Coaching others overcome cultural shocks is her trade

The experience of living in different cultures is one that is difficult to imagine for many people. Opportunities may appear endless, but challenges can be confusing and overwhelming, even for the well-prepared.
Tollenaere conducts an art class at her home in Kimihurura recently. (Moses Opobo)
Tollenaere conducts an art class at her home in Kimihurura recently. (Moses Opobo)

The experience of living in different cultures is one that is difficult to imagine for many people. Opportunities may appear endless, but challenges can be confusing and overwhelming, even for the well-prepared.

For Natalie Tollenaere, a Belgian, living in foreign lands and cultures has been a part of her being since she was a child. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1963, Tollenaere became an expatriate “accompanying spouse in.”

The mother of four has accompanied her expatriate husband to seven different countries in the process. In all, she has 25 years’ experience on the African continent (Morocco, Guinea – Bissau, Zambia, South Africa, and Rwanda.)

Life beyond own country

“At the age of seventeen, while in Belgium, I decided that my life wasn’t about Belgium only. So I went to India to give care to Leprosy patients. Since that time, my aim has always been to seek out the most disadvantaged person and try to help them, but not necessarily through charity.”

But what exactly does it mean to be a passing resident of seven countries, in rapid succession?

For Tollenaere, admittedly, it is the gnawing sense of un-belongingness to any particular culture. It has meant having to endure many cultural shocks, and having to curve out her own identity as an international traveller.

Today, her life and her work revolve around this newly defined stature. She juggles three jobs; professional life coach, artiste, and cross-cultural trainer to support expatriate families to turn their experience into worthwhile life abroad — one that contributes to both career success and personal enrichment.

Since 1999, she has offered workshops and conferences to accompanying spouses and third-culture kids (TCKs) – children who live neither in their parents’ birth culture nor in the culture of their host country.

“The third culture child grows away from his/her parent culture and is not part of the host country’s culture. These children often face situations like culture shock, social differences, frequent change of schools, or friends… that are not specifically common in a child’s normal growing up process. Having to deal with these changes and their normal growing process can lead them to some confusion. Coaching can help them to go through these difficult times and transform the challenges into opportunities,” Tollenaere says.

Tollenaere believes that her vast experience on the African continent has equipped her with a fair understanding of the native landscape.

“Arriving in a different cultural environment can create stress and discomfort. If not taken care of, this cultural shock can lead to a state of misunderstanding, misattribution, blaming and generate more stress and work inefficiency. Understanding the complexity and implications of the culture in daily life and work, will be the open door to releasing stress and this way, certify the success of the mission.” 

At the core of this cross-cultural training is the argument that people may be different around the world, but their basic needs are the same.

“How to satisfy their needs is what differs, and this is what we mean by culture.”

She adds that the trainings help participants to better understand the complexity and implications of the culture they work and live in, as well as offer tools to leverage cultural polarities.

“Culture is what humans created to solve issues they meet. We do this in alignment with the reality of our lives, our human or geographical environment. The way we solve human questions and problems is different from one culture to another. It is usually only as we step outside our own culture that we become aware of its importance,” she explains.

Among the common problems faced by expatriate communities, she names transition, cultural shock, adaptation, finding new support systems, creating a social and professional environment, and creating a “home” as the most common.

“Transition starts when you receive the announcement of your departure and ends when you are settled back and can function normally in your new environment and work. Transition can be difficult if not addressed with respect to who you are and what you want to achieve. It can be a life opportunity if used as a springboard to new horizons.”

Therapy through art

As an artist and art therapist, she combines her creative life and life experiences with her professional training. In essence, she practices “the art of coaching through art.”

She has exhibited some of her art works at the US Embassy in South Africa (2006, 2007); L’art gourmand, La Hulpe, Belgium –Eclats de lumiere (2008) ; Art in the Park, Pretoria, South Africa (2008) ; the Alliance Française de Pretoria, South Africa- Voyages (2009), among others.

Last year, she held a private exhibition, Ambre, in Kigali, while this month, she has on on-going exhibition at The Office, in Kiyovu.

Tollenaere describes her art as “a wave in the ocean”. From water colours to ceramics she swings from deep anchoring to butterfly lightness, from a sense of belonging to one of wondering.

She gathers her techniques around Europe and Africa to gain the ease and the diversity she express in her art work. Colours from pigments and organic shapes she finds in nature are the foundation of her art.

She conducts private art classes at her home in Kimihurura twice every week.

Experiences documented

Tollenaere has authored a book, The Art of Possibilities, that is directly inspired and informed personal and professional experience of creating her own path and helping others to live an internationally mobile life.

The book offers unique approaches to “making friends” with your new experiences, and ways to wade through the initial confusion that can lead to loss of connection with self and environment.

The book opens with the expatriate’s loss of familiar references and the diminished sense of self esteem that accompanies whom we believe we are and what we assume to be our everyday life competencies when we are thrown into a new environment. The author’s therapeutic stance urges her to start with the conflicts of life and cultures. The reader is asked to imagine previous life, the unsettling of transition, and a desired state.

She describes the book as, “an opportunity for self knowledge, awareness, and dilemma resolution through artistic, psychological and spiritual engagement.”


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