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At least we fed the Hippos

By Timothy Cocks Uncategorized 09 Feb 2018

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For me, this is one of the all time great TED talks – Ernesto Sirolli talks with genuine passion and warmth, and can deliver a punchline like a seasoned stand up.

While the talk is ostensibly about foreign aid and entrepreneurship, it has always struck me that Ernesto could be talking about therapy, and his story from Zambia is a deeply informative, and in some ways troubling (if you really take it to heart) metaphor for why interactions in the clinic might utterly fail.

I’d strongly recommend you consider watching the whole video (it is more than worth your time), but here’s the metaphor bit in words:

Our first project, the one that has inspired my first book, “Ripples from the Zambezi,” was a project where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So we arrived there with Italian seeds in southern Zambia in this absolutely magnificent valley going down to the Zambezi River, and we taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini and … And of course the local people had absolutely no interest in doing that, so we paid them to come and work, and sometimes they would show up. And we were amazed that the local people, in such a fertile valley, would not have any agriculture. But instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, “Thank God we’re here.” “Just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.”

And of course, everything in Africa grew beautifully. We had these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy, a tomato would grow to this size. In Zambia, to this size. And we could not believe, and we were telling the Zambians,“Look how easy agriculture is.” When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came out from the river and they ate everything.

And we said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”

And the Zambians said, “Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“You never asked.”

I thought it was only us Italians blundering around Africa, but then I saw what the Americans were doing, what the English were doing, what the French were doing, and after seeing what they were doing, I became quite proud of our project in Zambia.

Because, you see, at least we fed the hippos.

Looking back, there are times when with the very best intentions, my attempts to help people experiencing persistent pain were probably nothing more than feeding the hippos ‘You’re not feeling any better? Well at least you understand sensitisation at the dorsal horn now!’

Ever since I heard Ernesto speak, I’ve had this little picture sitting on my desk – feel free to use it.

Have you had a hippo feeding moment in the clinic?

– Tim Cocks


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