NDERITU: Oral stories an art of keeping indigenous knowledge

Wednesday October 16 2019

Pupils of Lily of the Valley Junior School in Kiambu sit under a tree during Swahili story telling lesson on September 18, 2018. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NMG


I asked a mother whose two sons joined Al-Shabaab why she thinks they did so. Holding back tears, she answered, “It’s the ideology.”

‘By ideology, you mean what those who radicalised your boys taught them, don’t you,” I asked gently. Shaking her head from side to side, she said, “no, it’s much deeper than that. It is the power of those radicalising to tell stories in such compelling ways that listeners feel obligated to commit violent acts.”

Many Africans of the pre-cellphone generation speak with nostalgia of childhood evenings spent telling stories, around a fire or under the moonlight.

Grandparents were often the storytellers. I asked a cellphone generation colleague for an African story and she said “‘sorry, I am from the storybook not fireside generation.”

Oral story telling is a disappearing aspect of African culture but not in Kiwimbi, the first free community library and museum–with artifacts contributed by locals–and social justice centre in Busia County.

Kiwimbi in Amagoro town, near the Kenya-Uganda border, is each day, a beehive of activity, delivering books to over 50 schools. Streams of students and adults, some of them from Uganda, come to Kiwimbi to read newspapers, borrow or return books.


On Friday afternoons, children, mainly from Amagoro, Okuleu, Kidek and Koseny Primary schools sit under a mango tree, waiting for Ishmael Masake, a retired headteacher and inspector of schools. Mr Masake is a volunteer traditional story teller in English, Kiswahili and Ateso.

Masake was a mothertongue story writer for the Kenya Institute of Education, writing, among others, proverbs and the book, Tujifunze Kusoma Kikwetu.

The African oral story is a conversation, not a lecture, and also a dialogue between the teller and the listener. The children Masake tells stories to are active participants in the story telling process.

‘‘If a child grows up with the emptiness of not hearing stories, they will find more information to fill the space,” he says.

He therefore puts great thought into the stories he tells. They stories must fit the current context, therefore those he learnt from his grandparents are not enough. His stories impart the community’s values, but are also stories preparing young people to make the right decisions on other stories they may hear, sometimes through the internet, that could lead them to criminality.

Through the mythical world of ogres and speaking animals, Masake grounds the children into understanding belonging and to respect, not fear difference, comprehend behaviour and address issues at home, build self-esteem and stay away from criminality.

Belonging, behaviour, domestic issues, lack of self-esteem, criminality and gang involvement are classified as factors that make young people susceptible to extremist messages.

Masake’s stories are brief, with just enough detail for the children to understand. His objective is for the children to discern and co-create their own story by seeing themselves in the stories he tells, in relation to their own context.

There is a usually a protagonist, who Masake tells just enough about, to hook the children into the conflict in the story. This protagonist often has a problem, whose solving requires imagination. African stories do not necessarily have a happy ending and Masake’s are no different.

His stories have the children identifying with the protagonist from a solution seeking or knowledge learning perspective. His stories are told to teach but also to create storytellers in the children.

When the story is over, he encourages creative thinking by asking the children what they think the moral of the story is. He does so because when the children participate, they then own the story. It becomes a story they in turn can tell others. The children also relate to Masake as a mentor they can reach out to.

The ability of these young people to tell the stories persuasively to others might well turn out to be one of the single greatest skills in keeping indigenous knowledge and holding communities together.

The future of Africa belongs to the storytellers who educate, motivate, bring out our inner child, address our insecurities. We just have to ensure that it is a Kiwimbi, not an extremist telling these stories to our children.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]