ADVENTURES IN KINDNESS
Onhari! Onhari! the cry rises across the village, and gains momentum as one by one each person takes up the call as they hear it. There is a charge of excitement in the air; a returning hunting party has been unusually successful and it is time to celebrate. Quickly, the focus of the community turns to the umama yana, the large conical thatched building that is the communal meeting place and the heart of the village; steadily the people of Masekenari assemble in it over the next few hours as a feed up for all is prepared.
Onhari! or ‘come to eat!’ is central to Wai Wai culture and I have come to spend a month in the most remote village in Guyana to understand this idea more deeply. The population of Maskenari is 310 and these are the only people living in the 650,000 hectares of primary rainforest that represents the Konashen Protected Area. It took one week to reach the village which lies in the south eastern extent of the Amazon. The journey encompassed a light plane flight, 180 kilometres by 4x4 vehicle and then 170 kilometre on the Kuyuwini and Essequibo rivers, during which, me and Shushu, my Wai Wai guide, lived in the forest, hunting and fishing on the way.
For Wai Wai, sharing is essential to the success of the community. So, when a family kill a large animal such as a tapir, or more peccaries than they need, they do not hoard the meat but call onhari and prepare a feast to share with rest of the village. The toshao’s (chief’s) wife, Pinia explained to me, “it is hard to see deep into people’s hearts but when we share and eat together, we are better able to show what’s in our hearts and see what’s in the hearts of others.”
For Wai Wai, sharing is as much a ritual of connection as it is a practical way to ensure resources are evenly distributed. To this end, the toshao, Paul Chekema, operates a one plate policy during meal times when he is away from Masekenari. To set an example, he asks everyone to eat from his plate in order to remind them that everything he has is there to be shared. Ideas of sharing and collaboration are threads of the idea of kindness that are woven into every part of Wai Wai life. Charakura expanded while sitting next to the fire in his hut, “kindness is most important as if you show it, there will be more good living for everyone. It is also most important to listen and when you do so, do so as if you know that it is a true story [as] the person will feel supported if they know that others believe them and are listening well.” The importance of making time to attend to others purposefully was reiterated by Maripa. “if you are kind, others will respect you. Being kind means many things, showing respect to others, having good manners and acting decently; it means finding the time to stop and talk and check in on each other.”
It would be easy to dismiss such values of kindness, connection and sharing as being less relevant outside of this remote social group but that would be to ignore the Wai Wai’s lived experience. The achievements of the toshao and people of Masekenari are impressive. They were the first Amerindians in Guyana to successfully be awarded the rights to their lands and they were also the first Amerindians in the country to manage a legally recognised conservation area, which is the largest protected area in the country. To achieve this, the Wai Wai had to negotiate with the federal and state governments and the toshao still regularly meets with ministers and even the president on occasion. In short, offering kindness and building felt and empathic connections has led to incredible strategic success, which in turn has secured an autonomous sustainable future for this distinct ethnic group. To quote John Amaechi, “Accountability does not die with warmth.”
I have made it a personal mission to reclaim the word kindness, as like the Wai Wai, I believe it is central to the success of any group. Kindness leads to the environment of safety we need to connect with truth and that promotes trust, which is the all-important glue that binds people meaningfully together. As I write this, I find myself reflecting on working with the horses of Suddene Park farm, who create the opportunity to explore felt connection, compassion and attendance across our relationships, including our relationship with ourselves. I can’t think of a more powerful example of onhari than the sharing of the experiences and lessons we find in our interactions with these wonderful horses. I like to think the Wai Wai would recognise the eh-tuashoté (Wai Wai for kindness) in these relationships and feel the graceful joy at the heart of our two and four-legged herd.
Justin Featherstone MC FRGS FRAI
Photos left to right:
Kaiway is 91 and the last man in Masekenari to undergo the traditional rituals from boy to manhood
Giant river otters
Three toed sloth
Top of page: Shushu, Kwang and Stephen sharing a peacock bass on the banks of the Essequibo.
Eighteen months ago, amid the self-isolation and brutal unreality of lockdown, I lost my younger brother to suicide. I was not the only one of course to be thus affected. The shock is subsiding for me but can easily be triggered, and the pain and anguish of my loss is still raw. And yet in spite of it my life goes on and often even happily: I work, I play and I do what I can to be joyful and to honour the legacy of my brother. In some ways the pandemic seems such a long time ago now, but to lots of us it is like only yesterday. The societal impact rumbles on in ways that we could not have envisaged.
I am blessed that the nature of my work is healing in itself, it gives me permission to not pretend, to be peaceful and to simply be with what is. I don’t need to fix me or indeed others. My work surrounds me with love and holds me firmly, just as I hold the space for others while on their own learning path.
If you are not familiar with my work with Equest, we specialise in Embodied Horse-Led Leadership Development, an experiential learning process in the company of a herd of horses. Put the words ‘leadership’ and ‘horses’ in the same sentence and this might conjure images of exciting feats where participants learn to control the horses, to be confident amongst them and establish a dominant leadership style. You couldn’t be more wrong.
We are seeing the need for something very different for today’s leaders. Picture a man or woman, sat quietly in the centre of a meadow - a horse approaches and reaches down to nibble their hair. Or two people sitting in the shade of an old oak tree writing in their journals while the herd graze a short distance away. Or a group of five, meeting the herd in the morning mist by meditating together at the edge of the field - this same group, later, leaving any sense of competition or achievement to one side, and inviting the herd to follow them, simply, around the field.
In inviting participants to step into authenticity, the kind which can sometimes be uncomfortable as well as liberating, our attention and intention as facilitators rests on ‘tending to self’. As participants seek to build trusting relationship with the herd of horses the change of emphasis from what we previously might have called ‘self-awareness’ is subtle and profound.
The agenda is purely about kindness to self and as a result, to other. Those who come to work with us from all over the world are no longer Sales Directors, Chief Executives, Ops Managers, HR Leads or Regional Heads. Barely even spouses, wives, husbands, partners, siblings, parents or carers. They are quite simply themselves, with what seems like an infinite number of minutes and seconds within which to both expand and rest, renew and heal, heartbeats slowing to the steady rhythm of the horse.
The question ‘What do I need right now?’ shines a light not just on what is needed, but also what can be offered. Tenderness begins to unfold where competition once bore supremacy. And with this simple inquiry of the self, a huge step is taken into a place where vulnerability and courage flourish in equal measure.
The relationship building with the herd is at the centre of the group and each individual’s experience. Prior to asking what is needed, there needs to be an attention on how am I right now? And, beneath the tough coping exteriors required by high pressure business environments, the answer to that is not always clear.
As delegates learn how to communicate and build relationship with the horses, their equine learning partners offer direct and true feedback. This helps to surface that which needs to be acknowledged: self-limiting beliefs, unhelpful thinking and relationship patterns, as well as sometimes the imprint of old trauma or emotional injury. As people relax into their relationship with the herd in the heart of nature, the sense of ‘how am I right now’ is felt rather than thought. And from there ‘tending to the Self’ is so much easier. This might mean sitting with the horses in the field, running and playing with them, or even running and playing without them. It might mean asking for help, or picking up the grooming brush. It might mean standing in the rain or staying dry in the stable. It could involve working in a team to lead the horses away, or requesting space to be alone with the herd in order to pay attention to grief, sadness, joy or anger.
Whatever form it takes, the opportunity to tend to self, to ask ‘how am I’ and ‘what do I need’ creates a reservoir at which each can drink. And that includes me. A well of kindness and hope and ultimately love brims, an elixir of leadership, of humanity. Simple gestures revive the exhausted soul and laughter can follow in abundance.
I hope that this summer you too will be able to reflect on what you need right now and that this need, whatever it is, will be met. That you will be kind, then restored and enlivened, and ultimately reconnect with all that is good for you.
I’m grateful to all those I have worked with in the past year, of course to the Equest team for their support, but also to all those who have participated in our programmes. You know who you are! For the love they have brought, for their courage in being vulnerable and for walking alongside me, perhaps unknowingly, on my own path to healing.
Photo courtesy of Justin Featherstone
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