What does ethical storytelling look like?

The stories survivors tell when given their own space: A case from Kenya

by Allen Kiconco

Was she naive in thinking that she can get past the pain, resentments and bitterness and get a chance at a fresh start? She had coexisted with her pain for so long that she'd accepted the fact that it'd always be who she was.

Khalih - Excerpt from Fear

Modern slavery and human trafficking in Africa is not a field that should be easy to research and write about. Many complications and challenges need to be factored into the equation, including the effects of negative and simplistic portrayals of Africa and Africans, which tend to collapse many viewpoints into a single story of victimhood and helplessness. The portrayal of human rights problems in Africa remains closely associated with sensationalism and exoticism, with similar stories repeated repeatedly. The question remains: why do we continue to produce and consume one-dimensional stories?

A greater volume of research and mainstream media stories have increased awareness and engagement with human trafficking and modern slavery issues in recent years. However, sensationalist stories and clickbait headlines that actively spread misinformation have been harmful to the very people this work supposedly serves to protect. Moreover, research and organisations rely on activist-oriented normative approaches to foreground survivors and their experiences as helpless victims that need saving. They often miss or de-centralise survivors’ voices and perspectives. Instrumentalising survivor voices attracts political attention and maintains funding.

Survivors’ Voices, Stories, and Images (2020) is a book that takes up some of these challenges. The ninety-page book is a collection of fifteen stories and photographs created by real survivors of exploitation in Kenya. A multi-national and disciplinary research team worked with these survivors to compile their stories as part of the project entitled ‘Survivors’ Voices, Stories, And Images: Survivor-Led Empowerment Through Ethical Story-Telling And Participatory Photography.’ For months, survivors worked with a storytelling expert on their written outputs and with a photography expert to take photos with their phone cameras. The book is about survivors, their stories in their own words and accompanied by their own photographs.

The methodology of encouraging survivors to tell their stories in their own spaces positioned and represented the survivors as knowers, collaborators and co-creators of knowledge in this project. Consequently, the project shifted power from researchers to survivors.

"The portrayal of human rights problems in Africa remains closely associated with sensationalism and exoticism, with similar stories repeated repeatedly. The question remains: why do we continue to produce and consume one-dimensional stories?."

Allen Kiconco

Being specific and being real

Statistics can sometimes be overwhelming, and adding survivors’ stories to the statistics on exploitation makes the problem ‘real’. Stories have the power to humanise data (helping us see beyond statistics), consequently making them impactful for carrying a message across boundaries and conveying an urgent call for action.

Often researchers struggle with questions of asking survivors to narrate gruesome experiences because they are rightly apprehensive about the risk of re-traumatisation. The stories in this collection are at times graphic in nature. Indeed, lived experiences of enslavement, trafficking, exploitation and forced labour seem to inspire and drive the survivors to create their stories and images in this collection. While some of these stories are fictional and some are based on real experiences, the survivor-authors have chosen to include potentially triggering subjects, including rape, sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, drug abuse and suicide.

However, these texts challenge the single-story narrative that always seems to zoom in so much on experiences of exploitation. Indeed, there is an attempt in the book collection for survivors to tell stories in their entirety, before, during and after exploitation. The message is that experiences of trauma are part of a bigger life – life before and after exploitation – that carry similar weight as life during exploitation.

The volume shows that the exploitation industry targets all categories of people in society. The narratives tell experiences ranging from child marriage, domestic violence, child abduction, domestic working to being trafficked abroad for forced labour and exploitation. The survivors in this project experienced such processes as minors, adults, migrants and refugees.

The collection makes the reader learn about the simple fact that exploitation is going on all around us, all the time. Yet, we might not see it because we sometimes do not understand the signs, especially in close-knit communities, commonly found in African societies. Some stories in the collection suggest that exploitation starts from families/relatives and spreads outwards to other social institutions and networks.

"Life with the aunt was not easy as she made Sila and her sisters work as if slaves since all the chores were given to them."

Ivy - Excerpt from Untitled

Ivy’s story is about the suffering that followed orphans after losing their parents to a motor accident, and relatives confiscating their property and maltreated them. The story shows that when children cannot endure such exploitation at the family level, they run away in an attempt to find safety and support. However, most times, they do not get help from relevant institutions at community and state levels, exposing them to deadlier forms of exploitation, including trafficking. The collection is real and unexpected, with every story opening the reader’s eyes a little wider about the problem, offering a mini-lesson and education in the mechanisms of the industry that exploiters would not like the world to know about.

The stories and photographs in the collection reveal things about survivors’ personal lives, families, communities and even project their future. They reveal the layered emotions they experienced as they navigated the exploitation industry, including anger, loss, fear, distress, betrayal, entrapment and helplessness, among others. They also reveal the agency, resilience and resolve to break away from the ‘shackles’ of their exploiters.

"Two weeks straight locked up, no natural light, no interaction whatsoever, and now you’re supposed to escape?.. this has to be the most unreal thing I ever encountered, but a human body will go to lengths you would never imagine all for survival ."

Cynthia - Excerpt from My Flawless Life

The collection also speaks to struggles that survivors encounter in their post-exploitation life, showing that suffering does not end with escaping from the exploitation industry. Consider these three excerpts.

"She used her pain as a resolve and fuel to surge on barely talking about it [post- exploitation depression], for she had learnt that people don’t give those who are hurting a chance to be real." ======================================== "....the people responsible for trafficking me continued to pursue me and threaten my life." ======================================== "...was she naive in thinking that she can get past the pain, resentments and bitterness and get a chance at a fresh start? She had coexisted with her pain for so long that she'd accepted the fact that it'd always be who she was."

Caroline - Excerpt from The Contempt in her Crooked Smile; Sophia - Excerpt from The Attempted Journey to Saudi Arabia; Khalih - Excerpt from Fear

Recovery is a long-term process and experience with potential suffering and re-exploitation, manifesting in different forms. Post-exploitation life can also be lonely and scary, as depicted in the tone and choice of photographs accompanying the narratives. Stories give a reader a glimpse of the complex situation and landscape that survivors have to negotiate and manoeuvre post-exploitation.

Space and storytelling: shifting the power towards survivors

Often, exploitation is reported as a crime event, focusing less on the survivor and perpetrator as the primary sources who can explain how and why it happened. Law enforcement officials or political figures are often sought out and quoted in the reports. The result is the repetition of oversimplified and sometimes sensationalised narratives. The solution to this limitation is to understand exploitation’s cultural contexts and settings. More important is to foreground, centre and amplify survivors, their voices and lived experiences in the debates, interventions, and knowledge production, as the Survivors’ Voices project has done.

Space and method of telling the story are vital. Fear and distrust towards researchers are common amongst survivors, an experience further compounded by the more ‘formal’ research methods and spaces often used.  These include controlling the survivor as a storyteller, including time limits, questions and interruptions for follow up questions or clarifications. The collection suggests that there is much to learn from less formal storytelling spaces, including survivors telling stories to other survivors or sometimes their loved ones in their homes.

Specific nuances associated with survivors and their experiences might not be accessible via more ‘formal’ research methods. Thus, when less orchestrated, storytelling as a research method can help unpack contextual factors and highlight dynamics and complex issues surrounding exploitation. Adopting an ethics-centred storytelling method allowed the survivors participating in the Survivors’ Voices project to create their stories in a culturally familiar and comfortable space, thus shifting power from the researcher to survivors as knowers of their experiences and worlds.

Storytelling and redress

Storytelling can be a process of seeking redress following a traumatising experience. I understood that the survivors in this project told their stories to understand what happened and why it happened to them.

Participants have reported that the storytelling element of the project has given them a real sense of release [….] as it is becoming an important part of the participants healing process as well as an art project"

Survivors Voices - Project Report

All the stories in this collection demonstrate that storytelling connects the survivors to their past and guides them to imagine the future they desire. These accounts play a role in understanding exploitation as a persistent practice and business, making storytelling a powerful tool to bring greater clarity and awareness to the problem. Indeed, reading the stories evokes empathy and understanding surrounding the narrators and their situations. These powerful narratives move the reader to understand what exploitation looks like.

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