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