‘Memory Map’: Healing and bonding through life stories | Sunday Observer

‘Memory Map’: Healing and bonding through life stories

We, the humans, have an innate ability of story-telling. In fact, our story depended on oral legend for millennia, prior to inventing meaningful symbols or letters to represent sounds we were used to. Stories are powerful. Transcending time and space and transforming lives, they are usually repeated and carried over from generation, to generation. “The deepest truth is found by means of a simple story,” said world renowned psychotherapist and spirituality teacher from India, Anthony De Mello, a story-teller himself. What a better way to unravel the deep truths about our individual selves! Perhaps, the multidimensional, multilayered truths of a country riddled with violence for decades as well…

‘Memory Map’ the travelling exhibition which collects, displays and archives ‘stories’ from all walks of life, attempting to “share the truths about the past, provide a platform for Sri Lankans to reflect on the war, acknowledge the experiences of others, and build empathy across the various divides that still exist,” was in Colombo last week. This is a glimpse by the Sunday Observer into their story.

“Come tell your story!” was the invitation of ‘Memory Map’. Sharing, capturing and preserving of the multifaceted stories of our multiethnic, multireligious, multilingual society for the use and benefit of posterity was its intention. Fifty such stories were on display. Art, maps, handwritten letters, photographs, video and audio interviews told the life-stories of ordinary people from the East, North and South of the country. Ordinary people living in the Western parts of the country were given an opportunity to delve in to their stories and experience their reality; understanding life from a different perspective, absorbing the truths of the life of another person, in another part of the country while examining and evaluating their own life stories.

The seeds of Memory Map lies in the tsunami aftermath says its architect and curator Radhika Hettiarachchi who had first felt people’s need for story-telling then. “Before asking or requesting anything, they would recite their life-stories.” However, as a representative of an organisation, focusing on a specific need “I felt the need and the void in people’s lives, but couldn’t address that as we were focused on collecting specific details.”

Later, as the war ended and an ‘entirely masculine, triumphalist narrative of war’ entered ‘history’ Radhika sought to give voice to ‘HerStories’, the feminine perspective of the war narrative, through a collection of life-stories of women from different walks of life and their experience of war.

Memory Map, was born three years ago, with the space opening up for transitional justice related work, explains Radhika. “It became obvious that there was a lot of things people wanted to tell but there was no opportunity.

Even though there were commissions, they were focusing on specifics.

There was no chance to personalise and tell the stories.” Memory Map extends the space to more people, “not just women, men, children, ex cadre, ex soldiers all of them,” she explains. The project is based on the understanding that violent conflict had been part of Sri Lanka since before the time of independence and especially during the past three to four decades.

“The aim is to document different personal stories, to preserve them at a national level at the National Archives and to use it to try and get people to have empathy for each other, to know that violence is not necessarily the answer to conflict, that it could be resolved without resorting to violence,” says Radhika. “People may know their history, of what happened but they may not feel it.”

The only way one can ‘feel’ is thorough access to the stories in full “so that they can hear the emotion in it.

And hear it from people who have been through something,” she reiterates. It is not only a collection and archiving of stories. Memory Map goes beyond that in creating dialogue between people. The dialogue process allows participants from different areas to interact with each other, through sharing of their life stories focusing on emotions they generate. “It is about catharsis. When you see the stories you also tell your story.

It creates space or sharing.” Sharing of one’s own emotional response helps evaluation of a situation at a personal level, and to take present and future action to prevent violence in a conflict situation.

It is empowering community and building resilience to stop outside forces from bringing violence into the community, she explains.

The importance of memorialisation, in the country, through Memory Map is that it is a multi-directional pursuit which learns from the past for the future, says Radhika. “The impact of war and violence is inter-generational as it transcends beyond the experience of one person.

In many cases, these are useful techniques to help survivors of violent conflict share their stories with others to help with healing and to help understand the impact of violence on our society.”

Memory Map, helps communities and individuals to understand the root causes of conflict, says Radhika. Many do not know the answer to the question ‘why’ a conflict starts. “When you ask why it happened they don’t know.

For them, one day the war started.” Understanding the ‘Why’ of conflict is key to reconciliation, in differentiating between the perpetrator and person, she explains. “Differentiation is important.

People are different from perpetrators. It also helps people understand that there are a lot of innocent people from the North, the South and everywhere who is not party to say someone from your family being killed. You understand that there are lots of innocents and people that are helpless as well. It may have been an act of violence by somebody else. So then you don’t hold that against the entire community.” This kind of dealing with the past through understanding contributes to the process of reconciliation she explains.

So far, Memory Map with its joint implementing partners Herstories Project; Search for Common Ground Sri Lanka; Viluthu, Centre for Human Resource Development, Mannar; Prathiba Media Network, Matara and Akkraipattu Women’s Development Foundation had traversed 40 different villages and had touched the life-stories of about 1200 people. It had also impacted many more as a travelling exhibition.

However, for Radhika, Memory Map is “a contribution, a beginning,” for the restoration and healing process in the country. The need is great and many others be they individuals, civil society organisations or the Government need to take it up, she opines. Though it is a time consuming, lengthy process which needs to be flexible and lead by the community, Sri Lanka has the potential of gaining much from the process.