The Power of Storytelling Across Borders

January 30, 2013

Reflections by Brooke Gassel

One of the things that I love about teaching is that no matter how expertly you plan, every experience has its own set of surprises and unknowns.  Preparation for a class session is often for a very different purpose than sticking to the schedule, it’s to have an arsenal of knowledge and activities that can be adapted, reorganized and directed so as to target the needs of a specific situation.

For today’s first session of the Photovoice project, with the 25 girls at THINK, we really had to employ some of that flexibility.  Unknowns about this class included such simple things as; how should we break them up into small groups? What type of icebreaker will be engaging and not aggravating?  How many of the girls have ever used a camera before?

We were greeted by a song and a formal prayer and graciously introduced by our host, Rosana.  Each girl announced their name, age, county of origin, and focus of study, the first time a bit jumbled and quick, but after some prompting by the counselor, they all proudly spoke up and declared their biographical information.  With pastry being one of the most popular areas of concentration, we can expect to see, at the very least, a future for Liberia that includes a variety of delightful confections.

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Teaching in the context of a project that seeks to address social issues comes with added difficulties.  It’s highly important to allow the voices of the population in question to take ownership over the issues and reach their own conclusions.  This means that while our research focus is very clearly defined and the importance of the cause is plainly evident on our end (bringing awareness to gender based sexual violence in Liberia) the discussion needs to be facilitated in such a way that the girls are telling us, not us telling them what to care about.  Especially in a setting where students are accustomed to rote learning and supplying the objectively “correct” answer, we don’t want to persuade them to tell us exactly what we want to hear at the sacrifice of the truth.

Also in need of clarification was our use of specific terminology.  The word ‘gender’ continued to arise and as we were consistently met with serene faces and attentive listeners, it was easy to assume understanding on the part of our audience.  In fact, we were not easily understood.  Our accents, vocabulary, and cadence of speech differ greatly from that of Liberian English, a mixture of colloquialisms and country-specific pronunciation that when spoken rapidly sounds as foreign as a rural tribal dialect.  So when we asked, “Do you understand what gender means?” we were met with blank faces.  This may have been the first time that one of the counselors “translated” our speech for the girls.  In her rapid, accented Liberian English she asked the class loudly “D y’all undastand wha genda da mean?”  It was necessary to explain that in this context it carried meaning not only as a descriptor of sex, but of the cultural norms and behaviors associated with men’s and women’s roles in society.

After continuing to describe the logistics and purpose of a Photovoice project, and showing some pictures and captions that embody this method, we embarked upon a conversation about why it’s important for female victims of sexual violence in Liberia.  The responses were largely positive and similar to the responses that were offered when prompted with the question: “Why do you value THINK? What have you learned?” For whatever reason, and I am sure I can largely credit this to the inspiring teachers at THINK, the girls offered up thoughts like, “It is our responsibility to not just learn how to do other things, but also to share with others,” and “If other girls are going to change and have different experiences in life, then they will have to learn from our example.”  Knowing that there was such a collection of traumatic, life altering experiences in the room, with at least 10 babies sleeping in the room next door, it was all the more exciting to hear that these girls have social change through communications built into their psyche.  They understood, almost immediately, how much of an impact storytelling can have.  Education and media empower us with the tools to change the knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of those around us.

One part of today’s plan that was well planned was the fact that we covered all the basics of a Photovoice project before handing out the cameras.  While we, of course, want to encourage the girls to rejoice in the fun of holding this new tool in their hands (and rejoice they did!), we also want to ensure that they remain focused on the issue at hand and clearly understand the framing questions that are there to guide their photography.

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Once the cameras were handed out, batteries and memory cards installed, it was what Daniel described as, “pure photographic pandemonium.” A frenzy of poses, flashes, smiles and hugs ensued.  The pure joy of holding this communications tool was palpable.  One of the girls made sure to bless us for the gift we brought.

After some grappling with the focus function and excited experimentation with every button on the camera, the girls started to become more directed in their photography.  Close ups and interesting angles were used to imprint a stamp of individuality when documenting a subject.  Daniel and I enjoyed this mini-celebration with guarded enthusiasm.  We scrambled to remind all the girls that their photos don’t need to be posed and that they should speak to the framing questions that prompt them to explore what it means to be a woman in Liberia.

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We left with promises that this would be accomplished and are eager to see the selection of photographs based on these themes:

What does it mean to be a woman in Liberia?

Think about

-Personal experiences with gender relations in the past

-Community experiences with gender relations in the past

-Responsibility and expectations for women in the past


Another thing I learned today? When teenage girls want your attention, they tap you quite aggressively on the butt.  I am just going to go with it.