A design for storytelling by Andreas Nicholas, GlobeMed
My first job as a designer/filmmaker in the development field is to consider my approach. During my time in Gulu, I saw firsthand the Western tendency to arrive with pre-conceived notions of the place and to develop quick or easy ‘solutions’ to problems based on Western knowledge. To be honest, there is really no set of knowledge that can be applied to development work as a one-size-fits-all solution. It is a very American notion to think of quick ideas that will ‘solve’ major problems, and understandably so.
In the context of the American economy, an entrepreneurship approach makes a lot of sense. But everything is relative, and many of the issues that American entrepreneurship addresses are not as applicable to the problems of northern Uganda. The rapid prototyping model doesn’t bode too well in a place with such delicate political, economic, and cultural circumstances.
Coming into the project, my collaborator, Jill, and I knew we wanted to use our combined skills (our studies in anthropology and film respectively) to tell the stories of Gulu and GWED-G (Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization). We hoped to understand what an investment in media and storytelling could look like, integrated into the work of a non-governmental organization in northern Uganda. But we were determined to let the unique context drive our approach: we began exclusively by listening.
For the first 10 days, we filmed in-depth, life history interviews with upwards of 45 GWED-G beneficiaries. In many ways, it was a humanistic survey of GWED-G and northern Uganda. We started with very fundamental questions like “Where were you born?” and let those questions guide us into conversations. We considered our interviewees as equal partners in building shared knowledge. And more often than not, people dove very deeply into their stories with us. During one of our first days of interviews, Pamela explained to us:
“Even if someone starts crying during their story, they still want to talk about it. They want you to know – do not let that scare you.”
She was right. Almost every person we interviewed had been affected by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and almost every person wanted to share their story. Those days were intense, to say the least, but they allowed us to understand deeply the context and history that we were working in. After those interviews, we decided to follow the story of Samuel, a human rights volunteer who had a profound and transformative effect on his community. (More on him in future posts.)
Patience became our partner in the process. We learned to sit through silences and take as much time as needed for stories to be told, for the past to be explained. And the outcome was revelatory. We gained a complex picture of the people of northern Uganda, their history, their lives, their communities, and the impact of GWED-G’s programs.
Today, we have a catalog of these stories, in addition to a longer film piece that will serve as a benchmark for what effect an organization like GWED-G can have on a community and how they do it. Through this media creation, we understood our role as tools for the people of northern Uganda to share their stories and for GWED-G to communicate its work. And our work is certainly not done.
We have only scratched the surface of what can be learned through the stories of Gulu. Design is a process-based way of working. It unfolds in unexpected ways, takes itself in unique directions while revealing things about the task at hand. This is what development work is asking to be, and in order to answer that request, the designers and media-makers who decide to work in development need to make long-term commitments. We need to let our solutions take the same course as our evolutionary design process.
“My first job as a designer/filmmaker in the development field is to consider my approach.” – yes! I love that you two went in with a solid intention behind your work to gather stories, then dove into “listening”. It truly represents the kind of creative thinking artists and designers can bring to a field that, as you mention, is so dominated by the Western “quick fix” mentality – one that ignores context and takes little time to empathize with the actual issues and people involved. Nice metaphor re: the evolutionary nature of design. You bring up an important point about letting the process unfold naturally, or what could be said to be in the most humane way. Because the whole point is about changing human lives, right?
Social change is a process that needs critical, nuanced thinking both around function AND form. Something that artists and designers tend to think about on a regular basis, but few make the connection like you have. Yay you!