Storytelling with a purpose

Misozi Tembo Brand & Narrative Manager, Oxfam GB 3rd January 2023
Jessy Nkoma, a young climate activist from Malawa, seen here with her parents Credit Thoko Chikondi/Oxfam

Jessy Nkoma, a young climate activist from Malawi, seen here with her parents. Credit: Thoko Chikondi/Oxfam

International media and aid agencies have often taken people’s voices and used them to promote their own agendas. This has to change, writes Misozi Tembo from Oxfam GB.

Stories… I live for them. They are a balm when life is hard; the glue that holds families together; powerful fillers during awkward silences; vessels of our history and catalysts for community action. There are several ways to tell them. Orally, in written copy, in cartoons, in poetry, music, paintings, films, photographs, and, in my line of work, in policy briefs, reports, case studies, and social media posts.

Despite the many formats available to us, we have reduced storytelling to only written articles, film, and photographs. The consequences include exclusion. By this I mean the language barrier, lack of access to the person or institution someone has entrusted their story with; a lack of recognition where the owner of the story doesn’t know when and where their story was published, how it has been told or used. These days, a quote or caption are no longer enough.

There’s magic in letting people tell their own stories

In all this, as a media and communication specialist who has told stories about communities and created platforms for people to tell their own stories, I have found that there’s magic in letting the owner of the experience share in a way they want to. Profound change happens to the storyteller and audiences whenever this is enabled.

International media and aid agencies have often taken people’s voices and used them to promote their agendas. We have used community voices to push disempowering narratives that portray people as helpless, dependent victims waiting to be saved by foreigners. We have used language, resources, and power to push narratives that are acceptable to “international audiences.”

Many of us know that classic picture of a frail-looking African woman carrying firewood or a bucket on her head and a baby on her back. Few of us have ever questioned the joy and bond a mother forms with her child on her back. We just see poverty and suffering.

Once, I took an international journalist on a field trip to cover the impact of climate change. When we got to the community, the visiting media was not impressed. The journalist said, “There’s no story here; people don’t look poor enough and the children are healthy. Take me somewhere else.” Of course, I refused. I was threatened and labelled “territorial.”

How the media wrongly framed monkeypox

Recently, we saw this message bias in international media reports framing monkeypox as a disease only affecting African people. Television stations used pictures of Black people with monkeypox to report outbreaks in the United States. What’s interesting is that senior editors saw nothing wrong with these dehumanising stories. They signed them off and had them broadcast to millions of people around the world.

As communicators, we must recognise our responsibility to the people who entrust us with their stories. Often, when communities share experiences with us, they see us as partners who can contribute to the change they are calling for, not abuse their trust. We are not only the corporate faces of organisations but also the conscious who can influence controlling systems designed to deliver quickly at the expense of human dignity. Increasingly, our work should ensure that visibility is people and community centred not just about banners and logo placement.

The distance between organisations and communities is widening

Reduced funding has left media and communications divisions with little or no budgets to connect communities to the “business” of doing development work. The distance between organisations and communities is widening as more investment is now directed to meetings that influence policy.

This means that communications specialists, must keep finding innovative ways of working with communities. Sometimes, it’ll mean commissioning local storytellers (writers, photographers, or filmmakers) instead of sending international media “experts.”

I’ve also found that training people in storytelling and creating platforms to share these stories is very impactful. This type of content is fresh, rich with insight, and believable. It also means helping team members, “the technocrats,” see themselves as storytellers with a front-row seat in shaping the change communities want. Ours isn’t simply to dejargonize language but to help the deliverer connect with audiences deeply and consistently.

Change lies in co-creating decolonised ways of working

There are also opportunities to collaborate with international media institutions beyond news coverage. Change lies in co-creating decolonised ways of working that enhance dignified, honest, fair, and consistent coverage. The narrative that “bad news” sells has disenfranchised communities and countries in the global south to the extent that people start to see themselves as victims, not active change-makers. It is time to tell the true story that puts people who are reshaping narratives at the centre.

The world is changing. Fast. We’re now more connected. Technology is enabling people to tell their stories and build new narratives without relying on international agencies. Instead of fighting this with bias and tilted reporting, we have an opportunity to catalyse and encourage these stories by providing accessible platforms, influencing media reforms, pushing for open governance and spaces, and most importantly, partnering with storytellers in communities meaningfully.

Misozi Tembo, Brand & Narrative Manager, Oxfam GB

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