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  • Writer's pictureTanja Meyburgh

Starting at my own backdoor


By Tanja Meyburgh

(This article also appears in “The Knowing Field”, 16 June 2010)

In 2002, I had my first experience of a family constellation circle with Dr. Ursula Franke, organized in South Africa by Beulah Levinson. After many years of searching, I arrived at what was clearly my lifelong calling – a healing modality that to me bridged the divide between my German and African ancestors, and western and African systems of healing. I believed then that it was the answer to bridging the divide between a divided South Africa. Like many who first encounter family constellations, I saw it as the answer to heal the world’s problems, and particularly the way to heal the legacies of Apartheid.

Learning from the European masters

It was not long before I teamed up with two dedicated colleagues, Ursula Franke and Svenja Wachter, to start the first 2-year international training in South Africa. In the founding of the non-profit organisation, the vision (very much in line with my personal vision) was to bring Family Constellations to all communities in South Africa, particularly to include previously disadvantaged and black communities in the training. Six renowned trainers, all committed to our cause, flew in for modules and delivered excellent training rooted in their extensive experience in Europe, USA and Brazil.

Despite many efforts, we never attracted a large number of black participants to either of the first two training cycles, despite much energy and the original founding of our organisation as a non-profit for exactly this intention. Even though training was offered free to these participants, we had a small ratio of non-white trainees, most of whom were quite strongly integrated already into western culture, and often living or working in predominantly white areas. Besides the obvious constraints of language, workshops taking place on weekends, and traveling distance, I began pondering why this was such tough going. The conclusions that I have come to in hindsight, and after interviewing a number of the black students that did enroll were:

– there was a great fear of something that was being brought from Europe as a school of thought – the mistrust of anything being introduced by whites for the possibility of re-colonisation. – a fear from Christians that the church might disown or frown upon being involved in practices that include ancestors, when this aspect of traditional culture has been banned by the church. – The presence and honoring of the ancestors is already a part of most black Africans’ daily life and is assisted by consulting the traditional African healer. Constellations could be viewed therefore as not necessarily bringing an added dimension to understanding the self. – Family constellations would seem to be most attractive to communities of people who have already had a chance to tell their story (eg. therapists and those who have already had access to therapy). In many cases in South Africa, the story still needs to be told and still needs to be heard. – The levels of unresolved, continuous trauma and re-traumatisation experienced in South Africa due to high crime, HIV deaths and day to day lack of resources – contra-indications in many cases for using constellations. – Lack of understanding in white trainers and facilitators of sensitive cultural processes and beliefs systems, including the place of the story in African culture.

Through continued experience in both township settings using constellations, private practice and training, I could see that those that were insufficiently resourced could not hold the intense experiences of workshops and training weekends without additional follow-up, mentoring and assistance. The first training was set up only as modules given by trainers flying in for weekends and then out again. Although it was enthusiastically received, some of the aftermath and impact was difficult to contain without the necessary financial resources or skilled support and follow-up. I began to realize that this could be experienced as a form of re-colonisation.

This initial impulse was necessary for the development of the work here and I am very grateful to all that came on our invitation and with everyone’s best intention. However, at the time we did not always have the knowledge or resources here to hold the processes that were initiated, and so my learning has been to ensure that the current training gives more emphasis on developing and ensuring that these resources are in place first.

Personal learning from black African locals

Through the experience gained in my therapeutic work in township settings, I was given an invaluable gift of understanding from the grandmothers (Gogos) of South Africa – some of my greatest teachers. These women are the real pillars that hold the fabric of community life in South Africa together. They have suffered and yet remained in their strength – firstly in living through Apartheid, many losing their husbands and sons to it, and now losing their children to HIV and being left with the raising and education of the young children. As grandmothers, it is a time when traditionally they would be honored for all they have given and they would be taken care of by others.

In the early days of my introduction to Family Constellations, in 2003, I visited a group of women – all traditional African healers – who had been working at length with a white Narraitve therapist telling and re-telling the stories of losing all their sons to an Apartheid police murder. The next step they wanted to make was forgiveness and letting go. We did a constellation in which peace was made between themselves and the perpetrators – each looked deeply into the perpetrator’s eyes, telling them that they understood that they were a part of something much bigger at play in South Africa. It was acknowledged that the perpetrator probably also had sons that they thought they were protecting too. As the participants fell back into their own language, which I did not understand, the entire constellation unfolded spontaneously without any intervention on my part. The perpetrator was re-humanised, and it was beautiful to witness. At the end of the constellation, one mother turned to kneel on the floor in the room and to pray once again for the return of the bones of their sons. Without the bones, in their culture, the sons cannot be buried and cannot enter the realm of the ancestors. To this day, these mothers are still looking for the bones.

There was also a group of Gogos that I worked with in Kayelitscha – a huge sprawling black township of shacks and small square brick houses built on the sands of the cape flats around Cape Town. The intention of this group was to build a knitting workshop where they could generate income in a community environment to help fend for their many orphaned grandchildren. I was invited by them to facilitate family constellations to assist with the personal and physical problems, grief and difficulties that the women were experiencing in getting the business off the ground. I was the first white person that came regularly, without fail, to work with them. The fact that I was there every month and that I cared was almost enough.

We invited students of the training to participate and some were surprised that I only did one constellation in 4 hours. They asked why I let the client tell so much of their story. This day was an important learning moment as I realized that the telling of the story was what was most needed in this context, and that while this was not the norm in Constellation methodology, it was what was closest to home here. It was clear to me while sitting next to the client, an elderly African man, that it was more important that this story be heard by me, for the first time by a white South African, than to do a constellation.

Telling the story to a descendent of the perpetrator and a beneficiary of the atrocities of Apartheid, was the first step. I believe it is a necessary step for being seen and heard when a nation of people have been marginalized and forgotten. This was part of the intention behind the Truth and Reconciliation commission, but there are millions of stories that were not told there and have yet to be heard. Stories about love, loss, family, poverty, rape, murder, sickness, illness, hunger, death and hope. Story-telling is an ancient part of this cultural heritage and we cannot bypass it. In these groups the constellations were generally shorter and more resource focused and the story-telling got longer and deeply healing for all involved.

These Gogos taught me that they have the resources for their own healing within their cultural heritage, and the best I can do is heal myself and my own people, so that we can begin to really hear the stories without it uncomfortably touching our own guilt.

Starting at your own back door

In the third training announcement, which is no longer run under a non-profit structure but is still accessible to those who cannot afford, I made no effort to get a diverse group – I let the group find me. We now have local and international trainers and local supervisors stemming from the first training group graduated in 2006.

As a general theme, many in the current training group carried a denial of their cultural perpetrator ancestry – out of guilt, out of fear. We looked into the truth of ourselves as perpetrators and descendents of perpetrators. We explored deep identifications with saving the victim, perpetrators as victims, what has been gained through Apartheid, and what has been lost. I started to see the group spontaneously taking the perpetrators back in their families, back into their hearts, and acknowledging their German, Namibian and Afrikaner roots. Common words heard in South Africa today, from the children of the white Apartheid oppressors are: “We did not do it.” “It was not us.” “Why should we pay for what our parents and grandparents did?” How powerful the words sounded with peace in the heart: “I am an Afrikaner”. I felt my own Afrikaner and German ancestors smiling.

One of my favorite sayings comes from Permaculture philosophy: “Start at your own back door”. I believe that this applies to everything from food gardening to healing to training family constellations facilitators. When we have come to terms with our own perpetrator ancestry and the ill-gotten gain from which we have all benefited as white South Africans, then we can truly serve our clients – both those descending from the victim and those from the perpetrator. We will no longer be driven by a sense of guilt and denial of the perpetrator within us (a sure way to perpetuate the cycle of violence and create dangerous healing professionals).

Until a time when we too have healed our own ancestral wounds as white South Africans, we need to open our ears and listen. To really hear the stories that need to be heard, the voices that have been silenced, and the local knowledge that has been excluded by South Africa’s colonial history. I believe that then constellations will spread like wildfire across the African continent – then they will truly be able to honor and acknowledge the African wisdom that is at their core. It is my belief that constellations were born in Hellinger in Africa, and they will return to Africa through its own people, when the time is right. In the meantime, I will continue to heal, to learn and to teach at my own back door.

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