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Alternative Approaches to Development Demand Alternative Approaches to Storytelling – Part 1

By Dr. Sindiwe MAGONA

This is the first of a two-part series adapted from a key-note speech Dr. Magona gave at the JSAS 2023 conference at Nagoya on October 7th, 2023.

There was a conference, way away in Japan. The nearer the conference day came, the clearer it was to me I was more happy than sad I was only going to participate there Virtually.

Redefining Development – Examining Alternative Approaches in Africa And Asia … that was the theme of the conference. I had been asked to deliver a keynote address on the subtheme: Storytelling for Future Generations.

I preceded my address with an apology – something I deemed appropriate given the theme which (to me at any rate) indicates a misstep or oversight; one now recognized. Therefore, I am of the opinion the subtheme points to a directive to the storyteller. S/he has to wake up to the necessity of addressing the needs of the future. So, that is why, after the greetings, I apologized. The theme told me of failure – the failure of my generation of storytellers. At that moment, as I had in the course of preparing for the conference, I strongly believed the conference theme pointed to that omission. I still do. Even as I write this adaptation of that speech – I still do believe that. Hopefully, the adaptation will be published. (It has, if you’re reading this – hasn’t it?) Well …!

Humans seek alternatives when what they have no longer serves or satisfies them. Therefore, I declared that the theme of the conference: ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES TO DEVELOPMENT IN AFRICA AND ASIA indicates such a desire: other and different ways of dealing with the issue of human development. When the process or undertaking was linked to storytelling it became clear to me that it meant that storytelling could not but be impacted. With the anticipated change in development, stories and storytelling too had to change. In other words, Alternative Approaches to Development DEMAND Alternative Approaches to Storytelling.

Had my generation and the generations before it not failed to eye the future too – see the Now but also see in it what ought not to be carried to the future as well as, of course, what ought to - the theme of the conference would have been [perhaps] CELEBRATION OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT. I say CELEBRATION because for humanity development is an admirable aspect of living – much desired, a necessity the realization of which the whole world is screaming and/or praying and even fighting for. Because, sadly, it is an aspect of life far from achievement. Not even in my beloved country, South Africa – where in the not-too-distant past, less than three decades ago to be precise, it seemed so feasible, so reachable, many in the country as well as in other parts of the world, were already ‘seeing’ a rosy future for all the people of South Africa. Alas, that goal has not come to be realized. Many would agree with me when I say something went bellyflop in my land. Perhaps, to a huge extent, the meaning of this conference, its relevance, is pointedly poignant to me. Whatever approach was and still is in operation in my country is definitely not delivering the anticipated ‘uhuru’. My lamentation is - Why has this conference come so late? But, then again, I am very happy it has come. Good is always welcome whenever and wherever it shows up. And late is better than never!

I embrace the hope this conference indicates. Role modelling is a powerful tool, who knows, the idea just might spread, and more than the countries or people directly involved in this conference will benefit. To reiterate: This conference clearly is after alternatives. Seeking alternatives points to something amiss or gone awry with the current state of affairs concerning development of my kind – the humankind. But what is Development? Economist Mahbub ul Haq is credited (Google Search – 2023/10/22) to have developed the concept below:

Human development is defined as the process of enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their wellbeing. Human development is about the real freedom ordinary people have to decide who to be, what to do, and how to live.

That is all very well. Fine. In fact, perfect. However, at this point, one may well wonder, enquire, demand: What does that have got to do with storytelling? What is storytelling to human development?

Attempting to respond to that anticipated query, I started my address proper with ‘We, Humankind, tell stories – have always told stories.’ That assertion was quickly followed by another question: But what are stories to Humans and why do Humans tell stories? My response is that in the long course of my trajectory as a Teller of stories, what I have gathered from the reading, listening, and observation about this issue leads me to this: By and large, various experts answer the questions in various ways. My personal preference is: We tell stories because we care.

I take that to mean -We, as Humans, care about who we are and who we may become. When that becoming seems good – we encourage it by telling affirming stories. But when who we are or are becoming seems either out and out bad; perhaps even evil, we tell stories we hope may sway us away from whatever it is we appear heading toward or are becoming – dissuading us from continuing along that trend till the unworthy objective is achieved, the goal attained. The intention is preventing us from a perceived end more harmful than uplifting to humanity. Or one that appears worthy and uplifting but in which in reality it is not. The well-known saying – all that glitters is not gold, comes to mind. An example these days is wealth. Most would agree acquiring wealth is a good goal. However, if that is done at the expense of disempowering another, that it is still a worthy cause might be debatable.

But as stated a little earlier, DEVELOPMENT entails choice. Choice people make about their own lives. How to live those lives. We all know this choice is more often than not curtailed by circumstances. An example of that is poverty. The poor have little choice in determining the quality of whatever freedom they’re supposed to have. A clear case is that of the millions and millions of poor people in my country. In 1994, with the first truly democratic elections in that country, many believed their lives were about to change – change for the better. It was not to be. Statistics on that state that poverty has increased – when the expectation was that it would decrease in post-apartheid South Africa. That sad state of affairs is one of the issues I address in my recently-published book of essays – I WRITE THE YAWNING VOID – UNIV WITWATERSRAND PUB – JULY 2023. Do not Choose Poverty is the title of the essay that relates to that specific issue.

To illustrate, in the motivational talks, workshops, and/or writing, I tell the story of how I came to ‘real’ writing – writing for publication – TO MY CHILDREN’S CHILDREN (DPPP 1990) – part one of my (as of now) two-part autobiography came out quite by accident. The ‘children’ in the title refers not to my biological offspring but those who will inhabit Mother Earth long after we all are no more – centuries hence. In other words, the ‘children’ in the title means posterity. I did not have a dream of becoming an author. Dreams are born fertilized by role models. People cannot dream of things they have not seen. The first time I ever held in my hands a book written by a woman who looked somewhat like me – I was almost thirty and the author was a descendant of slaves – Maya Angelo (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Right now, in South Africa, the children of the poor – 99% of whom look like me, the formerly truly and wholly oppressed legally, ‘Bantu’, live such lives of deprivation, they cannot read for meaning statistics show. These are children born equal to all others but destined never to thrive. The circumstances into which, through no fault of choice of theirs, they are born, ensure they will not develop – will not thrive … unless by sheer accidental occurrence, a happenstance, not through planning.

I became a published writer, an author, to a huge extent because of the nudging or mentoring or nurturing of others – people who saw potential in me I had no idea I was in possession of. They saw in me something I did not. That could not have happened had they not ‘Seen’ me – seen themselves in me. Recognized me as no different to who they were.

That observation brings me to say to the organizers of this conference – to all the attendees – and all others in any way concerned with it taking place –the BECOMING of it… those chefs, cooks, bakers and others who made whatever - the cleaners, decorators, lights people, etc. etc. etc. to the very last: CONGRATULATIONS! CONGRATULATIONS! CONGRATULATIONS! You perceived a need and went forth to assemble this gathering. Development – we have had lots of that from time immemorial to date. Development means change and, as had been said, IF THERE IS ONE CONSTANT IN LIFE – THAT CONSTANT IS THAT CHANGE IS CONSTANT! You, the organizers of this conference on HUMAN DEVELOPMENT which seeks ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES would appear to think human development, in its present form or format, does not wholly serve humanity. Not to the extent it could. Again, I congratulate you for living in awareness – awareness of potential not fulfilled – not to its fullest.

Your organizing of this conference says our generation has been remiss.

Years ago, I had a similar feeling, observation or take. I am a small – very small person … not just in size but in stature … especially in self-perception or, as some would say, self-esteem. Where and how would I have come to dream a conference? No, I did not, have not, doubt I will ever be the main engineer in organizing any conference. But I did write a very slight collection of poems: Please, Take Photographs! (Modjadji Books - 2009).

Let me hasten to admit, I am not a poet and rarely do my feelings come pouring out in that form. But I do believe the short-short poem I quote below is core to the undertaking on which you’re about to embark should the issue under discussion during this illustrious gathering birth relevant action, which I sincerely hope it does!


Because it pleases our Maker

We have no choice

In the fashion of our making.

The sentence, for our being,

Is choice

In the manner of our living. (p.15 Please, Take Photographs! -Sindiwe Magona -Modjadji Books – 2009)

We are the same. Made of the same, very same bits and pieces that make up the human anatomy. Irrespective of, or perhaps despite any and all differences we perceive in what or whom we set our eyes on – we are the same. All human beings, wherever they be, however they look or appear to look to the eye of the beholder – Are Equal. All are born to be. No human being is an accident or an undesirable on Earth. And each and everyone born, every human being, is born by design. The design of his or her god -whomsoever s/he perceives and call that deity to whom you pray. Your Creator – Your Creator dreamed you into being. As the late Archbishop Tutu (former South African Anglican bishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist) used to say, ‘You Are God’s Dream on Earth’. In other words, we are born according to God’s Plan, His Purpose. And God does not err. He makes no mistakes. We come to Earth fully provisioned or designed to fulfil the purpose for which we were created. Every human being is fully equipped to serve or do what s/he was meant to do to live this world a better place than s/he found it. When each of us fulfils our mission, that betterment of the world is achieved … Achieved, because our duty is fulfilled. We are instruments of God’s will; sent on to Mother Earth to enjoy her boundless bounty –God made as we are. There are examples of people whose achievements are known throughout the world because those achievements have benefitted humanity. Those people did nothing but use their God-given talents to the best of their ability. You know the names of such heroes and heroines … in Medicine. Science. The Arts. Etc. etc. etc. Some performed brilliant acts of Courage. Others sacrificed their lives …

Do we all benefit from these? Not equally. Again, most people are held back from benefitting from what there is on offer through lack of access. Money is needed to get efficient medical services, good food, good education. Lack of access to information can even be more vicious than money poverty … not that there should be any comparison. But not knowing of the ready availability of whatever it is that might or could benefit their lot plays a vicious role in keeping poor people poor. There’s an escape route but the door is closed to them – lack of information for even freely-available help that could salvage them. To illustrate this point, I used my access to education via correspondence school to complete high school; got my first degree and the scholarship to Columbia University where I did a Master’s degree.

Being, the poem above, tells us all we are good enough. We are God-designed and born armoured to do great things on earth … to leave the world a better place than we found it. We are given the means with which to perform and perform brilliantly. But, ACT, we must. With all we’ve been given at birth, it is incumbent on every human being to DO.

‘… enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their wellbeing’ is fine. However, no life will improve without that the person concerned actively participating in the process of becoming whomsoever they would be. Dreams manifest only through action.

(To be continued).

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