“Let me tell my own story”: Poetry as a Decolonising Methodology

As part of the #MethodsMatter Blog Series, we caught up with Dr Duduzile Ndlovu, based at the African Centre for Migration & Society (Wits University), who has written her PhD titled “Let Me Tell My Own Story”: A Qualitative Exploration of How and Why ‘Victims’ Remember Gukurahundi in Johannesburg Today, using poetry.

When did you realise the importance of poetry in doing research?

DN: The nice thing about research write up is that we report about what we did as if it happened in a nice orderly way. So when I started out to do my research I remember my supervisor asking casually if I had not thought about writing music or a music performance as part of my thesis. I was exploring the use of film, music and poetry as memorials so I suppose it made sense that I would include poetry in the research. I actually stumbled upon using poetry in the research. Just before I finished my MA research one of the participants asked me to support them by buying their music that they had recorded on a CD. I bought the CD thinking at least I would have paid back in a small way for their participation in my study. The music became a significant part of the MA thesis and later my PhD research. So I was working with music that is crosses between music and poetry as it normally happens with Ndebele or Zulu poetry and songs. I was just reading the music and poetry as data and not including any of my poetry or writing poetry as part of the research process. When I began writing up my thesis I lost my father. My father was pivotal to my journey in education and so in a strange way I was mourning his loss but I wanted to continue writing the thesis. At that time I was writing a lot of poetry about my father and this spilled over to writing poetry about the research process as well. At this point I started to look for literature on poetry as a research method and found a substantive community of academics using poetry in different ways in their research. Using the literature on poetry as a research method I found, I was then able to craft the most useful way of using poetry in my research. So I used the poetry to locate myself in the study, to show the work I was doing as a researcher and to summarise the thesis into eight poems.

Why do you think this approach is so powerful in decolonising research/methods?

DN: So I found that people were already theorising about their lives in the music and poetry that I was reading as data in the research. However they were not going to have access to my theorising that I was writing in not only English but as an academic text. So poetry gave me a way to include the participants not only in the data generation stage of the research but they could also access the output of the whole research process. Poetry allowed me to disrupt the power dynamic at play in the researcher-participant relationship. This was most evident when I invited participants to workshops where they could engage with the poetry and challenge what I had written about them. The workshops were spaces of great discomfort for me as my work was being scrutinised and importantly so by the people I was writing about, but also very productive spaces for the inclusion of participants. I think poetry is one way in which we include the ‘other’ that is always written about but cannot challenge what is written because they cannot engage with it.

How has this realisation shaped your work since writing this thesis?
DN: Including poetry in my thesis and then presenting the summary of the thesis to participants’ scrutiny made me very aware of the comfort regular research work happens under. It is not easy to include participants. It was difficult to retrace all the participants and invite them to the workshops. Additionally, it was uncomfortable to be challenged about what I had written. However, having said all of this it was worthwhile because it is important.
You can read some of Duduzile Ndlovu’s own poems here.
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