Storytelling: Peace-building or Problematic?

In 2012, the world learned about Joseph Kony and the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, through the Kony 2012 campaign. But many years before this Betty Bigombe showed incredible bravery when she ventured into the jungle to negotiate with the group.

It was 1992, and she was a government minister in Uganda, negotiating with warlords known for their violent guerrilla tactics and child abductions. Realizing the value of meeting face-to-face, Ms Bigombe was able to open up a dialogue with the rebels and she went on to become a lead negotiator in Uganda’s ongoing peace process.

"I made up my mind, I was going to do everything possible, to reach out to the war lords, and talk to them," Ms Bigombe told the United States Institute of Peace.

"To talk them into a peaceful solution," she said.

"I was determined, because I felt that if meeting with the rebels could bring peace - could save lives - it was worthwhile making the commitment."

Many hold up Ms Bigombe's success getting the rebels to the negotiating table as an example of the power of words in war, and Tara Sonenshine from George Washington University believes that Ms Bigombe’s storytelling skills were an important mechanism to engage with the rebels.

“Ultimately she was able to knock down walls and ultimately reach consensus with very violent people,” Ms Sonenshine said.

Ms Sonenshine argues that stories are an integral part of any approach to peace-building.

“I think that without a story, you don’t have any grasp of the human dimension of war and peace,” she said.

Individuals sharing their experiences of war can be a useful way for communities to begin the healing process post-conflict. If people get an opportunity to tell their story to those who were their enemies in war, it can also be a key way to bring about reconciliation. By discussing what happened, trying to view events from the other side's perspective, and ideally creating a common narrative, the chances of past grievances fuelling future violence can be reduced.

“It’s a way for community grief, community cleansing, for community expulsion of hatred, and for confrontation and moving forward in building a post-conflict society,” Ms Sonenshine said.

But storytelling as a peace-building tool has drawn criticism, mainly over concerns for whose story is being told and remembered, and whose is absent.

Ms Sonenshine says this is an important aspect to be wary of, but that is doesn’t negate the benefit.

“The only down-side, I think, is when stories themselves are not inclusive of all dimensions of a community,” she said.

“So I think we have to be open to telling not just two sides of the story, but the many sides of a story. And the down-side is that in missing a piece we may miss the whole, but that’s not a reason not to tell the story, it’s more encouragement to tell all the stories.”

Interview with Betty Bigombe conducted by USIP

Cover photo: Christian Katsuva Kamate/ICRC

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