1992. It was a year you don’t hear much about nowadays. But loads of notable things happened that year too. A referendum was held in South Africa in March of that year on ending apartheid. The result of the election ultimately resulted in apartheid being lifted.
It was also a crucial year in my life and my career. I was given a list of University Degrees you could choose to study after completion of secondary school just a few years before. The list of degrees was ranked alphabetically. This meant African studies was the first study I came across. And I remember how that degree captured my imagination.

I was interested in an international career from a young age onwards. I grew up in a family with a very international outlook. Both my parents travelled extensively in their early years, working their way to earn their travel. Their stories were, and still are, inspiring to me and my sister. Our parents always taught us words in the languages of the places they had been to and later took us to. But my parents had never been to Africa.

When I saw that list of degrees in secondary school, I remember thinking “If there are that many stories to be told about Africa that you can pursue a university degree in African studies, there must be more to Africa than the stories of famine and war”, stories that dominated the news about Africa in my teenager years.

And it was in 1992 during my first year in African studies at Leiden University that I heard of oral traditions – the power of story telling.

1992 Friends style

My interest in storytelling was revived recently by a book I read by Zambian author Amanda Kozhi Mukwashi. In her work “But where are you really from?” Amanda speaks of the role of oral traditions to pass on stories to people scattered over vast areas. In a way, that is what we as safety professionals are.
The organisation Africa No Filter recently produced a report that analysed over 750 million stories published between 2017 and 2021 on more than 6,000 African news sites and 183,000 sites outside the continent. The research showed that the keywords, frames, stories, and narratives associated with business in Africa are dangerously distorted. There is an overemphasis on the role of governments, foreign powers, and larger African states.

But the research also found an underappreciation of the role of young people and women among others. AviAssist is keen to make its small contribution to changing that when it comes to African aviation. That is another reason why we are so pleased with the stories on our YouTube channel of women aviators like Harriet, Gloria, Mary, Emma and Ivana.

When people are asked about their working culture they’ll often start by quoting a strategic document or pointing to outdated posters on the wall that do more to de-motivate, than inspire! Once you’re past that, they start to open and tell you the stories that hold the culture together, both good and bad. Pay and benefits are certainly on your list of employment needs, but the “culture” of your workplace is a huge factor how much you enjoy your job. Storytelling can also play a role in maturing the organisational culture in a company and with it the safety culture that is part of it. The gap between highly positioned marketing messages and what employees really feel about the culture is evidenced by the stories employees tell. A large gap between the two is a leading indicator of problems and shouldn’t be ignored.

Everyone has a story

These stories can be as simple as how one department celebrates birthdays or as complex as who gets to travel business class, where people park their cars or behaviour demonstrated at the office party. Showing people what the values look like by shining a light on great examples of people living them is a powerful way to embed culture. Through stories, everyone can see the behaviours that underpin a value and what it looks like when it’s lived within that organisation or team.

At AviAssist, we capitalise on the power of storytelling in our courses. We have developed a set of exercises based on the famous BBC radio series Desert Island discs. The exercises help strengthen the Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity skills of our course participants and involve a combination of storytelling and elevator pitching. The stories we hear enrich the story of safety and our courses.

Our SIAA safety conference, the Focus Sessions and our SafetyFocus magazine are all three small contributions to tell the African stories on safety promotion. All these channels are available for you, the African aviation professional. In fact, we even pay African authors of stories for our SafetyFocus magazine, this magazine, US$100 for a story that meets our peer review requirements and get published. So get in touch, send us your safety promotion story and earn your first author’s fee!