Reshaping the World, One Story at a Time    
Thu, 23 June 2022

This month the AVBOB Poetry Project recognises the wisdom of Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa’s integrated approach to poetry and narrative. Philippa is a poet, storyteller, teacher and facilitator. Her memoir, Flame and Song (Modjaji, 2016), combines poetry with storytelling to evoke her Ugandan childhood during the troubled presidency of Idi Amin.

To listen to Kabali-Kagwa read her poems is to remember that the published poetry we cherish and study today is the continuation of a much older oral tradition of songs and stories, much of it never written down.

Philippa sees storytelling as a collective enterprise, a tool for community conversations, teaching and cooperative learning. Put another way, it is as important for our wellbeing to hear stories as it is to tell them. Her work is done in galleries and public platforms in South Africa and abroad, and she has worked in collaboration with many poets and storytellers. She is the co-founder and host of Story Club Cape Town, a monthly platform that promotes oral storytelling.

She encourages poets to frame stories that draw readers and listeners closer. “Enjoy the telling,” she writes. “That way your listeners will too.” At the same time, the stakes could not possibly be higher. Especially during times of personal or collective trauma, it becomes vitally important which stories we choose to tell. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has pointed out, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” This is one of the most important things that stories can do, particularly in South Africa today.

When one starts to think of poetry in this way, as the naming of trauma and the healing from it, familiar poems reveal new dimensions. After reading Wilfred Owen’s harrowing accounts of trench warfare during World War I, it becomes impossible to think of war as a heroic enterprise. After encountering the sojourner in Mongane Wally Serote’s City Johannesburg, the dislocated experience of black South Africans under apartheid remains embodied in ways that refuse to be forgotten.

By sharing words and stories at the deep level that strong poetry demands of us, we are slowly reshaping our world. As Philippa puts it, poems can “help us connect to each other’s humanity, to see each other’s dreams, to connect and begin to build a different future.”

There is always a temptation to oversimplify; to jump to hasty generalisations about those whose stories we do not know. “But if we listen well,” she continues, “we realise that people are more complex than we like to think they are. We begin to peel away the masks we wear, and that we project onto each other.” She quotes Barbara Deming, the American feminist and activist for social change, who wrote, “The longer we listen to one another – with real attention – the more commonality we will find in all our lives.”

To many of us, telling stories comes as naturally as breathing. And yet, in order to tell stories well, they have to be shaped, sometimes even curated. Sometimes spaces have to be activated before they can hold the difficult stories that need to be told. “You know everything that has ever happened to you,” Philippa explains, “and although all of it is important to you, when telling your story you have to choose where to begin and where to end. Often the challenge is to carve away those things that are unimportant to the story you are telling.”

Your story matters and we hope this article inspires you to get to work! The AVBOB Poetry Competition judges look forward to receiving your narrative and other poems. Visit to register before the competition reopens for entries on 1 August 2022.