The transformative power of oral storytelling

Posted on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 under Blog.

A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was no such thing as the Google. There was no such thing as the Internet. And there was no such thing as the Book.

And yet people were not ignorant, or afraid. They did not live in darkness, knowing nothing but that which they had seen with their own eyes. Long before any of these inventions, there was the Word. And the Memory. And these were enough to light the Fire of Imagination.

It is difficult to imagine in our modern lives what life must’ve been like prior to writing and computers. So much of our world is now governed by text and print: we see advertisements on the street, headlines from the newspapers telling us of happenings near and far; we check schedules for our buses, record meetings in our notebooks, check our wages on our payslips. We view reading and writing as paramount. And we use literacy as the measure between those who know and those who don’t.

It was not always like this. While it’s true that reading and writing have transformed our world in ways we could not have predicted, we should remember that reading and writing are only the record: the record of words. And words persist in memory as well as on paper.

Many areas of the African continent have a proud history of oral storytelling: the art of remembering the story and passing it down through spoken word, not in writing. The West African griots were revered members of society, the custodians of culture who passed down legends and fables from generation to generation, as well as conveying news from region to region*.

Further south, we still hear echoes of the oral storytelling tradition of different groups of South Africans when we hear praise singers performing. They are a reminder to us of a great tradition—that of committing to memory words which are important in order to retell them. The tradition of oral story-telling.

Africa is not the only place with a history of oral storytelling. European history had its bards. The dastan was the traditional Turkish oral epic story, containing cultural information about identities, histories and values. There are the ashugs of Armenia, the shu-chang storytelling halls of China, the naghal of Iran and the biwa-hoshi of Japan… but southern Africa is the cradle of humankind. And since people and stories seem to be bound to one another as a head is to a neck, it was most likely here that storytelling began.

Oral storytelling is not like written story telling. For one thing, the essence of the story is the important part, and the words could change slightly from one telling to the next. In fact, it is the job of each successive storyteller to keep the story alive, embellish it, elaborate it and add their own unique personality and flair to the narration. To tell at story orally is not to recite it, but rather to internalise the story’s message and meaning so deeply that when it comes out again it is utterly convincing and engaging. To commit a story to memory for retelling is to fundamentally transform yourself.

So this Heritage Month, remember oral storytelling. Find a story that you loved as a child, remember it, rekindle it, revive it, retell it to your children. And transform yourself.

*Did you know that the origins of hip-hop come from the griot tradition? Slaves who were taken to Jamaica often continued their traditions of rhythmic story-telling, although artists such as Afrika Bambaataa are often credited for directly importing African oral story-telling traditions into the dub-rhythms of the Jamaican-influenced New York Bronx block parties to forge the earliest forms of emcee-ing and rap.

Campbell, K.E. (2005). Gettin’ our groove on: rhetoric, language, and literacy for the hip hop generation, Wayne State University Press

Sara Muller is a maths teacher with a particular passion in language and how literacy informs and interacts with all other forms of higher learning. She believes that genuine literacy is the ability to read the world and everything in it, including between the lines, and such literacy is the basis of each individual’s access to their own potential. When not engaged in educational activities, she pounds the pavement or her piano.