Telling tales leads to literacy

The theme of this year’s Nozincwadi Storytelling and Book Festival is “From the Bones of Memory”. 

It is an evocative theme for the 10th edition of the festival. When one considers the festival’s international reach, something that founder Gcina Mhlophe says evolved organically since she hosted the event on her birthday in 2008, it is easy to consider how uniquely the theme can be interpreted by storytellers because of their varied diasporic experiences.

Speaking to storytellers working with the oral forms, one quickly realises that the Western education system imposes a hierarchy of importance of one storytelling form over another.

For Mhlophe, the festival, which started as a literacy campaign and has morphed into a combination of the literary and oral forms, emphasis is placed on both, because “I live and breathe the written word and oral tradition”.

For someone like Philippa Kabali-Kagwa, the oral and the written forms are equally important, because they bring different skills to the table and using both of them is important.

“A lot of parents say they don’t know how to tell stories or they have forgotten how to do that,” says Kabali-Kagwa. “But I think school, a lot of times, silences that. There’s a great focus on Western stories and there’s a great focus on reading.

“But what they don’t realise is that the oral tradition of storytelling is very helpful towards reading because of what it does. It’s my imagination as a storyteller connecting with your imagination as a reader. If in the story I say‘There was once a very, very tall tree and under the tree was a hut’,that tall tree you imagine might not be the same tree that I imagine, but you imagine a tall tree and you imagine a hut and you imagine what the people do and you hear what the people do.

“If I say he had big, black hair and a voice like thunder, you imagine that. What happens then is that you begin to create these pictures, and when you read a story you read it with expression because you have heard language.”

Although the oral forms have to live side by side with technology, Kabali-Kagwa believes they are not under threat as such, because storytelling is an integral part of what makes us human.

“A lot of people don’t use the form nowadays,” she says. “I don’t think a cellphone beats being in the presence of someone who is telling you a story. But there is space for all types of storytelling. One of the things we have done in Cape Town is set up Story Club Cape Town every last Wednesday of the month. We have an open mic for the first hour. For the second hour we have a storyteller performing. You are not allowed to read, so you have to perform the oral tradition. We have been going for four years and people come every month. We often get new people, young people and old people.”


As part of this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival, Kabali-Kagwa says she was part of a team of about 10 storytellers who went out to primary and high schools in the area. The outreach was a roaring success.

“I don’t think the art [of oral storytelling] is dead. As human beings we are story beings;we make sense of our worlds through stories.”

Another nascent form of storytelling is stand-up comedy. About 50% of storytelling involves the non-verbal use of the body, which means that the act itself is a form of hacking through the language barrier.

Nompucuko Zakaza has been in many situations where she told stories to people who didn’t understand a single word of isiXhosa.

[Body talk: Nompucuko Zakaza says that movements are as vital as the spoken word in conveying the story. Photo: Alan Eason/Daily Dispatch]

“I told a story in the UK the other day,” she says.“I was anxious as to how it would be received. I discovered that the language isn’t that important as a barrier.

“The imagination is carried by the body of the person [telling the story] and then you will start to be interested in the language they speak. From there, you move your foot forward and say, ‘that was a beautiful story’.

“The act of telling the story creates curiosity about the language , which then ignites a fire of curiosity about each others’ languages.”

In another setting, in Gauteng, Zakaza found that the multiple mediums woven into the story broke through the wall between Sotho-based languages and isiXhosa, which is her chosen medium.

“The teacher was apprehensive but it was magic, because the story contained music, contained running and other interesting things,” she says.

Zakaza grew up under the oratorical tutelage of her grandmother. “Her abilities influenced me a lot. It made me an active child. At school I was always actively participating, which is unusual for a lot of children. In my case, it was my grandmother’s influence. I’d respond to the teacher even if I didn’t know the correct answer. I quickly learnt to have confidence in front of people.”

A teacher by profession, Zakaza left the classroom in 2001.

“I had a calling to teach in many places. I understood that I had to work as an oral practitioner and train other teachers. I saw that children become free and have fun when you have approached your subject through a story,” she explains.

“If you are teaching life sciences but you have started your lesson off with the frog who lives in a breezy river bank, you have already involved the sciences there.

“So if we can change the mind-set of everybody who is involved in transferring skills to children, everybody could benefit from the power of storytelling.”

Nompucuko Zakaza runs a nonprofit organisation, Lisahluma Skills Development and Services, and facilitates aftercare projects in Tsomo and King William’s Town. Shehasalso ventured into Nal’ibali, a national read-for-enjoyment campaign, which hired her in 2017 as a provincial support co-ordinator.

From September 27 to 29, the Durban School of Music on Diakonia Avenue will host stories and readings

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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