A group of University of Pretoria (UP) students is working with other community groups in Mamelodi to pilot a storytelling project aimed at helping secondary school learners share sensitive stories with their teachers using a mix of storytelling mediums and “storytelling boxes”. The idea for the programme was born from a need for creative ways for learners to make sense of, and then share with teachers, some of the struggles they face.
The students involved came from three UP disciplines, namely Occupational Therapy, Engineering, and Architecture, and they worked collaboratively on the project at the school during the 2022 academic year. The students piloted the storytelling project after hearing that the learners were experiencing a reduced sense of safety and belonging, fuelled by an increase in substance abuse and other social problems in their environment.
Occupational Therapy students Cassandra Boyazoglu and Boitumelo Rapolai, Engineering students Nicolette Botha, Stacey Maimba and Niso Mbhele, and Architecture student Kirstin Niebuhr worked together to develop and launch the project. They were supported by Helga Lister, coordinator of the Occupational Therapy Department’s community engagement activities, and Judith Mahlangu, community liaison in Mamelodi. The school stakeholders included the principal, learner support team, register teachers, and Life Orientation teachers. Members of COSUP (Community Oriented Substance Use Programme), a partnership between UP and the City of Tshwane, also participated in the programme planning, together with Dr Martina Jordaan, head of community engagement research and postgraduate studies on UP’s Mamelodi Campus.
UP students Nicolette Botha, Cassandra Boyazoglu, and Boitumelo Rapolai with some of the storytelling boxes decorated by secondary school learners in Mamelodi.
“When Boitumelo and I were placed at the school, we quickly developed a relationship with some of the learners through the storytelling project,” Boyazoglu says. “This experience has helped us develop in many different spheres of our lives and has afforded us the chance to help the learners grow and develop in theirs.”
Learners and staff told the students that some of the learners are navigating multiple injustices and human rights violations in their daily lives. “These include gender-based-violence and bullying. Some of the learners themselves have started using illicit substances and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, which has had a significant impact on their daily functioning, especially their schoolwork.”
The learners told the UP students they don’t always feel comfortable telling teachers about sensitive issues and problems they face. “The teachers are therefore unaware of the household and social situations in which the learners live, and have not been able to effectively guide and support them.”
Boyazoglu says the storytelling project creates new ways for learners to share their stories with their teachers and peer supporters. “The stories are shared in an indirect manner if they are uncomfortable with reaching out for help personally. Storytelling boxes will be placed in the learner support container (an outside shipping container) and serve as the medium for getting the learners’ stories to the teachers and the support team.”
The learners decorated the boxes during occupational therapy group sessions held at the school to help them develop a sense of ownership of the boxes. The Life Orientation teachers requested that the project be piloted with the school’s Grade 11 learners. The teachers were educated on different ways in which the learners can share their stories, including writing, drawing, or other creative means. A group of approximately 40 Grade 11 learners were trained and given the opportunity to write their stories during the final occupational therapy group session for 2022.
“They reported that the group gave them the opportunity to share their voices and express themselves in a way in which they had never previously been able to,” Rapolai says. “The rest of the Grade 11 learners will be given time to express their stories during their scheduled Life Orientation classes, and will thereafter be able to place their stories in the boxes. The school’s Peer Supporter will be responsible for going through the learners’ stories and helping the children in the best way possible.”
Peer educators from COSUP sites in Mamelodi have made themselves available to support the Peer Supporter and learners throughout the storytelling process, and the teachers involved will be trained in the use of the storytelling boxes through a Storytelling Box Guide developed by the Occupational Therapy students.
Boyazoglu says, “The stories provide qualitative information about community members’ lived experiences and, if learners would like to, the stories could perhaps be shared through the Mamelodi Campus Digital Storytelling Hub. This is a virtual platform created to help community stories gain a greater audience. We hope that this new storytelling project helps the lived realities of community members reach the ears of policymakers and programme coordinators, to bring about sustainable change.”