Seven women affected by Congo-Brazzaville ’s (also known as Republic of Congo) civil wars between 1997 and 2003 came together in November 2009 for a four-day digital storytelling workshop organized in a partnership between the United Nations Development Programme Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery  (UNDP-BCPR) and the Center for Digital Storytelling ’s initiative Silence Speaks . Since their beginnings in 1999, Silence Speaks, which is based in the United States, has coordinated more than 40 projects across the United States, and in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Congo-Brazzaville, South Africa, and Uganda.
On behalf of Global Voices, I interviewed the director of Silence Speaks, Amy Hill, to learn more about this wonderful project. Amy explains that their workshops blend oral history, popular education, and participatory media production, enabling people to create short videos about their own lives, with stories that may otherwise go unheard.
“We modify our methods to accommodate languages, literacies, and technologies in a given setting and emphasize reflection on the implications of bringing sensitive personal narratives into the public sphere. Following careful informed consent processes, stories are shared locally and globally, as strategic tools for training, community mobilization, and policy advocacy to promote well being, gender equality, and human rights,” she says.
GV: How did you start working with women survivors of war in the Republic of Congo?
Amy: “In April of 2009, I was approached by a staff member with UNDP’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Resolution (BCPR) in Geneva about the possibility of developing digital storytelling work in the context of UNDP’s Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration  (DDR) programs…
“In recent years, BCPR personnel have recognized that critical to the success of their efforts are the development of communications strategies that ensure a voice and audience for those directly affected by conflict. Because we shared a particular interest in women’s health and well-being and because DDR efforts have been criticized for failing to emphasize the need for gender-specific approaches to post-conflict support, we outlined a collaborative project to assist a small group of women affected by/involved with the most recent civil war in Congo Brazzaville (1997 – 2003) in sharing their stories.
“The goal of the project was two-fold: (1) to use a participatory production process in creating a collection of short videos and radio pieces that can be screened by UNDP in various local and international settings (ie, at community events, trainings, conferences, meetings, web presentations, etc.) to highlight examples of success and positive change; and (2) to provide a mechanism for addressing the deep scars left in the region in the wake of years of conflict (both through the workshop process itself, and through subsequent distribution of the digital stories in Congo).”
GV: With what local organizations did Silence Speaks work with in Congo?
Amy: “The BCPR chose Republic of Congo as a site for the project because its DDR team maintains a special emphasis on income generation activities for women. Local UNDP communications officers and program staff based in Brazzaville (the country’s capital) and Kinkala (a heavily war-affected city in Congo’s Pool region, where much of the most brutal fighting took place) were involved in project planning from the outset.
“A key piece of the participant recruitment process involved informing interested women from the outset that their stories were intended for public sharing. After years of working in extremely resource-poor settings and in communities experiencing high levels of poverty and distress, I do not view “informed consent” as a one-time procedure involving the signing of forms. Instead, I am committed to weaving the notion of consent throughout projects…
“Our goal with the project was to support as best we could a process that gave the women themselves a sense of clear ownership over their work and a sense of commitment to how their stories can assist community reconciliation and peace building activities in the wake of war both locally and globally.”
GV: What forms of media did the women survivors select (video, audio, text, photographs, internet-based) to narrate their stories?
Amy: “Most of the women who participated in the workshop had less than a sixth grade education and had never had access to any media-making tools. We wanted to design a workshop process that would be empowering rather than intimidating, and we were limited in terms of local technology resources (again, electricity is scarce in Kinkala, and computers are virtually nonexistent), so we focused the participatory aspect on photography and drawing rather than on the use of computers.
“Prior to the four-day session, UNDP staff carried out an orientation for the women to go over the purpose of the project and describe what would happen in the construction of stories. Each participant was given a disposable camera, and UNDP staff offered a short training session on photography basics and camera use.
“Several weeks later, we gathered in Kinkala for four days, where the women shared and recorded stories and drew illustrations. We also shot additional photos and videos on site. Participants turned in their cameras, and the photos were developed. Afterwards, I edited these materials into finalized short videos and radio spots.”
GV: How did the women who participated in the workshops describe the experience of telling their stories?
Amy:Time and resource limitations made it impossible for us to do focused interviewing with the participants about how they felt in the aftermath of sharing their stories, but the sense of relief and pride was palpable, on the last day of the session. During a short debriefing conversation, workshop participant Florence Malanda, Head of the Kinkala Women's Cooperative, said, “These testimonials will help to raise awareness with all Congolese people on the consequences of war. We hope that UNDP's support will also help other women who are suffering around the world.”
GV: What is the role of multimedia tools and the Internet in these storytelling projects?
Amy: “At the Center for Digital Storytelling, we view multimedia/digital media tools as just that: tools to assist people in sharing meaningful stories from their lives. We do not glorify them or see them as in and of themselves capable of bringing about change. We believe that what is important is how and why these tools are used.
“With Silence Speaks, I am not interested in “collecting stories” just for the sake of creating an archive of stories; I am interested in critically examining the ways in which the process of sharing and listening to stories can lead to specific changes across multiple levels of human experience and influence.
“Of course user friendly digital editing and production tools are essential to this idea, if the stories are to be developed in media formats. But teaching people technology skills alone or dumping equipment into their communities absent a coherent plan for how these skills or equipment can be utilized to promote an analysis of people’s life circumstances, build political consciousness, or support community/civic engagement, etc., seems to me to be extremely misguided. Instead, I take a Freirean  approach to the use of the tools – one that views technology as an enhancement to a process of learning and empowerment.
“When it comes to the role of the internet, particularly in relation to projects like the work with women in Congo, I would caution readers to think carefully about who benefits from the proliferation of narratives of suffering and sorrow, online. Is it the storytellers themselves? Or is it media outlets, NGOs and government agencies with particular funding/programmatic agendas, and distant viewers sitting alone at their computers who can feel safe and secure in the knowledge that such tragedies are remote and pitiable?
“Certainly I am complicit in this equation, since I clearly stand the benefit from the outreach and publicity that sharing stories on the internet can bring about. However, when it comes to project development, I prefer to focus not only on strategies for internet distribution but on mechanisms for sharing stories with local audiences, where they have the potential to really make a difference.
“My colleagues at WITNESS have offered useful mentoring along these lines, with their emphasis on “micro audiences” and video advocacy. In the case of the Congo women’s stories, the collaboration with UNDP stresses not only distribution in international venues but also distribution locally, via community screening and dialogue sessions in Kinkala, and distribution throughout the Pool Region and nationally, via radio broadcasts and associated call-in programming on issues of conflict and reconciliation.”
GV: How can telling one's story be empowering?
Amy: “Trauma expert Judith Herman  contends that while telling one’s story can be healing, participating in collective action at the community level also plays an important role in nurturing recovery. This is why Silence Speaks aims to support individual transformation and empowerment while simultaneously building the resilience of participants for involvement in community building and social justice movements.
“It’s really important to stress, though, that before any of the above benefits can be realized, people must feel ready and able to share their stories. Most people will come to the digital storytelling process when they are emotionally and physically strong enough to do so, but some may not be able to assess their own readiness.”