Once quite long ago, in a land not so far away, there lived a young woman called Gcina Mhlophe.
She was a domestic worker in the city. She scrubbed floors and ironed clothes and looked after four tumbling children, all at the same time. One day she decided to keep them quiet by telling a story about Nanabuhlele the big monster of many colours that lives in the water.
Gcina didn’t know if the children would like her African tales, but soon they were shouting, “Tell us another, Tina!”
The years passed, Gcina became a famous actress and went overseas. Then she decided to become a full-time storyteller, one thing led to another (as it does in stories) and soon there was a group of storytellers called Zanendaba who visited schools and community centres all over the land.
Last week they held a festival in Johannesburg to celebrate the power of tales. Says Aboriginal storyteller and activist Maureen Watson: “Stories are like houses, you can change the furniture around, paint them different colours, but the shape remains the same.”
We are sitting in the coffee shop at Museum Africa, where Zanendaba’s annual festival is in full swing. For three days busloads of children and the occasional teacher have crammed the auditorium to watch Gcina Mhlophe and her eight-woman team in action.
Watson is this year’s international guest. Now a great-grandmother, she has been telling stories since she was four. “We lived in a bark hut by the river and Mum was always having a baby — or recovering from the last one. As the eldest child I soon discovered that storytelling stopped the little ones crying,” she recalls.
For Watson, traditional stories are a way of “keeping track of the ancestors”. They teach respect and remind people of universal laws. In a country where Aborigines represent just 2% of the total population, people like Watson provide a vital link with an endangered culture. And her tales are for white Australians too.
“The people who arrived in the last 200 years have their roots in foreign soil,” she says. “They need to learn our stories so they can connect up to our land and stop destroying it.”
There is a burst of laughter from the auditorium. Watson gets to her feet: “Let’s go in. I don’t want to miss anything.” Inside, Zanendaba’s Nana Mthimkhulu is telling a Malawian version of Little Red Riding Hood. She’s got to the bit where the innocent heroine (en route to Grandma) has been kidnapped by a monster and put into a sack. Not one to give up easily, the heroine starts to sing. The monster puts down the sack and exclaims: “Radio FM fundamental!” He has turned into a jive-talking gangster from the townships and the kids love it.
This is Zanendaba’s magic: to take an old story and repaint it with colours that are fresh and glowing. When Mhlophe tells how Hare and Dog fall in love with “clever, clean” Pig, it becomes a tale of teenage angst and eternal triangles. When Elizabeth Mathebula tells an Inuit creation myth, she describes how muskrat swims down to the centre of the Earth, “just like our Penny — you know Penny Heyns!”
But not every story has a happy ending. “It’s only the white teachers who worry about that kind of thing,” says Mhlophe. “The rest of us know that children see pain every day of their lives. Stories — old and new — help us connect with real things.”
Nana Mthimkhulu agrees. She remembers the workshop where a Standard 10 girl told the story of her father’s death. “She was crying and we asked her whether she needed to stop,” recalls Mthimkhulu. “But she just said: ‘I haven’t finished my story yet.’ Afterwards we discovered that she’d never spoken of this tragedy before. She was using the story to heal herself.”
Story creation is a major aspect of Zanendaba’s work. The methodology is simple: children learn by doing. Some teachers describe this as “unorthodox”. For “unorthodox” read “threatening”, especially in the context of an authoritarian school system. But anyone who has watched a Zanendaba workshop knows that the level of concentration is intense — even with children who claim they can’t tell stories.
There is something ritualistic about it too. The circle, the special Zanendaba hand-clasp. Mhlophe remembers how it began: “One boy said to me, ‘Do you know where the heart of the hand is? It’s here where the thumb meets the palm.’ Well, that’s how we hold hands now in workshops. My heart touches your heart. I hold you and transfer my inspiration to you — and you do the same for the next person.”