Telling stories of belief and disbelief

March 21 was World Storytelling Day – a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. On that day, I listened to stories on my CD player.  The stories about my country.  Booker prize winner, Ben Okri, said some time ago that the fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.


In some communities, storytellers have for centuries been the record keepers, chronicling births, deaths and the history of relationships within and outside the community. Researchers say oral communication remains vital in Africa today because most people still live in traditional and linguistically homogenous settings which foster oral culture.


Religion plays a prominent part in many African stories. Abdulatif Abdalla’s Utenzi wa Maisha ya Adamu na Hawaa brings out the relationship between orality and worship. The poem tells the story of Adam and Eve, from the beginning of their creation, through the drama of temptation and disobedience, the birth of their children, the murder of Abel, the couple’s agony and repentance and the forgiveness by God. 


Most stories about religion don’t end nicely, I have come to know. Most speak of intolerance, of tensions and of massacres. Music legend Fela Kuti told these stories, with humour and wit. His son Femi, in an interview with a journal said: “My great grand father died looking for Jesus. My grandfather died. Jesus didn’t come. Well, my father said he was wise and that he is not going to wait until Jesus will come. And he too is dead. If I look at both of them I take my father being the wisest.”


Those familiar with theories of orality would know that human beings in primary oral cultures, those unaffected by writing, learn by apprenticeship – by listening, by repeating what they hear. On this year’s World Storytelling Day, I heard stories of conflict, of human unease. I  hope that someday, I will hear a different story, that I will tell and listen to stories of perfection and ease, that I will play back these stories (in whatever medium) to myself, my children and my children’s children.