In 2017, I spent ten days in Cameroon as part of a project by UK-based organization Forest Peoples Programme. My job was to help Baka and Bagyeli communities tell the story of their land and explain why it was so essential to their livelihoods. Given the on-going human rights violations that local and indigenous communities in Cameroon continue to face, providing them with a platform to speak up was one of the many ways in which the organization was (and still is) working to help them secure their human rights and the rights to their lands.
Despite my complete lack of French, I still tried my best to convey everything I knew about storytelling and pass it on in a way that was understandable and applicable to the context. Turns out, the experience taught me a great deal about storytelling and gave me three major takeaways that I still apply to my work today.
1. Be the platform, not the voice
The fact that I wasn’t able to speak much because of my poor French, made sure that I gave them the space to actually find their own voice and to tell their story on their own terms. Sometimes, working in communications, we forget that we are not doing this for ourselves and that we are merely a medium to an end. We wouldn’t let anyone speak on our behalf, so why do we expect someone else to let us speak on theirs?
An important part of empowering anyone to speak up is giving them a platform to be able to do that, and the confidence to actually do it. But ultimately, it’s their voice that we should amplify, not our own. This experience taught me to put my skills and knowledge at the service of whatever cause I decide to embrace without taking away someone else’s agency.
2. Be mindful of the context
Working on the field can be tricky and storytelling is one of those things that can be a bit of a double-edge sword. It can liberate, but it can also reinforce or even worsen divisions. Before leaving for Cameroon, I had colleagues informing me about the context in which I would I find myself: they took the time to explain the dynamics within the communities themselves, between Baka and Bagyeli, between men and women and so on.
This turned out to be extremely useful for me to be aware of because it forced me to be mindful of the context and how what I was doing played a role in it. For example, by creating opportunities for women to operate the camera or by giving both Baka and Bagyeli community members the same chances to speak, I tried not to reinforce existing divisions while also not imposing my own point of view. It’s a hard balance, but one that it’s important to find.
3. The behind-the-scenes is part of the storytelling
The picture above was taken while I was showing members from the community how to operate the camera so that they could record each other talk about their land. Not being the one behind or before the camera was surprisingly liberating for me because it allowed me to focus on their storytelling process, their experiences and to see things from their point of view.
Looking back at that moment, I realized that that’s a story in itself and a very powerful one too! Sometimes, we put so much effort into trying to produce the most perfect, eye-catching, high-quality content that we forget that the most powerful stories are those hiding behind the scenes.