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What is storytelling and how does it relate to SALT?

Jean-Louis Lamboray gave a series of seminars to social service students of the Potsdam University, inviting SALT-CLCP facilitators from Belgium, England, France, India, Kenya, Spain, Thailand, and The Netherlands: “An authentic learning community unfolded as we shared about SALT and CLCP, so we decided to continue. Join us!”

Bellow are the minutes of our first session about storytelling and SALT on Friday, the 5th of February.

With Celicia, Jean-Louis, Kausar, Liza, Marijo, Marie, Marlou, Patricia, Rituu and Xenia.

Contact us if you would like to join. Next meeting Friday, the 5th of March at 10:15 CET.

What is storytelling?

Storytelling can be related to child storytelling, biography, many things.

Storytelling is wisdom

Facts and reflection coming together


I have met storytelling years ago, and it was magic as are some things that happen in life. I met someone who talked about storytelling in a way that is not just to entertain or so. I learned the importance of folk stories [stories passed on traditionally] and how they can be used to have a reflection on our own life. Folk stories are pearls of wisdom from our old ancestors to teach new generations. Then I had the opportunity to do a collection of life narratives of women living with HIV/AIDS in Spain. With life narratives you give a space to a person to recall things from her life and reflect on it. Not analysing but not just telling anecdotal facts: “I did this, I went to university, I was diagnoses and then…”  The important thing is that people start thinking about what those facts mean in their lives. Storytelling is about two things coming together: facts and reflection, and taking the lesson learned. It is telling people a story—not in a way of giving them lessons—but in a way from where people can learn. Exactly in the same way people use to tell folk stories. Or like myths. One story compiles wisdom.

Healing through our stories: women constructing HIV historic memory:


Storytelling is medicine


Storytelling can be good medicine. When somebody reflects on his or her life, we get new insights about who we are. It is without wanting to teach or preach. We receive a kind of medicine for our soul because we then resonate with what happened in the other life and we learn from it.


Storytelling is a two-way process


It is not only the person telling the story but also the person listening. Of course, I loved stories as a child listening to my mother and grandmother, but, as an adult, when I listened to MariJo, for instance, it was a transformative experience for me. It was healing and left a deep mark on me. It is a two-way process. 

Disclosure- a turning point in my life:


As Rituu says, it is a process and sometimes in another direction than we think.  We are human beings and “storying beings”. So, whatever we hear, we create a story from it. This happens not only when I listen to a story.  When someone tells us something, it might be one single sentence, we attach a story to it. We add meaning, reflexions of our own coming from what we have learned.


Storytelling can allow distance to the facts to discuss a conflictual situation


MariJo, in the introduction of the book What makes us human, said that I wrote as a storyteller. In Congo, when something was difficult, the community would resort to a story. They would use stories to preserve people who are in trouble in the community, not going straight to the problem as it would lead to anger and violence. When this community told me the story of the village buying a truck to sell produce and asking me who is the chief of the truck was about complaining about the nurse. But the nurse did not lose face. So, here, the story allows distance to the facts and to disentangle a situation. I made up stories to answer health challenges.


An unexpected resolution leads to learning


In some stories that I use to stimulate reflexion, there is a moment of heightened tension and then an unexpected resolution. That is when there is learning. It is then up to the listener to reflect on what he or she learns from it, how it resonated with her or his experience, and what one can do with it in her or his own life. This learning element might be the link between storytelling and SALT.


Powerful titles


The titles of What makes us human stories are remarkable, powerful. For instance, ‘I was a radio and I became a recorder’.


Sitting in a small tea shop in Auroville near Pondicherry, Shamala and I worked on finding the chapters’ titles when finishing the write-up of the English version, heavily edited from the translation. We both prepared a title separately and we were in agreement with all of them. 

The trick coming from Shamala who has a strong background as a journalist is to take a sentence that is in the story.


Narrative photography


I have learned about Photo Voice: narrative photography. You share what a picture means to you, what experience in your life can be related to the picture, so participants can learn with you how you overcame it or live with it, and it becomes a mutual learning process. Using pictures to get insight on a situation in your life. This gives us something that we can go back to and we know we have a common baggage of knowledge to share and learn from, wisdom as MariJo said.



Storytelling and SALT

Helping communities to build a common story


For me, one most relevant question in the context of SALT is: Who is the storyteller? In The Constellation, we have been gathering stories. We are facilitators, passionate about the approach, we easily see the strengths of the community and easily tell their story, but they are not ours. The next step is coming up now: the community should be the storyteller. They need to be the owners of the story by coming up with a common story and sharing it first. How do we come up with a story that the community told itself?


SALT creates a safe space for storytelling


SALT creates that safe space to share stories which we would not share and that is healing. And it really brings people together. This reminds me of a story. Working on diabetes and hypertension, a team visited a couple. After two SALT visits, the wife started crying. She said: “You have been coming here for many years, but suddenly I feel a connection.” The team had started doing the visit with the SALT mindset. Earlier, they would just tell community members what to do. “For a year, my husband has been diagnosed with tuberculosis, but I did not share, and he did not go for treatment because we will be stigmatised in the community. No one will talk to us. I want to tell you I feel comfortable and safe.” A few weeks after, during dream building, she stands and explains that for a year she has been hiding by fear of stigmatisation. The community really looked after the couple.


When the community listens to its own story, another depth is reached


I came across a statement that I thought would interest us: “Understanding simply and understanding with depth.” Stories are very significant in SALT and even those who are not committed to SALT take stories. What is understanding a story simply and what is understanding it with depth and what is the depth we seek? 

Working in a village, people were complaining about the villagers’ approaches and rectitude. I asked: what do you remember of the times when there was more cohesion, when people were more cooperative? She promptly narrated a story. That evening, we had a village meeting with 150 men and women. We started by saying: “Let’s hear some stories from our elders.” Two men told stories of the time where there was more cohesion within the village. I remember my excitement at seeing people listening to those stories. One youngster said: “I had never heard of this!” They were discovering their own strength through the stories. The storyteller and the listeners were part of the community. We also listened as outsiders. When the community listens, another depth is reached.


When we hear a story, we start interpreting it


In our work, field workers collect a lot of stories. When we hear a story, we start interpreting it. I was working on illiteracy among women. Youngsters were asked if they wanted to study. They said no. When asked why the girls said: “If we study, we will run away.” How do you interpret that? In our tree-people team, there were three different interpretations. We were in over our head to establish which interpretation is what?

A colleague and I read stories coming from the community. What I was gleaning from it was so different from what he did. He said: “Now we will develop training on this…” but I said: “From where did you get that?”

To make sense of the stories, I personally feel we need to do a little more work.

I love the phrase ‘knowledge asset’ Philip Forth used when I was In Uganda for the knowledge Fair, but how do you arrive at Knowledge Assets from the stories?


Using stories to find resonance


Two phrases have been useful in my understanding of storytelling.

One is from an amazing Columbian theatre teacher, Hector, said: “Mystery my story.” Every story that is told contains every listener’s stories. It is using stories to find resonance. A powerful tool.

The second is the ‘Inside /Outside’ story. It comes from the Barefoot Guides. I find it very useful when we are having a storyteller who is on facts. That is the outside story. Then we can go back and say: “What is that same story, but told from your inside?” How did you live through that story? What are the motions connected to the story? When we start going inside, the turning point comes to light.

I also struggled with communities telling their stories themselves but then we are building Knowledge Assets from those stories. It feels artificial. It is easier for me when I am not trying to tell the story of the person who told me the story but telling the story of how I had been transformed by the story that I listened to. I did not want to be a usurper of the story.


Communities telling their common story contributes to ownership, appreciation in the best way and sustainability


What I tried to do in What makes us human is to tell the story of our community, The Constellation. And give tribute, through the stories, to those who contribute to it. In a way, us the listeners were the story. For instance, how our understanding of SALT changed is through specific events told in stories. Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable telling others’ stories. When I asked people whose story was in the book, they said they were proud to contribute to the story of The Constellation.

As Rituu said, it is not only the story of the storyteller but also the story of the listener.


I have been thinking about how the community responds in a sustainable way. We human beings have the ability to respond to some immediate threat. Joining together is something natural. But when the threat diminishes, that is diluted. As Kausar said, the old ones knew things that the young did not. And this brings me to sustainability. In The Constellation and other organisations, we are concentrating too much on the story and not enough on how the story came up. Of course, any of us can tell any story. But I am interested in what the community tells itself. Even if they do not share it—which I think they should—the process of creating a collective story is healing in itself and brings them to sustainability because automatically they are sharing the lessons learned. They create healing from their experience.

Me visiting a community and telling them the beautiful things they do is not the same as them owning it. They need to own their strengths. They need to come up with that themselves because then those strengths will remain with them always. Even if the story is not told elsewhere. The focus on stories is good because they are healing, they can serve as examples, they can be the basis of reflexion… I have been working with stories written centuries ago. We can still learn from them. But for the sake of The Constellation and SALT-CLCP, it is time that communities not only come up with a common dream, but also tell their common story. That contributes to ownership, appreciation in the best way and sustainability because this gives them the real dimension of what they have done together.


A common story reinforces the feeling of belonging


When we go into a new community (rural urban, somewhat marginalised people, deprived people) we ask them to share when they collectively solved or address a common problem, and invariably stories come out. It provides a lot of material for further discussion. But I never took them as stories the way we are discussing. They are stories of the community and members are nodding and agreeing, showing their solidarity amongst themselves.


A common story step in the CLCP?


We have been busy here in Grez-Doiceau for years. We have built a common dream but not a common story. Would that not need facilitation? Too often those stories are not being told. Would that be a step in the process? Looking at the cycle, the last step before restarting it: ‘What did we learn?’ could be: ‘What is our collective story?’ A more integrative way of looking at the same. “We have done all those things; what is the story we tell?”


It fits in step one as well because there is the story after the action but also understanding who we are. 


I do not see it as a step. I think that it is in the entire cycle. Stories come all the time. It is also a process.


That is the difficulty of representing something that is complex. Action and learning happen throughout the cycle and new energy comes in a linear fashion.


Closing words


We are storytelling beings. Time exists because of that. But most of the time, we make our individual stories, and the challenge for the Constellation is how do we make it a collective story. Also, we, as facilitators, must be very much aware that processes do not have a beginning and an end. Another thing is that I understand how much stories help us as listeners, but the story is not told for us. No matter how much it touches us.


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