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Harnessing the power of story-telling to combat racism

In 1989 my mum’s ex-husband was a diplomat working for the World Health Organisation in Ghana. So I moved with my mum from The Gambia to the land of my birth, Ghana, that I had been away from since I was three years old.


There was the raging famine in the Horn of Africa and TV screens were full of images of emaciated women holding even more emaciated babies with flies on their faces. Thousands of images like these.


I could not imagine a person from those countries who was not starving.


One day a lady turned up to meet my step-father. She was Somalian. This was the first time I had seen a Somalian apart from the images I saw on TV. Unlike the images on TV she was tall, beautiful, intelligent, and articulate. It was a moment of cognitive dissonance. She did not match the images I was used to seeing on TV and that confused me for a moment.


From then on, I realised that there was always another story. I realised I must never accept a story from just one source but to look for an alternative voice, especially the voice which did not have as much power.


At that moment I knew I would be a story teller, so I could tell alternative stories.


I came to England to study English and Literature as a means of becoming a story teller. After a couple of terms at King Alfred’s College (now Winchester University) I realised studying the English Language and Literature would do me no good if I took a degree in those subjects home to The Gambia.


So I moved to the drama and theatre course in my second year.


It still was not clear how I would become a story teller—maybe TV or film. But it would not be in the UK. Because I had come to realise I would never get the opportunity to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, the stories that mattered to me, alternative stories, stories that brought the marginalised to the forefront in a way that was free of censure. I would not have the space to have my own voice.


So seven days after I received my BA Honours Degree I returned to The Gambia at age 24.


I set up the country’s first independent production company producing film and TV programmes. I thought about creating a TV programme which featured The Gambia. I decided that my stories would only show positive aspects of the country. It was a conscious editorial decision, the same one made in editor’s offices in news and production studios all over the world. I thought if anyone needs to find out bad news about The Gambia, all they have to do is go to CNN or BBC - there was enough bad news there.


So my show Gambia Beat, featured Gambian women, music, art, tourism, achievers and so on. My company produced 24 30 minute episodes of Gambia Beat screened across Africa via MNET, on Gambia TV and on Original Black Entertainment TV in the UK.


Having moved back to the UK and running Junior Filmmakers, a film training organisation for young people, I wanted to do something special for Black History Month 2018 in Milton Keynes. I wanted to tell stories of people who contributed to the fabric of the city but were unseen or ignored and who in 50 years, when the history of Milton Keynes was being retold would not feature as having been here.

Also inspired by the movie Hidden Figures, I created the project Hidden Stories. The project saw young people from Milton Keynes produce six films which featured six black pioneers in Milton Keynes. The project was a great success and featured on the BBC in 2018 and 2019.

The films, ‘Hidden Stories’, can be watched on the YouTube Channel -- Junior Filmmakers Official


Milton Keynes Council picked up the project in early January 2020 and we renamed it ‘The Black Pioneers of Milton Keynes’. They commissioned one additional story to be added to the collection and so we produced in total seven stories featuring black people who have contributed positively to the development of Milton Keynes.

The Mayor and some of the Black Pioneers at the opening of The Black Pioneers of Milton Keynes exhibition organised by Milton Keynes Council in January 2020 I did this because stories are important. Story telling is a powerful devise which includes people and perspectives it wants to include and excludes the rest.


To underpin, uphold and provide validity to this issue of racism there needs to be an accompanying narrative which places one set of people over another set of people. Therefore stories like the Hidden Stories series are produced to counter this narrative. To say there is another side to the story- There is another side that is just as valid.

Of course stories like these find it difficult to become part of the mainstream narrative because the mainstream narrative has so many of its stories so it can choose to ignore these but we persist in telling them.

I decided I wanted to make the project of Hidden Stories a national project and produce stories of individuals who had contributed nationally to the development of the UK. The Heritage Lottery Fund had provided the funding of £10,000 for the first series so I went back to them and asked for £100,000 to produce the project on a national scale. They of course backed away. As a black run organisation, I can handle small pots of £10,000 but for £100k I should partner with a white- led organisation. Even though they could see the remarkable success of the project they had given me funding for, they would not trust me with a more meaningful and impactful budget.

And this is another reason we struggle to tell our stories, to have a narrative alongside and even challenging to the mainstream. The organisations with the funding do not provide meaningful funding to enable us to do so. The funding organisations like Arts Council will say we want BAME to take part in ‘High Art’. But what is ‘High Art’. It is only ‘High Art’ because you fund those organisations and give us BAME organisations peanuts. Give us the same amount of money and watch our Art become ‘High Art’.

But this does not happen and so our stories remain untold and hidden. And society is all the poorer for it.

And we have the additional burden of having organisations meant to help us change the narrative who have no understanding of what to do and simply content themselves with operating within the confines of familiarity and non-challenging frameworks.

On the very same mission, I approached the Africa Centre in London to back the production of an online TV series featuring and celebrating people of African heritage who have and are contributing positively to the development of the UK. They of course said no. How do they help us to change the narrative? Story telling is key. Stories which tell our young people ‘you are valid you have a right and you do not need to be grateful for it’. And stories that tell white people ‘we are just as valid and we need to operate from a place of mutual respect and nothing less’.

I am a story teller. I can see how story-telling and the persistent narrative of the West has deliberately and consistently developed and created a narrative which presents black people as less than white people and unless we retell those stories or tell new stories which enforce the humanity of black people we will remain a long way off from equality. Author: Nana Ofori-Atta Oguntola, EMBA W: www.nanaoguntola.me W.www.juniorfilmmakers.co.uk Socials: Nana Oguntola

#storytelling #identity #racism #power #voices

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