The voices ris­ing above the noise are our own in Her­itage Month. Afrika Tikkun cel­e­brates the power of sto­ry­telling…

The Sunday Independent - - DISPATCHES -

THE way wis­dom, cul­ture and knowl­edge have been passed down through the gen­er­a­tions, in this part of Africa at least, has pre­dom­i­nantly been oral – the proverbs, myths, praises and folk tales of the Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho and many cul­tures at­test to that.

In a so­ci­ety where mod­erni­sa­tion in­flu­ences ev­ery­thing from how we trans­mit the sto­ries of our cul­ture to the lan­guage we do it in – it’s im­por­tant to hon­our the cen­turiesold her­itage of sto­ry­telling and its pro­found value to our so­ci­ety to this day.

African philoso­phers these days are writ­ing it all down for an elite few. If we as Africans are go­ing to be rel­e­vant to Africans, we need to turn up the vol­ume to hear what sto­ries are emerg­ing lo­cally.

With in­creas­ing ac­cess to the in­ter­net via mobile phones on the con­ti­nent and the democrati­sa­tion of these in­dus­tries, it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble for the in­flu­ence of African sto­ry­tellers to ex­pand the con­ver­sa­tion about what mat­ters to us and what we could and should be­come in ways we pre­fer to be heard or seen.

But it is equally im­por­tant in this mo­ment to be­come aware of the in­fil­tra­tion of the voices of oth­ers in our sto­ry­telling and, by ex­ten­sion, our sense of self.

South African town­ships, for ex­am­ple, are for­ever in the grip of be­hav­iour change pro­grammes and devel­op­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion ini­tia­tives de­signed else­where, and fo­cused on im­pact­ing some of the worst chal­lenges of our times – HIV, gen­der-based vi­o­lence, hu­man, women and chil­dren’s rights, bul­ly­ing, the en­vi­ron­ment and, arch­ing over it all, poverty.

Their mes­sages bom­bard the sense of self, fil­ter­ing our life-sto­ries through the lenses of these dis­as­ters and dif­fi­cul­ties.

Through­out this sec­tor, it’s not un­com­mon to hear young peo­ple say­ing things like, “x pro­gramme keeps us off the street and keeps us from be­com­ing crim­i­nals or drug ad­dicts”.

Imag­ine grow­ing up with the idea that there is a fine line be­tween per­sonal good­ness, op­por­tu­nity and a hope­ful fu­ture; and de­spair and crim­i­nal­ity – and that what stands be­tween you and that line is not some in­ter­nal strength – but the pro­gramme of a church or NGO.

Be­tween a west­ern-dom­i­nated media and the poverty-speak that shapes the minds of young peo­ple in the town­ships, the ab­so­lute value of in­di­vid­ual worth and po­ten­tial is be­ing bom­barded with ideas that do not recog­nise that young person’s own heroic jour­ney.

South African town­ship youth and young women in par­tic­u­lar over­come po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing chal­lenges but sel­dom do we hear about it from them.

We don’t hear from them what it’s like to live in a child-headed house­hold, or how they are cop­ing with the loss of their sin­gle par­ent.

We don’t hear about how they have hus­tled to sur­mount the threats that make them vul­ner­a­ble to and from school or to and from the com­mu­nal toi­lets.

We don’t hear what it’s like to go hun­gry ev­ery day, to wait in eighthour queues for health ser­vices, to leave your home be­fore dark to get to school in time be­cause you are dis­abled.

In the midst of all that, we don’t know what they dream of, what games they play, where they find com­fort. NGOs like to tell sto­ries about the suc­cess of their ef­forts – it’s im­por­tant for the or­gan­i­sa­tion and its donors to feel their ef­forts are achiev­ing the worth of their in­vest­ment.

But Afrika Tikkun had to make a de­ci­sion a few years ago.

If the story has even the slight­est po­ten­tial to make the young person feel ashamed or be made fun of now or at any point in their fu­ture, we can’t use it. If the sto­ries set up the young peo­ple as vic­tims and the NGO as cham­pion – we can’t use them.

Even with in­formed con­sent, a young person can­not pre­dict how hav­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion out in the pub­lic space and in the cy­ber­sphere could af­fect his or her fu­ture re­la­tion­ships and life path.

It is there­fore not al­ways in the best interest of the young person for any bene­fac­tor to use their ben­e­fi­cia­ries’ sto­ries for mar­ket­ing gran­di­fi­ca­tion.

We would rather the young person em­brace the fact that you can be a vic­tim for a mo­ment – but you can be a hero for a life­time. Some of our ben­e­fi­cia­ries come from the most unimag­in­ably painful sit­u­a­tions. Some of them don’t. All of them have the right to get a clean slate and de­ter­mine their fu­ture.

This means many of the sto­ries that demon­strate Afrika Tikkun’s great­est in­vest­ment in an in­di­vid­ual’s life will not be publicly told.

That’s okay. All young peo­ple have the right to dis­cover them­selves without a nar­ra­tive hang­ing over them say­ing that their jour­ney and their achieve­ments be­long to any­one but them­selves.

Ex­actly a year ago, Afrika Tikkun ap­pointed its first Mar­ket­ing Cham­pi­ons – one at each of its Cen­tres: in Alexan­dra, Orange Farm, Hill­brow, Diep­sloot in Jo­han­nes­burg and Mfu­leni in the Cape.

Much of the ef­forts and achieve­ments of these five young women have been in sto­ry­telling. They fol­low community health work­ers in their daily rit­u­als of house vis­its, giv­ing coun­selling and care. They lis­ten to young peo­ple

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