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Monthly Archives: April 2013

What is truer than truth?

There is a Yiddish saying that starts with the question ‘What is truer than truth?’  And the answer is …  well read on and you will find it.  What brought this saying to mind?  On Tuesday I was one of the guest storytellers at the Cape Town Central Library’s first Storytelling Festival to mark World Book Day.    I LOVE telling stories and jump at any opportunity to share them – with children and with adults.  Working with young people is a special treat as they are not inhibited – they are ‘story-ripe’ and have not yet ‘learnt’ the myth that only logical, left-brained ideas matter.  Their eyes grow bigger as they imagine the world you are creating with them, they hearts move with the hearts of the characters in the story, and in the process you, the storyteller, see new things, that you had not seen before in the stories you tell.

I love folktales and  as is often the case, my programme drew on the oral tradition that I grew up with.  As I worked with the young people (and the adults who had accompanied them, or who were just walking by, and stopped to listen) I was reminded again of the power of story to awaken the imagination, to stir something deep in the heart and get people thinking.  My first group was a class of 9 to 10 year old boys, who had walked with their teacher to the Company Gardens in Cape Town.  Judging from their teacher’s demeanour it had been a long walk and I was expecting them to be boisterous.   But when I said, “Once upon a time…” they just sat back, listened, responding with their big open eyes, their smiles, their laughter and their questions.  I taught them the call and response song in the Luganda story, Kaleeba, and they jumped in and singing on time, in tune – never missing a beat.  And every time their part came I had only to look at them, and they were in.

Telling tales to these young boys I was reminded again of how the storytelling – story-listening space is co-created by the teller and their audience.  There is something about the quality of listening that spurs the teller on, and something about the quality of the telling that draws the listener in – and when the balance is right the story takes over the space and leads both the listener and teller on.  And then the background noise of the grass being cut, and the other children shouting, the distraction of people walking past and squirrels running up a tree fades away completely.

The next group was a mixed group of 12 to 13 year old boys and girls.  The first story I told them, Kakookolo, I had a feeling they felt the ending was too easy – basically he turned into a handsome prince, and they lived happily ever after.  So I told them a harder story – Labong and Gipiir – a story from Northern Uganda which I remember from my Grade 3 History class.  It is a story of two brothers who lived close to each other.

One day an elephant came into their gardens and was about to destroy their crop. Gipiir grabbed a spear, struck the elephant, and it ran away with the spear in its side.  They all celebrated, until Labong realised that the spear that was in the elephants side was his favourite spear.  He was furious and demanded that his brother bring back his special spear.  No pleading from anyone would change his mind.  So Gipiir went, and after long and arduous journey he found the house of Min Lyec, the Mother of Elephants.  She took him in, made him work with the elephants for a while, then gave him the spear, and a beautiful bead.  He returned home, gave his brother the spear and told him he would never forget how his brother had treated him.  A few days later Labong’s child swallowed the bead, and Gipiir demanded it back immediately.  He would not wait for the child to have a bowel movement.  In the end Labong was forced to cut the child open to retrieve the bead.  The next day the two families woke up, packed their belongings and left the place that had brought them so much sorrow – one family went westwards, and the other eastwards.

And so the story ends.

At the end of one story they said, ‘That’s a really sad story!!’ So we explored some of the following questions:  ‘Is that the only way the story could have gone?  What if so and so did not do that, then what would have happened?  What if you were so and so, what would you have done?’  Until we came to the point where someone said, ‘The elephant should never have come!’  I did not give them an easy answer, but left them to stay with those questions and thoughts.  I too was left with questions:  “What do you have control over – and are you aware of that all the time?  And when something terrible happens what do you do?  And when does the horror of what has happened end, and a new story begin?  And what of this experience do you take into the new story?  And does it help?”  Then someone said, ‘Tell us another story, one that’s not so sad.’

And so I told them the story of Nsimbyengwire – which is a twist on the Cinderella story, without the Prince Charming or the ugly sisters.  And I ended with Stone soup – which ended in spontaneous applaud!!

At the end of it all one of the girls put her hand up and asked, “Are all those stories true?”  To which I responded, “There is a Yiddish saying which goes like this, ‘What is truer than the truth?’  And the answer is ‘A Story.’

Africa Let’s Go Crazy! – YouTube

“With open hearts and minds we cherish every day, reaching out to everyone…”

Africa Let’s Go Crazy! – YouTube.

We need to talk about this!!!!

This morning, while watching Morning Live on SABC, I was alerted to a terrible video on YouTube – two South African men beating up a woman in what appears to be an office tea room.  And someone was video taping the whole thing – most probably on their phone, and laughing – and they appeared to be more people in the background.  The woman was shouting, and asking for help, and trying to protect herself.  And no one made a move to help her, or to resolve the situation.  I have no idea what the whole thing was about, but I felt sick to the stomach after watching it.  It made me think.  Where is our sense of humanity?  And to what extent is the way we treat other people (or allow others to be treated) a reflection of who we are, who we have become – of what we have let go?  Ringing in my ears is that statement made by Bryan Stevenson (in his TED talk – We need to talk about an injustice) where he said

Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done. … Because of this there is this basic dignity that must be respected

Granted he was talking about how we treat those who are condemned or incarcerated, but I think his meaning went beyond that.  Because life is not black and white – and human beings are more complex than we sometimes seem to think.  We all know of people who are really evil, and yet have people who love them to bits.  I remember watching a documentary about Idi Amin on Al Jazeera, and his son spoke about him being a really loving father!  It made me think:  “Are there ways in which we can respond to those who have wronged us in a way that is just and does not erode our own humanity?”

Here was a situation where, it seems, people felt this woman had wronged them – and they felt the need to punish her.  I can understand that.  So two young men responded by beating her up – she was older than them and really not able to fight them.  Was this the only way they could resolve the issue?  I do not think so.  And the others, who might have responded in a different way decided to respond by standing by AND cheering them on.  They are clearly not intimidated by those doing the beating, or the person being beaten.  They were just enjoying this – like kids in a playground!!!   And someone else responded by filming this – and commenting, and laughing.  In fact, one felt as if she was edging them on!!!   Then, as if that was not enough, they circulated the video!!!!!!  And it ended up on the internet – and all the rest of us watched this thing on YouTube – voyeuristic? concerned? angered? amused? helpless? inspired? enraged?  And somehow everyone concerned is tainted by the actions of those beating the woman!  There is no one good, or humane in this situation.

It made me think of many other situations where, out of fear, or lack of interest, or something, we stand by, or for some stupid reason get involved in something that dehumanises another, and as such dehumanises us too. I remember when I was in my second or third year of my undergraduate studies at Kenyatta University.  There were two men, who came running onto campus (from a settlement behind the campus), being chased by the community.  They had allegedly tried to rob a house – and tied up a domestic worker.  These two men were surrounded by students who were on their way to lectures, from lectures or to lunch, and who had not been at the site of the crime. The students beat them up, stuck a garden fork in one’s throat, covered their bodies in dry grass and lit them up – and danced around the burning bodies.  And when the ambulance driver from the sanatorium tried to intervene, they almost overturned the vehicle, and he just managed to drive away.  It was a horrifying sight to behold – the madness of a mob and we ran away filled with a sense of fear and helplessness.  And for many days after that, I found it hard to look in the eyes of the young men on campus.  I walked about in fear – and looked at people’s trousers to see if I would see blood spattered on them.  I kept asking myself, ‘Who are we really?  Did it really happen?  Can I trust anyone here? Could I have made a difference?’ Many of the girls in my hall started going to the library in groups, afraid…  I mean these were our peers, and they had killed two men – whom they did not know, and had not given a chance to tell their side of the story. A cloud hang over the University for a while, and for me, one of the actions that began to open things up was when the Creative Arts Centre acted out a skit that raised many of the issues that the situation had raised, in a way that we could both laugh, and begin to speak about this thing that was so horrific that none of us were speaking about.  We came face to face with our humanity and inhumanity!

This mornings YouTube video woke me up to this again – our incredible ability to be good or to be evil.  It made me think, “how is it that the negative things seem to be more visible AND somehow acceptable?  How do we allow them to happen?”  It made me think about our local soapies, Isidingo, and Generations, where the bad people just seem to get away with everything all the time!!  Especially in the current season!!  The more I think about it, the more I believe that these huge acts of ‘terrorism’, genocide, gangsterism, bullying, mass murder, etc begin with small acts, where we close our eyes, look away, or cheer them on, record the evil and share it.  And so they get away with it, and we all wonder why the bad people always seem to win.  We become desensitised to what is wrong and start saying no one else cares so why should I?  And why shouldn’t you?  Because, somewhere deep inside, if you are really honest with yourself  YOU DO CARE – AND SOMETIMES YOU WISH YOU HAD THE COURAGE TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!  It made me think – What if we each rose to the occasion, in our small way, and challenged the actions of a perpetrator of mean-ness, or inhumane or unjust behaviour?  What if we dared to act in love and challenge with tough love – not violence, or ridicule or mean-ness? What if, for just one moment, everyday, we stood up for the underdog?  for what we believed in?  What if, everyday, in the small things and the big things we stood up for what was right and good and wholesome?  What impact would that have – not just on the world around us, but on the way we felt about ourselves?

What if we dared to do a little good every single day?  What if we dared, for just 30 days, not only to do good, but to notice, everyday, acts of kindness, courage, goodness, mercy and grace? What if we cheered on people who did good – cheered them loudly and publicly?  What if we did not only notice those people who came out to help when there was a bomb, or an earthquake or war – but noticed those people who just touched someone’s life in a simple but profound way – everyday?  What if we went further, and thanked them?  What if we went even further and celebrated them – on twitter, Facebook, tv, our blogs and Facebook pages – at assemblies or staff meetings or at the dinner table?  What if we used our smart-phones to record random acts of kindness and goodness – instead of acts of mean-ness, and senselessness?  What if, for just one month, we took back our humanity and refused to be complicit in all these big and small acts of terror?  What if, just for a month, we decided to care?  DO WE DARE?

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