Seeing Our Stories Told: The Hero At The End of Your Story Is The Victim At The Start of Mine

I saw a movie this weekend which embodied so much of what we talk about when we discuss empowering people to tell their stories and prominently displaying their stories.

In documentary Liyana, South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe works with orphans in Swaziland to create a story as a way to help them process their trauma. As they go to work on creating the story, it is depicted in a gorgeous storybook illustration/animation. (Much to my surprise, there isn’t a print book. They are working on turning into a graphic novel.)

The film cuts back and forth between the animation, the orphans working with the storyteller, and telling Liyana’s story to interviewers. It is difficult to say which is more animated since the children (looking to be between 6-9 years old) narrate the action of the story with expansive gestures and vocalized sound effects.

The storyteller guides the children through a process that one might use in a U.S. classroom as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to instruction. (Unfortunately, a school in the U.S. would have to use “multi-disciplinary” as a rationale for engaging in such a time intensive project.)

Once they decide to name their hero Liyana, they assemble a picture of her from a collection of magazines. The children create animals out of mud (with much greater skill than I did as a kid) to represent the bull that accompanies Liyana on her quest to retrieve her twin brothers and the hyenas and crocodiles which threaten them on their journey. The illustration of the imaginary final monster closely resembles something they created from discarded metal found near the orphanage.

Unfortunately, Liyana’s life is a reflection of that of the orphans. Her father beats her mother and then both parents die of complications of the HIV virus, leaving her and her twin brothers in the care of their grandmother. We are told that of the 1.2 million people living in Swaziland, 200,000 are infected with HIV. Later we see the orphans being tested for the virus at a clinic.

Near the end, the children talk about how real life does not have a happy ending like many stories do. Part of me was hoping they had been coached to say that or things had been edited in that manner but I suspect that was a lesson they had already learned too well in their young lives.

Earlier in the movie, the storyteller asks them to decide why Liyana must leave her grandmother to make a journey. The first suggestion was that grandmother was sick and Liyana had to get medicine but the vote ultimately favored robbers came and kidnapped her twin brothers. I was wondering why they would choose the more severe of the two options when we learned the orphanage had recently been the target of a violent robbery. There were audible gasps and groans in the theater as the orphans calmly talked about how the robbers came in, held Liyana down and abused her.

It was a beautiful example of storytelling and story making. In addition to the more traumatic elements the process was meant to help the orphans deal with, you could easily identify the association between elements of the story and their lives.

Liyana is accompanied on her quest by a noble bull because the orphans care for cows and chickens. A grove of mango trees represented a life of ease that tempted Liyana from completing her quest because the orphans reveled in climbing mango trees and letting the juice run down their faces. It was the voice of a peacock sounding like Liyana’s grandmother that got her back on task.

I don’t want to give it away, but if there was anything that illustrated the value of people telling and seeing their own stories, it was the ending. For the children and the audience, it was a happy ending because it reflected an idealized vision of lives they could lead.

But in the U.S. the same basic scenario is synonymous with misery and is the starting point of many stories that the hero seeks to overcome. If the same storytelling program was run with orphans in the U.S. there would be a very different ending.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to Butts In The Seats and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

Leave a Comment

Send this to a friend