultural background, we have to make room for that too and deal with our own feeling towards something foreign. We need to learn to listen and to understand what others truly mean, what others value. Only then we can build bridges and explore the prosperity that can come from interconnections between cultures. It is a learning process, and we have to see it as a privilege of being able to learn from each other. Only that way, I learned what hospitality really means for example. When I visited Sierra Leone, I learned how well Sierra Leoneans care for people from different cultures. They see, that when you come from somewhere else, you most likely don’t have any friends or connections there. Because of that, they want to take extra good care of you. We are not like that with people from different nationalities, origins, or colors most of the time. We rather not really trust people who are different from us and don’t welcome them in a hospitable way. Being aware of that is a way we as people and especially you as young generations can shape life in our society and build bridges between cultures. There are so many beautiful experiences that come from that. I love to connect with Sierra Leoneans because I have made so many beautiful memories with them whereas, in the past, I might have been more skeptical. We can only change that from experiences.
Maya: That is true. I think there are so many biases we hold so deeply that we are not even aware of them until we face them. Beate: Exactly, that is such a good point! We all believe we don’t have any prejudices and we don’t want to have any prejudices. But the problem is, the more subconscious our prejudices are, the more dependent we are on them and the more we react on their basis. But once we allow ourselves to be and acknowledge that we might have certain biases even though we wish not to, the lesser our actions are determined by them. Maya: Thank you so much for those words, Beate! Hannah, following up to what Beate just said about cultural differences and how much they can enrich our lives: Sadly, I think many people in Europe have the (subconscious) opinion that their way of life and their culture as Europeans is the ultimate example of how to shape life. And when they go to countries like Sierra Leone to help in NGOs e.g., they take that attitude with them and force it onto the people they meet there, which I believe is wrong. However, turning that around, what do you believe, having been to Germany, we as German people can learn from YOUR culture and Sierra Leone? How can you act as an example for us?
Hannah: I think the perfect example of cultural differences is, that we all should create a space for human beings. We should live a community life where we all care for each other. In Sierra Leone, this is how we have been and how we managed the problems we faced during the war. So, to live a community life wherein we include everybody, wherein I for example care about my neighbor ́s children, wherein I watch them to see if they are safe - that ́s the spirit I would recommend to live by. Community life means “It takes a village to raise a child”. It means we all own the process and responsibility to care for each other. You don’t have to buy a car for somebody or grand gestures like that, but it starts with things like saying hello to each other in the morning. It ́s a sign that you acknowledge the other person, share a life and have created a space for each other to NOTICE that the other person is there! Say hi, then you can go about your business. So, including and creating a space for ALL humans, I think would be the best example anyone could take from Sierra Leone. This can help everyone to become stronger and support each other.
Maya: That is great advice! As you have been working for Commit and Act for a long while now, I ́m sure there have been plenty of amazing moments and successful moments when people take part in the workshops and you see the progress they make. But I can imagine that there are also difficult times when things don’t go as planned. What are the things that keep you going in times like this? What motivates you to continue? Hannah: One of the things that motivate me to keep doing what I ́m doing is serving humanity and providing a safe place for children, especially girls. The most motivating part however is putting a smile back on to a child ́s face, of these girls we work with. That motivates me a lot! Seeing the impact in the communities which have not been working together, now working in unity to address the issues that are affecting them negatively motivates me a lot. Seeing couples trying to put all effort into ending their violence in ways they learn in our workshops also motivates me a lot. And of course, the team that is working every day motivates me a lot. The appreciation that we get from people commending our work. Last year, I was even awarded for being so influential in helping suffering humans. This all adds to the motivation. Creating a safe place for every child that I meet and seeing smiling faces and people sharing gratitude and appreciation towards the organization and the team ... That is something that is great! That motivates me the most.
Maya: There only goes to show how important the work is, that you do, and how much it means for the people. Beate, you founded Commit and Act 12 years ago, what were moments that kept you going all this time?
Beate: That is a beautiful question. The thing that motivates me the most is being in Sierra Leone myself and witnessing the openness, heartiness, and gratitude there. When I see how much the people gain and make from the little that we can give them compared to so much suffering in that country, that the work exponentiates so much in society, that motivates me. The friendship and partnership with Hannah and our team contribute to that as well. Doing and creating something good together. And also, the vision that drove me to do all this in the very beginning before I even founded Commit and Act that we as human beings all experience natural love, relatedness, and passion for each others ́ greatness - that vision still inspires me. Maya: That’s beautiful and really hits the spot. It also fits perfectly to the last question I want to ask you. If you two could formulate a utopia for all people living together, in Sierra Leone itself but also in this world, what would it look like? What would you wish for? Hannah: If I could make a wish for all humans, I would say it ́s to create a safe place for every child because children are so vulnerable and they depend on us, the adults, to take good care of them, to give them a safe space and to help them to grow better, to become useful people in society. I wish that every human being can create such a space for every child they meet. I want to see communities that are at least minimized or free of violence of all sorts against children. That would be my wish. Beate: I think for me it would be the vision I just told you and that when we have more than we need - which we often do - that we naturally start sharing with others who have less. That we as people view ourselves as a community. To solve our global problems, I believe we have to understand ourselves as a global community and that exceeds the thinking we have learned. Based on evolution, we naturally think in smaller groups, in families, maybe in countries or Europe at the most, but rarely. But that ALL humans, in all parts of the earth, are depending on each other and solutions can only be found together ... that sounds so bombastic and hardly attainable, but I believe that we could work towards that. That would be my utopia. I think, for now we can find solutions in smaller, cross-national groups and think prosocial. I envision it to start small and raise awareness for thinking toward the bigger picture. I believe only that way we can face challenges. Maya: It does start small. But when many people take small steps, it becomes a big one someday. Beate: Absolutely! When you look at my growth with Commit and Act, it was such a small step, in the beginning, to think that I could maybe offer psychotherapy in Sierra Leone. And then so many small steps started to come together, so many people came together over time, and something so big as it is now started to form. It started with just a normal someone, no special abilities, but it all came together through connections between all sorts of people that shared the same vision and collectively took and still take steps in the same valuable direction. It is so important to listen and make room for each other! So, thank you very much for asking those questions and listening!
*** A huge thank you to Beate Ebert and Hannah Bockarie from Commit and Act Foundation for taking the time to share their inspiring work and visions. I hope I could provide them a small platform to raise awareness for the importance of the work Commit and Act does, not only in countries like Sierra Leone but also in Germany - awareness for the vision that we see ourselves as one people, value each other in our uniqueness and work in unity. And also, I hope to raise awareness for what valuable tools and knowledge we as psychologists hold. I think it gives us a certain responsibility to shape life in a prosocial way, to listen, and to hopefully make small steps each of our own in the right direction - to put smiles back on people faces. :)