"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
April 29, 2014
The Redemptive Values of Storytelling in Africa
by Imo Eshiet

As a kid growing up in an African village, I never for once stayed indoors and gawked at screens. The entire electronic craze that so sucks in and absorbs my children and grandson now were simply non-existent. It did not hurt I did not have any keyboard to work my fingertips or remote control devices to zap or and pop images or sounds from TVs.

To me nothing was more entertaining than seeing our storytellers work their craft. I always looked forward with consuming interest to recreations at nights when stories were enacted much to the delight of my imagination.

At such moments, the ingenuity of the human voice along with drums, wooden and iron gongs, shakers and rattlers, clappers and flutes, horns and bells concerted to memorably impact the oral aesthetics and morality of my culture on my young mind.

Nothing jumped at me more than the especial ability of the storyteller to compress whole passages using gesture, facial expressions, gesticulations, grunts and telling body language.

Our lifestyle was communal. This along with the fierce sun that rises early and, on setting, gives way to the moon and stars to continue providing illumination, made outdoors life under the canopy of huge trees inevitable. And as the sun with the planets, our lives orbited around storytelling.

As Chinua Achebe, Africa’s foremost novelist, remarks, storytelling is one of the driving engines of entertainment in Africa. In his 1987 Anthill of the Savannah he writes:

[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.

Achebe, a repository of knowledge about storytelling in Africa, knew the power of stories are and what they do in our lives. Storytelling was our movie, our theater, dancehall, TV, night club, and not to overstate it, our library and cultural mentor. The American Indian writer had it going as much for her oral culture as indeed for the African tradition when in the epigraph to her 1977 Ceremony, she said:

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.

Because stories “are all we have,” we found riveting ways to deliver them. Our griots not only have the voice to tell, sing, or chant narratives, but other modes of delivery such as riddling games, songs, dance and in fact all the resources of theater.

As I sit with Tina, my eight-year-old daughter, listening to Peppa Pig and all the mimicry and ruckus made by the animals as they narrate how they make different kinds of smoothies and try it out, I am cast back on a world of oral storytelling lost to Tina.

In the charmed and magical world I lived as a kid, storytellers had a way of making surreal phantoms real. Through their gift for imitation, spirits not only took on human bodies but sloughed them off at will. To give the impression of spookiness, the narrators made ghosts speak in wacked-out, scary, and weird nasal voices.

In very remarkable ways griots breathed lucid energy into their characters. They used such animal trickster figures as the tortoise or the spider to engage social conflicts. With these, they also underscored the power of human guile and the devious in life. To promote bracing relationships, they gave voice to the voiceless and used their talent to tame evil.

They made animals to talk and trees to walk about. They made the wind not only to hear and whistle, but also to transport people to wherever they wished so long as such folks knew the right code to invoke. Griots made the wicked to feel the whiplash of damaging winds or the mortal burns of solar flares in a genuinely frightening way.

Mountains, rivers, the moon and stars in turn took on human attributes. Through these human dispositions they acted out their lore before my youthful eyes. For example, long before I was physically introduced to the sea I was, through the way storytellers assumed its character, already familiar with the billowing, heaving waves, and monstrous roar of the ocean.

When the sun set behind the horizon above our sea, story narrators said it was taking a dive so it would emerge fresh, shiny and vibrant with life again in the morning. Because our nights were free from artificial light pollution, the skies sparkled and shimmered with star as if they were spread with diamond dust. In these skies, the planet Venus is often visible to ordinary eyes.

Since it always stands beside the glowing moon, storytellers said the planet was the moon’s favorite wife. The hazy cloud we seemed to see on the moon took on life in the imagination of our storytellers. Thus, the clouds we saw were actually people who had disobeyed the Sabbath law. As punishment for splitting wood on the holy day, the transgressors were frozen in their act of disobedience and ostracized in the moon as deterrence to others who might be tempted to break divine laws.

In my rural culture roosters act as alarm clock at dawn to folks who allow gravity to tie them down on their beds. Thus in our stories roosters do not just crow meaningless sounds but actually communicate necessary messages at dawn.

The koko koko koooo of the fowl translates in our language as “kop ke ajo asiereee!!” This means “hear oh folks, a new day has dawned on us.” In this way even birds were empowered with the spoken word and made to participate in the rhetoric of communal capacity building.

The redemptive possibilities of the stories lay not only in the content but the skill of the narrator. A creative narrator turns her narrative style into a healthy conversation with the audience. Devices such as songs and antiphonal structures such as the disarming call and response patterns innate to oral tales stories enable the narrator to connect and arrest the attention of her audience.

Thus rather than talk past her audience, she mobilizes it to participate in the performance of the story.

The interactions between narrator and audience enable them to probe and turn tensions into a shared struggle and to find concerted solutions to disruptive conflicts. Since audience members can interrupt the flow of the narrative to make pertinent contributions or correct significant departures from the narrative arc, the unity between narrator and audience makes for honesty uncommon in other performance arts.

The oral narrator in Africa is as much an entertainer as a shaper of the destinies of her audience. She resonates not only with impressive narrative qualities but also with suggestions of communally sanctioned behavior. To me, her disposition to turn her art into a democracy of forms, a necessary conversation in a continent where tyranny frequently holds sway is quite restorative.

This openness and flair for bridging the artificial gap between storytelling and theater is one of the unique redemptive values of oral narratives.


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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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