Sri Lanka: Storytelling as a Tool for Healing and Empowerment

Storytelling is of paramount significance in advancing reconciliation and comprehension. Sri Lanka can capitalize on both international and domestic examples, including its own cultural traditions, to harness the potential of storytelling in promoting healing, empathy, and a peaceful future.

9 mins read
During the residential training for real life story writing [ Photo Credit: Sri Lanka College of Journalism]

THE LONG READ

by Our Cultural Affairs Editor

“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American Proverb

A residential workshop held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, brought together participants to explore the significance of real-life story writing in the local context, where the goals of reconciliation and economic growth are intertwined. Organized by the Sri Lanka College of Journalism and supported by civil society organizations, the workshop emphasized the power of storytelling in building social identity and empowering communities. Overall, the event served as a platform to highlight the importance of this creative medium for promoting positive change in Sri Lanka.

According to Chitra Jayathilake, a professor at Department of English and Linguistics, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, storytelling is a natural human activity and a primary form of expression. “Storytelling is in our blood,” says Robert Atkinson. People live surrounded by their stories and the stories of others. They see everything that happens to them through these stories and try to live their lives as if they were recounting them. The essential understanding laying on every human action, be it internal or external, is dialogue.

Resource persons: During the residential training for real-life story writing [ Photo Credit: Sri Lanka College of Journalism]

In storytelling, the convincing power of a story is not from its verifiability but from its verisimilitude. Stories will be true enough if they ring true, as Amsterdam and Bruner noted in their work. Storytelling has become more popular and useful than quantitative academic researches because it allows people to engage and empower themselves in building social identity through narrative turns.

During the workshop, participants engaged with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Using deconstructionist approaches, Spivak’s work examines how global capitalism and the international division of labour shape our understanding of the world. In her essay, she aims to disrupt binary distinctions between subject and object, self and other, and center and margin, particularly as they relate to the divisions between the West and the non-West. By illuminating the intersection of factors like class, caste, religion, and nationality, Spivak highlights the deep-seated polarization that characterizes many parts of the world today.

M J R David, a noted journalist, who is the director of the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, emphasized the value of storytelling as a means of gaining deeper insight into ourselves and the world around us. As he explained, our lives are a collection of stories that reveal hidden truths and complexities beneath the surface. By neglecting these narratives, we risk overlooking important social, cultural, and personal realities. Only by acknowledging and engaging with these stories can we hope to create a more just and equitable future for ourselves and others.

Storytelling is a powerful tool that has been used for centuries to communicate ideas, beliefs, and values. It allows people to connect with each other on a deeper level and share their experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Through storytelling, people can learn from each other, empathize with others, and gain a better understanding of different perspectives.

From the Ancient Greeks to Contemporary Society

Storytelling has played a pivotal role in shaping historical narratives and interpreting events. From the ancient Greeks to contemporary society, stories have been used to pass on knowledge, create a sense of identity, and provide a platform for debate and discussion. In the United States, the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement was told through the stories of people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and others who fought for justice and equality. Their stories continue to inspire and educate people today.

During the workshop, a new publication on female biographies in Sri Lankan history was also launched. [ Photo Credit: Sri Lanka College of Journalism]

Similarly, in South Africa, storytelling was an essential tool in overcoming apartheid and promoting reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995, used storytelling as a means of healing and rebuilding a fractured society. Victims and perpetrators alike were given the opportunity to share their stories in a public forum, allowing the truth to be exposed and the wounds of the past to begin to heal.

Ubuntu is a Zulu word that refers to the interconnectedness of all things and the idea that an individual’s well-being is tied to the well-being of the community. It emphasizes the importance of empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, and it was a guiding principle for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

During the Commission’s hearings, victims and perpetrators were given the opportunity to share their stories in a public forum. The process was designed not only to uncover the truth about past injustices but also to promote healing and reconciliation. By telling their stories, both victims and perpetrators were able to humanize each other and begin to understand the complexities of the conflict.

The power of storytelling and the principles of Ubuntu were evident in the case of former South African President Nelson Mandela. After serving 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activities, Mandela emerged as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. He was able to forgive his oppressors and work towards a peaceful and democratic South Africa, all while maintaining his dignity and integrity.

Mandela’s story is an example of the power of storytelling to inspire and create change. His life and legacy continue to be celebrated around the world, and his story serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy, forgiveness, and unity in the face of adversity.

In India, the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for independence has become a symbol of resistance and peaceful resistance around the world. His story has been told and retold in countless ways, inspiring generations of activists and leaders.

The power of storytelling in shaping historical narratives is not limited to the West. In China, for example, storytelling has played a central role in shaping the country’s cultural identity. Traditional stories and legends have been passed down through generations, helping to create a shared sense of history and values.

The importance of storytelling cannot be overstated. From the earliest human societies to the present day, stories have been a fundamental part of our lives. They have the power to inspire, educate, and heal, and they can be used to shape our understanding of the world and ourselves. Whether we are sharing personal experiences or interpreting historical events, storytelling has the power to connect us and help us make sense of the world around us.

Storytelling in Sri Lankan Context

In the Sri Lankan context, where the country has experienced decades of ethnic conflict, storytelling can play a crucial role in promoting reconciliation and building social cohesion. By sharing stories, people can learn about the experiences of others and gain a better understanding of the root causes of conflict. It can also help to break down stereotypes and biases that may exist between different communities.

Storytelling can also promote a more positive attitude towards diversity and multiculturalism. By sharing stories that celebrate diversity, people can develop a greater appreciation for the unique cultural traditions, customs, and practices of different communities. This, in turn, can lead to a more inclusive and tolerant society that is better equipped to address the challenges of social and economic development.

Storytelling has the potential to reconstruct the deteriorated social structure by providing a platform for underrepresented communities to express themselves. Vaclav Havel’s words, “The rescue of this world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility,” highlight the significance of storytelling. By enabling individuals and communities to share their experiences and shape their own stories, storytelling has the power to instill confidence and influence positive change. Through the medium of storytelling, marginalized groups can establish their identity and demand acknowledgement and reverence from the broader society.

Storytelling can play a vital role in overhauling the attitude of society and re-engineering the deteriorated social structure in Sri Lanka. By promoting reconciliation, building social cohesion, celebrating diversity, and giving voice to marginalized groups, storytelling can help to create a more inclusive, tolerant, and just society. The residential workshop organized by the Sri Lanka College of Journalism on the importance of real-life story writing is a significant step towards achieving this goal.

In her session at the residential workshop, Hansamala Ritigahapola, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sinhala and Mass Communication at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, delved deeper into the classifications of storytelling. She explained the various types of stories, including myths, legends, fables, and fairy tales, and how they are used to convey moral and ethical values. Dr. Ritigahapola also emphasized the importance of storytelling in preserving cultural heritage and passing down traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.

During the workshop, a new publication on female biographies in Sri Lankan history was also launched. The book highlighted the importance of storytelling with references to the many notable stories in the cultural history of Sri Lanka. It showcased the remarkable achievements of Sri Lankan women who have made significant contributions to society, but whose stories may have been overlooked or forgotten. The publication served as a reminder of the power of storytelling to elevate marginalized voices and empower underrepresented groups.

Power of Counseling

The day concluded with an inspiring session by H.M.C.J. Herath, the Head of the Department of Physiology and Counseling, the Open University of Sri Lanka. She described the basic principles and behavioural attitudes of counselling and victim narrations. Dr. Herath emphasized the importance of empathy, active listening, and trust-building in the counselling process. She also highlighted the critical role that storytelling can play in the healing process of victims of trauma and violence. Through the power of narrative, victims can reclaim their agency and gain a sense of empowerment over their own lives.

Counselling is a vibrant process that aims to help people overcome their emotional and psychological challenges. It involves a one-on-one conversation between the counsellor and the client, where the client can share their feelings, thoughts, and concerns in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Through active listening, empathy, and trust-building, the counsellor can help the client gain insights into their problems, develop coping strategies, and explore new ways of thinking and behaving.

Dr H.M.C.J. Herath, Department of Psychology and Counselling, Faculty of Health Sciences, The Open University of Sri Lanka [ Photo Credit: Open University of Sri Lanka]

However, counselling is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each client is unique, and their needs and challenges must be approached with sensitivity, respect, and cultural awareness. Counsellors must adhere to certain ethical guidelines to ensure that they provide effective and ethical counselling services. These guidelines are established by professional associations such as the American Counselling Association (ACA) and the International Association of Counselling (IAC).

One of the fundamental ethical principles in counselling is confidentiality. Clients must feel safe and secure in sharing their thoughts and feelings, knowing that their information will be kept confidential. Counsellors must maintain strict confidentiality unless there is a risk of harm to the client or others. In such cases, the counsellor must inform the client of their intention to break confidentiality and seek their consent before doing so.

Another essential principle in counselling is informed consent. Counsellors must obtain the client’s consent before starting the counselling process, explaining the goals, procedures, and risks involved. The client must also be informed of their right to terminate the counselling process at any time and for any reason.

Counsellors must also be aware of cultural and diversity issues when working with clients from different backgrounds. They must respect the client’s cultural values, beliefs, and practices and avoid imposing their own cultural biases. Counsellors must also be aware of the potential power dynamics that can exist between the client and themselves and strive to create an equal and collaborative relationship. Counselling is an inseparable part of the process where the true stories of marginalized communities shall play a crucial role in social justice.

Lessons to be Learnt

Sri Lanka can learn a lot from other countries in terms of storytelling and its potential for promoting reconciliation, empathy, and understanding. For example, in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a forum for survivors of the residential school system to share their stories and promote healing. The Commission’s final report emphasized the importance of storytelling in advancing reconciliation and recommended that the education system include indigenous history, culture, and perspectives.

Similarly, in Rwanda, the Gacaca courts provided a space for victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide to share their stories and promote reconciliation. The courts were designed to be community-led and focused on restorative justice rather than punishment. Through the process of storytelling and dialogue, many individuals were able to reconcile and move forward.

Resource persons and Participants during the residential training for real life story writing [ Photo Credit: Sri Lanka College of Journalism]

The aforementioned instances provide empirical evidence on the potency of storytelling to foster comprehension and reconciliation, hence serving as a paradigm for Sri Lanka’s own efforts towards reconciliation. Sri Lanka could implement storytelling and dialogue programs in schools and communities, emphasizing the promotion of empathy, comprehension, and reconciliation amongst diverse ethnic and religious groups. Such an initiative could dismantle prejudiced beliefs and encourage better comprehension among different communities.

Moreover, Sri Lanka can exploit its rich cultural heritage of storytelling and assimilate it into its reconciliation endeavours. The country has a longstanding oral storytelling tradition, which could be leveraged to cultivate understanding and dialogue between different groups. By accentuating shared values and common themes, such as community, empathy, and compassion, Sri Lanka could work towards fostering a more cohesive and comprehensive society.

Quoting the insightful words of Steve Jobs, we are reminded that the storyteller wields tremendous power. “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” As Jobs observed, the storyteller has the ability to shape the vision, values, and agenda of entire generations to come. This underscores the importance of storytelling as a means of creating positive change and promoting shared understanding.

Undoubtedly, storytelling is of paramount significance in advancing reconciliation and comprehension. Sri Lanka can capitalize on both international and domestic examples, including its own cultural traditions, to harness the potential of storytelling in promoting healing, empathy, and a peaceful future.

Sri Lanka Guardian

The Sri Lanka Guardian is an online web portal founded in August 2007 by a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens including journalists, activists, academics and retired civil servants. We are independent and non-profit. Email: editor@slguardian.org

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