Claske DIJKEMA, Grenoble, May 2009
Oral testimony as a tool for social change
Panos’ experience with collecting life stories.
While the word testimony can have a legal meaning, Panos uses it to describe the results of free-ranging, open-ended interviews around a series of topics, drawing on direct personal memory and experience.
Panos’ motivation for the use of this methodology is that testimonies:
Provide additional understanding and knowledge on complex issues and situations;
Their direct and personal nature is powerful in raising awareness and bringing development topics aliveare a means for communities to document their (otherwise unrecorded) history;
Amplify voices of marginalised individuals and communities;
Can be a more democratic way of collecting information from people compared to other methods of data collection;
In short, it gives a voice to those that are rarely heard. Interviewers do not use formal questionnaires, and narrators are encouraged to reflect upon the events they describe, and to give their views and opinions. Panos trains local people in its oral testimony methodology, so that interviewing is done in local languages, in relaxed settings, between people who share aspects of each other’s backgrounds. The interviews are recorded and then transcribed word-for-word into a local or national written language. Its partner organisations arrange for these transcriptions to be translated into English.
The Panos training manual « Giving voice: a practical guide to the implementation of oral testimony projects » gives guidelines how to use this method. A .pdf version can be requested free of charge on the Panos website [www.panos.org.uk/?lid=320]
Some purposes for which this manual can be used include teaching and student research, community and development work and journalism.
Online collections of oral testimonies
Panos’ Life stories program has used oral testimony to know more about how people live with poverty, what their survival strategies are, how people live in deserts, their experience of internal displacement and what it means to live and speak out about HIV. The testimonies have been collected for several purposes. In the case of displacement they have served policy-makers to better take into account the experiences of people for whom they make decisions. A selection of these testimonies can be found on the Panos London website.
One collection of testimonies deals with people living in mountainous areas in ten countries (1). It is special because literal transcriptions of the interviews can be found on the website which allow us to compare their stories according to country and according to theme. Gender and conflict are re-occurring themes. Conflict includes political and ethnic conflict, as well as activism and protest by, for example, trade unions and environmental movements. It touches on the issue of history and identity. Gender includes working patterns and roles; relationships and responsibilities; women’s status; customs and changes. It touches on education, family life, health, social change and social relationships. The full transcription of testimonies can be found on the Mountain voices website [www.mountainvoices.net]
Using oral testimonies in class-room
I use the testimonies in my courses on conflict analysis and intercultural knowledge because the testimonies show that THE truth does not exist. They show that many people have many different opinions, that often go contrary to our convictions. Dominic, who is farmer and village secretary in a small Zambian village, values for example traditional Tonga customs and regrets the fact that young people belittle them [www.panos.org.uk/?lid=4556] He says that there was greater unity when conflicts were resolved by traditional means within the community rather than going to the police and the courts. For European students the idea is surprising that police and courts can be experienced negatively by some people. The issue is not whether police and courts are either negative or positive changes in communities. The objective of reading these testimonies is the realisation that societies, in which students in international cooperation will operate, are complex and that people’s perception about changes matters. Development work, as part of international cooperation, exist of assisting people in development countries to make changes in their environment that increase their livelihood. For change to become sustainable, people should feel ownership over the process. Their opinion therefore matters in the evaluation of development projects.
In 1928 already, the sociologist William Thomas came to this conclusion, saying that: « if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences ». Judging what is true or false, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, useful or useless, is a cultural process, bound and full of specific pathways through time and space. Given the many differences in cultures, generations, class and between rural and urban settings, it is very important to train students in the complexity of people’s perception of history and change. The testimonies on Panos website can be a useful tool.
(1): Mexico, Peru, Lesotho, Kenya, Ethiopia, Poland, China, Nepal, Pakistan and India.