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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.’

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?

Werewere Liking – Cameroon /Ivory Coast

I am fighting for African youth. … I want the youth to be more intelligent, more sensitive, more conscious, more responsible for themselves individually. I want them to be aware that each and every one of them is capable of changing the world, changing themselves to begin with. Each time one of us improves, s/he improves the world. And only through the improvement of humanity, inside of us, can the world be improved. – Werewere Liking

Werewere Liking was born in Cameroon in 1950 and has been living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast since 1978.  She is a poet, novelist, painter, choreographer, performer, educator and social activist.  I have not met her or gone to her cultural arts centre in Abidjan, Ivory Coast – Ki-Yi Mbock Village (which means ultimate universal knowledge in Bassa, her mother tongue)  but over the past few years I have read about her, and seen a documentary about her work and I am inspired.

She is deeply committed to African tradition, to the Arts, to community, to developing the youth – and has been successful in her work, despite having left home at a very early age.  She says when she wants to do something she tries it, even if there is no funding, she tries to make it happen – and she has had amazing success (and many failures, I am sure).  She has a very clear vision and has worked hard to put it into practice.  The cultural centre is intentionally called a village because it is about community.  At her centre she works with people of all ages and they explore all the arts – writing, poetry, music, art, dance, puppetry… and the those things that support the arts – sound engineering, costume design, stagecraft…  And if any of the ‘artists’ living, learning and working there can’t read, they get literacy lessons too, in French.

I recently found an interview presented in an article published by the Barnard Centre for Research on Women. For those of you who speak French, it has video clips of the interview (with English translations in the text of the article) of her speaking about her work.  I have pulled out some quotes of her views on Pan-Africanism, the Youth and Women.  For the full article click on this link: Werewere Liking | S&F Online | Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies.

Werewere Liking on Pan-Africanism

For me, the label “Pan-African” implies that we take into account not only Africa, but also its diasporas. Because the term, “Pan-African” itself was conceived by Africans from the diaspora. So, it means including all the worlds born out of Africa. So, we claim them, but also offer them all we have.   …. it’s a view that’s a conviction for me, that Africa is rich in its entirety as a continent only in its diversity. Africa’s primary riches are its different cultures, its peoples. … Well, because, as you can see, these very borders render spaces extremely small. They reduce Africa. They weaken it. They prevent the circulation of vital energies. Consequently, they are a handicap for the development of this continent.

I love and believe what she says – that Africa is rich because of its diversity.  It is true and yet for the last few centuries – and more importantly the last 50+ years since we started the post-colonial period we made that diversity the reason for war, coups and everything that goes with it.  We forget that a tapestry, a beautiful piece of cloth, is beautiful because of all the different threads that are woven together to make it one.

She has a passion for young people whom she takes in to live and learn at her center, and she has this to say about  her work with young people:

I am fighting for African youth. I am fighting for children’s brains to work better. When I take charge of them, I try to help them use their brain. I force them to use their left hand because we have an entire part of our brain that does not work properly because we use only one part of the body, so there is a side of the brain that is less effective. There are many exercises that I have them do. I want the youth to be more intelligent, more sensitive, more conscious, more responsible for themselves individually.

… My battle is for little things and I see myself as a little ant, you know? The tiniest of ants can lift up crumbs ten times its own weight. However, because it [the ant] is so tiny, these are still small achievements. So be it! From my position, what I try to do is to try to lift ten times my own weight. That’s it.

On feminism and being a woman:

Because feminism, as it appeared at a time (in the 60s and 70s) —but I think it must have improved since—but the way it appeared at a time, it consisted mainly of lots of demands, lots of demonstrations, and I think this is a trap. Truly, when you look at it, we don’t need to demonstrate our womanhood. It’s like music for the heart. We know that we have things to do. We must do them, attain our goals, but without losing our nature. Our nature, our charm, our beauty, our gentleness. This is a totally different thing. This is not contradictory. To be a woman means to have it all. It’s to be all. Because for me God is a woman. So, it’s to be a creator, to be the source of life and consequently to privilege life above all. (my italics)

I first heard about her in 2008 when a someone in a workshop that I was facilitating spoke to me about her.  And then I saw the documentary about her – she spoke about her life dreams, her challenges, how she built up her cultural arts centre.  Her passion, drive, creativity, vision and resilience inspire me!!  She has through following her passion with conviction made an impact, not only in Ivory Coast, but internationally.  I would love to meet her.

Here are some links about her:

The African Women’s Decade – 2010 – 2020

I did not know that the African Union had made 2010 – 2020 the African Women’s decade – but they did!  Was there any media hype about it? Did I miss it, in the noise and media overload of this century?  Or was I just too tied up in taking care of my little 6 month old, who was just coming out of his premature stage and becoming stronger?  I don’t know, and I don’t think that really matters – not really… it’s just that the concept of the  ‘African Women’s Decade’ gives me a sense of excitement and possibility, and a sense of deja-vu.  It takes me back to Nairobi in July 1985 when Kenya hosted the U.N.’s 3rd World Conference on Women to ‘review and appraise the achievement of the UN Decade for Women’ (1975 – 85).   I was 21 years old and through some luck my friend Irene was able to get us to work as volunteers at the NGO Forum – see my badge!!! 😉 (P.A. Barlow)  It felt like such a privilege.


To be honest I do not remember much about that time – except that it was very exciting, and the Forum was based around the National Theatre.  There were so many women in Nairobi – and the men, who had been excited about the prospect of being surrounded by many women ended up frustrated because all the women were interested in was Women’s issues!!!   Another thing  I remember that a group of us, young black women went to the Hilton Hotel (unaccompanied by any man) and they did not treat us like we were hookers, AND we had quick service!!! And all the street children disappeared from the streets of Nairobi for a time.

A lot was achieved, I am sure, – and a lot of decisions and strategies developed in the UN, Development agencies, Governments etc – but I want to know what impact it had on the ordinary woman.  Conferences often frustrate me because you spend most of you time listening to people talking AT you, and the most interesting encounters, for me, are the conversations you have over tea, or lunch, or when you are looking at the displays, and accidentally bump into someone.  I wish there were more spaces for people to engage – not just to ask questions of the speakers, but to sit and really engage, dream, plan, listen to each others stories, understand the different contexts….

You see I am more interested in the impact on people, rather than policy, and so on.  Policy creates an enabling environment, but if no one acts then its just words on paper.  I fight for women, but sometimes hard-nosed feminists turn me off.  I get frustrated when they paint all men with one brush (evil, pulling women down) and I reflect and realise that my mother would not have gone to University in the 1950s if it had not been for the foresight of her father.  Or when I can identify a number of women who pulled me back, and men who encouraged me.  I get frustrated when they speak of the patriarchical society, and then go on to behave in exactly the same way that they say men do – and thus silence all the women they are claiming to empower! Women, like men, are just human beings with strengths and weaknesses.

So while the idea of a women’s decade excites me, I want to approach it differently from the way it seems to come up in the mainstream.  I would like to be more awake than I was at 21, and, in some small way make this decade count in more than just words – or policies or projects  looking for funders (all of which are absolutely important – I know that).  The question I am asking myself, and you, is ‘What are you going to do to make  this decade of the African Women more than just words on paper – or people shouting in the political arena about what is not happening?  What mark will we leave – beyond the rhetoric and the hype – even if it touches just one person?

  • How will we define (or re-define) power, and powerful women?   Will it be all about money and business, or being senior in government?  Or will we recognise all the ways in which women support the continent?
  • What, in your deepest heart of hearts, do you want to be the legacy of this decade?  How can you contribute, in a new and innovative way – beyond the tried and tested ‘recipes’ that often do not touch the ordinary woman?
  • Who are we going to celebrate?  Whose stories will we share?  Will we celebrate that woman who makes sure (on her meagre earnings) her children have a safe place to sleep, a roof over their heads, and get an education as well as that woman who goes out and fights for policies and infrastructure, or who makes an impact in the field of Education, or in the Economy?  Or we going to focus on the ‘celebrities’?
  • Will we be able to go beyond the traditions that trap women, and recognise, also the ways in which women make those traditions work for them (check out this video –

How about starting by recognising your 10 most inspiring /powerful/amazing African women?  Lets talk about them! Send me a short email, and a photo, if you have one, and I will add them all to my blog.

As a starting point (and before I put my 10 most inspiring African women down) let me share this with you :

Celebrating the Bold, Audacious, Inspiring, Creative, Passionate, Amazing Africans – Building our Nations

This year I am telling the ‘other’ stories – loudly and without apology! I am talking those things  that dont make the mainstream news often, except when people die.  I want to write about them. 

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, at a TED event  ( speaks of ‘the danger of a single story’ – that story that presents a person, place or thing as one-dimensional.  We all have them – we speak about people of a certain tribe/race/gender/profession in a particular way, respond to them in a particular way because ‘they are like that’.  We have very particular expectations of certain people or certain roles – and are surprised or suspicious if they turn out to be different.  We have a single story that we tell of ourselves as Africans even when we know that it is not the only story we can tell.     Well I am tired of the single story about Africa and Africans (often told by Africans)  that focuses on that which does not work; that  spotlights only those who fail, or steal, or destroy.  I am fed up of those conversations that cut people’s dreams into little pieces, that seem to say ‘the status quo cannot change;  those conversations that perpetuate the negative, make us believe, at a very subliminal level, that as Africans are unable to run un-corrupt governments, have great economies,  create anything new or do anything good!  These stories are too simple, they are an easy cop-out – and they are silent on the rest of the picture – the many other stories of people who enable, create new realities, make a difference everyday.   I want to tell the other stories.

This year I will recognise and celebrate those Africans, who make or have made a difference.  For some the contribution is small, and very personal or local; and for others, the impact is felt, immediately, by many, and sometimes over a very long period of time.  I want to focus on HOPE,  BELIEF, LOVE, POSSIBILITY, CREATIVITY, LOYALTY AND RESILIENCE – because that is what brings about change.  We can only build on what is there, on what is working, on what is not broken.  But if we do not recognise what is working, if we do not see or tap into our potential, how then can we change?  I want to focus on that which is working, that has potential, that we can build on – and on those who have, in some way supported, or enabled.

MY INSPIRATION?   My mother and father, who were great nation builders.  Throughout my life, and even after their passing, I have seen or heard about how they supported people, challenged people and stepped into difficult situations boldly because it was the right thing to do.  They did their best for the family (immediate and extended) and Uganda at large. Here is one small story:

We were 5 children, and the two who came before me had cerebral palsy.  My parents believed in education and when they realised that Fay and Chris would not be able to go to normal schools they got together with 6 other parents, and a few other people they started the Kampala School for the Mentally and Physically Handicapped.  They started out in a store-room at Mengo Primary School (Mrs. Wambuzi was the headmistress) and later the school moved to its current premises, land which was given them by the Kabaka.  Many children who would otherwise not have gone to school, or who would have remained hidden, as a curse, got an opportunity to have an education, and parents got support.  I remember taking Fay and Chris to school there, and just loving the way the other children loved them.  The children had access to physical therapy and occupational therapy at Mengo Hospital – and then, as Amin’s regime progressed this fizzled out.  Soon, it became obvious that the school did not have the staff trained to support Fay and Chris, and they stopped going to school.  The name of the school dropped the ‘mentally handicapped’ because there were not enough staff to support them.  But my parents remained involved in the school for a very long time!  They helped develop a vocational education wing, which the current headmistress has developed into an amazing centre.

When my father passed away in 2006, the first people to put an orbituary in the papers, even before we as a family did, were the Old boys and Girls Association of the Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped.  And at my mother’s funeral last year, one of the old boys came and spoke.  On the side he told us that his disability was a result of an accident as a child, and his family disowned him, and left him at the school.  He said my mother supported him, encouraged him to go to secondary school after he passed his P7, encouraged him to do his tertiary education, and he is now an accountant, drives a car, and supports the family that rejected him.

The school lives on, over 40 years later, and many who go there do not know my parents, or the other people involved in the starting of the school.  For me, though, this school teaches me something – that in addressing a personal challenge it is possible to help others beyond your life time!

For a long time I have wanted to find a way to honour them and I think that collecting stories of people who make a difference is one way of doing this.

I am inspired everyday by ordinary people who quietly get on with life, not complaining, but actively making a difference in one life, or 100 lives, inspiring others, believing in others, standing up for others, inventing, creating and actively making a difference.  Like the woman in Khayelitsha (a township in Cape Town) whose daughter had cerebral palsy, and died young, but she went on, with nothing, to create a school to support other children and parents with the same challenges.

I am also inspired by the book the  Vision Group in Uganda published to celebrate 50 years of independence – reminding us of the people who stood up and made a difference.  Stories of 148 people (a small number) of people who made a difference.  And while the vision book focused on those who had contributed positively and negatively, I would like to focus on those that inspire.

I commit to write about someone at least once a fortnight;  to share a story about an African making a difference.   Some will be people who are well-known, and some will be little known – and doing what seems like something very small and insignificant, but they will, in my opinion, be making a difference.

JUST SO THAT YOU KNOW:   I will, without apology, write about people who I know, who may even be related to me as well as those who I do not personally know, because bold, inspiring, courageous acts  happen everyday, in big and small ways, and often the contributions of those closest to us go unnoticed.  I want to acknowledge all those who I think are making a difference in one way or another.

My INVITATION to you:  If you have a story you want to share, please send me an email at

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