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In the week of World Reading Day, and a week ahea of the Puku Story Festival, Joana Bezerra of Rhodes University's Community Engagement division uses stories and their meaning as a starting point for a discussion about perspective and attitude
Throughout our lives we hear stories about people and places from all over the world.
We might never set foot in these places, but we already have certain expectations of how they would be because of these stories.
Some are told over and over again, monopolising how we see a group of people or a particular place. For example, the story about how passionate South Americans are about football, or how the sun always shines on the African continent.
These stories become more and more natural to us. They become the only thing we know, not leaving room for any alternative, addition or facet of these people and places. Who could ever dream of a South American who isn’t passionate about football?
That they would be interested in other sports or not be interested in sports at all? Who would know that it snows in South Africa?
When one story becomes dominant, its subject – be that a person, people or place – is simplified to the extreme and robbed of any other possible way of existing.
Imagine if you had to choose one story to represent your life.
Which one would you choose?
Whichever the choice, one story cannot paint the full picture of who we are. In this sense, the stories we hear shape our understanding of people and places. This is because stories are a way to share knowledge, and this knowledge can be either explicit or implicit in what we hear.
Another important element when looking at stories is the storyteller.
Who is telling the story? How different would the little Red Riding Hood story be if it was told by the grandmother? Or by the wolf?
Universities produce knowledge about people, places and interactions. In doing this, they are telling stories.
When researchers write about their work, they are sharing with the world their story about a particular topic. However, the researcher tells the story from his/her experiences and understanding.
Let’s take the water issues facing Grahamstown as an example. If we ask a researcher from the Pharmacy Department at Rhodes University about the water situation, they will tell us a story.
If we ask someone from the Department of Environmental Science, they might focus on different elements of the story. If we ask the residents of Grahamstown East they will tell another story and the residents of Grahamstown West will have their own account.
Is only one of them true? Couldn’t they all be true to some extent and reflect the different aspects of this issue and of the different realities of residents of Grahamstown?
Multiple stories will illustrate the rich and complex elements of this issue.
In painting a richer picture of people and places, there are two key questions: how can we bring more stories to the table and how can we make them heard?
This is where Community Engagement comes in: Bringing different people around the table, creating a space for these stories to be told, giving them legitimacy; and filling a gap between the University and the all the residents of the town. In doing so, Community Engagement also helps to demystify some of the dominant stories that those involved might have about each other and about particular places.
The fundamental role of a university is to generate and disseminate knowledge. Community Engagement builds bridges in order to create more spaces where this can happen in a plurality of ways, allowing new stories and new storytellers to rise.
The Community Engagement Division at Rhodes University presents a rich portfolio of projects, bringing together staff, students and community partners, changing not only how stories are told, but also who tells them.
The Student Volunteer Programme offers the opportunity for volunteers to work with community partners around Grahamstown. Volunteers come together in small groups and once a week dedicate their time to work with a community partner.
The ‘Siyakhana @ Makana’ Programme supports students who want to build relationships with community organisations, assisting in the process of planning their projects and in the development of shared goals and interests from the start, triggering a shift from organisations that get in touch with partners with projects already set in stone, to a collaborative work where the project itself is built together.
‘Nine Tenths Mentoring’ is a Programme which aims to guide matric students to cope with their last school year, helping them reach their full potential.
These are only a few of the Community Engagement Programmes at Rhodes allowing over 600 students to volunteer weekly.
Come help us write and tell different stories.
* Joana Bezerra works in the Community Engagement Division, Rhodes University. This piece is part of a series called Leading the vVsion - a series by significant Grahamstown players meaningfully contributing to key areas of growth and transformation in education, economic development, arts and culture and local governance.