The times they are a changing… a new hope for peace, and ‘mindfulness’ in schools

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner” – Nelson Mandela

Over the last couple of weeks, Colombia momentarily became the focus of world attention as the country witnessed what many are describing as one of the most important moments in the turbulent history of its recent past. There is optimistic anticipation across the nation that a new peace accord, agreed between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), at a meeting held in Havana, Cuba, on the 23rd of September, signals the beginning of real and lasting change.

The armed conflict, which has ravaged Colombia for more than 50 years, is one of the longest in world history.  The new agreement, which promises to deliver a process towards peace over the next six months and an end to the violence that, so far, has caused the displacement of more than five million people, and over 200,000 deaths as a direct result of the ongoing struggle between government forces and various guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

It would be naïve to think that, against a backdrop of such extreme violence, things will change overnight. Key to the success of the new agreement is what the changing landscape will look like for future generations of Colombians, and how a lasting peace can be woven into the fabric of every day life for those living in ordinary, very diverse, communities.

Beyond the big cities lie many, remote, rural areas, such as the small communities of Pueblo Nuevo and Huisito, situated deep in the south west region of Cauca, which I was lucky enough to visit last week. These are the kinds of communities which have found themselves at the heart of the conflict – surrounded by countryside full of criminal gangs and armed groups keen to recruit young people, home to many of the country’s illegal mining operations, and of course, where a large proportion of covert cocaine production is based.

Here, it is commonplace for children as young as six to walk, on their own, for an hour or more just to get to school, passing areas controlled by armed groups along the way. It is in places such as these that Save the Children is working, in partnership with local government and various international sponsors, to support vulnerable children, trying to ensure the promised future at least has a chance of becoming a reality.

Visiting some of the schools in Cauca, I witnessed firsthand an incredible programme, called RESPIRA, which aims to help improve the quality of education in Colombia, through the introduction of ‘mindfulness’ training – a mental training technique based on the principles of meditation. The programme’s success lies in encouraging a peaceful school environment and aiming to improve academic achievement for young people who have been particularly affected by any type of violence, including the armed conflict. Given the ever present threat of violence in some areas, it’s not surprising to learn that Colombia topped the charts, in a study of 16 countries, for the highest degree of school-based aggression in Latin America. But the RESPIRA programme is already helping increase students’ ability to cope with psychological, as well as academic, challenges, and I was privileged to witness a classroom session, facilitated by one of the trainers, Sandra, from another Colombian NGO, which is helping to implement the programme.

Having left the busy streets of Bogotá behind – an hour’s flight and a three hour drive bouncing along dirt tracks through mountainous terrain later – we arrived at a primary school in the heart of Cauca. Here in this remote region, we surprised the children with an unscheduled visit on our way to meet teachers who were waiting for their RESPIRA training session at a nearby secondary school. I was overwhelmed by the joyous, warm welcome from the children.

On hearing that I was ‘new in town’, and didn’t know anything about RESPIRA, the class was very keen to provide a demonstration. Sandra began the session. In low, soothing tones, she invited the children to simply close their eyes, rest their hands on their stomachs and concentrate on their breathing, while silently focusing their awareness on the noises around them. During the next five minutes, she calmly continued to offer suggestions to the class, prompting them to think about how they were feeling, and lulling them into an increasingly relaxed state. The session ended with the chiming of a low-toned bell, signalling the moment for the group to bring their awareness back to the classroom and open their eyes. A brief discussion on what everyone had felt and heard during their meditation followed – and all those who wanted to speak were given the chance to do so.

From the exuberant excitement I had witnessed just moments early, a complete aura of calm was now palpable in the classroom. It was magical. Energy levels were soon raised again, however, as an impromptu English class ensued, testing my Spanish for the names of animals to the limit, and a tsunami of hugs from the children sent us on our way again.

The teachers involved in this three-year programme have reported that, in only one year,  the results speak for themselves: students are visibly calmer, easier to teach, and more likely to work together to resolve issues, which previously might have escalated into confrontation. With violence as a constant environmental threat, it’s not surprising to hear that mirroring the aggression they see on a daily basis has been viewed by many children as an option for resolving problems.   But seeing the RESPIRA programme in action, and hearing the testimony of so many teachers, there is hope that this focus on supporting social and emotional learning and wellbeing, for both students and their teachers, will help challenge the status quo for good.

A warm welcome

A warm welcome

'Mindfulness' training in action

‘Mindfulness’ training in action

Teacher training for the RESPIRA programme

Teacher training for the RESPIRA programme