Everyone wants to make their message stand out from the crowd, but how do you do this when people are bombarded with new information every day? One way is to use storytelling. Storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool in advocacy: it can break down taboos and bring messages alive. Delivering stories to your audience in a compelling and memorable way can help people relate to what is being said and will help them remember your message long after other information has been forgotten. In the second episode of the AmplifyChange podcast host Halima Zaid talks to Nawejje Doreen Mayanja, a Ugandan woman living positively with Albinism from Human Rights for Women and Girls with Disabilities (HURIWD) Uganda, and Ondiege Matthew, Artistic Director of Dance Into Space (DIS), one of Kenya’s leading contemporary dance choreographers, to hear how they use storytelling in their work.
Transcription of the AmplifyChange podcast: My voice is strong and loud: the power of using storytelling in your work
The three key things you will learn from this podcast are:
Halima Zaid: Welcome to AmplifyChange podcasts. Today our topic is: My voice is strong and loud, the power of using storytelling in your work. Our guests today are Doreen Mayanja from HURIWD in Uganda, and Ondiege Matthew from Dance into Space, Kenya. Doreen is an experienced public speaker and works for HURIWD, which is an organisation that advocates for and promotes awareness of Albinism. Ondiege Matthew is an experienced dancer and choreographer. He's the director of choreography for Dance into Space, an organisation that works with people with disabilities, using dance and movement to help them express themselves; increase confidence and break down barriers about taboo subjects. Welcome to both of you, Doreen and Matthew.
Halima: Ondiege, why do you think sharing one's own story is so powerful and how can it influence change?
Ondiege: I am obviously going to respond as an artist because we as artists have always expressed ourselves. We've always felt free to take charge of the opportunity to celebrate the freedom that we have, freedom of expression that is. Telling one's story is really very important in a personal way because it allows people to empathise with you, just like in all art forms. People will put themselves into your shoes and they're able to feel like you feel at that particular moment in any given situation. That is very important because it allows them to come to terms with the crisis that you're going through and even to empathise with you and to find possible solutions, if at all it is a crisis that they can get out of.
Telling stories using dance and using that mode of expression is very important and very impactful because these individuals are able to participate. It's very interactive and therefore your audience, as it were, your listeners or people who you want to address or the target community, are able to identify with that crisis and are possibly going to take part in solution finding. That is why I think it is important.
Halima: You said that you're an artist, have you ever used storytelling?
Ondiege: Yes. I use storytelling all the time because most artistic performances are always based on a particular story. Sometimes as contemporary dancers we just express ourselves through sheer movement, just for the beauty of it, sometimes kinaesthetically we're just supposed to express that athletic beauty of performance or of dance. In most cases, choreographies are based on stories, stories that are individually concerning or concerning particular communities of people, or stories that relieve certain circumstances that individuals are going through.
Yes, we use stories all the time in our performances and we always tell the stories to communities who always face this kind of crisis, so that they can also get out of it by looking at our work and copying the modes of telling the stories and coping with situations.
Halima: Doreen, have you ever used storytelling?
Nawejji Doreen: Sharing one's story is so powerful. The reason is when you share your story experience, there are people who could be going through the same and probably they are admiring you, you act as a role model. If they're going through the experience like you braved, it encourages them that probably they can also make it. When you share your experience, they can pick a leaf, how you managed to go about it and it encourages them. They even get to know that they are not alone and what they're going through is not the end of the world, but someone trailed through before and they can pick up from wherever they could have fallen.
Halima: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what first prompted you to start speaking about your own experiences?
Doreen: I'm Doreen, I'm an activist working for HURIWD. I've lived with albinism, and I'm 40 years old now, I managed to brave this because I was accepted by my parents. They knew a little bit about it, it is genetical, in my father's background, his great-great-grandmother had albinism. Actually, that's where I get my surname, I was named after her. Because they knew about it, despite all the myths and beliefs, they were a bit literate, they knew how the condition comes about. After all, I was the only girl in the family, the rest were boys, so I had to take on roles. She [my mother] had to groom me in a way you could groom any other girl, without albinism or without any special needs.
This gave me a firm foundation, I had comfort where to bounce back. In case I found any accusations, I knew where to go and get relief, get comfort and they had confidence, they believed in me. They felt that what any other child can do or can become I could possibly become that or even more because that's what it has proved. In school, I was always confident despite all the low vision. My mother was a teacher, she could always go and explain to the teachers how I could be handled, sitting in front, buying textbooks, writing big letters for me. That's how I managed to brave and I'm happy. I was brilliant, I was doing well in school, so teachers liked me. Meanwhile, Doreen missing in class, it could be boring. They were all concerned always to see that I don't miss any class.
I started teaching, I'm an artist, I specialised in ceramics, fashion, textile and vocational arts, equipping people with skills. When I was teaching at university, they used to be interested in me, especially my students. They were wondering, that's how they said, "But madam, for us we have people like you in our village but they don't go to school. How did you manage to make it?" My uniqueness was always attracting numbers, students could even change their courses. They could come in the first year doing a different course, but then their other colleagues could tell them, "No, you had better join our course. Our lecturer is so interesting, she's cooperative, she's outgoing."
Eventually, I felt like I had to pass it on because my motto is: we are changing the image of persons with albinism, especially women and children. We want to be positive and want to do something. We want to impact society in a positive way despite all the odds, the myth, the torture, the sacrifices. That's how I started passing it on, reaching out to parents, encouraging them, that if I managed to do it this way, they can also ... their children can also do it. They only had to change their attitude towards their children and love them, give them equal rights, whatever they're supposed to get as family members. That's how I came up with that.
Halima: Wow, such a great experience. Are there any downsides to sharing one's own experience and if so, how can one prepare for those?
Doreen: Some people are not real. They can be negative or they can try to strategise, but intending for the negative. At times when you share they want to find out how you made it, but not for the good but for the bad. You just have to be strategic, knowing the kind of people you are sharing with. You just get to know your audience, the kind of audience you're going to and then you know your limits, how you share. Maybe some information you may not dispatch, or you have to be ready. You have to be strategic and you know how to handle the outcomes because at times it's inevitable [it will be bad]. When you really feel that the majority need what you're sharing, you despise the minority and you just get ready for whatever will be negative, the downsides of it.
Halima: Ondiege, the people you work with mainly have disabilities, why is it so important to give them a voice in this way?
Ondiege: It is important to give the people with disability a voice in this way, and our way is the mixed ability way. By mixed ability, I mean we work by mixing people with disability to work together with those without disability. This also emphasises the element of equality so that they can feel like they're one and the same and they're all equal. Therefore, using dance and movement to give the persons with disability a voice is very important because it helps in breaking down the taboos associated with disability. The moment they feel equal with others, then they begin to function like the rest and they don't see themselves as a minority as such.
Performance, in this particular case dance and movement, is very important because it allows them to feel respected and therefore strengthens them as minorities, being able to get the strength and the self confidence that they require. This broadens horizons around the stereotypes which they face, and people begin to see the difference between them and others while they begin to see the equality between them and others, and, these people are the general society. Once they see the difference between them, because they've been put on the same platform with those without disability, then it opens up opportunities for discussions over issues that are typically sensitive, matters that they may not be able to address in certain circumstances.
Therefore, this kind of opportunity gives the society a reason to begin to discuss issues that affect those with disability. It's a very good entry point to talk about stigma and things that we would not ordinarily talk about, partly disability because of our cultural background and also sexuality, things that we culturally don't talk about in the open, and other things that oppress us.
Halima: Are there any kind of challenges you've experience working with ... you talked about mixed….
Ondiege: Mixed ability, yes.
Halima: Any challenges you've experienced?
Ondiege: I think the only challenge, which is not so much, is that when we put people with disability in their own corner then they become victimised. Some of them when they are integrated, when they're given a challenge to feel included, then they sort of shy away because for a long time they've been put in their own corner, they've always felt the victim. One of the challenges is that it takes time. It takes time for them to feel properly integrated, to feel properly accepted. Therefore, we employ lots of creative means to make them warm up, to break the ice. It's a matter of time. I think that's the only challenge that we have, that people with disability take time to really feel integrated, to really feel accepted.
That is so because of the kind of background or the experiences they've had in the past, given our cultural situation. That's probably the only challenge we have, that it takes time and it takes a lot of energy and positive thinking, mentorship and courage and encouragement from others without disability, to make the person with disability to feel really accepted. Therefore, we've had to employ so many means, creative means, to break these barriers.
Halima: When you talk about creative means, what do you mean? What has enabled you to break those kinds of barriers?
Ondiege: As a director, I have always employed the techniques that we experience in performance in the theatre, the games. There are physical exercises, there are mental exercises, things that cut across therapy using theatre, meditation, yoga. These are things that we always employ to make people feel free and to make people feel welcome to be part of an experience, and it has worked. It has worked so well because in theatre, theatre games and exercises enhance certain levels of team dynamics and acceptability, and also gives people a lot of courage to express themselves. I think the first and the most important thing is to make people be able to express themselves. Beyond that, then they can always talk about other issues that affect them in a free way.
Halima: Do you think personal storytelling breaks down taboos?
Ondiege: Yes. This is because we need to tell our stories and when we tell our stories we are heard by people. Hearing somebody else's story or you telling somebody your own story makes you feel healed in a way, it's healing. For example, when you receive bad news, you always want to know exactly what happened, it was an accident, yes, what happened? You somehow tolerate that, you somehow accept whatever has happened if you know the details, if you know the story further. If you were told somebody passed on and you were not told how the person died, it will disturb you more than if you're told how that person died, maybe it was an accident or maybe he drowned or maybe he was stabbed."
That makes you sort of accept that and you try to go home thinking about that but in a more acceptable way. If you don't have full stories, if you don't have a complete picture of what exactly transpired, it becomes more horrifying and therefore traumatising. Yes, storytelling breaks taboos because it promotes self-confidence and respect. This is also because when you tell somebody your story, they identify with it and they put themselves in your shoes. They try to imagine, if they were you, how would they have dealt with the situation? That imagination, that moment when somebody thinks about, "If it were me, what would I have done?" is already a way of breaking a taboo, because you're simply saying, "I have to address that issue, I have sensitivities," and somebody finds a reason or some words to go around that issue to talk about it.
Definitely as I've said earlier, it broadens the stereotypes and creates a space of mutual understanding of differences because taboos get in the way of personal development. Somebody feels they can't be who they really are, and stories make taboos debatable.
Halima: Do you think storytelling breaks down taboos?
Doreen: The taboos are there. Some people believe that people with albinism carry good luck, that we move about with fortune. Some people have a feeling that employing a person with albinism, she'll come with good luck. Most of these people think that ... That's how they have been thinking and that's what we are trying to change. They normally employ the girls in salons or anything, but they're exploiting them, not paying them because they say, "After I'm helping you. If you ask for a pay or anything, I'll just attack you." So, they [people with albinism] keep low, they keep down. They fail to ask for pay or what is what because they feel if they raise their voices they'll be ... Meanwhile, these people believe that dealing with a person with albinism will bring about luck, or even by marrying one.
That's why you find that most girls or ladies with albinism are single mothers, because this gentleman or whoever is the father of the child, only had intentions. For instance, in our organisation, HURWID we have a colleague, she happened to date a man who married her for around, I think eight years. They were together, they had four children, but this is a guy who thought that maybe marrying this woman, wealth will drop maybe from heaven or anywhere, it would multiply just within a second, and then finding out that it wasn't. It's all about hard work, that's what people must know. It's commitment and hard work.
He tried to butcher her, kind of like, murder her, beating her, trying to get rid of her. Actually, right now she's a single mother, of course the man got rid of her, he was not seeing the wealth according to the taboos and beliefs. At least, now she got a job in a Christian school where taboos are not so much, in a, I should say a religious school. That's where she's working now, but she's a single mother. Those are the taboos associated with... persons with albinism.
Halima: And do you think personal story telling breaks down taboos?
Doreen: Yes, it does because eventually you disapprove…..it breaks down taboos. You tell them that, "Now you see this one, the intention was getting wealth." He married her but of course when you are not working, just waiting for wealth to come, it's not true”. They come to find out the truth. We just have to share, we have to tell stories and they get to know the truth. It breaks taboos because these taboos were also circulated. There was storytelling, that's how these taboos were circulated, and they impacted on people. To break these, to dilute them, we also have to tell the other side of the story.
Halima: Matthew, can you give us examples of the impact using storytelling in your work can have?
Ondiege: It's a process which is not really an immediate end product, but it is something that is continuous. Performance and using dance and movement, body movement, is infectious. That is because dance does not come like dance alone, I'm talking from the African point of view, dance is music and music is dance.
Halima: When you talk about infectious, what do you mean?
Ondiege: When I talk about infectious, [I mean] the way music infects people. If it was playing then even without being asked to dance, you already dancing inside. That auditory motif strikes you and you begin to respond in a way because it is music. Therefore, dance in itself is therefore infectious because it comes with music. The reason why I'm saying it becomes infectious is because when you dance in public, and music and dance is happening at the same time, the people watching you want to join you. Sometimes you don't need to tell them, "Hey, come and dance," they actually come and dance with you.
The moment you dance in a public space, and it has happened to us a lot of the time, even now we are in a project where we're using dance to talk about SRHR, and we were just performing in a market in Siaya County in a village, the moment the music begins and drums roll and our dancers get into the space, the community, the people who are selling, the people who are in the shops, the people who are buying stop and they join us and they start dancing. In fact, you have to tell them to stop so that we can arrange ourselves and begin to present what we're presenting because they've already occupied our space.
That is very advantageous for us because the moment they've occupied our space, they are willing to dance with us. It means they're willing to listen to us, it means they are willing to be stopped and they are willing to be told to continue. So, we already take over and we can control their lives as it were at that particular moment. This easily opens up discussions, because it is that infectious.
Halima: Doreen, can you give us some examples of the sort of impact storytelling in your work can have?
Doreen: I will share also an experience. When you tell a story and when you reach out with practical skills or something visible and tangible they can see, many people start believing in us. I always told them, "You just give us a chance, give us an opportunity." I do equip fellow women because apart from working with HURWID, I also run an organisation or community-based organisation for women and children with albinism whereby I make sure they are economically empowered using life skills like doing crafts, making soap, the things that have demand, and they can also use them. When they are economically empowered. Actually, we are really changing the image, we are not so much beggars at least.
We just do something, if someone feels touched they support us. Not just dishing out money, but paying for services we are providing. We decorate weddings, we can decorate parties, we make party decorations. We bake, we do bakery, we can bake cakes, for all types of functions. Now, parents are no longer worried, actually. They are, it was gradual but at least they have hope that, "Yeah, if I get a child with albinism, they can also do this, a woman with albinism can be employed." We do anything, any possible services. We do laundry for people, we reach out to homes, the women can do laundry for people for a pay and that changes their lives in one way or another. We also try to maintain very good hygiene, we make sure that whatever we are doing is quality as it has to attract. Despite all their fears and the like in people [with albinism], the beliefs, we are trying to disapprove. This is all achieved through sharing, going public. Eventually you gradually impact society and we are really changing the image.
Halima: Ondiege, you're an expert working on these issues. Let's say there’s a scenario where a person living with disability has had an opportunity to share his or her own story but later, she or he feels stigmatised because of maybe the feedback he or she has got from people through sharing his/her story. What are some of the recommendations you will be able to give to people on how to field this or how to do good storytelling sessions, especially on issues to deal with disability, maybe people of different race colour or albinism?
Ondiege: I think I can have two or three recommendations using the example I've given about performance, body and movement. It's always important to know that in a story there's always the bad and the good, we call it the antagonist and the protagonist. If you don't have a good protagonist in your story, that is the good side, then there might be a danger in your story falling apart and therefore people may not take you seriously. The best ... first recommendation is have a good and a bad….have a very properly structured good and bad story, or good and bad characters in your story.
Halima: When you talk about bad, what do you mean?
Ondiege: In every movie, there's a bad guy and there's a good guy. The story is about whatever, maybe it's a thief, there has to be a policeman to counter the thuggery, it's an evil guy. There has to be some good angel to counter the evil. If it is something so good, then there has to be some evil to show the goodness of that good, to show the power of that good, there has to be something negative to show the power of positivity. If you don't have a negative story to counter your power ... a negative character or issue to counter the power of positiveness, then the story is not really that powerful.
If you have an issue, it's good to have a negative issue and bring it together with the positive issue and let people be able to take sides because then you provide two teams, one good, one bad and people want to fall this way or that way. The best thing is you always must have issues that work in opposite.
Then, the second recommendation would be you want make your stories as visual as possible. That's why we are comfortable with dance and movement, because remember, actions speaks louder than words. You can say something but somebody can easily dismiss you or something like, "Okay, that one you picked from somewhere." But if I did it with my body, then you can't say I picked it from somewhere because you can see my body doing it in the way that I couldn't have done it without my body.
The best thing beyond having that protagonist and antagonist is, make images, depict the story and let your listeners or your audience or your target pick their own story from there, let it speak for itself.
Halima: You're an activist, right?
Halima: You've been working with people living with disability to create change to address issues that are coming up in the society, I'm just curious to know how you've been using issues of dance and movement for advocacy.
Ondiege: Recently we have been mingling with policymakers at the lower country level of policymakers. By this I mean not the national leaders, not necessarily parliamentarians and senators and governors, but people who interact with the common person. These are the chiefs, these are the assistant chiefs, the sub chiefs, these are the village elders, these are the opinion makers, the shapers of the opinions.
Halima: Members of County Assembly?
Ondiege: Members of County Assembly also, and of course representatives of the marginalised communities. These are the people who mingle, they interact a lot with the villagers, they interact a lot with citizens and they're not in that higher class. By the way, it is not very easy to mingle with the legislators for example because you always have to make appointment after appointment. The people on the ground, you don't even have to make an appointment. You just walk into the chief's office and say, "Chief, this is what we have here."
Our examples have been that we are able to present a depiction, a picture, a picture that tells a thousand words about a situation on the ground and the chief would action it very easily, very quickly. If it is not an image like a photo or it is a small video of our experience on the ground, it can be our own people, like a person with disability. They will walk into the chief's area and demonstrate, make a performance in front of the chief. The chief can immediately empathise with that and see the true nature of that situation and can easily take action, because those kinds of performances also send pointers to where that problem, what the crisis is.
For example, we walk into chief's compound with a person with disability who has been traumatised or who has just been sexually violated. That picture and that performance of sexual violation and that performance of rape, for example, will make the chief understand certain things and we can direct the chief to go to where we've come from, where more people with disability have being hidden or a particular person with disability is being hidden and yet being violated. This has happened to us, where you had chiefs, especially the chief because this is a government organ and he can mobilise, force like police, they can take action to actually arrest somebody who raped a girl in the village. They got this boy because we went with a performance to the chief's compound. We have very many examples where we've used dance and movement to depict real situations in front of opinion leaders, in front of policymakers and they have taken action based on that.
Halima: Doreen, what steps would you recommend to listeners who want to start sharing their own stories in their own work?
Doreen: One thing, you have to study the environment, what kind of story, what kind of society. You have to know the audience that is to listen to your story because for me to start telling my story or sharing and encouraging, or parents of children with albinism, also people with albinism, you first see that you share something in common whereby their esteem is so low or they don't believe in themselves at all. You first get to know that the audience is positive. You must make sure that you will have an impact because with your experience, you must know that when you share your story, this is something that has been touching those people. It's been touching them, therefore, okay, you share the same ... you have the same problem and you overcame.
You don't have to share your story ... For instance, I'm sharing about self-esteem, how you can make it, decision making, determination about albinism, then I go and share in an audience where even they don't know about albinism or maybe they have not seen anybody with albinism suffering, it may not carry any kind of impact. You have to be in an audience whereby by at least you've identified that kind of problem you want to address, it will really have an impact. You've really seen people who are downcast and they're looking at you as a role model and those who can even be ambassadors. I always used to share my story to my students because they were my students. I had to encourage them because they are students, they have to go out and share about me with their parents and then they'll also encourage their parents or even ... They were ambassadors even at their villages because basically my office at the university, oh my God, I was always getting parents.
My students were the ambassadors, some were coming from islands and they could tell me, "But madam, for you don't have the sores on the skin. How do you go about it?" Then, you share about the sun protection creams. Then they got concerned, they were always asking. When they go back to wherever they stay, they had this courage. They could spread the information, they could communicate and tell those people, "No, this is no longer an issue. Our lecturer is with albinism, but she can do this, she can do that and this is how she goes about it." You have to make sure that where you're sharing the message will not be left there but it will be passed on and it will impact or help other people.
That's one. Step number two, you must be very confident. You must be knowing what you're sharing about, you must have enough information to dispatch. I wouldn't be sharing about albinism when I don't know how to protect myself… in case they are asking me, "How about the low vision, how do you go about it? How about the sores on the skin, how do you prevent them?" You must be knowing and even the variety [of options] because we stay in different places. People in the villages may not access sunscreen but at least you must be knowing the various methods, those which are appropriate for all classes, the very low class, middle class and the high class. You find that people will tell you, "For us, we can't even have sunscreen." You should tell them, "Okay, before you apply a sunscreen, if it's very expensive, put on protective clothing. You just know the time when you should go out in the field to work."
I could tell them that I also used to go and get feeds for animals at home, but I knew that I had to wake up very early in the morning, like at 6:00 AM, so that by 9:00 when the scorching sun is out, I'm in the house or I'm in the compound. If not, if I'm going out in the field, I should put on long sleeves, I should put the trousers, despite all the culture because at my ... In my family, our culture in the centre here, they don't allow women to put on trousers, but for my case I could do that because I knew it was protective. So, you must be knowing the various ways of overcoming a problem appropriate for each kind of ... There is no excuse telling me you don't have money for buying sunscreen. Before you get a sun protection cream, have you tried to protect yourself?
You weave a hat, whether from the local materials available, don't tell me you don't have money to buy a hat. You go cut fibres and weave a hat to protect your skin. You must be well equipped with what you share and another thing, you must also consider. First step, consider the audience where you're sharing, if your data or information will be passed on and the people will act as ambassadors. Two, you must be confident. You must have enough to dispatch, leaving people fully satisfied, contented with what you're sharing.
Ondiege: Use creative means, it can be graphic, it can be drawings, it can be pictures, it can be photography, it can be video, it can be recording, because for example, now we have a law that allows the recording of certain scenario or situations by phone. It can be accepted in a court of law as evidence, just a recording. Let's take advantage of the digital technology and the platforms that we have, let us share our stories through these platforms. Let's make use of some of these gadgets, phones, cameras, sound recorders, and let's share them because the internet does not lie. If you share it today and nobody takes action, you can say, "Actually I shared it," and we can go back and find it.
Let's also be able to take advantage of those opportunities and share them as quickly as possible with people so that justice is not delayed. Using creative means also implies that we have to take advantage of the gadgets that we have, like phones and whatnot, to record the stories, to tell stories and to share stories.
Halima: You've talked about gadgets, you work in rural community in Siaya.
Halima: Are there availability of these gadgets in a rural setup?
Ondiege: Maybe not very advanced, but ... I mean, even grandmothers have phones and phones actually can record sound. Also, some of them, they can take photos so it's possible. Of course there are challenges, some people, some communities are still disenfranchised, they don't have ability or access to some of these gadgets. But, there are many means. Another thing also is being able to share with others even by word of mouth, just talking about it, giving other people a chance to listen to you. That is also one way of activating and minimal, so yes, we can even record them just by writing down somewhere.
A long time ago we used to cherish the idea of writing down, just making personal notes, having diaries. You can have a diary where you just record some of the things that happen in life and sometimes they really serve a good purpose. Let's be creative and let's take advantage of the communication channels and the platforms that we have, to share and record stories.
Halima: Thank you, Doreen, thank you, Ondiege. Great to talk to you today, and thank you for being our guests.
Ondiege: Hello, my name is Ondiege Matthew of Dance into Space. Please take a look at my How-to guide on how to use creative storytelling and communication to combat stigma. You can find it on www.amplifychangelearn.org.
Doreen: Speaking is Nawejje Doreen Mayanja, please check out my how-to guide on How to speak confidentially in public. You can find it on www.amplifychangelearn.org. Thank you.