Humanizing Social Development — Lessons from the Bees

Global Leadership Academy
9 min readOct 17, 2023
Photo by Laura Lauch on Unsplash

In September this year a group of social impact leaders from Southern countries gathered in Istanbul for what would have been one of the most significant experiences of my life. Our hosts, the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, (AVPN) invited us to grapple with social impact issues from a Southern perspective, creating a platform for activists and practitioners on grassroots level to share learnings and be in conversation with each other. We shared the goal of voicing insights from the South, that does not often reach the ears of the dominant Northern systems.

As the founding director of sp(i)eel arts therapies collective, a non-profit organization working in community mental health, so much of my personal journey was about unlearning the Northern narrative in which I was raised and trained in, and learning what it meant to work in a culturally informed way. In Istanbul, I facilitated a session for my fellow impact leaders entitled, “How do we do circle work in square systems?”

How do we bring the best practice principles from what we have learned from the communities we work with, and translate them to systems that often only seek formulaic answers? Often with these abstract concepts, the Drama Therapist in me turns to metaphor to make sense of it. A week before I flew to Istanbul a perfect metaphor flew to me. On a Spring afternoon, my family and I noticed a huge swarm of bees outside our house. We ran to close all the windows and doors and watched with fascination as the cloud of bees swirled outside and eventually disappeared. This happened twice, and the day before my departure, I noticed the hive. The bees built themselves a home right outside my bedroom window! “That’s a powerful sign”, my alternative medicine friend said. “We have to get rid of them”, said my husband.

I listened to both. Ben the Beekeeper came to move them into a new home and I looked up the symbolic meaning of bees. It turns out that these fascinating creatures pre-empted the lessons I was about to learn in Istanbul, I would like to share some of them here.

Firstly, bees communicate with each other by dancing. At least nine different bee dances have been identified to communicate things like nectar being nearby, or being happy or needing to be groomed. When our group with its multiple cultures and languages were getting to know each other, we danced together, at least once a day. It allowed our nervous systems to settle and for us to bond with each other beyond language and the pressures to find the right words. And it was a joyful way of coming together. Here at home in South Africa, we often begin a group psychosocial programme with a dance for the same reasons. When we dance together in a circle, we collapse the hierarchy, we meet each other on equal footing and it helps us to connect on a human level.

The dance of the bees at Istanbul

Secondly, everything a bee needs to know is built into their genetic make-up. As a worker bee grows older, hormones are released, activating the part of their genetics which tells them which job to do and when to do it. As a group from various sectors in social development, we learned to respect and listen to instinctive and intuitive knowledge and gave it equal, if not superior value over book knowledge. Everything we needed to learn was already present in the circle, we just had to listen. And this is the position we take in our community-based work as well. We are not the only experts in mental health, who come in and talk about trauma and how to deal with it, we are the space makers, we co-create circles that feel safe and respectful enough, so that participants’ innate knowledge can be heard and shared.

And lastly, there is still sweetness in this life to enjoy. In Turkey, every street had a sweet shop with all the treats lined up in the windows, and little tables and chairs to invite you to sit and take your time to enjoy. They have the best honey in the world, and use this ingredient in most of their recipes, from Baklava to Turkish Delight. In a socio-economic climate where things can feel desperate, where a war has been raging in Ukraine for over a year and the Middle East is teetering on the edge of another war and where change seems too slow, we are reminded to seek the sweetness of this life, to find the moments of joy as it will sustain us to do this work. And this reminds me of the intentional position of our organization to adopt a strength-based or healing-centered approach that allows for the strengths and the existing protective factors in communities to emerge and be celebrated so that we don’t begin the work from a place of deficit. I’d like to expand on these three lessons from the bees by sharing examples from our practice of delivering arts-based psychosocial programmes towards the development of community-based mental health in South Africa.

When we talk about dancing, I am referring to working with the body, or embodiment as it is known. In Western psychology the emphasis is so much on what is going on between the crown and the neck, we live our lives in our heads. Up until recent years, talking therapy was suggested as the optimal treatment for trauma, but authors such as Bessel van der Kolk (2014), Peter Levine (2012), Pat Ogden (2006) and Daniel Siegel (2010) came to change all that with the notion that trauma resides in the body, and the experience of trauma often lies beyond words. A young participant so eloquently shared her experience of finding expression beyond words:

“You might have noticed that we are a generation that keeps to ourselves, and we don’t trust anyone with our feelings and our thoughts. Especially because we don’t know how to talk about our feelings and our thoughts. You have come to show us that we can also show you through our songs and through our dances how we feel and what we are thinking. And that is freedom.”
Youth Participant, 2022

In our work with trauma and the body, we’ve adopted Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. It helps us to understand how the autonomous nervous system reacts when under threat or stress, and the role that the vagus nerve plays in helping us to calm down.. When we introduce this work using the colours red for hyper-arousal or fight or flight, blue for hypo-arousal or freeze and green for the state of safety and connection, we often hear participants speaking of feeling as if they are in red all the time, and that it feels impossible to relax. Or that blue feels like the place of calm, it has become the norm to be shut off from an overwhelming context. Mogapi (2004) speaks of South Africans carrying the wound of the heart, and our refusal to tend to these wounds cause us to bleed on the next generation. These wounds, our trauma, are not just happening in the present moment, these wounds are carried by people from our country’s violent and oppressive past. And because we don’t tend to them, every now and then they open and bleed. They are intergenerational, they cause systems, schools, organizations and institutions to continue to bleed on the generations who never caused the original injury. We cannot grow, we cannot develop, unless we heal.

But let’s not dwell here long, because this work is also about the green place of safety and connection. It is about hope, about the strengths, resources and medicine that are innate in people’s communities. Polyvagal theory talks about the vagus nerve that signals safety to our bodies, that calms us down, helps us to feel safe in the present moment, access our reflective thinking minds and connect to others. A man who attended a workshop with his partner shared the following:

“My partner and I are having difficulties in our relationship. This workshop has given us the space to sit and just be with each other, to re-connect, and we were able to talk about things. This had a positive influence on our children and family life.”

When we give ourselves the time and care we need to tend to the wounds, we have the potential to stop bleeding on those who did not cause them. When we want to speak about socio-economic development, we have to go to the roots and the generational work. Trauma is a collective experience, healing has to happen in relationship with each other. So from a trauma-informed perspective, when we come together to dance, we breathe deeply and stomp our feet on the floor, which activates the vagus nerve and signals safety. Neuroception happens when we scan the environment for cues, and when we hear the music, see the circle, smell the kooigoed, we receive cues that this is a safe space. And when we do this together, we co-regulate each other so that those who are nervous can be soothed by those who feel more comfortable. It’s so much more than dancing, and the bees knew this all along.

They also knew where to look to find the knowledge they needed to perform their roles in the hive, and it wasn’t in books. In Istanbul, this was a prominent theme; in cultures where there is a strong oral tradition in the passing of knowledge, it is time to listen deeply to innate and indigenous wisdom as is illustrated in this story that was created by a group of participants in our arts-based psychosocial support workshops earlier this year:

“A woman who was from the land did not think she knew anything about trees. But she worked on a struggling tree with her hands. And she knew the tree needed water and food. She took to pruning and caring for the tree.

Then life came.

And the woman found herself again, because she did not know that she had the knowledge in her, and she never went to school and did not have the knowing of books, but she had the knowing of her hands. The owner of the land saw this and came to chop off the tree. As he did so, he heard a voice that said: “Give the tree a chance” He thought about this and let the woman continue, and she worked with all the trees and they grew and carried fruit in abundance.”

Healing Hands — A story devised by the group.

A participant reflected that “This method showed us our creativity, the stories we made came from us, not the books, and it came to teach us things we never knew about.” Social development lies in the circles that people form, and each circle will have its unique responses in relationship to context and environment. We must do this work from the inside out, not the outside in.

The final lesson from the bees brings me to the hive as a collective body that makes this incredible, medicinal sweet honey. In the Western world the focus is on the individual and personal advancements and successes, but our Southern wisdom tells us that we are each other. When we asked one community to share their meanings of psychosocial health and wellbeing, these are the words they shared: love, joy, connection with others, tolerance, respect, hope, self confidence, freedom, peace, being in nature, singing and dancing.

When we spoke in Istanbul about fitting circle work into square systems, someone asked, does it have to be circles and squares? Do we have to try and fit into each other? It sounds painful! What if something new can emerge? A new shape, many shapes! What might it look like if we stop speaking in binary terms of North and South and meet each other in our humanity?

May we seek to meet each other in our humanity, may we tend to our wounds so that we build healthy organizations and a future where our children can thrive, may we meet in circles and listen generously to each other, may we dance and share the beauty and sweetness of this life. And may these be our guiding principles as we speak about social development and change.

The group walks, together.

These are Marlize Swanepoel’s reflections from her time at the Global Leadership Academy’s workshop in Istanbul. Dancing fills her soul, as does listening to people and being the founding director of sp(i)eel arts therapies collective.

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Global Leadership Academy

The Global Leadership Academy aims to transform current learning and power dynamics within the impact space in the Global South