‘The stories we tell’: a District Six Museum symposium

by | 17 Oct 2017 | Uncategorized

Walk of Rememberance 01819 – 21 October 2017

’It is the storyteller who makes us who we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have – otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.’’ (Chinua Achebe)

Storytelling has always been at the heart of District Six Museum’s work since its formation. Stories of pain and loss, survival and resilience, and dreams of returning to a much-loved place, have fuelled its vision and mission.

The Museum has been one of the main advocates for promoting storytelling as a tool for healing, knowledge-making, activism, education, community-building and personal growth – and its ever expanding oral history archive bears testimony to that.

At the same time, storytelling is in danger of being branded as the panacea for all our political and social imperfections. While not denying its healing potential, this is only one aspect of its impact and value. Processes such as that undertaken by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have done much to reinforce this association between storytelling and healing, sometimes glossing over material conditions such as land restitution and economic redress, which need to change in order for healing to continue.

Storytelling has also become a fashionable business tool. High-end storytelling retreats generate good income for entrepreneurs, and many businesses are using storytelling techniques to brand their products. While not denying its validity in these other contexts, we have felt the need to reassert the power of storytelling as practiced and facilitated by the Museum and others, as distinct from storytelling in business  contexts. We have felt the need to reflect on the challenges which we face in dealing with the multi-dimensional stories of our country, many of which are struggling to be heard. We would also like to draw on lessons learnt from practitioners who might not have had the opportunity to reflect on their own practices.

This symposium will experiment with and demonstrate various knowledge-making formats which includes the presentation of papers and case-studies, panel presentations, practical workshops, storytelling site walks, world café format and performances. It will be largely participant-driven.

What drives your storytelling practice?

In a recent book with the title ‘Tell me how it ends, Valeria Luiselli says:

How do you explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell your story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity? How do you say: No, we do not find inspiration here, but we find a country that is as beautiful as it is broken, and we are somehow now a part of it, so we are also broken with it, and feel ashamed, confused, and sometimes hopeless, and are trying to figure out how to do something about all that.

The experience of District Sixers is called to mind by this quote. It reminds us that we need to both build and share our evolving understanding of how storytelling enables former residents to make sense of their own experiences of displacement and also in the process, reorganise their sense of themselves. At the same time, what means are available to those who choose not to express themselves verbally, or in public? What other modes are storytellers using as platforms to share and explore issues?

The Museum has always been mindful of looking beyond District Six, acknowledging that stories of different communities are intertwined and cannot be seen apart from each other. So while District Six is certainly the inspiration for much of the content of this symposium, it at the same time is an acknowledgement that the various stories of our country are indivisible.

Can the saying be true: ‘change the story and you change the world.’

Programme overview

There are still a few places available for each day, but registration is essential. Please use the link to REGISTER

Fee exemptions will be considered on request. Lunches, teas and materials including a conference pack, is included in the registration fee.

Ideally, participants should attend all 3 days, but for many people this is not feasible. Single day attendances are possible but need to be clarified at registration. In person registration takes place from 8h30 on each of the three days.

Please call 021 4667200 if you are not able to register online, or email districtsixmuseum.info@gmail.com

Day 1, Thursday 19 October

The Museum is committed to emphasising the inter-connectedness of the stories of our different communities, and will be having the opening day of the symposium at GugaS’thebe Cultural Centre in Langa.

‘So, what’s your story and how do you tell it?’ 

Modern storytellers have become adept at using different modes for the telling of stories. There are a number of web-based options which include pod-casts and YouTube uploads. There are curated storytelling experiences, and storytelling retreats designed to help you tell your story more effectively and to capture your audience. Then there are the everyday stories of resilience and survival told in the quotidian, non-curated spaces encountered by many people, which are soul-destroying in their seemingly endless repetitive narrative in which change does not seem apparent. And then there are the many stories that we might never get to hear as people live their lives ‘of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them. (David Thoreau)

SESSION 1: 9h30 – 13h00

The speakers in this opening session of the symposium are all involved in creating various storytelling platforms to bring about change in one way or another. They range from being involved in dance, drama, radio, writing, video, storytelling projects and museum education. They will be asked to reflect on their particular practice, share some of their insights into what they are doing, and say something about the  change they believe themselves to be effecting.

The format of this session will take the form of two panels, with time being set aside for questions or discussion. The panel will take the form of a relaxed ‘talk-show’ format.

SESSION 2: 14h00 – 15h15

Walking the Langa landscape

SESSION 3: 15h15 – 17h00

‘What’s your story?’ Group session 

Day 2, Friday 20 October

This session will take place at the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre.

SESSION 1: 9h30 – 12h45

Ethics and voice: ‘Who tells whose story?’ 

Many people we have met in the Museum recall how they have been approached by journalists or researchers who are keen to hear their stories. They recall being convinced that the world needed to hear their stories and conceded to being interviewed. While mostly the experiences are positive an cathartic, they are not always so.

Many are left with the uncomfortable residue of having embarked down a path of memory that had not been visited in a very long time. The road to healing through storytelling is not a simple linear process and there are many difficulties along the way.

These feelings are exacerbated on occasions when interviewers disappeared after gathering the required information, without proper after-care and without discussion about where the stories would find their way. People who chance encounter their stories in places that had not been negotiated with them – journals, documentaries, articles, etc – experience further distress and often regret availing themselves so freely to be interviewed. They are left wondering whether the need to get their stories ‘out there’ trumps the need to be treated with consideration and respect.

This is just one kind of scenario: there are a number of others where the tellers of stories have felt robbed of their agency after the process of telling had been complete.

in this session we will touch on these and other related issues and will draw on participants’ collective experiences and learn from their strategies of dealing with them. We will also spend some time reflecting on some of the limitations and losses associated with digital storytelling notwithstanding its potential power as a medium and platform.

SESSION 2: 13h45 – 17h00

Storytelling landscapes: reflecting on practice

As storytelling practitioners we invite stories in, invoke them and facilitate them. Some of us tell our own stories to show solidarity, to create security and to reflect on our own process for future practice. Our storytelling practice is rooted in people and their sense-making, but it is also inextricably linked to those landscapes we inhabit, those which we hope to occupy and those we dream about. In working with people who have experienced the shock of being torn from their communities and physical spaces, often we invoke the landscape / site /place as a mnemonic device through which to shape stories and histories. Through the landscape / site /place we foreground certain narratives and hide others from view. We craft ways to mark our physical presence in the landscape / site / place, but also accept the temporary nature of this movement through space.  Landscape / site / place represent an interconnected web of relations that connects people across space and time. How do we reflect on the interconnectedness through storytelling practice? What have been the celebrations and the setbacks in connecting ourselves, through storytelling, back into a community landscape? Where is the site of memory located?

Recent and past public art interventions in District Six have foregrounded the interconnectedness between the performance of memory through creative expression, the archive and site. While reflecting on this practice during this session, the aim is primarily to generate a discussion about the dynamics of storytelling at sites that have a particular genesis in the Group Areas Act – as places people were removed from and relocated to.

This session will involve a short walk to a site which is currently in the process of being memorialised, some stories from other sites and a mapping exercise.

17h00 – 18h00

‘Memories of the East City’ site walk OR Self-guided tour of District Six Museum

18h00 – 20h15

Supper Club with ‘Jitsvinger’

This forms part of the Symposium programme but some tickets will be available to others not attending the Symposium (R100)

Day 3, Saturday 21 October

This session will take place at the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre.

SESSION 1: 9h30 – 12h45

We’re all connected through stories – telling stories through food.

The Museum as a repository of memory has intensely engaged in projects that draw upon stories and storytelling as key heritage and knowledge resources.

The recent publication of the District Six Huiskombuis Food and Memory Cookbook is a culmination of a 10 year process that demonstrates the Museum’s memory methodology  as an interdisciplinary experiential platform. It is one of a number of projects that challenge conventional ways of memorialisation.

The session will introduce the District Six Huiskombuis Food and Memory Cookbook project. Participants will share their memories through food stories and their relationship to family recipes and sensory culinary traditions of District Six. They will reflect upon the project as a space for creative restoration and it relevance for making new memories.

The session will include ‘performing food’ and sampling of a few dishes.

SESSION 2: 13h45 – 17h00

Constructing stories of the past for restitution and social justice

This session aims to provide a space for the performance, further excavation of and discussions about narratives that link the past and memory to struggles for social justice in the city today. It will explore how the past continues to live in the present and the many ways in which contestations about socio-economic issues today like, #feesmustfall; #reclaimthecity; #affordablehousing; #unitebehind; #service delivery; #restoringhumanity; #equaleducation; #educationforall; #peoplenotprofit, are the unfinished campaigns of the mass movement against apartheid.

We will revisit, through personal and organisational narratives: (1) how this movement was enriched by culture, sport and popular education and explore how a particular approach that was grassroots, non-racial; anti-racist and non-sexist energised many local spaces like schools, libraries, civic centres, backyards and streets, and (2) how expressive artists and popular educators use individual or collective memories of the past to stimulate contemporary discussions and contestations for social justice. We will further explore the intersection between restitution and social justice.

13h45 – 15h30

It will start with a 6 participant panel who will share their stories of working with narratives from the past. The idea is to illuminate the SA historical timeline — pre-colonialism, colonialism, apartheid and democracy, all along reflecting on the evolution of inequality and resistance that illustrate narratives of restitution and/or social justice.

This will lead into two parallel sessions

15h30 – 16h30


A film screening – the Paulo Freire story OR  a workshop facilitated by Javier Perez (C.Y.P.H.E.R) : ‘the body as both library and sanctuary: writing poetry as praxis of self-love’


Finger supper and closing