Caleb Wakhungu, Uganda


I am currently working with the Mt. Elgon Self-Help Community Project dealing with rural communities in Manafwa district in Eastern Uganda and offering various services for children, youth, women, men, as well as the community. I also conduct training in mental health and psychosocial care and support for various organisations. In all these, I interact with people who have gone through a series of traumatic experiences – I have used narrative therapy in these various contexts to help people identify and develop subordinate storylines.

I will share one of my recent applications of narrative practice with survivors of the Uganda Landslide at Bulucheke Camp in Eastern Uganda.

Identifying and developing subordinate stories with landslide survivors at Bulucheke Camp

On 1 March 2010, a landslide occurred in the district of Bududa in eastern Uganda killing over 350 people. The landslide was triggered by heavy rains. Many areas in the affected villages were buried by the landslides, with houses, the market, and a church destroyed and the road leading to the place blocked.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that more than 300,000 people near the mountain and the neighbouring lowlands have been displaced. Nearly 800 households are sheltering in Bulucheke camp and the number is ultimately expected to increase to 900.

I was called in by World Vision to train their volunteers who were working in Bulucheke Camp on the ‘Journey of Life’. Before the end of the workshop, I asked community volunteers in small groups to discuss ways in which they can rebuild their community after the landslide and they presented that in the role-plays. Two groups presented different situations. Group 1 presented members of the community making bricks and re-building the church, the hospital, and the school which were demolished. The second group presented the nurses attending to the sick, businessmen selling agricultural products, and people farming in their gardens. This activity took people far into remembering their loved-ones and I could see some people crying in the room.

I asked members to share what they observed in the role-plays and what it meant for them. The following observations were made:

  • I saw members working together to re-build their community. This shows that we have to come together and work hard to build our community. Those who have died have gone and those of us who are alive need to do something.
  • In the role-play, I saw people who are hard-working. The nurses had compassion and were treating their patients very well but now they are gone. We need to emulate this example and carry it forward.
  • The death of hundreds of our people brought a blow to our community. There is a reason why this happened, but those of us who have remained behind can still change our community.

While members were discussing this, I reflected on Michael’s statement he made while in Zimbabwe in 2005 that ‘everybody has meaning-making skills’. I discovered that narrative therapy in this context could offer a platform for people to navigate through the pitfall of Loss and shift the conversation in ways which can make possibilities and directions visible in unique ways that would otherwise be covered over by Loss.

To me, the role plays became an entry point to initiate a conversation with one family after the workshop. The conversation aimed at providing an alternative territory of life in which this family could stand and navigate through the pitfall of Loss.

Problem-saturated story


I was welcomed into Masaba’s tent. He lost both parents and a sister in the landslide. He survived and was now living in the camp with his wife, a sister, and three children. Masaba was a participant in the Journey of Life training.

I asked Masaba to share with me about his experience in the camp.

He began by saying, ‘The situation in the camp is so terrible! I had never experienced this before. I lost my people and up to now, I have only got one out, but I’m still digging through the soil to get others so that we can give them a descent burial! We have not been used to this life of eating posho and beans all the time and sometimes we get very little which is enough for children alone!’

In our interaction, I asked the family to name the problem and they said ‘not getting enough food’. This paved way for us to externalise the problem and began to talk about when ‘not getting enough food’ is present. The family said the problem is present when the relatives visit and bring them food. We then explored the effects of ‘not getting enough food’ on the family (mapping the effects of the problem).

Masaba said that the effects of the problem are many: ‘My wife and children are looking at me to provide food and all of us are helpless. When children fall sick, I struggle to find medicine for them. I always get ashamed that am not doing enough to support my family as it used to be. This has changed the status quo. I have no control over my wife and children. They always go out to look for other ways of survival which is a big danger to our family’.

Michael White (1988, 2007) argues that externalising conversations allow people to examine issues that are often labelled by others as well as by themselves as problems. He went on to say, ‘Through externalisation, the problem itself becomes an entity that is separate from and external to the individual and, as such, it becomes available for consideration in ways that may otherwise not be possible’ (White, 2007, p. 9).

I asked the family to assess the effects of the problem on their family and their view based on their judgment. The family said the effects of the problem to the family are bad and threaten the future stability of the family.

I asked the family if there are times when this problem is not present (I repeated the question) and they said that it is when relatives visit them to bring food and also when the husband goes back home to get some yams. This allowed us to re-focus the efforts on an alternative story to ‘not getting enough food’ which was not present in their family. This conversation allowed the family to stand outside the problem saturated story and began to see more possibilities of how they could get enough food for their family.

The man said that when he is not digging through the soil in search of the remains of his loved-ones, he goes to plant more yams, maize, and beans on the piece of land given to him by a relative. In this way, our conversations shifted the focus from the problem, feelings of shame and helplessness, to alternative ways of survival for this family.

We then had a ‘re-authoring conversation’, which Michael White explains ‘invite[s] people to continue to develop and tell stories about their lives, but they also help people to include some of the more neglected but potentially significant events and experiences that are “out of phase” with their dominant storylines. These events and experiences can be considered “unique outcomes” or “exceptions”’. The session ended with Masaba’s family moving from the problem-saturated stories to exploring and developing subordinate storylines.

The futures of narrative practice in Uganda

I see the future of narrative practice as very bright in Uganda. We are living in a beautiful country with good people with unique and distinctive cultures. We share the same values and optimism despite the turmoil in the past which was manifested in conflict, poverty, and HIV/AIDs.

Narrative therapy is a unique approach which is non-blaming of people for their problems but focuses on people’s ability to externalise problems. It creates a safer space for people to reflect, share, and explore their abilities, knowledge, and skills to deal with challenges in life.

The approach brings forward individuals’ values, competencies, goals, and perceptions as part of alternative stories. This can help Ugandans to deconstruct the dominant story of trauma brought about by triple crisis – poverty, conflict, and disease.

Cultural / language considerations

In this part of the country, people have a rich cultural legacy that can lead to the adoption of narrative practice. In this camp setting, I had a discussion with two survivors of the landslide and saw the possibilities of developing subordinate storylines through the following ways:

  1. Initiation ceremony: Like other cultures across the globe, this community initiates children into adulthood through circumcision. During this time, people compose songs and go round singing them. Previously, songs composed had been around negative themes. This time round, these two members whom we had a session with realised that it would be vital to compose songs that talked about the good work and other important values that the people who died in the landslide held precious – like compassion, teamwork, hard work and the desire to serve other communities by sharing the fruits of their labour.
  2. Families usually hold funeral services once they have lost their loved-ones. In most cases, people spent much of the time crying and little time is spend on talking about the person’s contribution to the community and society at large. The family I talked to was still waiting to recover the remains of their relatives and thought it was a good idea to remember and acknowledge the contributions that their family members had made, and be able to carry that forward to the next generation.
  3. One landslide survivor identified some beautiful ways of remaining connected to her loved-ones by writing some of their names and contributions on the rocks at Mt. Elgon. These rocks are found in their communities and are on the route to the peak of Mt. Elgon (Wagagai) where many people pass to go and look for bamboo. Other ways include writing books about the loved-ones who died for future generations to learn about their good work, and keeping their valuables like photographs, pieces of clothes, and farm tools so that occasionally, people can come together to remember them.
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