The Power of Words and Stories

“The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.'” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

Last week we went through a powerful Peace Corps training that broached the topic of serving in a post-war environment.

The war in Kosovo ended in 1999. I am not going to attempt to explain any Kosovar history on this blog. Anything I’d write would come from a very limited knowledge and a foreign perspective. Before I moved here, I read Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know by Tim Judah. I found it to be a fairly comprehensible book explaining a very complicated history.

In the training I attended, we talked a lot about the power of words and stories. We were asked to consider how words color what we think. Consider the word “conflict” versus the word “war.” Consider the word “killed” versus the word “murdered.”

We were warned not to adopt any one version of the story of Kosovo. There are many sides to the story. Many, many people on both sides of the war were deeply affected by what happened here.

During the training, we participated in a powerful exercise. We were asked to come up with a list of words that describe our own identities and personalities. We were then asked to choose a word or words from our list. I was one of the first people the facilitator called upon. I gave him my words: “good listener.”

“You are no longer a good listener,” he replied, “because everyone you used to listen to is dead.”

Then he went around the room, asking my fellow trainees for their words.

“You are no longer a daughter because your parents are dead.”
“You are no longer a wife because your husband is dead.”
“You are no longer a teacher because your school was bombed.”
“You are no longer an American because America isn’t recognized as a country anymore.”
“You are no longer a soldier because you are now considered an ethnic minority, and you’re not allowed to serve.”

Afterward, the mood in the room was sober. One of the other trainees stated the exercise, “pointed out the fragility of things that don’t seem fragile.” We went on to talk about loss suffered due to war.

Prior to the training, we were asked to watch a Ted Talks video on “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the danger of reducing a story to a single perspective. Below is the video, if you would also like to watch.

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