Once Upon A Time…

Susan Wamucii at the 2nd Sigana International Storytelling Festival in Nairobi (Photo by Fabula Storytelling Company, Sweden)

(A version of this review appears in the East African July 19-25 under the title: Under the Spell of a Fairy Tale)

There was a lady who once told me a story about how her husband, against her warning, went out to fetch water early one morning in Zanzibar and on his way back home, like she had predicted, he encountered some wanga (supernatural beings), whose favourite time for mischief, apparently, is the hours just before dawn. I did not believe a word of it, yet I was absolutely enthralled by the story because she told it so well. Such is the magic of storytelling.

Stories have been an integral part of human life. In the words of the American writer Reynolds Price, “the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.”

Stories are told in order to educate, instil morals, preserve culture but above all, to entertain.

In an effort to preserve and develop the art of storytelling, Zamaleo Act  have been training young story tellers and from June 10-14 2010, they held the 2nd Sigana International Storytelling Festival, in Nairobi.

I attended the festival on the afternoon of June 13 and listened to a story about the baby turtle that outwits the malevolent coyote, by Diane Ferlatte from USA. Jeeva Raghunath, another accomplished storyteller from India told a story about a king who inadvertently declares a month of national mourning for the death of a donkey. Mats Rehnman from Sweden recounted the story of a young courageous girl who offers to be the King’s bodyguard, disguised as a boy.

From Uganda, Andrew Ssebaggala’s story was about a dispute over land between a man and some birds while Susan Wamucii from Kenya told a story from Liberia, about a girl who won’t obey her husband and Rose Mwaura’s story explained why cats chase mice.

Githanda Githae and Hellen Namai ended the show with a story about a cunning hare and the rather cruel (and too chilling for children) fate of the hyena, who was lynched by the other animals.

Generally, the entire session was very entertaining, although, given that the festival was open to all ages, most stories were children’s stories.

A story telling session at Alliance Française Auditorium, Nairobi during the festival. (Picture by Fabula Storytelling Company, Sweden)

Telling African stories in English seemed to inhibit the spontaneity that characterises African story telling. I could tell that if Mwaura had told her story in Kikuyu she would have managed to convey more effectively, the way the taste of the mouse lingered in the cat’s mouth. This is because the gestures and imagery she used have distinct meaning in Kikuyu, and may not be understood by a non-Kikuyu audience.

However, the diversity of our modern society necessitates the use of a common language like English or Swahili and therefore, it is important for a storyteller to not only translate the words of the story, but also to understand how non verbal aspects like gesture, intonation and imagery can be translated from one language to another.

An aspect of storytelling that was evident in all the stories told, is repetition. In most cultures across the world, stories have been told by repeating a sequence of words or a sequence of events.

Rehnman used this very cleverly to address the issue of language: The first of three daughters offers to be the king’s bodyguard. To discourage her, her father gives her a slow horse, and riding on a faster horse, he gets to the bridge before her and makes ghost-like noises upon her arrival at the bridge, scaring her back home. This sequence of events is repeated as each consecutive daughter attempts to ride to the king’s palace and because the audience understood it the first time, he told it in Swedish the second time, thus giving us a flavour of his own language.

Then, in accordance with the ‘rule of three’ in Western folklore, the third daughter was not frightened by the fake ghosts, so she rode across the bridge and arrived at the King’s palace and became his bodyguard.

The most important part of storytelling is not how original the story is. In fact, as stories have been passed on orally from generation to generation, it doesn’t matter who first told the story, or if the audience has heard the story before because the most important aspect of story telling is how the story is told.

It is for this reason that some stories are still with us even after thousands of years of telling and re-telling. Most of us know the story of Joseph of Egypt but we would still love to hear it again, if the teller could give it a freshness we haven’t heard before.

If it is a new story on the other hand, then nothing can hold the audience more captive, than suspense.

There is the story about a Persian king who, believing all women to be unfaithful, would marry a virgin and then have her executed after the wedding night. Finally, he marries the last virgin left in the land, the daughter of his own advisor. On the wedding night, she tells him a story and promises to finish it the following night. So skilful a storyteller is she, that the King feels he must hear the end of the story and so he postpones her execution. She manages to postpone her death for a thousand and one nights. Each time she finishes a story, she starts a new one and promises to complete it the following night.

The stories from A Thousand Nights and a Night, known more commonly as Arabian Nights, like Aladdin and His Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor and the Adventures of Abunwasi, continue to entertain children and adults alike, hundreds of years after they were first told. It is the magic of story telling.

© Anne Manyara 2010


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ahai Luvai says:

    Cool beans! This is really fascinating stuff. I happened to discuss a very similar concept with my dad recently. He’s preparing some work on ‘performance in literature’. What I didn’t realise is that even when two people read or tell a story, they are entirely different because each is a performance in itself. So for example, the imagery evoked in one reader’s mind is different from another’s. So are the the characters. I’ve experienced this on many occaions when I like a novel so much that I watch the film. It is inevitably disappointing because it doesn’t live up to the original ‘performance’.

  2. Anne Manyara says:

    Cool beans? That’s new. Thanks. “Performance in Literature” sounds interesting. Is you Dad having it published?

    1. Ahai Luvai says:

      Cool beans is something I’ve picked up living in Yorkshire. Roughly equates to good show or similar. No, he’s got a class of postgraduates who he’ll teach that module to. Since we source most of his teaching materials here on Amazon, I was intrigued by the topic.

  3. Anne Manyara says:


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