Linking hands to voices: Hand mapping in contexts of violence and insecurity

  • 05 Jun 2018 | by Gill Black, Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation

Linking hands to voices: Hand mapping in contexts of violence and insecurity – Blog

How can a participatory approach enable a better understanding of the ways in which identity and intersecting inequalities block accountability processes? This is the question that the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) has been exploring in our most recent action research process with the Delft Safety Group (DSG). And this was the question that catalysed the development of a novel participatory visual research method - hand mapping. 

Since 2015, SLF has been a member of the Participatory Research Group (PRG), a consortium of 18 partner organizations across the world that work with participatory methods to bring marginalized voices into policy making spaces. In early 2017, along with some SLF colleagues and international members of the PRG, I attended a global inception meeting in Cape Town to kick-off a new action research programme exploring participatory monitoring and accountability (PMA). The hand mapping concept was piloted by the facilitation team during a one-day workshop that formed a component of the global meeting. My colleague Rory Liedeman and I went on to adapt and develop the hand mapping concept, transforming it into an action research process that included personal story-telling and collective film-making. We explored this novel methodology as part of our PMA research with 10 members of the DSG during 2017.

The DSG participants began creating their hand maps by drawing the outline of one of their hands on a piece of paper and adding in some background colours. We then asked them to think about the palm of their hand as representing themselves as a whole person, and their fingers - which intersect and come together at the palm – as the ‘key influences’ in their lives. It was explained that a key influence could be absolutely anything that they considered to have been a really important factor in making them into the person that they are today. We then asked them to write these key influences, in just one or two words, into the fingers on their hand map. Following this approach, we found that the key life influences of the DSG were described in five different ways; as roles in society; emotionally; with adjectives; through cultural references or through contextual circumstances. The participants were then asked to think about a very memorable personal life experience that they felt was strongly linked to one or more of these key influences. They expressed the most significant elements of this experience in their hand maps through the use of various craft materials as well as newspaper and magazine cuttings – which added colour, expression, texture and symbolism.

Farida’s story: Farida Ryklief has been a member of the DSG since its inception in 2015 and was one of the participants in the PMA project and the hand mapping process. Farida has been a member of the Delft Community Policing Forum and has co-ordinated the Victim Support facility at Delft police station for almost 10 years. She has represented her community as a safety activist in numerous high-level policy engagements where she has been a leading voice in the fight against entrenched police corruption and gangsterism.








Hand map: Farida Ryklief

In her hand map, Farida describes the key influences in her life in different ways. She highlights her roles as a leader, daughter, wife, mother and caregiver. She also shows that her religion has been very important to her. Her map illustrates that living in a context of inequality, where she feels unsafe and insecure, has had a significant impact on making her the person that she is today.

In her story, Farida explains what happened to her one evening in 2017 when she and her four-year old foster child, Ibie, were driving away from her parents’ house after a short visit. Suddenly they were approached by two young men with guns who fired multiple shots at her car. Farida describes the ‘the burning sensation she felt in her stomach’ when she put her foot down on the accelerator and knocked one of the gun-men into a wall, as she and Ibie made their lucky escape.  

All of the participants verbally shared the experience they had chosen to talk about within the group, after which Rory and I facilitated their shaping into short stories for the purpose of taking them forward into a film-making process.   

Through the collective analysis of all 10 stories, the DSG identified 3 main themes that formed the basis for making three short films which were completed in December 2017; Be The Voice, The Deciders, and The Door. Resonant parts of the hand maps were captured on video and these clips provide much of the visual content for the films.


Be The Voice powerfully shows the life threatening challenges faced by community leaders as they strive for community safety. As community activists, Soereya, Ashraf and Farida are perceived to represent the voices of their fellow community members. This leadership role places a target on their own lives, and on the lives of their families. Because of this they are often oppressed and silenced by fear. Be The Voice conveys some of the terrifying and deeply frustrating experiences that these three long-standing activists have gone through and illustrates the depth of the risks they are willing to take in their struggle against injustice in their home community.


The Door is a moving short film that illustrates the vulnerability of young men and women as they navigate friendships and social spaces in Delft. Manelisi and Jacqui each describe a harrowing and damaging experience that they endured as teenagers, experiences that they are still trying to overcome. While Rosetta’s story about her daughter’s traumatic experience in a ‘sugar house’ in Delft reminds us, that entire families are affected by the daily realities and threats of drugs and violence.


The Deciders tells an inspiring story of resilience. It illustrates how determination and inner strength have enabled Siphokazi, Siviwe and Adiel - who have faced very different, extreme set-backs in life - to move on. It also shows that agency and positive life choices are not always enough to overcome the multiple intersecting challenges faced by people who live in places like Delft. Through their film, the story-tellers call for government responsiveness so that young people who are marginalized and excluded from opportunities ‘can make something of their lives’.

These three short films were publically released in February this year, following a rigorous consent process with DSG participants. The wider research findings will be available in the global PMA project report that is due to be published through the Institute of Development Studies next month.

Our hands are symbolic of our roles, agency, power and physical interactions. They may have rings, scars or other markings that silently say a lot about us. Our approach with the DSG was to use hand mapping as a visual process of self-identification, a way for the individuals within the group to freely describe themselves - rather than being fitted with pre-existing academic definitions of identity. But the utility of hand mapping is not limited to exploring the meaning of identity and intersectionality. Contemplating our hands and the ways in which we use them simply provides a unique entry point for thinking about ourselves and our daily interactions with the world. There are many possible ways of moving forward from this initial step of self-reflection. Thus, as a visual participatory research tool, the hand mapping approach is highly adaptable for use across a wide range of topics and disciplines. 

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