Storytelling African-Style

There is nothing more lovely than telling a story outdoors, living into the images our own imaginations conjure, while the leaves rustle and the wind cools. We take inspiration from African storytelling which values the moment of storytelling as well as the images that need to be conveyed. One of my teachers, Harold Scheub, helps here: “Storytellers are constantly in the process of taking ancient images and casting them into contemporary kinds of forms. And so there’s no such thing as an original story. I don’t care where it is, whether it’s written or oral, the fact is that every story has been heard before. Every story has been told before. So if we’re looking for originality we’re going to find it, but in unique kinds of ways. We’re not going to find it the way a story is told, we’re not going to find it in the story itself. It’s that connection, that’s the important thing. Connections are everything. Connecting the present and the past, connecting the storyteller and the audience.” ( “The Man with 10,000 Tales” by Tim McDonnel. http://narrative.ly/the-man-with-10000-tales/) When we choose the stories we tell the children it is purely out of this connection that we operate.

The stories we tell are old, orally-transmitted tales, folktales, or pedagogical tales. We tell stories appropriate to the ages of our children, the season, and the make-up of the group. Story time on most days is silent – not a pin drop can be heard – because the children are so absorbed by the telling, the imagery, the lyricism, and the repetition. Young children love to hear a good story over and over; we tell each of our stories for three to four weeks. Stories contain gems that allow children to encounter wolves, thieves, giants, or elves. But these elements are true. So, for example, when I tell “Bremen Town Musicians”, each animal does not become “human” it remains within the bounds of its characteristics: the nervous rooster, the lazy cat, the chatty dog, and the clever donkey. These are not Disney characters who are really just humans in disguise. These are animals confronting their mortality and finding strength in one another.

Another story, “The Turnip”, seems very simple at first. But the group effort needed for all the characters to pull the turnip out of the ground is a magical image of helping one another make the harvest. I watched the children “act it out” last week and will never forget the looks of joy as each child wrapped their arms around the person in front of them in order to pull out the two children who were the “turnip”. Our children need images of social cooperation more than ever.

Unlike reading a story, our stories are not told “perfectly” every time. And sometimes the teller embellishes or erases details, much to the delight of the listeners. Our “Africanization” of storytelling gives the child permission to tell her own stories – to take a story into play with other children, to tell a story he’s heard before without worrying about whether they it’s “right”. Again, the perfectionism inherent in our industrially fabricated material realities (books) can hinder our children from becoming authors, ready to jump into the creative abyss of their own abilities.

Literacy is nothing if it is not love of stories and story telling. Children who are not forced to read too early have time to author their own tales, to play with language, and to hold a captive audience with whomever will listen – perhaps a small audience of stones and bottle caps (as my daughter used to do). Reading is useless if our readers don’t know the value of a story. And in order to love that story, our children need to be free from other people’s images (either in books or in videos) and to hear tales rich with ancient images cast both in old clothing as well as contemporary garb.

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