While around the world misinformation and lies abound, in Africa, stories transmit morals, acceptable behavior and universal truths.

16x9 In Africa storytellers are the truth tellers

Anansi the Spider” by Annie Wong (Headexplodie), courtesy of Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In a time of widespread misinformation, disinformation, fake news and outright lies throughout the world, many people are wondering what the truth really is and how to find it.

In Africa, it is embedded in the power of story.

“The oral tradition has always been a hallmark of West African culture for generations long before colonization, and so storytellers have been the truth tellers,” said Dr. Geremie Sawadogo, a World Bank talent manager and storyteller, who, as a child growing up in Burkina Faso, would gather with his family to listen to story hour on national radio every Tuesday evening.

David Thuku, an executive coach and storyteller in Nairobi, Kenya, agreed. “Stories are a very structured system of managing life and giving knowledge about such things as governance, values, laws, social sciences and medicine. Medicine men, for example, would tell people which plants to use for different illnesses,” Thuku said.

“They also taught us morals and our code of acceptable behaviours,” Sawadago added. For many, they are a form of timeless, universal truth.

In Africa, colonial-style education tried to take over traditional storytelling.

African stories can come in many different forms: two- to three-hour speeches, long monologues, oral renditions, poems, sayings, proverbs, fables, folklore tales, visual language, songs and even dance.

Sawadogo’s favorite proverb is in relation to the traditional Burkinabe staple of “sagabo,” which is a stiff, white porridge made of millet, sorghum or maize flour: “If you want to eat grass with your daily sagabo, you don’t need to chew it. Just swallow it.”

This roughly translates to the Northern proverb of “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” which is attributed to St Jerome, who first expressed the adage in Latin in the fifth century of the modern era.

“Colonial-style education tried to take over traditional storytelling, but thanks to my mother, my grandmother and my aunts, I was brought up with fables and folklore tales,” said Patrick Mpedzisi, a civic and social organization consultant and storyteller based in Zimbabwe.

Many of the folktales — such as the Senegalese “Tales of Amadou Koumba” by Birago Diop — revolve around animals, such as the hyena, which signifies greed; the hare, seen as being very clever; or the snake, which is considered dangerous. There are many versions of the Northern tortoise and hare fable in Africa, but they may not include carrots.

And then there is the smart and cunning trickster Anansi, who was turned from a god into a spider by his father Nyame for being too mischievous and whose escapades have spread from their original home amongst the Ashanti people of current-day Ghana to the Caribbean and the Southern United States.

Rejecting education through TV, minders and nannies

Significantly, in one of the most famous stories — “Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom” — it is the spider’s youngest daughter who thwarts his plan to keep all the world’s wisdom for himself.

Children are often seen as both “truthseers” and “truthsayers,” and are viewed as the main hope for the future of African storytelling, which survived colonization but is now threatened by such things as pop culture and social media.

“We must reject the legacy of the colonial model of letting the system educate the child through TV and minders and nannies,” Mpedzisi said. “Parents need to use story to show their love and share insights through time with their children. They can help the children know who they are and what the expectations for them are.”

Thuku agreed. “We all need to tell stories and share stories. At school, at church and above all at home. What goes through children’s ears in their formative years becomes very important for their later lives and for society as a whole.”

After all, according to the Ashanti people, “A wise man who knows the proverbs of the land reconciles difficulties.”

And as Malawians say, “A great leader is an ordinary person with extraordinary wisdom.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why are stories important for Africans?
  2. What is your favorite story from childhood and why?
  3. Do you know a story that tells a universal truth, and if so, how and with whom would you share it?

Jeremy Solomons is a global leadership coach and facilitator based in Kigali, Rwanda, where he has written regular “Leading Rwanda” and "Letter from Kigali" columns for the New Times newspaper. In the past, he was a Reuters financial reporter in Hong Kong and New York City and then a foreign correspondent in Frankfurt. He was also a farmer in Israel; factory worker and teacher in France; banker in England and Switzerland; and entrepreneur in Italy.

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