THE Centre for Stories in Northbridge has taken another step in its development with the appointment of Sisonke Msimang as program director.
The year-old social enterprise was founded by Margaret River Press owners Caroline and John Wood and aims to collect stories from WA that slip under the mainstream media’s radar.
Ms Msimang says the centre helps people to understand and express their experiences through storytelling and then “amplifies” them as a way of bringing about social change.
“Storytelling is a good way to connect people with someone who lives in another neighbourhood, because we have had a lot of waves of migrants — which is amazing — but it can also bring conflict and discomfort, and we don’t try to hide that conflict and discomfort, we try to help people to see the different sides of the issues through stories,” Ms Msimang says.
One of the centre’s most popular initiatives is Food for Thought, where each month a different migrant group takes over the kitchen to prepare a feast for the broader community.
“By 1pm it is amazing; the place is buzzing and the smells of the cooking are all through the centre,” Ms Msimang says.
“By 7pm everyone starts arriving and the people tell what their experience is like, and one of the key messages that comes through every time is the generosity of Australian people.”
Ms Msimang says these positive experiences of migrants often don’t get heard amongst the negative headlines.
“It changes the narrative, you are getting beyond the surface,” she says.
The South African-born activist, columnist and budding novelist says her experiences will help the centre to take storytelling to the next level, which is to use it as a tool for social change.
Ms Msimang was born and grew up in exile; her parents were officials of the African National Congress and were only able to return to their homeland following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.
There was a silver lining to exile – education. The ANC funded the education of its exiled members’ children with the aim of developing a pool of highly qualified professionals dedicated to public service.
Ms Msimang worked with the United Nations in South Africa focusing on HIV/AIDS issues before heading up billionaire financier George Soros’s Open Society Initiative, shifting her focus to promoting democracy.
“Our focus was on the small guy, because often they’re the canary in the coal mine, you know, so we’d be talking with gay men, journalists who were under fire, anyone who had a story that needed to be told.”
In 2012 she was accepted as a Yale University ‘world fellow’.
“It’s a mid-career break, so you have distinguished yourself as a leader but whose best years are still ahead of you. I like that way of thinking about it,” she says.
She decided to focus on writing and worked as a columnist for the Daily Maverick in Johannesburg, becoming one of the few female voices in the country’s media.
Early last year her Australian-born husband asked to return home, and she says her children are already obsessed with footy and “chucking it in the bin”.
But Africa is never far from her mind, and she made headlines in April this year by joining former children-in-exile (known as Masupatsela) in denouncing South African president Jacob Zuma’s lavish, publicly-funded upgrade of his home and gardens.
Mr Zuma has apologised for the scandal, but a court found he’d flouted the constitution in his handling of the affair. The ANC was trounced in local government elections last week, and Ms Msimang’s former paper the Maverick dubbed him “dead man walking”.
Ms Msimang has written a book about living in exile, provisionally called Always Another Country and is looking for a publisher.
by STEVE GRANT