Author: Chad McCordic, Program Director
If there was a single story about you, what would it be about? Would a listener to that story really know who you are?
Stories are central to OneVillage Partners approach to community-led development. We use stories when we first consult with a village, when we define needs and design solutions, and when we reflect and evaluate on our work together. Stories are also one of the ways that we keep ourselves in check, and make sure that our values are being reflected properly in our work and in our relationships with community members.
To be truly community-led in our work means we must first listen to the communities we are partnering with. I’ve talked about this before, we engage communities in a mutually respectful yet action-orientated conversation (or, Praxis) that sets the tone, subject, and pace for our work together. In these moments, we are listening to the stories of community members in their own voice as they tell us about what their vision for their village is.
All of this matters because stories matter and how we hear them is equally important. The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche speaks about her experience going to college in United States. Her new roommate asking about “tribal music” and whether or not she knew how to operate a stove.
“Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity.”
When we don’t listen to the full story a person is telling us about them, we reduce them to a single frame, or worse, a data point to support our own point of view.
In the OneVillage Partners’ work, when a woman in a village tells a story about how the lack of sanitation has affected her family, we aren’t just hearing about how she “needs” a latrine. If that’s all we are doing, than we simply indulging that “well-meaning pity”, reducing lived experiences to a flat stereotype. Instead, we hear about how her children’s poor health has affected their capacity to learn in school. We hear how troubled she is when her child becomes sick and misses school, and how that affects her ability to do her own business as she starts to worry about whether she will have enough money to get medicine for her child. When OneVillage Partners evaluates that sanitation project with our Most Significant Change process, we don’t just hear how her family’s health has improved because of better sanitation. We listen to how her child has accomplished more in school and her plans for her business. Out of a simple discussion with some intentional questions, a rich story emerges, one that takes into account a person’s whole experience.
In the world of community development, many projects fall into the trap of a single story, where people are viewed as a statistic and not a storyteller. Sometimes, the logistics of hearing everyone is daunting, but it should not be a radical idea to listen, discuss, and let the community make the decisions on the projects in their own village. This isn’t about “doing development differently”; listening to the whole story of community members is simply the correct thing to do.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche knows this: “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Too many organizations tell a village what project they are going to get before listening to them and call that consulting a community. They ask the community to make bricks but not decisions. We should demand better, all of us: the Sierra Leoneans developing their community, the rest of us supporting that work, and you, fair blog reader, wherever you are, patiently waiting for me to get to my point. We all have multiple stories to tell about ourselves so let’s do a better job of listening to each other.