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.’”