Friday, March 6, 2020

Culture of African Story

For five years in the 1970s I lived and worked in Africa in both Botswana and Ghana. I also traveled throughout Western, Eastern, and Southern Africa. From that experience, I gathered these impressions of the culture of the storytelling in Africa.
Story in Africa is sacred (thus my capitalization), and Story is interwoven in the daily fabric of life. Story is not just words in Africa. Story is told through baskets, fabric, dance, ritual, and relationship. A slight gesture of a body might reveal entire Story Worlds. I experienced an enormous depth and subtly in communication in every country I visited. Quite ordinary interactions became extraordinary. I recall a woman in the Accra market in Ghana breaking into a spontaneous dance with me as part of our Story Time together.
Initially, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) and Literature in Secondary Schools through Peace Corps. My Botswana students made beautiful drawings to go with stories they wrote to include in the school newspaper. They drew Story with ease and confidence because this was part of their early training at home.
I chose storytelling as a teaching tool to clarify plot lines and bridge cultural divides. The curriculum I taught was a mix of English classics such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer combined with marvelous African books like China Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" and "The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born."
I prepared students for two sets of examinations that pretty much determined their futures: "O" Levels, or Ordinary Levels (roughly the equivalent of late middle school in the USA) and "A" Levels or Advanced Levels (roughly the equivalent of a high school diploma or even first year of community college in the USA). My students did rather well.
In Botswana one of the books we studied was "Lambs Tales from Shakespeare." I set my students the task of writing scripts for each of these tales and acting them out. When one does this kind of analysis, the commonality between classic European literature and World Story comes into sharper relief.
I went to Botswana on my own after my Peace Corps tour ended in secondary schools and became involved in three village projects, each involving story as a powerful tool.
With the villagers in Gabane I set up Tshwaragano Craft Center, became Puppetry Consultant for a Popular Culture Team, and wrote stories and lesson plans for a literacy curriculum. Through working on these projects I learned Story is the life force that moves brain, heart, and limbs forward. I became Puppetry Consultant simply because I picked up a puppet in the back of a pick-up truck, started wiggling its arms around and giving it a voice and lines to speak. In the Popular Theater work we built on the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's Critical Theory.
Community Development workers brainstormed critical issues and then we built stories around these, performed in drama, dance, song, and puppetry. We stopped at the high point of the action to ask the audience: "What would you do now?" these discussions led to common work projects in the village. We did something similar in the literacy curriculum we designed and had illustrated.
I was so impressed by the results I'd seen in the other two projects that I started using puppetry performances at Tshwaragano to work out critical incidents and stimulate discussion of tricky situations any new venture encounters, like "Whose turn is it to sweep the floor today?"
I love Africa and her stories. I feel Africa is truly the Mother of humankind, and certainly archeological findings bear this out. In Africa I felt embraced by that Mothering energy.
Never in my life have I been so enfolded, nurtured, watched over, looked after, cared for...and just flat out enjoyed for being who I am. Africa is a continent, not a country, of course, but I felt this no matter where I went.
Stories ease difficult and painful situations. In Botswana I remember storytelling told around a campfire under a sky full of piercing stars a night our truck broke down in the bush between Francestown and Maun.
In Ghana I remember stories told in crammed to the brim Mammy Wagons that might plunge us into an accident around the next corner. But, in either of these situations if we would have come into danger, we would have faced it as friends, not as strangers, and this would have been through the power and grace of story.
Story is the thread of celebration and the thread of knowing. During Peace Corps training I went to a village no outsiders had ever lived in. We were mutually curious about one another and expressed this through Story. I collected their stories and they created stories and song commemorating my visit.
Stories in any language and culture are worth telling to our children and passing on. Africa has a strong oral history, of course, and you could probably speak to the impact of technology on her oral history tradition.
Because, by definition Story requires time, and time together, as well as the willingness to pass on a tradition and use our imagination. It's good to have stories of your family and your people to provide a sense of continuity between generations...a thread of time and life moving across place.
I have a shelf filled with books from and about Africa. Prominent among them are books of African folktales, which carry wisdom from the ancestors into the modern day.
There's a wide discrepancy between popular stories told about Africa ("It's dark, exotic, and war torn") and the stories I took home after I lived and worked in Africa for five years. I am troubled by the popular perception in the USA of Africa as this place (only) of war-poverty-famine-tribal strife-AIDS crisis. Granted African nations and the African continent have huge difficulties and problems to continue resolving, but to balance all that I so want people to understand the warm beating heart of Africa which for me felt like the essence of being human...not primitive at all, but highly civilized and humane.

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