By Aziz Tworo, Regional Manager for Subsaharan Africa

It all began on a hot, busy afternoon in Uganda when I stumbled upon a photograph sent to me by a Peace First grantee. The sepia-toned image depicted a group of young girls in neat graduation gowns, standing behind an old house in a dusty village. My curiosity piqued, and I studied the photograph, hoping it might lead me to an intriguing tale.

The following week, I embarked on a journey to the dusty town captured in the photo. Upon arrival, I found the girls from the photograph working with sewing machines, their smiles even wider than those I had seen in the picture that brought me here. I approached cautiously, unsure of what to expect, but my apprehension swiftly gave way to excitement when a youthful young man welcomed me warmly.

As I introduced myself and showed him the photograph, his eyes filled with nostalgia. He introduced himself as Walter and revealed that the photograph was taken months ago during a joyous graduation event. Eager to share his memories, he invited me inside for tea and promised to recount the story behind the picture.

As the teapot whistled and the aroma of chamomile filled the air, Walter began to describe his organization and the joy that sewing machines brought. He had been motivated to set it up after his sister dropped out of school, because of the lack of sanitary pads, and she became pregnant. His words painted vivid pictures of laughter, love, pain, and hardship. He narrated the tale of how witnessing his sister’s experience inspired him to serve his community through an initiative that taught girls how to make reusable sanitary pads. He hoped these skills would help the girls manage their menstrual cycles safely and sustainably, allowing them to take advantage of their studies.

Intrigued by his story, I asked Walter if he could introduce me to other community members who could shed more light on their shared history. Over the next few weeks, I had the privilege of meeting Walter’s colleagues, friends, students, and community leaders. Each had a unique perspective and treasured memories to share, enriching the tapestry of the narrative.

Connecting the dots

Armed with abundant stories, I was now faced with the daunting task of weaving them into a coherent narrative. As I immersed myself in the lives of Walter’s community, patterns began to emerge — themes of resilience, love, sacrifice, and unbreakable bonds of kinship. These themes would serve as the story’s foundation, tying together the lives of generations past and present.

To add depth to the tale, I conducted extensive research on the historical events and cultural contexts that influenced the lives of Walter’s community. I delved into archives and records, unearthing forgotten details that had shaped their lives. The process of connecting these dots was as enthralling as it was enlightening.

After piecing together Walter’s community’s historical and cultural context, I realized that the story was more than the events. This experience and story were also about the emotions Walter’s work had stirred within the community. This led me to the next crucial phase of my storytelling journey:

Unraveling the emotions

Gathering a story goes beyond compiling facts and events; it requires understanding the human psyche. To truly capture the essence of the experiences, I needed to empathize with the emotions that each community member had experienced throughout their lives.

With permission, I conducted intimate interviews with these community members to explore their feelings, fears, and aspirations. Some spoke about the joy of using a sanitary pad, while others shared the pain of dropping out of school due to stigma. Each emotion was like a brushstroke on a canvas, adding color and depth to the evolving story.

As the story grew, so did the ethical dilemmas. The lives I was delving into were real, and I had to be mindful of the impact my storytelling might have on the individuals involved. Striking a balance between preserving the authenticity of the experiences and respecting their privacy was a tightrope walk that demanded careful consideration.

Before publishing, I shared the manuscript with Walter and other members of his community, seeking their consent and feedback. It was crucial to me that they were comfortable with their story being shared with the world. Their overwhelming support and gratitude for giving voice to their legacy reaffirmed the power of storytelling as a medium for preserving history and connecting generations.

What I learned

Gathering the story of Walter and his community was an extraordinary journey that taught me the true essence of storytelling. Beyond words on a page, stories are living entities that carry the weight of human emotions, experiences, and aspirations. As a budding storyteller, I am forever grateful for the privilege of unearthing these untold tales and weaving them into a narrative that resonates with readers, bridging the past and present, and leaving a lasting impact on all those who encounter it. The experience has instilled an unwavering belief in storytelling’s power to connect, inspire, and remind us of our shared humanity. The courage to tell untold stories isn’t just about retelling stories on your own but rather helping them find a home where more people can appreciate their intricate tapestry. Here’s what we came up with: