A printable PDF copy of this guide is available to download: Practical Guides for Participatory Methods: Rivers of Life
Through drawing of a river, this method helps to access and communicate personal experiences, and facilitate group dialogue around the issues that the groups themselves identify. The expectation is that, through staged group activities moving from individual activity to group discussion, trust and rapport can be built with the researcher, and between the participants.
Rivers of Life may be useful for practitioners and researchers who want to:
- generate reflection on experiences, enablers, influences and barriers or challenges;
- appreciate personal experiences
- generate dialogue
- identify and discuss the reasons behind the enablers and challenges,
- identify strategies for change
Things to consider
The river is a symbol of one’s life course which is appropriate in many settings, but can also be drawn as a road or in another way – allow flexibility for cultural preferences.
The method can be used in any setting: if indoors, flipcharts can be put onto tables or walls. If outdoors, flipcharts can be placed on the ground, and locally sourced objects (e.g. leaves, beans etc) can be placed along the river instead of drawing.
The method is accessible for all literacy levels. Professional staff often underestimate the capacities of less literate and marginalised groups and doubt that they will be able to use the method. This is never the case.
The river/road will flow through the key stages of the person’s life. Each participant creates a visual map of their life, represented by the river. They will add tributaries, rough waters, rocks, flowers, fish etc to represent positive experiences and challenging times. The river and detail can be drawn on a flipchart, or represented using objects placed along the river if drawing is challenging.
Careful facilitation to allow individuals to present their river without interruption, and to enable constructive dialogue in the group stage, can build trust and rapport in the group. This is of particular importance when sensitive topics are discussed.
In some contexts and with some topics, it may be preferable to organise separate groups according to gender, ethnicity or religion.
Since people are talking about their personal lives, they may share experiences that are upsetting. It is important to have appropriate safeguarding, counselling and signposting support in place. Working with a local organisation and co-facilitator is recommended, so that support can be readily provided if needed.
The group should be no more than 8 people. Once all have drawn their rivers, one by one they present them, telling their story without interruption, but with gentle prompting if needed. The group asks questions at the end. Once all have presented, the facilitator invites the group to identify common influences and challenges, and why these occur. A further step can be to prioritise these and agree actions.
Recording: ensure that a notetaker records the discussion throughout, and especially Part B, ideally also with voice recording.
Part A. Drawing the river
Introductions: present the theme and purpose of the exercise and the required time.
Determine a timeframe for the river; give each participant their own piece of flipchart paper and personal marker, and if appropriate some natural materials like grass, twigs, and stones.
Provide the prompt question. This should include the timescale e.g. ‘‘‘what are the most important challenges you have experienced in your daily life, starting from before the pandemic, and during it, until now?’
You may add ‘what factors have helped you to cope?’
Draw example of a river by drawing your own at the front of the room in a bigger flipchart [be prepared to add in some examples from your own experience].
Use symbols to show positive and negative moments in your river/story. For example, crocodiles, rocks and turbulent waters can represent problems / difficulties and abundant fish, flowers or calm water can be positive moments.
Prompt people to think if things started to improve or became worse along the way.
PART B. Presentation and Analysis of the Rivers
Invite each participant to present their river, asking others to listen respectfully, and to notice common and different factors.
Invite the group to identify key points (e.g. challenges, enablers)
Group discusses key points. Deepen discussion by asking ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions to understand more about why they happen, and what happens as a consequence.
Ask, what can we change? (e.g., who are the influencers and how to target them, who are the gate keepers to go through.)
Note down ideas of strategies and actions.
It’s important to manage expectations at the start of the process. This should mean that participants can contribute, feel happy about their contribution, understand the time commitment and leave the process without guilt at a moment that suits their lives. This may be at the end. If the process takes longer then 6-8 weeks, it’s vital to be transparent about milestones which should include moments when people can leave guilt free and happy about the contribution they have made.
If you’re using this method as part of a larger participatory research project, you may have included follow-up activities such as validation workshops, or monitoring, evaluation and learning activities. Be aware that not everyone wants to participate in everything.
Each inquiry group of 8-12 participants involved 2 steps. First, each participant drew or created their own River or Road of Life as a visual tool to help them to each tell the story of their life over the last 18 months, from before the pandemic, to their experiences of life in the shadow of Covid-19. Second, the group discussed the issues that emerged, and ranked these in a PRA matrix ranking exercise to identify the most pressing issues.
Muhammad Lawal narrates his river of life in Plateau State, Nigeria. Photo credit: Dr Dawood Abubakar
This guide was authored by Jo Howard with acknowledgements to Mariz Tadros and the Coalition for Religious Equality and International Development (CREID) team.