Gedzgem – Resilience: Researching Global Mental Health Multilingually

28 September 2017

Alison Phipps, UNESCO Chair: Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts, University of Glasgow, looks at the power of language and performance in helping communities overcome trauma.

Our first visit to Ghana, with our hosts Gameli and Naa Densua Tordzro, was part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Large Translating Cultures Grant: Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law and the State. We travelled with the task of improvising and devising a multilingual production which would take the generic themes of our work across multiple languages and field sites and disciplines, place them in the hands of artists – dancers and musicians – and work with them as a story and production was developed, honed and finally performed for the local township. It was during this first field visit that we were encouraged to visit Noyam Institute for African Dance, in the heart of the Dodowa Forest, about an hour west of Accra. It was here we realised we had found a group with whom to begin the work of the production.

We completed our work with the Institute with a production entitled Broken World, Broken Word which was devised by the young dancers using new, multilingual and ceremonial exploratory ways of working. Usually in performance time is of the essence – a considerable energy, focus and good deal of stress required to get the show up and running, let alone rehearsed and polished ready for performance. In our Researching Multilingually project, however, we’d been concerned to look hard at how we worked in languages other than English, how we stretched ourselves beyond our monolingualisms and the necessities of academic publishing in English. It had led to a number of reflections, not least in my own work on the value in what I’ve called ‘linguistic incompetence’ and its roots in the practices of participant observation in anthropology in particular.

Researching Multilingually at the Borders of the Body, Language, Law and the State (RM Borders) had worked for 30 months to date to examine the ways in which populations under duress may be researched multilingually. Working in the Gaza Strip, Bulgaria and Romania, Uganda, Glasgow, Ghana, The Netherlands and Arizona the project team considered critically how disciplines as varied as law, literary studies, performing arts, global mental health, anthropology, foreign language education, music and fashion design:

    • a) conduct their work through multiple languages;


    • b) intervene in research processes by using multilingual approaches where previously monolingual frameworks would have been the norm;


    c) use creative and performing arts to experiment with researching through non-linguistic forms.

Much of our work and many attempts at researching multilingually had failed. We had, by dint of necessities of economy, transparency and time, and despite our best efforts, kept slipping into the supposed easiest of common linguistic modalities – English.

It wasn’t until we brought a multilingual intention into our working methods that we found a way of breaking the habit of English first, and moving to a situation where, intentionally in our work and instructions for devising, we were operating with English last. Given time constraints of the production it would have been easy for us to give up and just do everything in English, as our nerves failed us.

But they didn’t – and we devised the work in around 15 different languages, finding our way together into new methods, transforming ones we’d worked with previously and watching in considerable awe as the presence of such linguistic diversity amidst the shared experience of linguistic incompetence and the common task of translation created a community, an aesthetic and a sense of wellbeing. Much of this work was centred around the use of a calabash – a gourd used for many practical and also ritual tasks in the past and present.

Buoyed by the experience we returned to Noyam again in July 2017 with a team of Global Mental Health Researchers from U.K., Ireland and Uganda. This time we had thought to simply run some small workshops with the local community, multilingually, looking with the clinical psychologists and artists with us, at Idioms of Wellbeing, Distress and Resilience in all the languages present across the team and the dance company. The young dancers were having none of it. They now were confident in the multilingual devising methodology and before I knew it I was back to co-directing and to dramaturgy as the data and literature from our linguistic global mental health research found its way into attentive, then rehearsing, then dancing bodies, and finally into a full hour long production.

The questions posed by our Global Mental Health team related to the ways in which the indigenous or local use of languages and idioms, songs, stories and proverbs allowed a community to overcome traumatic or distressing events and come to a place of resilience or wellbeing. With the majority of the world’s population excluded from the expensive therapeutic interventions available to a privileged few, and with mental distress being a key to recovery of self and community as well as nourishing actions the research was keen to learn from knowledges which have not been developed under laboratory conditions in western universities, but in real life situations in Southern contexts.

The story of the making of the production and methods, as well as the stories embedded in the production – from Uganda, to Zimbabwe to Gaza and Ghana – all reflected the epic themes of human suffering and ecological devastation, war, loss and destruction as well as danced tenacity and determined diversity. The stories were from experts by experience, held in expert bodies at hold and telling stories of strength and of suffering.

From this second run of work with Noyam we have seen the value of the social science research in applied linguistics and in foreign language pedagogy when applied to the global challenge of mental health and distress. We have seen the ways in which the discipline of dance and multilingual method can enable a strengthening of collective and individual confidence and the confidence of a community too. We have learned to repeat and rehearse as vital aspects to the methods we employ. But when these are brought into our pedagogical intent, and when translation acts as an opportunity and a leveller, then what Turner called ‘communitas’ is a result. Devising multilingually, holding our multilingual nerve, working with translation as our common tongue, and living and cooking and celebrating together – whilst absolutely ensuring a fair and living wage is paid for artistic endeavour – have all become core elements in the practice we are beginning to describe and analyse.

Noyam dancers found a new level of artistic precision and energy in performing a piece which began with two bucolic folk tales from Bugandan tradition, and followed by Dangbe proverbs for resilience and wellbeing which culminated in two powerful scenes with back projection evoking those who could not join us but bringing their spirit centre stage and larger than life. Zimbabwe and the ‘Caged Bird’ of Gaza, together with Israel’s Apartheid Wall and the poetry of Darwish were recreated in dance, with calabash and wings. The finale took the form of a multilingual rap and a full tilt palogo dance.

After the show Nii-Tete Yartey, Gameli Tordzro and I presented certificates to all participants, from the kitchen staff to the lead dancers. We were deeply moved by the tributes on stage to the young people’s work by members of the community and parents. This beautiful presentation of a women’s Calabash heart was given in thanks for our work.

Our final circle drew all the threads together into a wild dance of celebration on stage. The piece brought together wide-ranging expertise and passion – from dancing to costume making to music composition and stagecraft.

We made something together against all the odds, and quite simply put, all saw that it was good.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.