Last March we had the privilege to facilitate the most beautiful and meaningful workshop to date, in Sarara, ending before the start of the rains in Samburu land (Kenya).

Beautiful (as understood by the Greeks), sounds odd and yet, it is the best descriptor of what happened. The source of what has been made possible, from clear outputs and action plans to new connections, relationships, increased awareness, understanding, honouring the initial spark and giving birth to new possibilities for a Pan-African interdisciplinary initiative to contribute to increasing the health of people and planet.

The organisers, Joseph Kamau and James Hassell, had taken on the challenge of making real their shared idea: “creating the conditions to enable financing for integrating nature conservation and addressing public health in Africa”. Not a small endeavour and, apparently, in the way they had decided to approach it, the first of its kind. It meant bringing together a group of great scientists from several disciplines and locations, to collectively engage in & contribute to shaping and advancing the Ecology Health Finance initiative.

The journey started in January 2023, months before arriving at Samburu last March, preparing for the workshop with participants acquiring a sufficiently shared understanding of the content (as wide as possible) and, more important, starting to create the necessary connections that would enable fruitful conversations during the event.

The pre-engagement sessions aimed to enable people to get to know each other and build connections, become familiar with the intention of the workshop and the specific content to work from, invite participants to understand things using a system perspective and explore what enables effective collaboration.

Then came the workshop. It was held in Sarara Camp, an amazing “ecolodge located in the Namunyak conservancy, a not too densely populated area, stressed by long term drought, with scarce water and only solar power”. Home to the indigenous Samburu people of Northern Kenya, the Sarara Foundation is “a unique community conservation model that supports people to conserve wildlife and biodiversity”.

Participants, organisers, facilitators and the Samburu community, had the privilege to spend four days together engaging in different activities (including social) and deep conversations to co-create the outputs to launch the long term desired initiative.

On March 22nd, as we were all leaving, the prevalent feeling was (in the words of one participant),  that the workshop “seemed to have been a great success socially as well as substantive”, delivering useful outputs to launch the initiative and consolidating the group to implement the initial actions from the roadmap they created.

At the start, we could not necessarily guarantee we would arrive at this end state. Taking a look back, we believe an unusual combination of factors, beautifully coming together, made it possible. In the spirit of learning, we want to share some of our reflections about how this developed.

Trust with client enabled us, facilitators, to become partners of their endeavour and contribute our facilitation and graphic harvesting skills to the fullest. The fact that they considered this first encounter with facilitation,an opportunity to learn and explore, enabled us to bring in gentle challenges in pursuit of clarity and to expand everyone’s thinking.

The land was the wisest choice the organisers made. In fact, the best container we could have hoped for. Having the privilege of  ‘temporarily rooting’ ourselves in the land and experiencing it deeply, made starkly real what the initiative was meant to be in service of. It intended to protect that land and the livelihoods of all her inhabitants. With many of our large group sessions held in a built ‘camp’ in the land and away from the lodges, the journey to the central space made us experience the land in all its beauty and ugliness, eroding our capacity to take refuge in abstractions in the interactions that followed. The land was there, holding us, present, demanding collaboration, answers and actions.

An additional container was provided by the facilitation team, focused on providing opportunities for participants to develop trust between them and creating a “safe space”, as defined by Amy Edmonson, where they could explore, collaborate, co-create and develop actions towards the larger purpose. In addition, throughout the workshop, the team enabled for emergence and adapted to it as required, including containing the arising anxiety caused by uncertainty.

Community and connection were the next crucial factors. Margaret Wheatley wisely says “whatever the problem, community is the answer”. We agree. The web of connections resulting in fruitful conversation and co-creation during the workshop, had been in the making for a while, and designed from the beginning by the organisers. Participants were not strangers to each other, many could be greeted by name and it was joyful to see everyone freed from the frame of a screen. This was strengthened by the welcome home by our Samburu hosts and their magnificent hosting and care, helping everyone be available and present to contribute fully.

These initial conditions made it possible for participants to operate from an attitude of contribution and learning, fully participating in the ecosystem vs. pushing for a prevalent place in it). Participants did take risks, stepped into vulnerability and allowed themselves to listen to things they profoundly disagreed with, showing great respect. Together, the group moved beyond their limitations to come up with novel solutions where required. The output was enriched with the wise participation of our Samburu colleagues, dancing in and out of the conversations and bringing in crucial input.

This workshop has been referred to as ‘the first of its kind’. It is also that from the point of view of participants entering into the not knowing, the uncomfortable, and remaining there instead of quickly turning to finding a solution. We human beings like certainty, solid paths, clear coordinates, defined actions and agreed steps to take. This workshop offered a solid framework designed to evolve with the initiative, and little certitudes to cling onto. Despite this, everyone chose to not let fear play a big role and made an effort to wait for the next conversation, insight, or step in the process, that would bring them a little more clarity whilst reducing their anxiety. In parallel we, in the facilitation team, constantly held the view of the whole and never lost sight of the goal to achieve.

The magic in the process was brought in by the deeper seeing and understanding enabled by Marina’s visuals. From capturing the essence of what was being shared to facilitating one of the groups to co-create their own model, it provided for a big step forward in making sense of complexity enabling participants to play with it.

Arriving to an aligned action plan at the end of the three and a half days together would not have been possible without the willingness (and the courage) of participants to challenge each other with kindness and to challenge their own thinking, as scientists do. As the workshop came to an end, there were numerous conversations about new knowledge acquired and of broadening their understanding of the system through being able to incorporate more and deeper perspectives. Ultimately, this was the intention … to address complex problems together. 

1 Amy Edmonson’s definition of psychological safety: the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

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