I want to start with the idea of roles- that everything has its place in an ecosystem and for this ecosystem to function optimally everyone has to pick a part to play and be diligent about it. When I consider the philanthropy ecosystem, there is community led development, advocacy work, work on policy change, grant-making, among many other parts. There is also storytelling. Here, I want to make the case for storytelling, (and by extension storytellers) as an essential cog in the philanthropy machine.
Storytelling in Africa runs really deep. Historically, narrative making, sharing and archiving holds a central role in our cultures. We’ve used it to remember events, to teach and warn future generations, to celebrate, to mourn, among many other things. So, when I talk about its role in philanthropy, we would like us to consider that it’s as indigenous to our culture as philanthropy is itself.
On the 2nd day of the 2022 APN Assembly, Dr Awino Okech the assembly moderator talked about this tension in the philanthropy landscape between meeting immediate material needs of communities and the broader issues that we need to consider. That there seems to be a gap of sorts between what some consider to be urgent to the survival of African people, and the long-term work required to make the changes that would eliminate these barriers to survival. I’m of the mind that the shaping and reshaping of narratives can be a great conduit to exploring both these ideas and having them converge into parallel work.
The dominant narratives and stories told about Africa and Africans are still largely dictated by what we know to be formal media. It’s fair to say that for the most part, formal media still runs on archaic ideas of what is considered important news. According to research conducted by Africa No Filter (2021)majority of news stories in the media still take one of two forms; either they perpetuate a victim mindset that the continent is nothing but a well of poverty and suffering, or that politics and socio-political crises are crux of the African experience. The research also confirms that is the case when it comes to news both written by Western media houses, as well as African journalists on the continent- that the dominant narratives circulated domestically read similarly to those that we often criticise the West for.
When we can agree that the African experience is far more expansive than formal media gives it credit for, who are we saying said formal media is for? As the gap between the narratives portrayed, and those we know to be true widens, who benefits? And who loses out? What voices get to be heard and whose are silenced? And perhaps most importantly, what are the material implications of this dynamic?
Frankly, there seems to me a clear need to take the matter of shaping and (re)shaping these dominant narratives into our own hands. It does not seem like we can afford to let formal media dictate the dominant narrative any longer. When we talk about shifting the power (and really, we might consider taking the power), the way we represent ourselves is an imperative one.
I want to clarify that I’m not advocating for the replacement of “bad” stories with “good” ones- to frame the continent as a hub of never-ending joy would also be mis presentative. I believe the stories we tell about ourselves can either catalyse change or they can keep us stagnant. If we’re not telling ourselves the actual truth, good bad and ugly, the celebrations as well as criticisms, we won’t give ourselves a fair chance at tackling a lot of the development challenges that were discussed in the three day-long APN Assembly in Entebbe Uganda.
Consider the story we heard from Theo Sowa during her opening keynote about women on the ground during the crisis in Liberia not getting their dues and the necessary funding to continue their work. There are undoubtedly a lot of other systematic issues that hinder groups like women from getting necessarily funding, but one of them is certainly that their efforts are not well documented. We compromise our chances of handling these crises effectively enough when there is no adequate documentation of who has the know- how. It’s not simply about accurate representation, but how that accuracy can in turn result into necessary action.
There are many examples of this. APN and Urgent Action Fund-Africa for instance, recently collaborated on a project that highlighted feminist responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a compilation of reflections by feminist organisations that worked tirelessly (with the support of feminist grant makers) to mitigate the community challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. The stories shared in the chapbook offer an insight into what might happen when there is clear identification of those doing the ground work are given support to do said work. Documenting this process offers blueprints of some sort into how we might approach similar crises in the future; what strategies have worked, and what we ought to leave behind. And in this way, the storytelling is able to be both a means for immediate action, and a roadmap for sustainable change.
Storytelling is important work. It is work that can help identify what our needs are in real time and it is work that can help us imagine what our futures could look like. When we talk about philanthropy as a means to solve the broader issues on the continent, it is imperative that we centre storytelling via imagination.
And of course, this can take on many forms. African cultures have always been expansive in their storytelling. Oral traditions, theatre, art, music, literature, in their traditional as well as more modern forms, are great ways to (re)shape these narratives that we speak of. It is up to us to be innovative in the mediums that we choose to tell our stories so that they might be as accurate and impactful as possible. For youth, this is where we might look to the past. How have our elders shared their stories in the past- the documenting that we have benefited from until today? How might we learn from them? And how might we tweak to fit what works for our current landscape?
It is important to think carefully about what stories we have the right to tell. Put simply, not every story is ours to tell. We all have many converging identities that shape who we are and how we experience the world. All of these identities and experiences- our gender, our class, our sexuality, where we grew up, how we received education- equip us with intimate knowledge to tell some stories better than we can others. If I tried to tell a story I do not know well about, or people I am not in community with, I might find myself committing the same crime that the West is charged when they talk for us or decide what our experiences and needs are for us.
It need not be the job of a few people to carry the mantle of narrative making for the whole continent. We all ought to be keener about integrating storytelling into our philanthropic processes for more authentic representation, celebration and critique of our community development. Lest we let outdated and inaccurate ideas of ourselves run rampant.
By Karen Chalamilla, Gender and Media Consultant