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Diamonds and meerkats – challenging stereotypes

What did two tourism lecturers create for a project aiming to develop new and innovative ways of co-operation between South African universities and companies?


Annika Konttinen

lehtori, matkailuliiketoiminta
Senior Lecturer, tourism business
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 19.05.2020

Finnish National Agency for Education organised storification training for people involved in publicly funded projects. The idea was to create a story for a project to enable easier dissemination, spreading of information and raising awareness. Due to the ongoing corona pandemic, the training was online. To our surprise, this did not keep us from fully engage for almost four hours.

Stories inspire people and make them more committed than the delivery of mere facts. Thus, the training steered us to let our creativity run loose and transform the contents of the project into tangible elements of a story. The elements being people, animals, plants, handicrafts, clothes, food, phrases, events, or actually anything that can bring life to a project.

Well, what did two tourism lecturers create for a project aiming to develop new and innovative ways of co-operation between South African universities and companies? First of all, animals, and especially the Big Five: the elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and leopard. We also thought about South Africans dancing in colourful costumes – tourism marketing and nature documentaries are very effective communicators. Thinking about the musical elements took us a while, but then we remembered the football world cup in South Africa and its theme Waka Waka sung by Shakira. We also associated diamonds with South Africa, and, eventually, the Bond theme song Diamonds are forever started playing in our heads.

It definitely is much easier to create story elements for a domestic project than to come up with appropriate elements for an international project that involves a different cultural context. Stereotypes sneak up all too easy. Although stereotypes can make better sense of our ever-changing world and complex operational environment, they can, on the other hand reinforce prejudice. Quite fast, we were able to admit that our ideas may not be completely neutral or appropriate for our international project.

For more realistic storification, we started utilising the basic philosophy of our project: working and innovating together, being agile. Which elements would personify this? As students are one of our central target groups, we decided to focus on two young persons, one a man and the other a woman. However, we did not dare to decide what cultural groups the two young people would represent as South Africa, aka the Rainbow Nation, consists of so many language and ethnic groups. For the colours of the project, we chose the strong colours of the flag, as they should be fine with all participants.

We decided that the South African social custom of braai, where the participants eat together by a fire and then spend the rest of the evening socialising, depicts the community spirit of our project. Braai is all about good food and being together with friends – the kind of spirit we want to have working in our project as well. The symbol for agility we found in the animal kingdom – the meerkat, or the suricate, which thrives in groups. We envisioned how all project partners look out alertly together for future trends, just like a group of meerkats. The meerkat could even be our project mascot!

These story elements can inspire at least us haagahelians in the project until, perhaps during a future braai we will be able to share all this with our international colleagues. However, the overall lesson here is, that the more we work in international networks, the less stereotypes will exist in our everyday framework.

*SUCSESS – Strengthening university-enterprise cooperation in South Africa to support regional development by enhancing lifelong learning skills, social innovations and inclusivity is a project funded by Erasmus+ Capacity Building. The partners in the project: Haaga-Helia UAS (FI), University of Oulu (FI), Sheffield Hallam University (UK), and partners in South Africa: University of Pretoria, University of Johannesburg and University of Zululand. Read more about the project here.