Connecting through Our Stories

 My father was a peasant farmer, he had two wives and we were 15 children. There was not enough money to send us all to school. My mother was the second wife and so my brothers from the first wife went to school. I could only go up to Grade 9.

I got married when I was 19, my husband was a medic in the army… he was killed on a peacekeeping mission. I was 25. We had a seven-roomed house in the city, but my husband’s family wanted it for themselves. They wanted me to marry my husband’s brother, according to their culture, but I said, ‘I’m not married to the whole family’ and I decided to get away…

These were the opening words of Linda’s story, a sex worker who spoke at South Africa’s first-ever Sex Work Symposium in Johannesburg last year. The audience sat in rapt attention, silent, except for gasps and murmurs of recognition as Linda told what happened to her.

Stories enable us to see ourselves in each other. Connectedness—the recognition of our common humanity—is a powerful tool that storytelling offers advocacy organizations. Stories can show what the impact is of certain laws, or what the value of certain interventions means to another human being.

The Open Society Foundations Health Media Initiative (HMI) utilizes storytelling as a way to communicate the impact of public health policies and programs on people’s lives. In partnership with Narativ, a New York–based storytelling company started by two South Africans, HMI has supported storytelling workshops with sex workers and LGBTI groups over the past year in South Africa, Ukraine, Kenya, and Turkey.

In any storytelling workshop, everyone is both a listener and a narrator. There are no observers—even facilitators share their stories. The workshop is also designed to create an optimal listening environment: the better the listening among the group, the better the stories that will be told. Minimizing distracting noises in the environment, and limiting intrusive thoughts and feelings including self-criticism, the intention is to create a non-judgmental and open environment in which listening and telling are symbiotic.

Various prompts are used to help participants identify and develop their stories. These may include photographs, drawings, or a simple object.

“This is my spoon,” said Sibongile in last year’s South African storytelling workshop.

My family doesn’t know that I’m a sex worker. They know that I was a peer educator, because I’ve got my certificate, I put it on the wall at home... But I’ve got this feeling, when my family holds a spoon and put food in their mouth, do they know how difficult it was to get the money to buy food for them? Will they accept that I’m a sex worker or not?

What about my child? Maybe he will say ‘No mother, I don’t love you anymore, because you are a sex worker.’ But I can’t stop feeding them. I can’t stop supporting them because they are my family...

Each of us is the author of her own story. In the words of David Kato, the Ugandan gay activist, murdered in his home on a January afternoon in 2011: “If we don’t speak out, people will say we are not here.”

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