Telling a Story in Modern Kenya

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 7th-14th July 2014)

ogutu-muraya-photo-by-wangui-thanga
Oguto Muraya at Casual Bites Cafe Photo by Wangui Thang’a

“The story is just the spoiled child of art,” said the Anglo-American writer and literary critic Henry James (1843-1916). Even though his contemporary, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), criticised him for “writing fiction as if it were a painful duty”, James still makes a good point.

Telling a story is possibly the oldest form of art, which has evolved over time into other forms within the performing arts by being accompanied by music, dance or dramatisation.

But storytelling is such a natural human impulse that it is sometimes overlooked as an art form and as James implies here, it weaves itself into other forms of art- the written word, the film and the play.

And even still, within all these other forms of narrative, there is always the tendency to fall back to oral narration. “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we set our scene…” is the narrator’s voice in the prologue to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1595). Robert  Zemeckis uses the voice of the titular character as the narrator in Forrest Gump (1994).

kweya-and-titi-photo-by-cinematics-solutions
Kweya Newton and John Titi at Zamaleo International Storytelling Fetival, Nairobi, 2014 Photo by Cinematics Solutions

Until the turn of the nineteenth century, or thereabouts, in European culture, reading a book aloud to the rest of the family is what people did for evening entertainment, in the same way that we have television today. Here we see the written word transposed into the spoken word.

In essence, there is something magical about hearing a story. The hue, timbre, intonation and rhythm of the human voice always seem to prevail over other forms of narrative.

In this vain, the Zamaleo International Storytelling Festival was held in Nairobi for the sixth year running. I attended one of the shows, at Casual Bites Cafe in Westlands, on Friday 6th June, where storytellers from Kenya and Denmark told their stories in a warm and informal setting.

Helen Alumbe and Grace Wangari told the story of Fumo Lyungo. Wishes was told by Kamilla Holm, Gossip by Marianne Christensen and Dragon Queen by Anne Grethe. Inspired by the renowned British Caribbean storyteller Jan Blake, who performed at the 1st Storymoja Hay Festival in 2009, Ogutu Muraya told The Woodpecker in a Caribbean accent and the show ended with Chagua Rafiki told by John Titi and Kweya Newton.

Anne Grethe at Casual Bites Cafe Photo by Wangui Thang'a
Anne Grethe at Casual Bites Cafe Photo by Wangui Thang’a

The last festival I attended was in 2009 in the auditorium at the French Cultural Centre and I found that the cafe was a setting better suited to storytelling because it creates a cosy one-on-one relationship between the teller and the listener, that enables the latter to savour the story.

The story tellers used many techniques of involving the audience, many of them inspired by African folklore. For example, they did not just introduce themselves- they devised clever ways of making the audience ‘remember’ their names.

However, despite our natural affinity for regaling each other with all sorts of tales and despite our rich folklore, storytelling it is yet to gain recognition as a form of art in its own right in our modern society.

One of the storytellers, John Titi, is of the view that storytelling in Kenya is far from reaching its full potential. One of the reasons he gives for this is that in Kenya, the general attitude is that a story must always have a moral, while as foreign storytellers make up stories that do not necessarily have a moral.

This statement reflects a need for storytellers to adapt to the demands of the twenty-first century audience.

In the same way that keen readers of novels are always on the lookout for new stories, so it is with potential audiences for storytelling and the tellers need to look within and beyond folklore.

Helen Alumbe Photo by Cinematics Solutions
Helen Alumbe at Zamaleo International Storytelling Festival, Nairobi, 2014 Photo by Cinematics Solutions

In order to adequately compete with other form of narrative, storytellers could tell stories with more developed characters, multi-layered plots, suspense and other ingredients of an engaging story. Furthermore, making up a story is one thing, telling it is another. And just because one is not gifted in both, shouldn’t be a restriction for storytellers. I see nothing wrong in a gifted storyteller recounting, for example, Hama Temo’s The Waldiba Story or Roald Dahl’s Parson’s Pleasure, as long as of course, the source of the story is duly credited.

History is an immense source of stories and so are current affairs. There is an entire ‘library’ of great, funny or unusual happenings to draw from or be inspired by.

In all cultures, storytelling has been and will always be not only a favourite pass time activity but also the means through which, or against which, people forge their identity.

© Anne Manyara 2014

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