Jan. 24, 2019

The potential of digital storytelling in global health research

In 2018, Mama na Mtoto launched a pilot study to examine how digital storytelling could be an effective research and dissemination tool in a global health context.
Tumsifu Matutu, community engagement project co-ordinator

Tumsifu Matutu, community engagement project co-ordinator

In 2018, Mama na Mtoto launched a pilot study to examine how digital storytelling could be an effective research and dissemination tool in a global health context. Mama na Mtoto is a research and implementation initiative between Canadian and East African partners dedicated to improving maternal, newborn and child health in the Lake Zone of Tanzania. In Canada, Mama na Mtoto is led by Dr. Jenn Brenner, MD, director of Global Maternal Child Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Last summer, Bioanthropology master’s student Natasha Hoehn completed an internship with Mama na Mtoto in Tanzania, where she helped staff at the field office create digital stories based on their personal experiences regarding maternal, child and reproductive health. Hoehn assisted each staff member create their own video by helping to storyboard, retrieve photos and music, and use software to create the final product.

What is digital storytelling?

Digital storytelling (DS) is the telling of a story by blending oral tradition with digital aids such as voiceovers, images, music and visual effects. “It explores lived experiences through a video creation process,” says Hoehn. Stories are typically two to three minutes long and narrated in first person.

Tumsifu Matutu, community engagement project co-ordinator with the Mama na Mtoto research initiative, shares her experience with the local health care system as a new mother in Tanzania.

Why digital storytelling?

As a research tool, DS has certain advantages compared to other tools such as interviews and focus groups. Hoehn says, “It has the potential to capture the perspectives of marginalized community members who are difficult to reach through traditional qualitative research methods. Furthermore, digital storytelling may be a culturally relevant research tool in contexts where oral storytelling is traditionally used to communicate knowledge.”

With storytellers guiding the messaging of their narrative, DS results in products that represent authentic experiences. Tumsifu Matutu, community engagement project co-ordinator with Mama na Mtoto and one of the storytellers, says she believes digital storytelling could help disseminate more useful information. “Sometimes media regarding challenges in African health systems do not present the source of the problem but rather they present the result of a certain problem.”

There is also therapeutic potential in the creation process, adds Hoehn. She found the storytellers were proud of their final creations as they each had full involvement and ownership over the telling of their story. One participant chose not to share her digital story as “the storytelling process brought up negative memories,” says Hoehn. “However she was able to re-interpret as a lesson that has shaped her path.

Storytellers also had positive experiences with regards to their involvement. Matutu says she was at ease during the process. “I felt comfortable because Hoehn was not a new person to me. She is very friendly, cooperative, and likes to laugh, so it was marvelous to work with her.”

Mama na Mtoto intern Natasha Hoehn.

Mama na Mtoto intern Natasha Hoehn.

What are some challenges and next steps to digital storytelling in Tanzania?

Hoehn and the storytellers did identify some limitations to using digital storytelling in Tanzania. For one, there was an inadequate selection of appropriate stock media available. “Most stock image models are light-skinned, and imagery tends to be from a western context,” says Hoehn, who also notes the lack of suitable Creative Commons music. She recommends taking the time to capture original content for future projects.

There were also concerns that arose with respect to working within communities in Tanzania. Although storytellers felt that DS could reflect the real issues as told by community members, there is a risk of stigmatizing vulnerable community members. They suggested a protocol that appropriately addresses situations in which people experience harm when telling their stories, as well as a need to tell stories in Swahili so stories can be reached more widely to Tanzanian audiences.

While the pilot study is still in the early phase of determining feasibility of digital storytelling in Tanzania, the goal is to create stories from the experiences of community members and to have those stories shared with district leaders and the public as a way to advocate for better quality and access to maternal, newborn and child health services.

Natasha Hoehn is a Master in Bioanthropology graduate who interned with Mama na Mtoto under the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship program from April to August 2018.

Tumsifu Matutu is the Community Engagement Project Coordinator at Mama na Mtoto. She has 9 years of experience working with community programs in the Mwanza and Shinyanga regions of Tanzania and holds a Master of Science in Art and Community Development, as well as an Advanced Diploma in Community Development.

Mama na Mtoto (MnM) is a coalition of East African and Canadian partners that strives to improve maternal, newborn and child health in rural Tanzania. Funded by Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the International Development Research Centre, MnM works with governments and existing health facilities on research and implementation activities to support communities in addressing their health challenges and in creating sustainable change. For more information, please visit www.mnmtanzania.com.