Storytelling has emerged as one of the methodologies that can be used to promote healing and reconciliation processes after years of violence, repression, or other forms of trauma that affect both individuals and communities, particularly after war or authoritarian rule. In effect, storytelling is a rich oral tradition found to be an effective healing intervention for societies that have suffered from atrocities that have generated trauma. The healing process happens when storytelling is linked to what can be described as narrative therapy, or when someone is giving a testimony of what they have endured.

In the framework of the healing and reconciliation processes taking place in any given community, storytelling is related to sharing personal stories with fellow members of society. This process has a double effect. On the one side, it allows the individual sharing the story to review and reprocess her or his experience from an alternative perspective. On the other hand, it allows the same individual sharing, along with the listeners, to reframe what appeared as negative aspects of the experience she or he went through in a manner that can lead to healing and for those who hear the testimony.

Through storytelling, witnesses can do an introspection and reflect on their experiences, as well as identify the sources of their strengths and weaknesses, and surface their resilient spirit during difficult and challenging contexts such as war and living under repressive regimes. They are able to assess from a distance their coping mechanisms during and after experiencing traumatic events. Storytelling can have a serious impact on our emotions, or it can even redirect or reorient our choices and has the capacity to influence the way we establish our relationships with others within or outside the community.

More importantly, storytelling can become a catalyst for empathy from members of a community and decrease the tendency to ignore the suffering of the “other” while insisting on one’s own pain. This can not only lead to creating a common ground where all “sufferings” are acknowledged can be utilised as seeds to grow the spirit of community healing and reconciliation.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) has published a new book, “Faces and Traces: Paying tribute to Unsung Heroes” which showcases storytelling. The stories contained in the book represent an account of the events that took place in Burundi, in 1993, during and after the violence and bloodbath that directly followed the assassination of the first democratically elected president of Burundi – Melchior Ndadaye. Download the book here: https://bit.ly/3Ozv2wr

While there are a lot of negative occurrences that could have been highlighted in the book, when it comes to the above-mentioned crisis, the witness testimonies and stories contained in the book were specifically selected for their positivity and inspirational content. They showcase the bravery and courage of people who protected, saved, or concealed potential victims, especially those who were in danger or in need of help.

The heroes that “Faces and Traces” tries to honour and acknowledge were ordinary Burundians. During the IJR’s interaction with the witnesses, one observation that emerged was that they all shared a common trait, namely that: when they decided to save or help others, they were not trying to become heroes. They indicated that they were acting on a basis of a deeply held sense of what the morally right thing was to do at that given moment. Some respondents had forgotten aspects of their stories, but their memories returned while they were sharing their personal experiences. In effect, the process enabled them to reprocess those past events and to see them from another perspective and at a distance. It enabled them to assess what happened and how difficult it was and positioned them to share some lessons with the younger generations of Burundians. What they share in common is the compelling wish to see their communities and the Burundian society healed from its wounds and its sons and daughters reconciled.

In the Burundi context, there is competition around the narratives on the traumatic past. The narratives tend to be aligned with the suffering of one ethnic group while attempting to discredit the pain of the other groups. By the re-telling of individual stories and about their painful past you can easily identify his or her ethnic bias and perhaps affiliation. This type of competing narratives has been detrimental to the process of reconciliation in Burundi. When members of different ethnic groups try to show that they suffered the most, so as to establish a hierarchy of suffering, they fuel the conditions for sustaining a vicious cycle of stories that perpetuate hatred and violent tendencies. The objective of Faces and Traces” has been, from its inception, to attempt to break this vicious cycle by creating a space for expression, where every story of pain and suffering and where multiple and plural lessons from the past can be taught, and where people who did what was morally right and just are provided with a platform through which they can share their intentions and actions with a wider audience. The book seeks to inspire the creation of similar spaces where everyone’s story is recognized as being equally important and where every voice can be heard and acknowledged.

Patrick Hajayandi is Senior Project Leader for the Great Lakes Regional Reconciliation Project, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), Cape Town, South Africa