Social Justice Education


We borrowed Speaking Bitterness from the Dagara people of West Africa (Berkina Faso). It is an exercise designed to address personal conflict between two individuals in the community/circle.

The operative principle guiding this exercise is that personal conflict between individuals involves conditions and sources beyond the two individuals — such as: the past history of each individual (independent of each other); past history of the spirits of the dead, that is, the ancestors of each of the two individuals; present stress and conflict in the lives of the two individuals — again, independent one of the other.


* The two individuals are supported by the community/circle in “letting go” of the specific tensions they each can identify with the other.

* The two people stand back-to-back to each other, with their bodies touching each other’s. Facilitators of the group sprinkle ashes in a circle around the two. These ashes represent the presence of the spirits of the dead who are in support of this “letting go” process.

* Community members then form a circle around the two, and as a group bare witness to the commitment to resolve their dispute, grievances, or ill-will.

* A facilitator then heralds the beginning of the Speaking Bitterness ritual: at the snap of her fingers the two grievants then simultaneously begin to yell and scream — they are expelling the “demons,” the “bad blood” they have between them. Each one is shouting out issues/complaints/grievances they have against the other. They shout simultaneously. Therefore, neither can hear the other. Often, much of what is screamed in this process has previously been unheard by the participants (by the other) — lack of communication is at the heart of much interpersonal conflict.

* A key mechanism to this exercise achieving its goal is for neither person to stop to listen to the other — the principle, once again, is that the tension arises from the separate history/ energy of the two individuals who have crossed paths at a moment in their lives. To the extent that this energy needs to be expelled, one of the persons listening to the other is in reality engaging energy that ultimately has little to do with him. Having violated the central principle of the exercise, this person who listens, rather than engaging in expelling his own ill-will/negative energy, achieves the opposite — he may become more resentful at the things he hears. Therefore, if one of the two becomes stuck in listening, the facilitator will stop the other from yelling momentarily, until the first one regains his posture of blasting out his bitter feelings in screams.

* After the two have physically expended a lot of energy in the yelling, they turn to each other and embrace. The commitment from both, before the exercise and after, is to move on from whatever it is they were yelling and start fresh with unconditional positive regard for each other.

Speaking bitterness is a maintenance ritual which should be practiced when group members discover a simmering or lingering lack of harmony between two individuals in the group.