When I lived in the Gambia, an elderly Griot, the traditional West African storyteller, poet and singer, would visit for weddings and naming ceremonies and in the long dark evenings when the ghetto blaster and TV fell silent without electricity. Even if I couldn’t understand the Wolof; I was drawn in by the feel of the story, the melodic ebb and flow of his voice and by the intent looks on the faces of our small audience of family and all the neighbours, in the cool evening air.
Both women and men are storytellers, holding a unique place in the hearts of the community, using an art form passed down through families for generations. They tell and retell stories about historical events, cultural traditions, the natural and supernatural world, stories with moral depth that resonate through time, and are adapted to it. In that courtyard in Banjul, the storyteller spoke with and to his kora, that incredible string instrument that I could listen to for hours.
I think what really drew me in was the repetition, the circles of the story, moving forward slowly, returning to a central part, forward, backward, dance of words, drawing the listeners into the movement, the meaning. That slow motion feels to me less common in literature and stories from Europe or North America. We tend to want to get to the point, to the destination. In the few storytelling evenings I attended in West Africa, it felt like the circle itself was the destination; it connected, reinforced, felt whole. Listening I was reminded of how much these same patterns resonate through music and stories from Egypt, long affairs of few words and many feelings. That same circling we all use in children’s stories and rhymes.
When my children and my niece were little, I sought out African tales to tell them, stories of the natural world, tales that always held a universal moral. I wished they’d had the experience of listening to African storytellers.
Now, Ghanaian innovator and tech entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse, who co-founded theSOFTtribe Ltd, one of the leading software houses in Africa, is launching a new audio app that will capture stories from across Africa, in many languages, and make them available to all Africans, and to the wider world. I first came across the Afrikan Echoes story in this CNN article and video and was immediately fascinated by its Pan African ambition, the way the technology is being designed to make it affordable and accessible even in remote places, and the potential that we can all access these stories whether we are in Africa, Asia, the Americas or Europe.
Herman tells the story and the vision fabulously, so I really recommend the video. Herman Chinery-Hesse is himself an innovator and leader on so many levels. You may want to google him and check out his Ted Talk.
Incidentally, the CNN International series on Connecting Africa is a treasure trove of materials, if you can access it.