The "River of Life": A useful methodology for storytelling

Luis Ortiz-Echevarría

Manager, Knowledge Management & Learning | Management Sciences for Health

I was so glad to see Rebecca Shore's recent blog post on storytelling. Some of the questions raised by Rebecca on broaching storytelling with technical staff and making the time for storytelling in different settings are serious challenges to implementing this approach. One methodology that I have found useful is the River of Life. Simply put, River of Life is a visual narrative activity that helps participants reflect on the past and present and envision the future. 

I’ve used it several times, but two instances were particularly memorable. In Honduras, CARE used this approach as a program planning tool. The team in Honduras was preparing to catapult their community-based MCH project into a more comprehensive community health and social change project that addressed inequities in maternal health, adolescent health, intergenerational relations, men as health clients and agents of change, and that positioned the program for evidence-based advocacy. All of this in a climate of funding and political change. We used the River of Life approach with the extended health team, including community liaisons, to reflect on where the project was, where it is now, and our vision of the future.

On flip charts we drew the empty river. We used pools of alligators and a bottleneck of logs to represent challenges or hurdles along the river and rapids to represent opportunities that enabled positive change. Through magazine cut outs, drawings, and words, participants populated the ‘river’ with their individual perspectives on the past, present and future. Once the river was full we gathered around it, clustered themes, clarified the rich metaphors that the images represented, and discussed our collective vision of the future.

Using this tool gave the team time to reflect on their past accomplishments and challenges and to create a shared vision of where we are as a health program and where we wanted to go. It helped us explore the creative tension between expectations and realities and developed actionable steps to operationalize a shared vision.

My second example of storytelling and the River of Life is from a global workshop in Rwanda. CARE invited SRH/FP/HIV staff from 20 different countries to learn from each other’s programs and discuss the latest scientific and programmatic evidence in SRH, gender, and social determinants. In order to evaluate the workshop, we used the River of Life to allow participants to reflect on issues/challenges they had prior to the workshop (past), ‘aha’ moments during the workshop (present), and their thoughts on how their work would be influenced by the workshop content and knowledge sharing sessions (future).

Using a River of Life storytelling approach we were able to craft an evaluation process that moved beyond what we (as workshop facilitators) expected to be most useful to participants; shifting the ‘story of the workshop’ to actual participants. The reflection and discussion that followed was also an opportunity to reinforce key takeaways from the meeting and at the end of the activity, participants renamed the process “River of Social Change”.

Using the River of Life as a structured approach to storytelling was effective in both instances for program planning, visioning, and evaluation.

Here is an interesting perspective on storytelling from HBR.

 

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