Group process on a wilderness trail

I took a group of British scholars on a 15-day cycle of three wilderness trails – iSimangaliso (St Lucia), Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve and the Drakensberg mountains. Although the group as a whole was mixed (boys and girls), my group (one of three) consisted of six girls and a male teacher.

On the trails we regularly have “Indaba” sessions, where participants can reflect on their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. During one such session on the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi trail the teacher admitted that he was in love with one of the girls. I said to him, “I appreciate your honesty, but you probably realize that it may have consequences.”

The context is important here. All the teacher did was to say honestly what he felt. He didn’t do anything more. For me it wasn’t a problem. However, in the context of the apparent obsession with sexual interest in children at the school and in the UK (and elsewhere) in general, and the general taboo on openly expressing what we feel, it was unheard of. This specific school apparently had a rule that no teacher was allowed to approach closer than six inches to any child. To touch a child, even if by accident, was deemed a misdemeanor!

In order to get from one trail to another, the three groups had to travel in the same bus, with the inevitable result that they shared their experiences with each other. By the time we reached the Drakensberg, the whole larger group knew what had happened in our group.

In the Drakensberg my group – without the teacher – separated themselves in one of the rooms in the hiker’s hut where we spent the night, and avoided all contact with both the teacher and me.

The next day we hiked into the mountains, and the following two days apparently passed without a hitch. The second day we had a lot of fun when we swam in the ice cold water, and it seemed as if the atmosphere was more relaxed. Suppression was rife.

On the third day we did a “solitaire”, where everybody spent an hour or so in solitude, and after that we had an “Indaba” session.

“We are such a nice group,” said one of the girls in the “Indaba”, “and we have bonded so well together.”

“No, we haven’t,” I said. “The group is split right down the middle.”

That was all that was necessary. It’s called “group process commentary”. Within seconds Phase Two of group process erupted in the form of reproaches, accusations, outbursts of anger, expressions of hurt and so on. My fellow guide’s eyes grew wide, and I could see that he was completely out of his comfort zone.

I listened to everybody and reflected their emotions: “I hear your anger …”, “You’re really upset, aren’t you?” and so on.

Probably about twenty minutes or so later the whole group calmed down. Phase Three was dawning.

The following morning we left early to return to the hiker’s hut in order to start our journey back to Durban. When we arrived at the hut, I left my group outside to unpack and repack, and walked towards the hut. One of the other teachers came walking towards me with grim determination. He had heard what had happened in our group, and was very upset. He asked what action needed to be taken against the teacher, and assured me that all necessary steps would be taken.

“No,” I said. “It’s not necessary to do anything. We have sorted it out within the group.” I could see that he was not at all impressed, but he left it there.

I returned to my group straight away and told them what had happened. “The consequences have arrived,” I said. “How are we going to deal with them?”

What happened then astounded me. With firm determination the whole group, teacher included, decided that everything that had happened would stay within the group. All need to blame had dissipated. Total forgiveness.

During the discussion one of the girls said, “He’s like Jesus. A South African Jesus!”

Of course the ego does not like this, or would like to use it to enhance its own self-importance, but for me it was an indication that the girls intuitively felt that what had happened had a direct bearing on the forgiveness that Jesus had spoken about.

When we returned to Durban, I phoned the organizer in the UK to let her know what had happened, just in case something were to happen when the scholars returned to the UK. I stressed, however, that the group had dealt with the situation perfectly, and that nothing further needed to be done.

A few weeks later I received a DVD of the trail that the teacher had produced, as well as a letter from the group to thank me. After that I never heard anything from them again. Nor did I hear anything from subsequent groups from that school that I took on trail.

Such is the potential of group process. What would have been the alternative?

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