On a rainy Thursday evening, a few researchers from the University of Sheffield gathered at a local pub in Sheffield to talk about their work. But rather than speaking as academics, giving presentations of their research, they were telling stories.
Tales from the Global South, led by Prof Frances Cleaver from the Department of Geography, was an event at the Festival of Social Sciences in Sheffield. Here international development researchers got a chance to tell captivating stories about their fieldwork.
Twelve of us worked with a professional storyteller, Tim Ralphs. Under the guidance of Tim, we were able to craft ten-minute stories from our fields of work, accounting for experiences and reflections of our work. The stories ranged from ecosystems and livelihoods, irrigation, power and politics, and Sustainable Development Goals, all from the Global South.
I got a chance to share stories of my fieldwork, highlighting on the issue of woody plant encroachment and its impacts on pastoral livelihoods, after having spent a few months in the savannas of South Africa. And other fellow Grantham Scholars shared their experiences from other parts of Africa.
Tavengwa Chitata spoke about how he became an engineer in irrigation water infrastructure (from almost ending up doing a degree in Food Science and Technology) and insights from his fieldwork. In Morocco and Algeria, local communities make use of pendulum clocks and olive branches for prospecting water, while in England big water companies use copper wires. Reflecting on his journey, he doesn’t regret studying irrigation engineering. Tavengwa believes ‘studying water is studying life’.
Rob Hardie’s story was about his fieldwork at the Niger delta. Rob told of when he was imprisoned by four plastic chairs at the airport for travelling with an expired visa. This story earned a lot of laughter from the audience! Growing up near a gas station in Sheffield, he shared how his set of views towards fuel changed after his fieldwork at the Niger Delta on seeing the ground realities.
Jonas Cromwell’s tale of Changa’s avocados gave an insight into the avocado market and livelihoods in Tanzania. He also spoke about how global markets for quality avocados have impacted livelihoods, especially those of women. Avocado consumption was restricted to women in that area, while men preferred their beer and roasted meat. Avocados were initially a white man’s food which has now become “butter for the nation”.
The gendered nature of eating avocados and demand for exporting quality avocados (based on size and colour) by the local brokers have made significant contributions to food waste, because large quantities of avocados get rejected if not picked properly.
Prof Frances Cleaver’s story of rice, irrigation and use of fertilizers to ward off witches from Tanzanian fields was well received by the audience. The rice grown there is so fragrant that rice bags are used for ‘bedroom purposes’ where women stack up the rice bags to seduce their partners! She expressed how bored she was with eating rice and beans by the end of fieldwork and couldn’t wait to get home for some steak and chips.
We also got a chance to listen to tales about other topics like how excited a researcher was after being successful in getting a visa to Indonesia for wildlife surveillance tourism in Mexico. And we heard stories about infrastructure in Colombia, transboundary relationships, chocolates (yummmm) and fair trade. There were tales about tourism in Uganda, and a researcher growing up as a blonde-haired blue-eyed kid in Zimbabwe and South Africa in the 80’s.
After spending nearly 18 hours crafting stories in the last two months, telling a ten-minute story was the most enriching experience for me as a researcher. This feeling is echoed by many who took part in these storytelling sessions. Initial coaching sessions focused on the basics of storytelling, how stories can be crafted with different arcs to them. And for the rest of the sessions, we were asked to come up with ideas that would make an interesting story. The ten-minute story is the result of constant feedback from Tim and the team.
The event was not just about telling stories but learning from each other, networking and evolving as communicators. To think how far we have come from doing a PhD to telling stories is rewarding. Outreach is so much fun when done the right way.
Most importantly, the wonderful turn out of the audience kept us high and the rain couldn’t dampen our spirit either!
Watch Suma tell her tale ↓
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