The Wisdom is in the Room
Today we’re talking with Nikole Lim, co-founder and international director of Freely in Hope, an organization offering educational opportunities and leadership development programs to survivors of sexual violence in Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa. She is also a photographer who speaks and teaches about responsible storytelling, and has done powerful work on finding beauty in the broken places, and the role of storytelling in restoration and liberation.
As we have advocated for the notion that storytelling should be respectful and dignifying vis a vis the person about whom the story is told, Lim’s work and experiences have shown that the act of telling one’s story can even be a form of empowerment—a way to reclaim one’s voice, one’s sense of identity, and agency after violation. We asked her to explain more about how this process works, and she has graciously shared her perspective with us here.
Photo credit: Szefei/Shutterstock
TFS: Too often in NGO work, we see victim’s stories told in a way that may be disempowering, that sees them uni-dimensionally as victim, or maybe even worse, trying to extract mileage for someone else’ agenda without respect to the person involved. Can you talk a little bit about flipping that dynamic on its head? How can storytelling become a form of empowerment?
NL: What I’ve learned in terms of how to share stories that are not my own—a little bit of background context: I work with survivors of sexual violence in Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa and I’ve learned through their own empowering stories—it is the process of story telling itself that has given power back to them. They were able to take back from the perpetrator and reclaim their lives again through the power of storytelling. In addition, by actually vocally speaking out their story, they’re then giving power to others who may have experiences similar circumstances. In observing this dynamic of giving out stories and then receiving others’ stories in return, I saw that survivors were able to reclaim their sense of identity by giving voice to that which is unspeakable. A lot of times perpetrators or rapists have tried to take away the voices of survivors by telling them, “Don’t tell anyone what happened, you’re nothing but a piece of shit, you’re not worth anything, and if you tell anyone, no one will ever believe you anyway.” Things like that, that are even perpetuated by rape culture, begin to be a felt belief until the voice of the survivor is able to reclaim it. That process of reclaiming, that process of giving voice to everything that was deeemed unspeakable is what’s able to give that sense of empowerment back to the survivor.
Technically, I’ve seen this done in two ways. One in how we use our language and how we use certain words within our storytelling. For example, in our community, in Freely in Hope, the organization that I work with, we don’t use the word victim. We say someone is victimized, someone has been victimized. But in labeling them as victim, it often means that we are seeing them in certain way as victim, and not seeing them in the way they could become, such as survivor or someone who could thrive or someone is beyond the circumstances that once oppressed them. In the same way, using words like orphan or prostitute, we have learned that again those are labels, labels that have defined people in way to subjugate them, only to that specific demographic of people group. So what we would say is that the child has been orhaned, the woman is working in prostitution, so that we can remember that these are still children, these are still women, these are still men, these are humans that are still worthy of power.
If we can perceive people, through language, as their best selves, not as culture, or as the media, or as the more Westernized oppressors have deemed people to be, if we can perceive people as they truly are, their inate sense of dignity, then that also changes the way our story is structured about other people. In our community we believe that dignity is something that can’t be taken away by poverty, violence or oppression. It is an inherent gift from God. If we believe that inherent dignity is within every single human being, we won’t call them words that we wouldn’t want to be called, we wouldn’t tell their story in a way that we wouldn’t want our story told because we see them in a higher light.
Also, it’s about voice. Recognizing the survivor voice, or recognizing the voice of those who are in oppression. A lot of times the storytellers, especially for me being an American working in the NGO world internationally, use this term, “I’m the voice for the voiceless.” I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with saying “we are being a voice for the voiceless” but I wonder if we shifted that to being a voice with the voiceless. Then again we’re not trying to take the voices from them, but we’re allowing them to share their story in the way they want to and partnering together, advocating together with their voices, and sharing their story that way. I think that’s more empowering than trying to tell it on their behalf.
TFS: Do you find shifting the language like this helps put the responsibility in a more correct place?
NL: I think it allows them to realize that even though certain words of negativity and shame has been placed upon them, that is not what defines them. One of my very first survivors that I started working with when she started going to school, getting her own sense of autonomy working in the NGO field, said something to me that I’ll always remember: “I’m no longer a victim, I’m a survivor. As a survivor, what I want to do is commit my life to helping other women lead.” I feel like for a lot of survivors, as they enter in the sense of empowerment and autonomy, their sense of being a survivor goes beyond them. That’s the shift from victim into survivor, survivor into leader.
I think that dynamic is really important, so that if they can early on view themselves not as victim but as survivor, or not as a victim but as a leader,that transition would accelerate a bit more, or they can see themselves in the state that they want to become a lot sooner, and they can always draw on that as the sense of hope for themselves.
TFS: Have there been any stories of transformation that have truly grabbed you and stayed with you?
NL: One of my girls when I first met her, she was 17 years old and she could not speak. Literally. She came for an interview to assess if she’d be a good fit for our scholarship program. When she came, she came with her mother, and every question that I would direct at her, she would not say a word, her mother would answer for her. Every time I would look at her and ask her what she wanted to become, no answer, her mother would answer on her behalf, and she could not look me in the eye.
In our programs, we began to educate her, we got her through high school and then she went to university, and it was in her very first year in university that she began to speak because all her life, people in the slum told her, “You’re not even going to finish 8th grade. You’re going to die on the streets like all the other children because you’re not worth anything.” So for her to get to university was such a big milestone. And not only getting to university, but after her first semester she was at the top of her class. That made her wonder, “what else can I do with my life if everything that everyone has ever told me was a lie? What can I now do?” Believing in the possibility of doing something beyond what the oppression around her was feeding her, is when she began to regain her sense of identity, and that’s when she told us her story.
When she was 13 years old, her friend invited her to a party which was actually a setup, and at that party she was gang-raped. After that, when she turned 14, there was post-election violence here in Kenya, and during the post-election violence, a gang of opposition tribe broke into her house and gang-raped her and her friend. After that, she noticed that she was pregnant. So she aborted the pregnancy. In Kenya, abortions are illegal, and so she did it undercover, under the table, almost died through the pregnancy. A couple of weeks later, she got super, super sick, so she went back to the hospital, and realized that she was carrying twins, so the abortion aborted one child but the other was still stuck in her womb. After that fetus was removed, she was tricked into working in prostitution. She worked in prostitution from 8th grade into high school, to pay for her school fees, pay for her mom’s medication, and also to pay for the tuition for two of her nieces that were abandoned by AIDS. So she was working in prostitution, doing whatever she could to ensure that she went to school, her mom was taken care of, and making sure her nieces were also going to school. So by the time she got to me, of course she didn’t trust anyone. But of course I didn’t know that at the time.
And so as she began to tell me her story, she started realizing the power of her voice. As she went through university, we had a conference for International Day of the Girl. Because she was being a lot more vocal about her story, I invited her to speak on behalf of the girl child and share her story to relate to any girl child in the room and to also encourage and empower someone else that might be dealing with the same situation. She shared her story for the first time publicly, with such power and authority, recognizing that even though terrible things happened to her, it no longer made her who she is. Or it made her who she is but it didn’t define her. And for her that actual vocal sharing of the story in a public format helped her realize how important her story was not only for her sake in giving voice to the unspeakable but also for the hundreds of children that were in the room. So as the girls began coming up to her and identifying with different parts of her story, that’s when she started to realize the power in her story.
TFS: Do you think part of the empowerment process is calling out this is what happened to me, and simple fact of stating that this is a truth and that it happened, and the fact that it moves from silence to spoken is an empowering step?
NL: We always say that recognizing your voice is the first step to healing, so first you have to recognize that you do have a voice. And in that is where the story has the potential to come out. So yeah, we believe that part of that process is giving public voice to it. And it doesn’t mean public voice to hundreds of people, but public voice to someone else. When it’s given to someone else and it’s heard, that person is able to affirm that this is what happened to you, and it doesn’t define you, it is creating you into who you’re becoming, but it’s not your fault. Being able to share that publicly also gives voice to everything that was silenced.
TFS: What kind of “tools” do you bring to bear to help victims come to a more empowered place vis a vis their story?
NL: For us programmatically, the majority of my staff are survivors of either sexual or domestic violence, and so the fact that they’re the ones doing the program work directly with our community is crucial because in seeing survivor-leaders as role models, that’s when they’re able to reimagine a new life for themselves. That is a key component of our programs. As our staff are more open, authentic in sharing their own stories of surviving violence, that also helps our survivors see another image of themselves and hope to attain that. That’s the thing with the survivors that I’ve worked with, all of them, always, after they regain their sense of identity, they always want to go to the community so that no other girl will have to suffer for the same silence that they had. That no other girl will think that she is living under the oppression that the perpetrator said she is. So that no other girl will think of themselves as an unworthy person who can only work in prostitution, or will only be an orphan, or only be a victim of rape. Instead, they can thrive through education, leadership and achieving their dreams.
Secondly, it is also that practice of telling that story in community, encouraging other survivors in community, and continually talking about this work that you’re passionate about. We have a program in the slum called Kibera, which is the largest slum in all of eastern Africa, second largest in Africa as a whole. In Kibera, we work with high school students, both boys and girls. We talk about sexual violence prevention. So we talk about what is sexual violence, what is consent, what does the UN define sexual violence as, how do you heal from the trauma that you’ve experienced. And these programs are led by our survivor-leaders. And so as they’re out in the community, engaging with people who’ve experienced similar stories, that mutual sharing is what allows the survivors to move forward together and find healing together.
TFS: What are some key ways we can dismantle old paradigms that are exploitative and re-envision new ones that might led to greater liberation?
NL: I think the first step is, whoever the storyteller is, as the outsider, you have to learn to identify in stories that are not your own, by putting yourself in the same position, imagining if it were me, how would I like to be represented and listening carefully to the sense of strength, hope and dignity that is always present in the stories. But that isn’t what’s leveraged in stories, it’s always the disparity. Yes disparity happens, yes war happens, yes these terrible things happen. But if we only focus on those things, then it makes it seem like that’s the end of the story for that person, which is not true. There’s always hope, there’s always healing, there’s always strength, there’s always dignity and love that’s able to come out of dark situations. If the storyteller is able to recognizethat maybe I didn’t go through that same experience, but I can relate in the commonality that makes us all human: feelings of guilt, feelings of shame, blaming ourselves for crimes we didn’t commit, feeling violated. Those are things that we can all identify with. So finding the common points of identification, I think is the first step for a storyteller that is telling a story that is not their own.
Second, I think after the story is being told, have it approved by the subject themselves. I think that is never or rarely done. If we could have that as a mutual practice, to have the story approved, letting them see, “Hey this is how I represented you, do you feel that I represented you well?” And getting their feedback to co-create the story together, because again, as a storyteller, the story is not yours. You don’t have power over it. And so giving power and authority back to the survivor themselves, working together to articulate it in the way that is most empowering to them I think would be a beneficial practice.
TFS: Do you have any other guidelines for how allies can effectively use their platform to raise up authentic, marginalized voices without competing for them with space? How can allies ensure they’re helping and not contributing to marginalization?
NL: I think it goes back to the collaborative process. On a more technical standpoint, I would like to see more writers, photographers, filmmakers of color because their perspective intuitively would be very different from the Western, white perspective. So I think that could be a good step. NGOs could widen their platform with more storytellers of color because, by default, the perspective will be different. And also to ensure that all processes are collaborative with the person so they know exactly what the story is going to be used for, how they will be represented, how do they want to be represented, honoring that to ensure that it maintains their safety. So yeah, I think collaboration is key.
TFS: Is there anything you’d like to add or that you wish more people knew?
NL: In facilitation practice, we always say that the wisdom is in the room. And if we really trust that the wisdom is in the room, I wonder if in learning to share other people’s stories, as a more external storyteller, we can learn to glean from the wisdom in the room of the person we’re interviewing, and see them as the sage and the person that needs to be uplifted. And that changes your perspective as storyteller of seeing yourself as someone who is beneath them, perhaps having them stand on your shoulders to again be that platform and raise up their voices in the way that they wanted to be represented. So the perspective shift requires not only us seeing the survivor in a different form, but also seeing ourselves in a different way, by being that platform and allowing the stories to stand on top of our shoulders rather than us trying to blast it from a megaphone. So envisioning ourselves more as the platform, more as the person that is under and trying to raise up, I think would require of us a practice of humility and listening to the wisdom that is not from us, but is from the person that we’re learning from.
Thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts with us! To learn more about Freely in Hope, visit their website: www.freelyinhope.org.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Research Writer and Executive Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She currently writes from Berlin.