Are You Sitting Comfortably? Then Let Change Begin.

ideas, innovations, concept, girl, Asian, blackboard, light bulb
Innovations to Watch in the Humanitarian Sphere
5th January, 2017
EngenderHealth, girls, friends, Jharkhand, India, ARSH
Four Fabulous Female-Focused CSR Schemes
8th March, 2017

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Then Let Change Begin.

SignHealth Uganda, Africa, deaf, hearing impairment, sign language, signing, education, drama
How do we educate people to make positive changes? Not everyone is always ready to listen, even to their peers. Expatriate NGO workers might come across as ‘superior’, failing to attempt to understand the reasons behind prevailing practices before preaching alternatives. We humans are more than capable of developing ourselves through transformative information and ideas, though. The question is, then, how should practitioners get such information and ideas across? Today, we look at the role of storytelling as a means of making sure it all gets through.

We were recently contracted by SignHealth Uganda, which is doing some fantastic work to challenge the stigmas that typically accompany hearing impairments across much of the country. Daylin, our visual storyteller, had the pleasure of watching a play that was staged by the organisation’s volunteers in a village near the city of Masaka. The performance was a dramatisation about the dangerous effects of discrimination against deaf and hearing impaired people, and an educational vehicle for demonstrating the support they need and the possibilities that sign language can open up for them (view the gallery here).
SignHealth Uganda, Africa, deaf, hearing impairment, sign language, signing, education, drama
SignHealth Uganda often uses its volunteers to put on short dramas at events in order to heighten awareness and challenge the stigmas attached to hearing impairment. In this scene, one of the volunteers is teaching a family how to communicate using sign language.
This got us reflecting on the role of storytelling in meeting development outcomes, and in C4D (communication for development) more generally. From Jordanian comic books to reality TV show with educational agendas, this is being done all over the world. Stories have the power to disseminate important information, change attitudes, unite people across divides and make knowledge digestible and memorable. Below, we’ll be looking at three excellent, creative examples to see how this works: Ebola prevention messages, a Haitian blog and, since you’re probably curious now, those Jordanian comics!

Stories educate and make knowledge digestible

Everyone loves a good story. Our brains welcome them, too. The education-entertainment (or ‘edutainment’) branch of C4D is a creative and effective way to engage a target audience through a popular medium, while embedding a key, educational message. Stories are widely used for this; why are they so effective? This means of getting information across follows the science of identification and empathy.

A Johns Hopkins University behaviour change toolkit recommends using a central character, whose profile matches the target audience or population. That way, people can recognise their own problems and life experiences or those of someone they know within the story. Relating to that character or his or her circumstances engages the listener or viewer’s mind and creates empathy. If the story is well formed and takes a holistic and three-dimensional view of the situation, hearing about what the character did differently or changed in his or her life can then empower the audience to believe that change is possible, indeed helpful and desirable. In short, they can identify with it.
Mofanana, film, In Tune for Life, gender, equality, HIV/AIDS
A still from a music video, produced in Malawi with the support of In Tune for Life. The stories within their songs help to transmit important messages. Click the video to view it.
A story can be told through many mediums, but choosing a method that’s culturally relevant and age-specific is obviously vital. The British non-profit, In Tune for Life, is employing music as a means to empower potential musicians in Africa, while at the same time utilising songs as powerful oral storytelling vehicles. Some of the tunes they’ve helped produce send out clear messages on gender equality and help to debunk myths around HIV transmission, both through their lyrics and the animated videos that accompany them.

When so many messages and mediums compete for our attention, which will stand out? The creative, memorable ones will, and the ones that people can identify with on an emotional level.
When so many messages and mediums compete for our attention, which will stand out? The creative, memorable ones will, and the ones that people can identify with on an emotional level. Unicef’s delegation in Liberia capitalised on this in its response to the Ebola crisis. It began by mapping out the current communication landscape and identifying the barriers to information flows. It discovered that after months of exposure to Ebola interventions and a bombardment of information from many different sources, communities in the capital, Monrovia, had become complacent about prevention messages. In short, they were suffering from ‘information fatigue’; they’d had enough. As a result, important health information was not always sinking in.
Unicef, Ebola, health, infographic, C4D
Stories are memorable and stand out from drier information vehicles. Unicef’s Ebola response in Liberia successfully employed storytelling through dance, drama and the use of visuals to get key prevention information across.
So, Unicef cut through the ‘noise’ using storytelling. The organisation’s edutainment stories took the form of traditional dance and theatre. It also appointed Community Liaison Officers who spoke the right language (we don’t just mean linguistically), and leveraged community radio stations to reach people’s ears and, in turn, their hearts and minds. Ultimately, the team succeeded in reaching 227,000 households with its vital preventative messages, and did so far more effectively than they may have otherwise.

Stories change mindsets and promote peace

How does one fight narratives of misogyny in the Arab world? This was the question Jordanian comic artist Suleiman Bakhit asked himself, and his answer was simple: replace them with alternative, creative narratives. After being attacked himself post-9/11, he also wondered how he could change racist, fear-driven Western attitudes about Arabs, and also challenge extremist narratives about the West being peddled in some parts of the Muslim world. He realised he had to start by telling children different stories.

In an interview with The New York Times, which followed extensive research on the subject, Bakhit concluded that "the biggest threat in the Middle East is terrorism disguised as heroism”. So, he began to search for alternative role models and heroes. Through the medium of comics, he made all-female military units and icons from Jordanian history his substitute protagonists. With funding from the Ministry of Education and a generous foundation, he was able to print his comics for use in schools. So far, more than a million copies have been distributed.
Aranim Media Factory, Suleiman Bakhit, comic, Oslo Freedom Forum, C4D, storytelling, role models, tolerance
Stories create role models and can promote tolerance. Here, Suleiman Bakhit, founder of Aranim Media Factory, speaks about his comic book project at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
The remarkable twist in this tale is that Bakhit could not even draw when he embarked on this ambitious process! After teaching himself how to, he went on to found Aranim Media Factory, a name that came about through the clever combination of the words ‘Arab’ and ‘anime’. His comics certainly illustrate the power of storytelling. For Bakhit, his stories constitute a vehicle for spreading tolerance, promoting women’s rights, countering extremism and creating positive role models for Arab children and young people.

Stories unite and empower communities

“Most of the time it’s the journalists who talk instead of the people”, says Ralph Thomassaint, a journalist and trainer for the media-focused NGO Internews. He’s referring specifically to the Haitian media and how uncommon it is for local people’s voices to be heard in the press. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, Thomassaint and his team roamed the country’s battered, debris-strewn streets on a mission to collect and document people’s personal stories and experiences of the destructive storm. This drive to replace statistical insights with individual narratives was a collaboration between Internews and a Haitian news and blogging site called Ayibopost, where the stories were published (in addition to their social media channels).
One particular story spread as quickly as Storm Matthew did. Antonio, an honest, hard-working 23-year-old baker from Corail in Grand d’Anse, needed no journalistic training to speak straight to the hearts of his fellow Haitians. His house had been partially destroyed in the storm but he and his mother continued baking and selling as a team, using his makeshift oven, a simple oil barrel turned on its side. His entrepreneurial spirit touched readers because everyone seemed to either know someone like Antonio, or they identified with his willingness to learn and thereby better his fortunes.

Antonio, Haiti, baker, Hurricane Matthew, C4D, story, oven, appeal
Antonio, a Haitian baker whose own words launched an overwhelming and empowering response from Haitian communities in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
Antonio’s story quickly elicited an incredible reaction. Ayibopost’s office was swamped with messages from readers who wanted to reach out and help him in some way. In response, the site organised a fundraiser in the capital city, Port au Prince. With many of its readers being wealthier Haitians or expatriate Haitians who’d watched the hurricane’s impact powerless from afar, the 48,000 Haitian gourdes (approximately US $ 700) that Antonio needed to build a new, more efficient oven for his bakery was quickly raised.

Even though the news gave us plenty of statistics, both about the destruction caused by Hurricane Mathew and about the international aid community’s response, in the end it was one individual’s story that united local and diaspora communities and prompted them to take action. People can be incredibly resilient; as he continued to bake bread in the shell of his house, it was Antonio’s personal resilience that inspired others, simply because they could make a personal connection.

These three examples of stories and their impact show us that storytelling holds so much potential for social change, the forging of unity and even humanitarian crisis management. Of course, harnessing the power of storytelling in C4D depends very much on whose words we give voice to and the medium they take. What is history, after all, but one long narrative? Hopefully, we will all live happily ever after.