London at 6 a.m. can be a surprisingly quiet place, especially in the current times. Office workers rise slowly, not needing to race each other to the tube and through the city. As I pour myself a coffee, I hear bird song, and I’m grateful to be up so early. For the first time in many months, I have the feeling you get when you’ve stayed at a hotel for an important event. It doesn’t matter that I’m tip-toeing to my living room – anxious not to wake my son and spoil the mood – I open my laptop and I am there.
In Nairobi, the city has been awake for hours. For the facilitators, it is lunchtime already. Their energy for the rest of the day ahead kicks me into gear, much like my cup of coffee. We make our introductions, and if I concentrate hard enough, I feel almost as if I could be there in the room with them. As a group, we set our rules for the workshop. We will not check our phones, we will be present, we will listen to each other and be prepared to share openly. This setting of boundaries helps to bridge the distance between us; there are shared values, and responsibilities.
Our trainer, Tricia, takes us through a series of warm-up activities. These help to shake off any doubts about our storytelling abilities, they allow us to loosen up, to relax into the world of stories. There are no wrong answers here, only different perspectives, and ways of telling. As a group, we decide on a list of words to be included in a story we will make up on the spot. The resulting stories are wildly different, and the message sinks in that even with the same ingredients, a story can be told in a myriad of different ways. Next, we choose an image from a collection offered by Tricia. We make up a story based on the image, encouraged to think about what might have happened before and after the picture was taken, and from whose perspective we are retelling the story. The results are surprising and humorous; it is a joy to be lost in the world of storytelling.
As the workshop moves on, we begin to map out our own stories, the ones we will craft into digital stories. We take ‘the first time’, as our starting point. In my work as a researcher, and as a photographer, my interest and focus is always on other people’s stories. When Tricia texted me the night before the workshop, ‘You know, you’re going to be making a digital story too?, I was anxious that I would have nothing worth saying to say. I share the bones of my story, deciding that I would talk about the first time I remember not being able to put a book down. The facilitators, in Nairobi, listen attentively, and offer feedback which makes me feel that there might be some value in my story. As Kelvin has written, it is other people that build people; perhaps it is other people, and the kindness of the act of listening, that builds stories too.
As my story begins to take shape, I have two strong images in my mind. The first is my son’s best friend, who we will call ‘E’. She too is someone who cannot put a book down once she has started reading. I’m reminded of her as I narrate the story of myself reading – unstoppable – as a child. The second is my Mum; I owe to her my love of reading. Both have found a way, through digital technology, to keep on telling stories through lockdown. During play dates over Zoom, E will make up the most elaborate stories. I walk by my son’s room to hear spacecrafts coming down to land, countdowns, the groan of bed-springs as they imagine being in zero-gravity. She also reads to my son. At least a couple of years ahead in terms of reading age, she delights him with her ability to narrate, to do the funny voices and to read at pace. My Mum also reads over Zoom. During lockdown, this has been a way for her, otherwise known as ‘Mamgu’, to connect with her Grandchild who she misses so much. The digital enables her to read bedtime stories, my son snuggles under the covers as she gives the signal, ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’.
Over the course of the training, the digital enabled us to be present in the room together, despite being miles and miles apart. There were moments where technology failed us, a connection dropping out or responses to each other lagging a few seconds behind. Mostly, however, we caught up eventually, and through taking care to listen to each other, our stories took shape. We gave each other confidence to dig deeper into our stories, to find our flow and the places to pause or emphasise. Regardless of the geographical distance (6309 miles), it really felt as though we had a shared experience.