The Stories We Tell

The Stories We Tell

Stories shape who we are as individuals and as a society. The shape the world is in has been influenced by the stories we have told ourselves about ourselves and about each other. Yet, it seems we don’t often give stories due consideration. We take it for granted that a story is just a story, and we collectively tell stories, every day, without a second thought as to their implications. Narrative shapes perceptions. Perceptions shape behaviour. But we tend to want to address behaviour as if it arises in a vacuum. What about the stories we bought into over the years that have had an indelible impact on the way we see the world, on how we see ourselves? We don’t pay much attention to them. And we punish, reward, or try to rectify behaviour when behaviour was created within the context of a narrative.

I recently read an interesting article that explored research by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The research focuses on how storytelling affects people in significant ways and “explores the neurobiology of listening to stories and how attitudes and behaviours can change as a result”. The research found that “a story may cause us to look at something in a new way and change our views about people, life and the world around us. Storytelling can change our behaviour, for the better or worse. The human tradition of storytelling has significantly influenced individuals, groups and societies.” (See more at:

Africa is a place that embraces storytelling as a tradition. Octavia Utley’s curriculum at the Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute explores how many cultures in Africa have rituals of oral storytelling. “Traditional storytelling in Africa reveals ideas, themes, beliefs, and facts that are widely spread,” she writes. ( How have the stories we have heard and told shaped our behaviour and ultimately the state of many African countries? How are the stories we continue to tell shaping how the rest of the world views Africa, and how others behave towards Africans and the continent in general? How do these stories and perceptions shape the rest of the world’s foreign policy towards Africa? There are so many layers to unravel. But one thing seems absolutely crystal clear. We need to revisit the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We need to revisit and unpack the stories others tell about us. We need to challenge our internal and exported narrative. Because that is where behaviour change begins. We must tell a new story, one that is more complementary of the Africa and of the world we all want to see. We must have these conversations early, before we get to the point where behaviour must be addressed.

Since the family is the nucleus of civilisation and the basic social unit of society, it is crucial that parents become aware of the stories that are told at home. We must be aware that the narratives our children are exposed to will in large part determine the role they play in their communities, and how they interact with their fellow human beings. Ultimately, the stories Jared and Thando hear at the dinner table will have a significant impact on the lives of all of our children. We have a responsibility, through these stories, to shape our children’s behaviour for the greater good. To do this, we need to live from a place of consciousness and fully acknowledge the power of the word, the power of images and sound, and the duty we have to ensure that the stories we tell create the kind of world that embraces the values of kindness, service, and oneness. A world that once and for all rejects the idea of “the other.”

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