Inspiring people to re-imagine their relationship to their world

Healing the Broken Links

Mbali Marais
Published on

When I asked a bushman a few years ago to tell me about his relationship to nature he looked puzzled “I don’t understand the question”, he said, ‘I am nature’. 

Making peace with Nature assumes we are at war with her. The genocide of consciousness brought about by colonialism, apartheid, and extractive practices were deliberate acts of violence to land, nature and ourselves. These acts, severing links and exerting disastrous impacts, reverberate outwardly, and within, engendering hopelessness and a spiritual homelessness.  

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In Ekuphumleni, a township in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, the Sustainable Together’ workshop and exhibition used ritual practice and open dialogue to explore the grief of historical traumas undermining collective self-worth and local potential. Inter-generational sharing of community knowledge of land and nature was foregrounded, bringing alignment through relationship to nature, ritual, and community.

For workshop participants, experiencing their memories and stories reflected through ritual and exhibition images and audio, affirmed their inherent worth and belonging. Drawing on the performative potential in symbolic re-enactments gives tangible expression to the stories that precede and transcend it. An exhibition space that facilitates such dynamic enactment draws people into material practice, and through it, into an embodied and entangled relationship with themselves, others, and nature. When exhibition becomes storyteller, a space is created where nature, healing, belonging and the making of sustainable communities can be witnessed, and celebrated as inextricably intertwined.

We are a culture on fire. At war (now literally) with ourselves, each other, and nature. The more obvious causes of the broken links are consumption, greed, disrespect, forced removals, rape of the mother through mining earth and water, wrongdoings to animals, and destruction of our natural resources. The battle scars left are major natural disasters, abuse and misuse of our natural resources, and drought. When this is mirrored back as a parallel process to which we are inextricably linked, we find that in the aftermath of this war we are left with unspoken hidden histories, separation, self-hatred, a war on women, and a value system where worthiness has no place.

Vananda Shiva, an earth activist, says it this way:

“In nature's economy the currency is not money, it is life.”

― Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace

Our inner Nature is a distant memory, and we look outside of ourselves to fill the gaping “Whole” that the broken links to the natural world has created.

The wound so deep it often feels impossible to re-remember that we are Nature in our original design. We have entered a great forgetting, an amnesia that at times surpasses our capacity to remember that we are not all there is, that we are part of a greater whole; that we are ancient and, also, wild.  It’s a story that includes our earth story of ancestors, long-gone, nature as medicine, life-giver, dragons, mermaids, the cosmos and all beings, our gifts; in short, the magic of the Natural world.

We live in scarcity, where our self-soothers are to consume, creating more lack and we have forgotten that abundance is rightly ours. Any engagement in over-consumption or over-production is an act of violence.

If we are unable to see our reflection in Nature’s mirror as a place of magic, love, life, death, rebirth, wildness, transformation, and the deepest truth, how can we be authentic, touch our wildness, our ancient beings and be comfortable with death, life and rebirth?

In the three-day workshop created and facilitated by Return to Origin, the team called on the Ekuphumleni community to participate. With a deep legacy of sons and daughters of the soil and the origins of those who came before, and their connection to the land, the Ekuphumleni community gave voice to the hidden histories of the past in order to heal and make sense of the future. Forced removals were dominant in the community we worked with, it shone a flashlight in the darkness of their deep soul-searching of “what have we done” and, right there, Xenophobia is born out of a reflection back on themselves as the wrongdoer. Self-hatred is a silent killer of spirit. We heard stories about how the deep-self became hungry for soul-food that had been violently erased: the home of their origin. We are born into colour. The primal colours of their original home, blue, green, and rich brown, had been blotted out of their consciousness replaced by the grey of corrugated roofs, man-made bricks and mortar and the grey smoke of toxic waste. We destroyed the grass and the trees and poured concrete where life had once thrived and we named the streets after the trees that had once brought oxygen and fruit for the community.

We brought as a central piece to the workshop a simple mound of earth as the central foundation to the work. An organic ritual began. Each person added to the mound of earth a handful of earth brought from their humble dwellings. They soon established an immediate link to Earth as elder, nurturer, nourisher, and home. It was the earth where they knelt to pray, light candles, pour water.  It was where the grief, stories, prayers, joy, and wisdom were held and where healing happened.  Each day as they re-remembered more. The stories were released, and we learned that earth, still deeply felt, was their life-giver, their resource, a place of abundance, not scarcity. The community drew from that centre. It was their silent witness.  Homelessness in all its deep meanings and hopelessness soon became the compost and the place to plant, sow and grow. It is out of the earth and the water that mountains rise up, and Nature grows. 

Disconnection from the soil creates the broken links to nature, the land. They had disconnected from a vital source of finding meaning in their lives, it was their rope to something greater than themselves.  The workshop, the earth and, ultimately, the exhibition had helped them remember that they belonged. Returning to the earth brought the peace so deeply sought in the healing of this community.

Through this simple mound of earth, the images, and audio, Exhibition as Storyteller held the mirror image of their true nature. It reflected back: “You are seen, heard and worthy. You are enough, and the earth never said you don’t belong, people did”. That small mound of earth, the elder in the exhibition, brought us all together and for a small window of time, we all melded a few precious links to Nature. Dignity and self-worth were restored. It brought us all home.

- Mbali Marais, Founder, Return to Origin

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