When we live and work overseas, like it or not we become spokespeople for those we’re working alongside and living among as we share their stories in our own circles. For me this was certainly true. Having recently returned from West Africa, I spent two years working in the Communications team on the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship that brings life-saving surgeries to some of the poorest people in the world. Bringing awareness to the needs of the patients was my job, a job that challenged me, inspired me, broke me and built me. But the biggest lesson I learned was that I had a responsibility to share their stories with dignity and market them with excellence.
Once I began to write, I recognised the danger of slipping into the same old story — the repetitive narrative that the West has heard over the years about Africa — that they need us and that we are their only solution to long term change. This was a hot and controversial topic during my time on board.
On a daily basis I grappled with choices about how to share people’s stories. Sometimes there was some resistance from medical staff, as it was so out of their comfort zone to let us take photos and share details about patients. You’re not allowed to do that back in your home country, they would protest, so why does working overseas change the rules? Did we think their confidentiality wasn’t as important as ours? Did we think they wouldn’t mind because they probably would never see the material?
As I wrestled with these questions, a patient reminded me why I was doing the job I was doing. A tumour weighing more than 8lbs (3.9kg) overwhelmed Charity’s face, disfiguring her beyond recognition. It was a miracle she was still alive. She almost didn’t make the journey for surgery from her village due to the shame involved in taking a passport photo in order to fly. Yet when she arrived at the ship and was surrounded by love, she slowly overcame her fear that everyone thought she was cursed. That’s when we stepped in and gently asked if we could share her story of healing with the world. Her answer blew us away: “Even if only one person like me is able to see these pictures and hear my story and it encourages them to seek help to save their life, it’s worth it.”
That’s what it was all about. We weren’t there to abuse their trust and share their personal details with everyone – we were there to give them a voice, to empower them to speak of their transformation, and to encourage others to seek help or donate and be a part of their healing.
But as time went on, I knew I was becoming too engrossed in the marketing agenda of my job. During my last few months I met a five-year-old girl with a flesh eating infection that had taken away her nose. When I was first introduced to her, I had to ask myself some difficult and challenging questions about ethical story-telling. Despite being a perfect candidate for marketing the work of the ship, I accidentally forgot to pitch her story at a team meeting. Accidentally or intentionally, I’m still not quite sure. My friendship with her had become my escape, and I relished the chance to visit her outside of my normal commitments under Communications.
I had no marketing agenda with her, I didn’t care if her mother said things that I couldn’t quote, and I wasn’t too fussed if I was never able to get a photograph of them as a ‘souvenir’ – I was just her friend and she was mine.
When I realised just how much I needed this, it confirmed that it was the right time to leave my role. I never wanted the people I built relationships with to be just work. I never wanted to have conversations only because I wanted them to say something golden. Everyone has a beautiful story to tell, even if it’s not marketable. I needed a break to remind myself of that.
Telling people’s stories when overseas is a privilege. I challenge you to ask yourself your motive when telling a story – are you hoping to share the shock factor with supporters back home? Are you subconsciously hoping to feel better about yourself and your own life? These are hard questions, but they keep us accountable when representing those we are serving. Hopefully you’re sharing their story because you are trying to break the stereotype and the ‘white saviour’ narrative that has dominated the western world for too long. We are all broken people and all fall short, yet we are all precious in the eyes of God.
So ask your precious brother or sister if you can share their story, perhaps even show it to them if possible, and give them an opportunity to be a part of it. Does your story give them a voice or have you created one for them?
How have you made decisions about what and how to share? How do you keep yourself accountable to representing well those you serve?