The stories we tell (about Africa)
Photos not usually seen: Celebrating birthdays in Kenya.
Stories we tell about ourselves have a tendency to get stuck in a rut. Do you have friends who tell stories of moving from one ailment to the next – back pain, traffic, too much to do – never stopping to appreciate the good things in life?
On the other hand, you know that person who seems to have it all perfectly worked out? They tell stories about smiling children (and grandchildren) and fancy vacations, never letting a struggle slip into their happy stories?
We might prefer the second set of stories to the first – at least I do – but we also might also be aware that there is more to the real life situation than what is presented in either story version.
The full picture – the real life of the person – is so much more complicated. In real life there are small pleasures and joys amidst pain, and there are challenges that we overcome amidst joy.
Stories about Africa
A similar categorization exists in stories about Africa and charity too. There are stories of desperate children with ripped clothes and hungry bellies. And there are cheery success stories about a program that changes a person’s life.
Both sets of stories about Africa hold truths. Some people daily experience the devastating effects of poverty and structural injustice. For others, there is rejoicing in finally having money for education and three full meals a day.
The challenge is not only relying on one storyline or the other. As I said, real life is so much more complicated than one or the other story. The challenge of good storytelling is to find the joys in the children’s life – the caring aunt or family member – that don’t dismiss their hunger. It’s also acknowledging the long-term challenges of keeping a program going and keeping the lessons fresh.
Seeing the full picture of real life requires us to take a step back and see the threads that connect the story together. The full picture brings to light things that fall out of the disaster narratives and the success stories. The full picture shows the work-in-progress, the tiring effort to make things better, the lessons learned when things don’t turn out right, and the progress lost that can be lost after one poor harvest season.
A picture from the “Finest Cameroonians” Facebook Page, which has many not-your-typical-African photos.
The Final Word – Two Goals
I have two goals in laying out these story characterizations. The first is to invite you to always take that step back and look at the bigger story coming from Africa. Specifically, let’s confront our long-held narratives about persistent problems in Africa and look for moments of joy. My second goal is to pledge to try to always tell the bigger picture story with Spirit in Action and our partners. In this way, we can begin to build a more-real understanding of our partners’ communities, seeing in each the unique challenges, joys, setbacks, and steps forward.
What do you think? What stories do you like to hear?