Storytelling unlocks the prison of the mind
Credo Mutwa-inspired Khulisa Social Solutions deploys storytelling to promote self-esteem and identity among young people, writes Struan Douglas
Built on a foundation of African storytelling first inspired by Credo Mutwa’s book, Indaba My Children, Khulisa Social Solutions was founded by Lesley Ann van Selm 21 years ago.
After reading the book in 1986, Van Selm made contact with Mutwa and they spent the next 13 years working together. They travelled to Australia, Bolivia, Peru and England to explore the many similarities between ancient cultures, and documented Mutwa’s rich knowledge of African folklore, fables, myths and legends.
In August 1997, Mutwa and Van Selm were in Australia with an Aboriginal community when a message arrived from Kensington Palace with an urgent request from Princess Diana to meet with Mutwa.
"Credo sometimes lamented his gift of seeing the future as a curse. He did not know how to respond to her request because she would be dead before he could get to their meeting," recalls Van Selm.
"Diana was the only person I had ever known Credo to truly idolise; to speak of so adoringly, to put on a pedestal and to revere with all his heart."
The incident became a trigger for Van Selm and Mutwa to narrow down their many and extensive creative ideas into a singular focus: storytelling therapy in prisons. Together they conceptualised Usiko, a therapeutic offender intervention. Storytelling would be a means of rehabilitation and self-renewal, instilling self-esteem and identity, in particular among young people. It would also be used to develop skills, create jobs and promote a spirit of sustainable entrepreneurship.
Usiko was tested at the Soweto-based Walter Sisulu Child and Youth Care Centre and in October 1997 the project launched at Leeuwkop Juvenile Prison. Mutwa read his stories to the youth and analysed their lives through the drawings they made. His words to the inmates included: "I am asking you to be proud of who you are.
"Amongst you are future teachers, doctors and engineers. The greatest weapon to combat crime is culture, for it is really a window to our soul."
During the five-day programme, Leeuwkop juvenile section was transformed from a place of hopelessness to one of revived energy.
Sharing stories exposed human connections and helped to build resilience. When their stories were listened to and interpreted, the real needs of the individuals could be identified.
"Something magical was happening," recalls Van Selm. "The inmates were transforming the world around them. Their beliefs and the way they interpreted the story dictated the way things worked for them.
Something magical was happening. The inmates were transforming the world around them. Their beliefs and the way they interpreted the story dictated the way things worked for them.Lesley Ann van Selm
"It was through this experience that we realised that, collectively, an enormous capacity existed to change the attitudes and therefore the circumstances of young offenders."
The juveniles at Leeuwkop became agents of change. They created a newspaper, Masibambane (let’s work together), published an anthology of stories and a journal, Cries Without Tears. Many now provide mentoring to youth at risk. Van Selm remains in touch with 16 of the founding Khulisa members.
The juvenile storytelling project has been extended to more than 100 prisons nationally, reaching 800,000 offenders primarily through peer drug and HIV/Aids education programmes. Khulisa uses Mutwa’s stories to inspire tales from the programme’s beneficiaries as an entry point into learning and the development of resilience and empathy. The programmes are adapted to ethnic groups and literacy levels.
They are also used by Khulisa in the UK and Australia.
During September, which is International Month of Albinism, Khulisa partnered with the Miss Albinism Zimbabwe Trust established by Brenda Mudzimu to use storytelling as a key therapeutic intervention.
The programme plans to expand into Nigeria, Botswana, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Guinea, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Kenya, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.