7 September 2016

Zimbabwe: Storytelling for Social Change


Each and everyone of us has a person that they relate to better than others. This person is usually one whom we share our secrets, troubles and aspirations. One of the most common credentials which endear such people to us is their ability to listen and empathize with our circumstance - whatever they are.

However, when I grew up in rural Plumtree some years back I got endeared to my grandmother not because of her ability to listen and or identify with my personal struggles. No! Far from it!

My grandmother was and still is a great storyteller. During summer, when there was probably less work to do particularly in the field, we would gather around the fireplace as grandchildren just to listen to granny tell us stories. These stories ranged from fiction to non-fiction and the bulk of them were folktales.

What happened next

I know that generally almost every granny can tell a folktale but what made mine a unique storyteller was her technique of keeping us 'hooked up' and longing to hear more. As such her narrative made us interrupt her through out her narration. "... So what happened granny... " we would ask almost simultaneously because of the great sense of anxiety stimulated by her narrative.

What made her stories exclusive was their universal truth which made us - listeners identify with the protagonist in the story. It is against this milieu that until today I still vividly recall with 99 percent precision, more than half of the thousand stories which our granny shared with us more than 20 years ago.

Power of storytelling

In this instalment I was prompted to talk about the power of storytelling because although 'story' is one of the oldest tools of communication, it certainly still is one of the most powerful tools that can bring unprecedented change to human behaviours and perceptions today because stories remain a fundamental aspect of human consciousness.

Despite the story power of transforming how human beings think, feel, remember, imagine, and relate, most modern day communicators perceive storytelling as an archaic and less stylish format for any type of communication. Yet current research and practical experiences from people who have used storytelling in mass communication prove them wrong.

While storytelling is almost certainly relegated in favour of other formats in traditional newsrooms, it has gained tremendous currency in other sectors particularly within social movements and nonprofit organisations working for social change.

Social Change

When Evan Mawarire, a little known Zimbabwean clergyman posted a video on YouTube in May this year calling Zimbabwean citizens to tell President Mugabe's government that 'enough is enough', the now exiled pastor leveraged on the power of storytelling, whether he knew it or not.

In the video which reached more than 100 000 hits a week after its release, Mawarire described a personal story of how he had failed to raise school fees for his daughters as a result of the country's volatile economic and political situation.

Activists, politicians and organisations pushing for change across the globe have an immense opportunity to tap into the power of storytelling

This story was not a fictional marketing piece. No! It was a true story which resonated with millions of Zimbabweans in the same predicament. As a result of its 'universal truth', the story succeeded in persuading those who watched or heard about it to join #ThisFlag Movement which has led to country-wide mass protests aimed at coercing Mugabe to step down or address the country's economic challenges.

While, Mawarire's story is certainly not the first to be told, it proves beyond doubt the tremendous power of storytelling as a tool for driving social change. Activists, politicians and organisations pushing for change across the globe have an immense opportunity to tap into the power of storytelling particularly against the wave of mobile technologies which enables people to document and share their stories in real time using mobile devices. But the ultimate winners are those with 'real' stories to tell.

Developing Plumtree

Plumtree Development Trust, a community based organisation which is involved in citizen media projects under the auspices of Getjenge Community Radio is one organisation amongst the few in Zimbabwe, which uses storytelling as a tool for driving positive change in under served communities in the southwestern parts of the country.

Hinged on citizen journalism, the organisation has created platforms through which marginalised Kalanga communities - who are often negatively portrayed or ignored by the mainstream media can tell their own stories of success, needs and aspirations.

The organisation uses these stories to stimulate positive conversations around issues of public concern with the view of coming up with citizen-driven solutions.

For instance, last month, the organisation produced a radio story about the alleged mismanagement of the food relief program in communities. Although the seems to paint a negative perception, it's objective, the producers say, is to stimulate positive dialogue around pertinent community issues with the view of collaboratively addressing them with relevant stakeholders.

While storytelling as a distinct media format seems to have no space in the local mainstream media, journalists can embed this format in how they craft their content in order to stimulate engagement. In journalism today, the term engagement is used to mean social media or audience development.

Engaging communities

If journalists can strive to produce their work, be it print or digital, using the storytelling format, their stories are guaranteed to provide robust information, feedback, inclusive dialogue, strategy and action for serving community goals.

While the power of storytelling may seem overemphasised in this instalment, what remains an indispensable fact is that if you want to change someone's mind, you have to provide them with a story that will lodge in their brain and maybe displace the story that's already there.

Therefore, as much as we have new tools to work with today--Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the rest--if you don't have the kinds of stories that people want to tell and retell, you haven't gotten the most basic skill. In any kind of public presentation, stories are what people are waiting for.

After all, we live by stories and change by them!

Divine Dube, is a civic journalist with speciality in community media and multimedia journalism and is passionate about social journalism and community engagement. Have a look at his blog!

Plumtree Development Trust received a storytelling and multimedia training from RNTC (Radio Netherlands Training Centre). The training was facilitated by NUFFIC (the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education) and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign affairs.


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