Letsema Centre

Storytelling Heritage

Storytelling forms an important part of societies.
This is a two-fold heritage project; firstly as a group dialogue and secondly as a publication. It is carried in local communities to unearth rich experiences of unsung heroes and heroines. Storytelling is an ancient and effective African learning approach.

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Storytelling in Traditional Society

The Role of the Myth

Myths and the religious festivals linked to them are certainly not just fiction or entertainment. Myths reveal the connections between human beings and the natural world by reminding us of the spiritual origin of all things, both human and natural.
As well as by providing answer to fundamental questions of life and death, myths, folktales and legends also served to instill moral values in their young people of the tribe or community. These stories often taught the young that it was wrong to steal, murder, lie or be self-centred or egotistical; they encouraged kindness and generosity to others, especially the orphaned children, the poor and the disabled. The tales encouraged children to obey, help and respect their parents and other elders, to be careful in choosing one’s marriage partner and to understand the bearing and raising of children which were two of the most important aspects of marriage and of building a family.
Mythology, legends and folktales in a traditional African environment also teach children to be articulate in any one of the possible thousands of African languages when participating in the oral tradition of storytelling.
When adults and children sit around the fire it is often a grandparent or an older member of the tribe who narrates the stories.
In the few instances where African mythology has been written down, the stories were transcribed by missionaries, who were very discriminating in their selections. They tended only to record those stories that met their individual European expectations of what a folktale should be.
They also recorded stories using contemporary European standards of moral decency.

Under the gaze of the stars, the old gogo sits, stirring with rheumy eyes at the semi circle of eager, expectant faces before her, faces of those who have taken but a few footsteps, a few steps along the dark and uncertain footpath called Life, faces as yet unmarked by bitterness, ill-health and anger.
The fire dances in the middle of the round clay fireplace. It devours the round twigs and logs, fed constantly by the little girl, leaving nothing but glowing ashes. It mocks the silent sky with a red luminous column of smoke against its starry face, sending up short-lived stars of its own.
She takes her snuff box hanging around her neck and with her shaky, arthritic fingers, opens it. She takes out a pinch and makes an offering to the ancestors by sprinkling the substances in the semi-circle on the ground. Then she takes the pinch of the snuff into her nostril and sneezes, then blows her nose into the fire.
She is sacrificing to the ancestors, sharing the snuff with them and then she blows into the fire to take as an oath that the stories she is going to tell are going to be in the way that she was taught. She is not going to add or subtract a single word.
And so, after singing a little song, she begins the story, the old story, that she herself was told long, long ago – the story of how the world began and how the human race came to being.

»There were no stars, no sun, no moon, no earth.
Nothing existed but darkness itself – nothing existed but … nothingness.
How long this nothingness existed, nobody knows.«

In some instances, the colonists succeeded in obliterating the memory and identity of the African people. Hence, another illustrious writer from our continent, Ben Okri, in his book, »Astonishing the Gods«, succinctly captures this tragedy:

»He was born invisible. His mother was invisible too, and that is why she could see him. His people lived contended lives, working on the farms, under the familiar sunlight. Their lives stretched back into the invisible centuries and all that had come down from those differently coloured ages were legends and rich traditions, unwritten and therefore remembered. They were remembered because they were lived.
He grew up without contraction in sunlight of the unwritten ages, and as a boy he dreamt of becoming a shepherd. He was sent to school, where he learnt strange notions, odd alphabets, and where he discovered that time can be written down in words.
It was in books that he first learnt of his invisibility. He searched for himself and his people in all history books he read and discovered to his youthful astonishment that he did not exist. This troubled him so much that he resolved, as soon as he was old enough, to leave his land and find the people who did exist, to see what they looked like.
He kept this discovery of his recent invisibility to himself. One night when the darkness was such that it confirmed his invisibility in the universe, he fled from home, ran to the nearest port, and stole off across the emerald sea.
He travelled the sea, saying little, and when anyone asked him why he journeyed and what his destination was, he always gave two answers. One answer was for the ear of his questioner. The second answer was for his own heart. The first answer went like this:
‘I don't know why I am travelling. I don't know where I am going.’
And the second answer went like this:
‘I am travelling to know I am invisible. My quest is for the secret of visibility.’
Those who worked with in those years saw him as a simple man. Actually, they did not see him at all.«

The former President Mr. Thabo Mbeki tells the following story about the search for the truth and character building:

»As we grew up, we were always taught to tell the truth. We learnt that we should always search for the truth and not be happy with repeating dogma, however widespread the belief that such dogma represented the truth.
We were taught never to fear to defend that we believed was right.
It was said that we must respect people even if as they hold views that are different from ours.
Furthermore, we should understand that to swear at people or otherwise resort to foul language indicates that the dialogue has ended and the stage set for a physical fight
We were taught that no self-respecting person tells untruths and that a person who does not respect himself or herself cannot expect others to respect him or her.«