Under the spell of a fairytale

Monday July 19 2010

Storytellers at the 2nd Sigana International Festival in Nairobi. The most important part of storytelling is not how original the story is. It is how the story is told. Photo/ANNE MANYARA

Storytellers at the 2nd Sigana International Festival in Nairobi. The most important part of storytelling is not how original the story is. It is how the story is told. Photo/ANNE MANYARA 


There was a woman who once told me a story about how her husband, against her advice, went out to fetch water early one morning in Zanzibar.

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 enthralled by the way she told it. Such is the magic of storytelling.

Stories have been an integral part of human life.

In the words of American writer Reynolds Price, “The sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.”

Stories are told to educate, instil morals, preserve culture and to entertain.

To preserve and develop the art of storytelling, Zamaleo Act have been training young storytellers.

And from June 10 to 14, 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 a baby turtle that outwits the malevolent coyote, by Diane Ferlatte from the US.

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 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 wouldn’t obey her husband.

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.

But given that the festival was open to all ages, most stories were for children.

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 conveyed 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 meanings 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 Kiswahili.

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 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.

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.

The most important aspect of storytelling 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 new freshness.

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 married the last virgin left in the land, the daughter of his own advisor.

On the wedding night, she told him a story and promised to finish it the following night.

So good a storyteller was she that the king felt he must hear the end of the story and so he postponed her execution.

She managed to postpone her death for a thousand and one nights.

The stories from Arabian Nights continue to entertain children and adults alike, hundreds of years after they were first told. It is the magic of storytelling.