Balloons in the sky of Athenry
This evening, as I was driving along the Monivea road, I noticed that cars were suddenly pulling over to the layby in order to watch a couple of hot air balloons land in the Fields of Athenry.
It was an impressive site, watching these enormous nylon shapes land gently on the ground, as others continued to glide smoothly through the sky, sometimes venturing so low that it felt as though they would join us on the road at any minute.
I remembered my first (and only) hot air balloon ride. What a wonderful and liberating experience! It felt so freeing and so special to be stood inside that huge basket, breathing in the fresh air of sunrise, listening to people laughing joyfully, excited about the journey. I remember taking off and everybody listening intently as the pilot bragged about how high in the sky he was able to steer the huge balloon.
Free as a bird
Whenever I see something so symbolic of human freedom, I inevitably think back to the prisoners with whom I worked in Lomé.
I also recall the experience of being trapped for 20 minutes behind the bars of the women’s section after finishing my client work for the day.
I had been there inside the jail already for several hours, in therapy sessions with the women, trying to focus and block out the constant noise from the tiny yard outside the broken window of the bare room in which we were seated on two uncomfortable chairs.
As we yelled for the guards to come and open the gate for me, and as I wandered around aimlessly amongst the women who had nothing better to do than to shout in increasingly rising tones for my release, I felt a huge pang of sadness.
I felt sadness for the women who had lost their children giving birth, because nobody would unlock the gate to take them to hospital. I was sad for the women who had been manipulated or fooled into transporting suitcases for criminals, only to wind up taking the blame. I was sad for the women who had offended without understanding what had made them do it. I was sad for those who hadn’t survived the atrocities of prison life. I was sad for those who desperately needed operations, like the woman who bled every time she crouched to do her toilet, and who could not sit down because her wounds were too severe.
And something else struck me as I looked out through those bars again. I suddenly realised, that because the prisoners were locked back inside their pitch black cells at 5pm daily, the inmates of the Prison Civil de Lomé, could never look out into the sky and see the beautiful silhouette of the moon.
A Negative Fire
There is something else that the vision of the hot air balloon in Athenry brought back into my mind: My transpersonal psychotherapy training on the five elements (water, air, earth, fire, ether), and how each one of us struggles to balance the elements inside of us during the course of our lives.
It strikes me that the prisoners we work with in Lomé often have difficulties with the FIRE element.
Some are men and women who always had trouble containing their rage, usually due to things that happened to them in childhood, over which they had no control. They were like the hot air balloon that once had a healthy flame and was soaring into the sky, but the flame got out of control, and before anybody could help it, the fire spread and the balloon fell down, in tethers, to the earth.
How does a fire quality get out of control?
Fire burns where the softer element of water is not present, and it spreads where there is no guard to contain it.
In transpersonal psychotherapy, water is the element of emotion and feelings, the receptive element that ‘goes with the flow.’ Those who had no ‘water’ influence in their early lives, are the ones who had no emotional support – nobody to turn to for voicing their anxiety and concerns. They are often likely to struggle with containing their anger (fiery side) in later life – whether they turn it inwards and become depressed, or outwards and become aggressive.
Part of what we do when we offer psychotherapy in the prison, is to explore boundaries. We establish a sense of what it means to be contained, and we model this through the therapy itself.
The water element is also strongly linked to the moon. How interesting then, that many prisoners experience an absence of moon energy early in life (the so-called feminine energy of feelings, intuition and imagination), which is then symbolically replicated at the prison, where inmates are scorched by the fiery heat of the father sun in the daytime, and mourn the loss of the mother moon’s appearance in the long dark evenings, which they spend locked up in dark, foul- smelling cells with up to 86 other men.
The Non-Existent Fire
With some of the prisoners, it is almost impossible to perceive any notion of a fire quality. They are like the hot air balloons which fall to the ground because the burners just can’t keep going, or the pilots are unable to manage the heat.
These are the people who stop trying to stand up and be seen early on in life, because whatever they do, it inevitably fails.
They may be the prisoners who are attacked by other prisoners, or by those in a position of authority. They may be one of the many who pass away, because the prison is too much for them to survive.
We work with many prisoners who were abused and mistreated in childhood and in adult life. They swallowed their fire at some point, feeling unable to speak up and, in some cases, becoming easy prey for the real criminals, who somehow didn’t get caught.
“He told me he had bought a new suitcase, because mine was falling apart. I thought it was a nice gift. It looked expensive. I thought, ‘finally, I’ve found a man who loves me.'”
The Positive Fire
The examples above describe people who display the negative side of the fire element in their personalities, or who don’t display any of it at all. But fire can be a very positive driving force in life. It’s the ‘active’ element, and without its presence, how would we ever get anything done?!
Have you ever been around somebody who is really draining? Somebody who saps your energy seemingly without even moving? Often, it is somebody who is not in touch with their fire quality. It’s like they are constantly tired, and in so being, they wear you out too!
Thinking back to the hot air balloon, it is the flame being consistently alight that keeps the balloon in the air because of the heat energy it generates.
We all have a flame within that longs to burn freely, to show up proudly, and to continuously fuel us to live our dreams. Sometimes, dreams die because an inner flame was put out and never lit again.
Many inmates speak vulnerably about the isolation, abuse, sadness and despair that they experienced in their earlier lives. Many had nobody reliable to go to for direction, or to witness them as individuals who were worth something, let alone to see that there was a light inside of them yearning to be noticed.
Part of our work consists of helping prisoners to re-discover their inner flame – their life force – so that they can keep it alight in a positive way, a way that will eventually help them to become who they really want to be.
“Set your life on Fire. Seek those who fan your flames.” Rumi, 13th Century Persian Poet
Becoming a Volunteer
If you are a qualified Psychotherapist and feel that you have something to offer in Togo, please get in touch. We provide detailed references for all therapists who have completed a placement in Togo. There is an application form on this website.
We also accept emails and applications from professionals with ideas for other services within the prison environment, though these must be for at least a two month duration and provide an obvious tangible benefit.
We are available by email, on Facebook, or on the phone to answer any questions you may have about the work involved. You can also follow us on Twitter or Instagram @FsipAfrica.
“As if you were on fire from within, the moon lives in the lining of your skin.” Pablo Neruda, Chilean Poet