A river, constantly flowing and changing, is an image which people
can use to map their own life experiences, or other ongoing processes.

Why? A river is a powerful symbol for many people and visualising any process in the form of a river can produce creative insights.  The most common use is for people to draw rivers representing the course of their own life - but many other uses are now emerging.   

When? Any time. Personal rivers can generate trust within a group, enabling participants to see each other as full and complex human beings.

How? The characteristics of a river: its changing width, current and direction as well as features such as whirlpools, islands, rapids, waterfalls and forks, can represent changes and events in our own histories. In richly illustrated rivers the surrounding landscape can represent the environment that forms us. If being used to map an individual's personal journey, it will be constructed individually.  However, it might be used to represent the history of a community or organisation, in which case the process would be communal. 

Personal rivers: It is important to clarify that each person need only include in their river those events or situations which they feel comfortable to share with the group.  A useful way for people to focus is to sit quietly together with eyes closed while the facilitator prompts them to think silently about different moments in the course of their lives, from birth to the present moment, with suggestions or open questions.  Then each person draws the journey of his or her life in the form of a river, sometimes on larger sheets of paper and sometimes on the ground with locally available materials. 

When everyone has completed their river, they can discuss them in small groups with a facilitator.  Each person chooses the level of detail they wish to relate: they may wish to focus on a particular time or current, or take people briefly through the whole journey.  At the end of each person's story, other participants can ask questions if they wish, always respecting the privacy of the person. 

The aim is not just to hear stories, but to find a link between our personal experiences and attitudes and the ways in which we are influenced by the environment in which we have grown up and live.  The facilitator may wish to direct discussion and analysis to consider issues of power and control, cause and effect, to draw out patterns or major influences.  Comparisons might be drawn between people of different social classes, cultural contexts, sexes or ages in order to uncover influences and analyse the environmental forces that shape us all.

Emotional support:  Since the experience of constructing and sharing our own rivers of life can be an emotional one, it is important to balance feelings of vulnerability with positive feedback.  Many trainers in Latin America use the 'teddy bear' technique to replenish participants with feelings of optimism and solidarity.   In this process, one person at a time faces away from the group while people mention the most positive qualities and values of that individual.  At the end of each round, the group hugs and/ or congratulates the person in question.  This process helps to bring the group closer together and encourages a feeling of identity within the group. 

Group Rivers: Where a river is used to map the turning points and key events in the history of an organisation or community, participants will work together, negotiating the points to be represented and the symbols to be used.  In this case, the process of constructing the image will in itself be the cause of much discussion and debate, as different perceptions of the significance of situations and events become apparent.  Where the exercise is done in small groups, feedback and discussion of the process should be facilitated. 

Examples from practice: In Honduras CNTC used rivers to enable Reflect circles to explore the history of their own local cooperative. The impact was dramatic, with the younger generation hearing powerful stories about the origins of their cooperative and the history of the local struggle for land and justice. 

In Recife, Brazil rivers have been used by Centro Josue de Castro in a more literal way with Reflect groups amongst freshwater fishing communities. They map out fish stocks at different times of the year in different parts of the river and the best way to catch different fish at different times. They have used these to analyse sustainable options facing the diverse groups entitled to access fishing resources locally. The image of a river has such powerful resonance for this group that they also use it to express their personal lives and to analyse the evolution of different local organisations / political struggles.

In the global Reflect conference in India in 1998 over 100 people constructed huge rivers on the beach in Puri to explore the evolution of the Reflect approach in different parts of the world, with some of the rivers running over a hundred feet and illustrating the different trends and movements that have links to Reflect, dating back over a hundred years.

If you have an interesting or innovative experience of working with this tool please add your comments here.