Stories that change everything

Valerie Awino


Valerie Awino, a Project Support Officer who works on our Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS2) programme, reflects on the impact community storytelling has on advocacy.

Last year, on International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 2020, Ajak Atem Kol took to the airwaves in South Sudan to talk about his experience of disability.

Ajak is a student in Turalei Town. And he had a lot to say about his experiences as a student with a disability. Accepted by a local school, he nonetheless came up against some barriers such as lack of accessible transport and how he actually had to crawl from home to school because he had no access to a wheelchair.

Ajak spoke out on a talk show on Mayardit FM. He spoke about his challenging experiences at school, his determination to finish his education and his life dreams. Talking about the lack of options available for getting vital assistive equipment – he appealed to listeners to help him get a wheelchair.

Ajak holding a microphone

Ajak's experience at school

Despite these barriers, Ajak had been in the top 10 of his class at Dr Justin's Secondary School in Turalei Town and shared his dreams of becoming a doctor. In particular, Ajak stressed that his disability was not a limitation. If anything, Ajak said, the knowledge and experience he had gained from living with a disability gave him unique advantages and strengths. He was also very encouraging to other children with disabilities to go to school and make a difference in their lives.

Ajak was given a platform to share his experiences by local radio presenter Peter Manut Thiep from the community radio station Mayardit FM in Turalei Town. Along with other community radio presenters, Peter had received extra training from Leonard Cheshire. With help from BBC Media Action, Peter told the stories of local people, including people with disabilities.

Using local media platforms

BBC Media Action in South Sudan is a charity that aims to change community attitudes and behaviours through radio broadcasts as part of the girls' education programme in South Sudan. Working together with Leonard Cheshire, the project helps people with disabilities to use local media platforms to talk about their experiences and campaign for change.

After being trained, Peter hosted a live talk show on disability, inviting Ajak on as a guest. Peter wanted to chair a discussion on how communities, leaders, NGOs and journalists could work together to support and change the lives of people living with disabilities in South Sudan.

The power of storytelling

After speaking out on Peter's show, Ajak got an overwhelming response on social media. And eventually, Ajak caught the attention of the Red Cross. They responded by donating a wheelchair to Ajak, changing his life. But this project is about more than just securing help – it is about enabling storytelling in what is often a difficult context. When this happens, these stories can change attitudes, behaviours, and even government policy.

Having a disability in South Sudan can be challenging. Barriers come from physical spaces, communication styles and attitudes. Access to assistive devices can be limited. But when community members are empowered to share their stories, disability can be seen in a new light.

Working with BBC Media Action

For the past two years, Leonard Cheshire has been providing technical support to partners of the Girls' Education South Sudan project. We've been working with BBC Media Action to deliver disability awareness training to radio producers, broadcasters, and community mobilisers. It focused on how to tell powerful disability stories from a rights-based perspective. Like Ajak's story.

The South Sudan Union of Persons with Disabilities has also been a valuable partner. While the organisation gains access to the airwaves via community storytellers, it also mentors them on how to tell stories of disability. These links have allowed the organisation to work with a network of activists, policymakers and communities.

A key saying among community reporters sums up the strength of the project:

"The best change agents for disability inclusion are people with disabilities themselves. As presenters we have access to the airwaves. We therefore have the power to help other people with disabilities."

Our work in South Sudan

Leonard Cheshire is a partner within the Girls Education programme in South Sudan. We're working to ensure that girls and boys with disabilities have the same access to education as other children.

BBC Media Action is another partner within GESS, responsible for raising awareness of the importance of girls' education, and changing communities' attitudes and behaviours through radio broadcasts and community radio programmes.