In an interview at the 2012 Jaipur Literary Festival in India, Nigerian writer and poet Ben Okri shares an amusing insight about storytelling. When he first went to live in England some years ago, a discussion arose about what stories parents read to them when they were younger. Okri learnt that his peers were read stories out of books. Somewhat bemused and astounded, the writer of Famished Road, tells them that the storytelling he was exposed to at a young age involved him watching his mother in amazement and with great suspense as she created stories ‘out of her head’ – not a book.
If there is one thing Africans are known for, it is the art of storytelling. Storytelling served to keep history, culture, and the genealogies of a people alive. It was an oral documentation of life, which could involve elements of stories, poetry, music and dance. In the African tradition, storytelling was a designated role for certain individuals, which was carried through in certain families from generation to generation. The Griot in parts of west Africa, the imbongi in parts of southern Africa, were identified having the oratory skills and capacity to memorise the histories of their respective peoples. Another element of storytelling is the communal aspect of the activity. In the past communities would gather around the fire where stories were told to young and old. This form of storytelling was interactive and involved mechanisms such as the call-and-answer, where members were actively engaging and participating in the storytelling. It was also considered a skill and an essential part of children’s indigenous education.
Around the world, stories are considered an important feature of life. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe writes in the Anthills of the Savannah (1987):
"…[I]t is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story . . . that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us."
While Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko writes in an epigraph to Ceremony (1977):
"I will tell you something about stories ... They aren't just entertainment ... They are all we have ... to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have the stories."
The tradition of storytelling in South Africa still prevails in the country through the voices of storytellers like Gcina Mhlope. Mhlope was taught the discipline of storytelling by her grandmother. And she recounts how when growing up the children in her neighbourhood would come and spend the evening at her home so that they could listen to izinganekwane (tales). Storytellers like Mhlope are examples of the art being turned into a professional art form, one out of which artists can make a living.
In a nation like South Africa, storytelling has another purpose to serve, namely to heal, reconcile, and bear testimony to the experiences under apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a national platform for people to tell their stories. It was an important model for socio-political transformation for the nation. Storytelling has been used in conflict situations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Palestinians and Israelis, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. However, the arts have a role to play in this process through literature, film, dance, visual arts and poetry to facilitate healing and reconciliation. The arts have placed a critical role in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. Consider our collective memory without books like The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Night by Eli Wiesel, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, I am David by Anne Holm, and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. Or, the depth of our understanding of the Holocaust experience without the films Judgement in Nuremburg, The Odessa File, Jacob, the Liar, Hanna’s War, War and Remembrance, Schindler’s List, and Les Misérables, to name but a few.
Lindsay McClain in a research study on the role of arts in post-conflict resolution among the Acholi in northern Uganda writes that the arts do matter. She states:
“… we can agree that the arts and creative expression play a large role in African societies, as they do globally, and that they historically have been used as tools of peace building and conflict resolution because of their ability to unify people within their own societies, as well as cross-culturally.”
McClain’s research documents the processes being used by the Acholi to heal and reconcile after more than two decades of war. The Acholi have a cultural heritage rich in literature and the performing arts, and are eager to nurture a culture of peace. Through the work of individuals and organisations in Uganda to incorporate the arts into conflict resolution, community reconciliation, and psycho-social healing, the Acholi are taking ownership of the new culture they seek to instil among themselves. Their initiatives have been indigenous in the sense that they are based on art forms associated with long-standing patterns of expression in northern Uganda, typically involving music, dance, poetry and drama. As well as initiatives with international and or contemporary influences such as the infusion of reggae, rap, hip-hop and R&B into their creative activities.
Whether by documenting real life stories or by fictionalising stories, through dance, music or poetry, what the stories of the Holocaust and the Acholi demonstrate is that storytelling through some form of art has great power to open up channels for improved communication and deeper understanding among people. In a world where the arts, film and music in particular, play a large role in people’s daily activities, this should be optimised to for the betterment of society.