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Bearing witness to each other’s stories

by Lisa Cohen | May 1, 2017

When we launched Our Story Your Story 4 years ago, I would never have imagined how being a part of this journey would have moved me in this way – to my knees in awe –  reminding me again and again of our shared humanity. As this chapter of the story comes to an end, I offer gratitude and a small note of reflection on our journey thus far.

When Jamie and I originally conceived the project and named it Our Story Your Story, (imagine the letters flowing round in a circle OurStorYourStorYourStorYourStorY, where the words flow into one another and the word our is also found inside your,) we envisioned that although your story is uniquely yours with all its personal nuance and unpredictable twists and turns, there is also something in everyone’s story, when it’s truly told from the heart, that is our story –  the archetypal experiences of living life as a human being on this earth.

I knew that telling stories was a powerful medium to connect us to ourselves and each other but I never knew the extent to which it would open up the possibility for real change on an individual and community level.

In the first year in 2014, we piloted the project with a group of elders and youth, each finding stories to share from their lives, then telling them to each other and finally publicly sharing their stories with their wider community. Since then, with the support of a 3-year grant from RMB, we have facilitated many more intergenerational courses, intercultural processes, facilitator training workshops, hosted community performance events, and conducted creative education workshops with 1000’s of school teachers, school children, libraries and partnering organisations. The common thread: the sharing of our own and the baring witness to each other’s stories.

And oh those stories!  Stories that circle. And circle. Or make a point, and cut straight through to you. Those that get stuck, haven’t found their beginning or when to close with an appropriate end. Some that span a lifetime and some that stay close to the details of a moment. Colourful stories. Stark ones in the dead of night. Staccato, silly or preachy ones. Rich with history and heritage. And so much heart.

And all the participants! The storytellers, as they became known. The young and old who continue to live through and with those intriguing tales. The bravery it takes to offer a part of yourself to another. To many others. A whole audience of eyes. To risk allowing a new story to shape you. Or an old story to love you. We embraced our subjectivity and our emotions. We learnt to listen. How to really listen, not only with our ears but with our whole selves. We learnt to light imaginary fires to spark our story space. To build bridges with laughter and with tears.

And the tears. The tears of heart ache, of loss, of love. Tears of struggle. Of first times. Being affirmed by an elder, telling a story that had never been told, or hearing your own story mirrored back to you in their story. Tears flowing like streams through forests and between two neighbouring towns, providing the salt to begin to clean the longstanding wounding.

It’s true, we all do have a story to tell. Many stories. Living mythologies. I wish to continue to create these platforms for our people and our stories to find their value and co-create the authentic intimacy we are all longing for.

There are way too many people and partnering organisations to honour by name but here are a few contributors to the development, design and implementation of the process:

Andiswa Mgedle, Jamie McLaren Lachman, Sue Hollingsworth, Sandra Struthers, Mthunzi Funo, Bukelwa Nkungwana, Ncedo Zide, Simone Peters, Lulu Ngcobo, Barbara Meyers, Sophie Riese, Linda Kaoma, Olivia Naomi, Kristy Stone, Wilmi Dippenaar, Sofia Neves, and of course the 1000’s of storytellers!

Clowns Without Borders South Africa, Rand Merchant Bank, Ikamva Labantu, Seven Passes Initiative, Life Choices, The Bookery, Amy Biehl Foundation, Harambee Youth Accelerator, Mandela Dialogues, The Nelson Mandela Foundation, George Museum.

Lisa Cohen, June 2017