Clustering Story actions with Magoso staff

On Friday (Jan 28th, 2011) I visited the Mashimoni Good Samaritan School for the Orphans, known to locals as Magoso primary school. It is in Mashimoni village, part of Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya, Africa, Earth:

The school is packed into an area with wall to wall houses and no streets. They seem to do a lot, and are quite established in the community.

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Based on their name, this school started to serve orphans, but later added regular students (about 25%) with parents. Then some of the kids decided to raise rabbits to sell and pay for school fees. Girls in the area needed a place to learn a skill so they could earn a living, so Magoso added a tailoring school above the orphans’ dormatory. Many of the kids have or are at risk of contracting HIV, so they invited CDC to come in and test kids. There were CDC workers screening kids on the day we were there. And Zip and I passed by the CDC area coordinator (David) on our way to Magoso in the alleyways. Finally, the school added a computer lab and classes as another job skill in demand.

So in all, I was impressed. I was also surprised that I didn’t see logos of major NGO funders on the walls anywhere. The Good Samaritan’s School is a community-initiated project that seems to expand based on local demand. (And I wonder, would the school do these same things if it were the brainchild of some foreign do-good organization?)

We met with the headmaster, who graciously loaned us the whole staff for 2 hours to explore our storytelling project in a feedback exercise. He is also eager to join GlobalGiving now, as a result of the positive experience they had in 2010 with our storytelling project.

One of the teachers at this school, Mr. Ogira, came to a training (at Mpira Mtaani maybe?) and collected a lot of stories. Some were collected at this school as part of English class. This smiling kid seemed excited to have been a storyteller:

One of our gimmicks in 2010 was to enter every storyteller into a drawing for $100. Since we lacked the technology to feed people back instant information, say, via mobile phone texts, we needed to offer everyone something of an incentive.

Mr. Ogira was lucky enough to win. He explains in this short video how he used his winnings:

The Story Game

Last week the group task was to read a community effort story, write a one word category, and place the story under that label. As the labels fill the floor or table space, people naturally start to use other people’s labels. This time it didn’t happen the same way.

Why not?

Different environment: Although the number of people is roughly the same (18 versus 22), the room was much larger this time. The table was too long for one person to see all the categories.

We provided pre-cut slips paper to write on and only four big black pens. I intended to limit the number of pens, so that people would have an opportunity to look at categories others had already written while waiting for a pen. Last week this limited resource turned out to be more effective than a set of rules in triggering interactive behavior (something I learned through trial and error). Cynthia Kurtz notes:

“I just totally love this. It is a natural way to shape the interaction. Because it relies on conditions rather than rules…. There is a lot of related work based on the design of meeting rooms and how chairs are placed… If you ask people to cluster things but give them small pens, they write things small enough that you can’t step back and read the whole thing at once. That hampers their ability to cluster things well.”

Different resources: I hoped that once again, as people waited for a pen, they would scan the labels in front of them first. Instead, this group – being full of teachers and adults – used their own pens. This left us with a lot more categories, and much longer labels at that. You can write a whole sentence on a one centimeter wide slip of paper with a ball-point pen, but can only fit 3 words with a fat-tipped sharpie marker.

Different crowd? Perhaps working with a group of teachers, accountants, and the headmaster (professionals, respected adults) had something to do with the extra wordiness of the labels. Or perhaps I failed to provide enough examples to start the process this time.

On top of that, people were mostly writing story summaries, and not the action that they interpreted the storyteller asking others to take in his or her story.

Cynthia Kurtz had sagely advised me that when a group starts doing something other than what you expected, don’t think of yourself as having failed, and certainly don’t blame the group for failing to follow your rules. It’s a tough lesson to internalize. But I did “go with it” to some extent and allowed the group to cluster stories by their themes and stopped mentioning story actions after most of the group had gone and done what they wanted to do.

These differences made the process much more chaotic and disconnected. For the first 20 minutes it didn’t feel much like a group activity, as not one of the stories was being placed under an already existing category. Only a fraction of the stories described any sort of action. By the end, virtually all the stories had their own category. So the grouping task took more discussion. This video illustrates that the clustering of stories facilitates a discussion, but I feel like with more practice I can ask the right questions to turn the discussion back to audiences and actions that need to know this information:

The overall community map of stories was different than last week’s. Much of this difference in layout is because the table is long, whereas last week’s group of nearly the same size crammed into a square room where people could see all of the categories. Also – very important – a swift breeze stormed in through the open windows about every 10 minutes, disrupting all the story clusters, so I wasn’t able to copy down which story went with which label – just the the eight clusters names and how they were arranged along the table:

So from one end to the other, we have  AIDS/DRUGS – health – (then a triangle of community, women’s empowerment, and security farthest from health) – unity – peace & violence – and family violence nestled near both of these. The group arranged Peace & Violence issues to be farthest from AIDS/DRUGS issues. This arrangement is partly due to the limited ability to move stories around on a surface that would allow the ends to be closer together. No triangle of clusters could emerge with the table so long and narrow.

Hopefully next week I can repeat this task under different conditions and see what happens.

Our original storytelling pilot is explained here and uses software licensed from

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