Authors: Marielle Dick, Eve Henley and Jasmine Mortimer, postgraduate students at HCRI, who participated in a research visit to Uganda as part of the module ‘Researching Responses to Displacement’ (HCRI 60061).


​​Before embarking on our research trip to situations of displacement in Uganda, we conducted literature reviews covering topics such as gender-based violence, music, belonging, and mental health interventions. However, during our research we were particularly struck by the significance of storytelling within Uganda’s refugee community. As a result, much of our time in Uganda was spent exploring storytelling as a research method within contexts of displacement. In this blog post, we shall explore how we interacted with storytelling, the challenges, and the impact that this had on us as researchers. We believe that storytelling holds immense value as a means of communication between researchers and participants, fostering both vulnerability and empathy. We found that our encounters with storytelling shed light on various issues, including the complexities of Uganda’s refugee policy and gender dynamics within the community. Through this exploration, we hope to underscore the importance of storytelling in research and its potential to illuminate critical humanitarian issues.

During our research visit, the power dynamics within conversations became crucial to whose stories were told and by whom. Gatekeepers hold the power to both withhold and strategically curate the context within which both the researcher and the participants interacted. The influence of gatekeepers created an asymmetrical power dynamic that changed the ways in which our questions to the communities were received. As researchers, one of our main priorities is creating a safe space to foster open conversation with participants. However, we found that gatekeeping revealed gendered power relations which influenced the stories we were told. The prominence of power and individuals present in the room became increasingly more important as the vulnerability of the situation increased. As a team we tried to overcome this by having smaller group discussions or one-on-ones, whereby the individual could speak more openly about their own experiences. However, this was not always possible due to language barriers and the establishment of trust. 

Language barriers often hindered us from building rapport and as a result, some conversations were very one-dimensional. When visiting the community, we often relied on translators which sometimes elicited discomfort and raised concerns about the authenticity of the story. We had to trust both the accuracy of the translators’ interpretations and the honesty of the individuals involved. What’s more, the presence of translators often diminished the agency of the refugees within the research process. We encountered practitioners with the general assumption that inhabitants of the Nakivale Refugee Settlement have limited English proficiency and therefore, would not be able to effectively communicate their stories to us. Translators were almost always present within community-based interactions and fed the stereotype that refugees are powerless. Our experiences challenged this assumption as we found effective communication and the exchange of stories possible in mutual language, stimulating more open communication in which trust could be established. 

Trust is essential to storytelling and its place in research; it is critical to building rapport with participants, opening the door to honesty and mutual respect. Through the exchange of stories one can achieve such trust allowing for multidimensionality of conversation, whereby the participant is able to share their experiences more willingly. However, we faced challenges in gaining trust during our trip. It was crucial to recognise our positionality as young researchers representing an English institution. We understand that participants are never obligated to share their stories with outsiders who have never experienced their context. Therefore, trust demonstrates the importance of the connection between the researcher and the participant.

Furthermore, we discovered that storytelling fostered a deeper sense of empathy and mutual humanity between researchers and participants. The connection between relatability and empathy becomes clear through the exchange of stories. As we share stories, we not only recognise common threads in human existence but also appreciate the diverse range of individual experiences. This mutual sharing fosters a sense of shared humanity, prompting us to empathise with others’ experiences. Empathy is of vital importance in that it goes beyond simply validating experiences; it enhances cultural sensitivity, promotes respect and dignity, and plays a critical role in research within refugee contexts. It is by fostering empathy that researchers can build trust with participants and gain a richer understanding of the research context. Empathy is dependent on one’s cognitive capacity to take the perspective of another and the medium of storytelling is an effective way to understand and cultivate empathy for those who have been affected by displacement, conflict, and violence.

Storytelling emerges as a powerful research method that transcends the mere collection of data in humanitarian research. It allows for honest and open communication, given the right environment and the mutual respect and trust between both the researcher and participants. Through storytelling, researchers can navigate and challenge the communication barriers, specifically in regard to the use of language and the power of gatekeepers. In embracing storytelling, researchers can uncover the complexities of human experience and by recognising these difficulties, a more rounded understanding of refugees can be constructed. 


Uganda articles from 2022/23

Blog pieces relating to last year’s student visit to Uganda (i.e. academic year 22/23) can be found below: