Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Being Special

Last week it was a Symposium focusing on refugees. This week it was a dinner event in honour of five Disability Activists from Uganda, Tanzania and Bangladesh. Each occasion has given me much cause for thought, widening my sense of the special importance of a person’s own life story – and how much more that may be so when that person has been up against it in their life.

Thursday’s event was organised by ADD International, a charity I’ve supported for a number of years. ADD links with disability organisations in Africa and Asia to identify and give support to people who can become leaders in their own communities. To the organisation’s great delight, five of the Disability Activists they work with had been able to travel to the UK this week to attend meetings and publicise their work. What had helped make this possible was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which has been happening this week in London and the fact that one theme of this year’s gathering has been disability issues.

For me, a very special aspect of Thursday’s dinner was that one of the five activists present was Peter  Ogik. Peter comes from Uganda. He has albinism. Some time ago I was shown a long video of him talking about his life and the huge difference it made when, as a young man, he came into contact with other people with albinism who were meeting to talk about the difficulties of their situation and what they could do about it. Since then, Peter has done great things. By now he chairs two important organisations in Uganda, one which represents people with the same condition as him, the other an organisation covering all disabilities.

One of the things that had most struck me about Peter’s video – as well as his fluency, his honesty and his charming manner – was the emphasis he placed on how his parents had always supported him, notably insisting that as a child he must be admitted to school and get an education. On Thursday he talked about how being in school had not been easy: other children had been cruel to him. In Uganda, albinism is regarded as a curse. People with albinism can be hounded, even killed. But Peter’s father had always told him that he was special. Whatever happened, he was loved.

After seeing that video of Peter talking, I wrote a story based on Peter’s life experience. I called the story Being Special and I gave the story to ADD so that, if they wished, they could use it in their work, something they have subsequently done by telling the story to schoolchildren and enabling the children to respond to it in writing.

So on Thursday it was very special for me that I was able to talk with Peter in person. It was good to hear that he’s pleased I wrote about him and also that he understands why some small parts of the story I wrote inevitably had to be made up by me in line with the kinds of things he’d said in his video. But speaking with Peter in person also raised new questions for me. I already knew how much it can mean to a person to be able to tell their own story. And at the dinner, each of the five Disability Activists who were present did just that, each in a very moving way. One of the five, Ummy Nderiananga, a young woman from Tanzania who was born with one short leg and who always must use a crutch or a stick to walk, even told us briefly what she’d been told about her own birth – that those assisting her mother had said, ‘Of course we can kill her if you want.’

Having the chance to tell your own story if you wish to do so is vitally important. But what is it like when someone else tells your story? That’s a whole other question. When Peter gets back to Uganda, we’ll be able to talk on email and I might be able to ask him more. For the question also has a more general relevance. What other people say about you may not always be what you want to hear said. One small instance may convey something of what I mean. Every time any teacher (well-meaning, no doubt) has ever introduced me to a class, hyping me up to the children as a very well-known storyteller who has travelled the world telling her stories, I have shuddered. ‘And now,’ I think, ‘I have to get this class on board.’

I suppose it’s a very basic question. What is the story of me? What is the story of you? Telling another person’s story, you may not always be telling what they want to hear. We all know it happens with biographies. But it may happen in other ways too. Goodness me, that’s enough to be going on with for one week. So I’ll leave that question hanging in the air while I ponder on it some more.

PS: Wondering what photos to put in this blog, I seized on the idea of things hanging in the air or looking as though they are doing so. Hence the cloud, the umbrella and the cobweb.

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4 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Being Special”

  1. Hilary Minns Says:

    Dear Mary,
    I’m reminded of Margaret Meek’s question to our seminar group when we were studying autobiographical writing on the MA course at the Institute of Education many years ago. I have never forgotten it. She asked: ‘What’s the story of your life that you tell yourself that you can bear to live with?’ Food for thoughtindeed.
    Best wishes

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Hilary, thanks so much for your comment. Margaret Meek’s question has made me think about some of the things in my life I would not want to include in my story of it. And then to challenge myself about that. Why not? Food for thought indeed. .

  3. Clare McKeown Says:

    What a thoughtful response to your meeting with Peter and one that is so relevant to ADD’s work and to the work of other international development organisations. For so long, staff at those organisations told the stories of those they supported. But, for the people that ADD works with, telling their own stories marks a key change in how they engage with their communities and the respect that they receive from those around them. But those stories need to be shared as widely as possible and you play a key role in that. So thank you. We are all deeply appreciative and I know that Peter loved meeting you.

  4. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Clare, thanks so much for your comment. I feel very grateful for my link with ADD and all that it has given me to think about as a storyteller. I look forward to more!

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