The Joys Of African Storytelling

The Joys Of African Storytelling

At the end of March 2020, I had the pleasure of joining in on a Story Telling workshop. I sat surrounded by literary scholars, authors, activists, publishers, multi-media artists, and digital marketers. Gathered together as purveyors of stories we were tasked with using these as a tool for organizing in our work and communities. For 3 days we listened to stories, we queried them and we got to tell our own or aspects of it. It was easier I admit talking about other stories not so much my own. A highlight was listening to Dr. Susan N. Kiguli read a poem, her response to the Nambi-Kintu Creation Myth from Buganda culture, in Uganda. In critiquing this myth participants engaged with the idea of power, how it is communicated through stories in our cultures, and how these establish structures in our societies.

I first heard this myth as a child in primary school and for me and most of the people in the room, the version we recalled was centered on the male actors Kintu, Walugembe the prince of death and gulu the god. Nambi, the only female voice, was passive. This was at odds with the version Susan recalled from her childhood which centers Nambi as the protagonist. As thus Nambi uses her agency to aid Kintu in outmaneuvering gulu. Gulu’s tests are designed to thwart her decision to create a life with Kintu on earth. Our versions, however, converged at the conclusion of the story: Nambi’s agency curtailed. Her new subservient state, blamed on her actions, is framed as inevitable and inescapable. In contrast, Kintu has gained family and power; his dominant position in society established. A conclusion like this ─similar in creation myths from the other cultures represented─ has often been used to propagate female disempowerment. But as one participant drew our attention to the shift from the 3rd to 1st person voice in Susan’s poem, it struck again that the human instinct, consciously expressed or not, is to become an active voice in the narratives that inform who we are and frame the world we live in. Curiously when this shift in voice was pointed out, Susan acknowledged it was unintended as she wrote further attesting to the inherent desire for each of us to actively engage with the stories about and of us.

Stories are not just the “once upon a time” narratives of our childhood or those funny recounts from a friend or colleague nor the tear-jerkers crafted by fundraisers to get your money. We are continually creating, consuming, and promoting narratives in our daily lives: the news we read, the works of literature we pick up, the videos we watch, the updates we share in text, on social media platforms, or at that table during meals. We each have the opportunity to and should use this to interrogate the narratives that frame our view of self and the world.

Anthropologists tell us storytelling is common to all cultures and it is difficult to divorce from the human experience. Social change activists promote the use of Stories to power change in community work. One of my favorite storytellers TED talk presenter Hans Rosling used stories to make alive the otherwise boring statistics on the graphs of declining global population growth. Even Coca Cola in its “Taste the Feeling” campaign tells the story “a Coca Cola product of your choice will make everyday moments more special.” I wonder though, what stories are we telling ourselves? Which ones do we cling to and why? How do these influence how we interact with self and with the broader community?

Just this week I was embroiled in a discussion brought on by the statement, “African’s don’t read.” I acknowledge the ire this phrase triggered was compounded by my recollection of a related phrase, “The best way to hide something from an African is to hide it in a book.” I scoured the internet following this discussion in an attempt to track the origin of these statements. I came up empty-handed. There were some variations but no definites to whom the origin is attributed. I have heard both these statements repeated in different settings varying from church services to business leaders’ training. Each time said by an African. Always said with conviction. I get the point is to spur those in the audience to invest in reading and learning as much as they can. This intention, however, doesn’t justify the perpetuation of a mindset that in its sweeping nature disregards the politics of literacy and access to reading materials that a large population in Africa has to contend with. A mindset that is at best derogatory.

Is the vast population of Africa deliberately or willfully (as these irksome statements imply) refusing to read? What are the numbers of people in other regions, who read, in proportion to their respective populations? Given the access they have to education, reading materials and structures to support reading “cultures” how do these numbers fair?

The question of what constitutes “reading” and who determines whether what is read is important or not comes with its politics. Does the newspaper qualify less than the works of fiction? Does the self-help book mean less than the academic paper? Or the books on Agriculture less than Financial accounting?

What is the cost of developing a “reading culture” for the average person in Africa? What is the average household size? What is the average income per capita? What is the average cost of a book in your market in Africa? What does access to books or reading materials look like? Public libraries are a rare find, commonly derelict and under-resourced. A common complaint here in Uganda is the lack of well-stocked libraries in government-sponsored schools.

One would argue the internet gives us access to a wealth of information, true. How many Africans can afford a smartphone or computer with which to access the internet? What is the average cost of data in African nations? What are the rates of connectivity and how reliable is internet access? What are the numbers of electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa? What does a subscription to online book services cost and are these even available to you and me in the African region? Why aren’t they? While we might know several people with the means to read who choose not to consistently, they don’t represent the plight of the vast population in Africa.

As we curate the stories of our continent we must be willing to interrogate the ones we have lived with. We are bearers of heritages that we’ve been conditioned to consider inferior by the language we most commonly use and the education we pride ourselves with. Without interrogating these narratives we allow for them to continue to perpetuate the destabilizing of our identities and that of this continent we call home. Stories communicate power; asserting or re-asserting it shaping who we are and how we view that in the global context.

Admittedly some people seem better skilled at taking the mundane and transforming it into scintillating narratives while the rest of us remain their captivated audience. There’s no denying that and someone probably comes to mind as you read this. I am surrounded by impressive storytellers and admit it does get intimidating coming up to them with the fragments of my offering. This thought shouldn’t erroneously cause us to think storytelling is the prerogative of those who get the label of writer, poet, artist, or designer, making us stay the telling of our own. While my story on its own doesn’t come anywhere close to capturing the fullness of the African story, our collective stories can begin to paint a fuller image of this continent we call home. In so doing we have the opportunity to take power back over the narrative of our future.

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