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African Storytelling: A Theatrical Recipe for Teaching and Learning

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Abstract

Reynolds Price said that “a need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo-sapiens… second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths”. No human being in the world has ever lived a day without telling stories or been told stories. The necessity of storytelling transcends time and place; it delves into the innate nature of man. Storytelling has been typically associated with traditional societies. However, every genre in the literary pudding makes use of storytelling for example the musicians, the novelists, the dramatists, the poets’ e.t.c. storytelling does not only limit itself in the humanities, it is everywhere. The storyteller is usually the agent of storytelling and must be endowed with the skill of expressiveness which enables him put forth an incident to an inquisitive listener. This paper will therefore concern itself essentially on how the storytelling approach can be used as an effective medium in the teaching and learning of pupils in both the lower and higher educational levels. Since people understand easier through stories, storytelling could be prescribed as a theatrical recipe in all institutions of learning and teachers will be taught the skill. The research concludes that the problem of teaching and learning is due to the use of abstract techniques which are sometimes alien to the students posing a threat of understanding. Also, theatre been a performing art, is the most viable place where such skills can be acquired – I mean the storytelling skills.
African Storytelling:
A Theatrical Recipe for Teaching and Learning.
A Paper Presented By
Tertsea Joseph IKYOIVE
Theatre Arts Department,
University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
ikyoivetj85@gmail.com
FOR THE 1ST BIENNIAL FACULTY OF ARTS
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
Theme:
African Culture in the Making of the Modern World.
Date: 6-9th of July, 2011.
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Abstract.
Reynolds Price said that “a need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo-
sapiens… second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions
survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to
narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of
our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths”. No human being in the
world has ever lived a day without telling stories or been told stories. The necessity of
storytelling transcends time and place; it delves into the innate nature of man. Storytelling has
been typically associated with traditional societies. However, every genre in the literary pudding
makes use of storytelling for example the musicians, the novelists, the dramatists, the poets’ e.t.c.
storytelling does not only limit itself in the humanities, it is everywhere. The storyteller is
usually the agent of storytelling and must be endowed with the skill of expressiveness which
enables him put forth an incident to an inquisitive listener. This paper will therefore concern
itself essentially on how the storytelling approach can be used as an effective medium in the
teaching and learning of pupils in both the lower and higher educational levels. Since people
understand easier through stories, storytelling could be prescribed as a theatrical recipe in all
institutions of learning and teachers will be taught the skill. The research concludes that the
problem of teaching and learning is due to the use of abstract techniques which are sometimes
alien to the students posing a threat of understanding. Also, theatre been a performing art, is the
most viable place where such skills can be acquired – I mean the storytelling skills.
1.0 Introduction
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The act of storytelling is all an act of history. Through an engagement with memory involving
both recollection and improvisation and the process of narrative translation, the figure of the
storyteller has assumed an active role in the crafting of both personal and collective accounts of
history. Over the past decades there has been a wave of widespread structural change, our global
society has left the onslaught of rapid urbanization, the violence of war and the ongoing
displacement due to these varying forces, all of which have led to the silencing and negation of
subjective accounts, frustrating our sense of collective memory in a continual exploration of the
documentary mode. Contemporary artist are responding to the threat of this marginalization and
erasure, utilizing the narrative form to examine these transformation and highlights the varying
perspectives and conditions that exist in contrast to other mediated accounts.
Storytelling just like language started as an oral tradition. In different cultures of the world
people involve themselves in the act of storytelling for fun, entertainment, conversation or
leisure. Often times, such stories revolve around the day’s event or stories from the tales of
history. Commenting on this Bates (2000:20) says
Traditional, oral stories were committed to memory and
then passed from generation to generation. However, in the
most recent past, written and televised media has largely
surpassed this method communicating local, family and
cultural histories.
In another expression, Bruner (1986:57-58) comments that
With the advent of writing, the use of actual digit symbols
to represent language, and the use of stable, portable media
stories were recorded, transcribed and shared over wide
regions of the world. Stories have been carved, scratched,
painted or inked onto wood or bamboo, ivory and other
bones, pottery, day tablet, stories, palm-leaf books, skins
(parchment), bark cloth, paper, silk, canvas and other
textiles, recorded on film and stored electronically in digital
form. Complex forms of tattooing may also represent
stories with information about genealogy and social status.
From the observation in Bates and Bruner, it becomes apt to say that storytelling has moved
from the stage of oral performance to include; written, painted, carved and several other
means. The extents to which stories are understood depend largely on the language, manner
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and means used as a medium of narration. It is to these observations that this paper will try to
see how storytelling can conveniently be used as tool for effective teaching and learning.
2.0. Traditional Storytelling in Africa.
Traditionally, Africans have revered good stories and storytellers, as have most past and
present peoples around the world who are rooted in oral cultures and traditions. Ancient
writing traditions do exist on the African continent, but most Africans today, as in the past,
are primarily oral peoples, and their art forms are oral rather than literary. In contrast to
written "literature," African "orature" (to use Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o's
phrase) is orally composed and transmitted, and often created to be verbally and communally
performed as an integral part of dance and music. The Oral Arts of Africa are rich and varied,
developing with the beginnings of African cultures, and they remain living traditions that
continue to evolve and flourish today.
Language is a primary means of learning and transmitting one’s culture, and it is used to help
define and distinguish different ethnic groups and cultures. Consider the fact that more than
450 languages are spoken in modern Nigeria.
Secular tricksters like Tortoise often project the kinds of evil forces and bad behaviors
against which the human community must contend to survive and which must be kept in
check. This goal is rehearsed and achieved in communal performances of African proverbs
and folktales, wherein the tricksters bad anti-social behaviors are usually punished, and the
evil forces unleashed are controlled or defeated. Thus, for example, recounting Tortoise
stories in African communities can function to reaffirm the priority and wisdom of the
community, reassure its members that balance and harmony can and should be restored, and
that the community will survive and prevail.
Oral African storytelling is essentially a communal participatory experience. Everyone in
most traditional African societies participate in formal and informal storytelling as interactive
oral performance—such participation is an essential part of traditional African communal
life, and basic training in a particular culture’s oral arts and skills is an essential part of
children’s traditional indigenous education on their way to initiation into full humanness.
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Call and response forms, found seemingly everywhere in Africa, entail a caller or soloist who
"raises the song," as the Kpelle say, and the community chorus who respond, or "agree
underneath the song" (Mutere, "African Oral Aesthetic"). In the case of the Igbo stories, the
storyteller "calls" out the story in lines; the audience or chorus "responds" at regular intervals
to the storyteller’s "calls" with a "sala" (the chorus’ response). The Igbo "sala" used in
"Nnabe and Chineke" is "amanye," roughly equivalent to American English expressions of
agreement like "amen" or "right on!"
Traditional African societies have developed high aesthetic and ethical standards for
participating in and judging accomplished oral storytelling performances and audience
members often feel free to interrupt less talented or respected secular performers to suggest
improvements or voice criticisms.
In many of these cultures, storytelling arts are professionalized: the most accomplished
storytellers are initiates (griots, or bards), who have mastered many complex verbal, musical,
and memory skills after years of specialized training. This training often includes a strong
spiritual and ethical dimension required to control the special forces believed to be released
by the spoken/sung word in oral performances. These occult powers and primal energies of
creation and destruction are called nyama by Mande peoples of Western Africa, for example,
this sense of special powers of the spoken word has largely been lost in literate-based
societies of the West.
3.0. We are all involved
…we are a storytelling, story-loving species. Let someone
be spinning a good tale at a gathering and watch a crowd
collect to listen. We recognize that in the power to tell a
story lays the power to shape our reality, to alter our
perceptions, to create new worlds of experience. It is in fact
a god-like power, one that can affect and change
consciousness. If as St. John says, in the Beginning was the
world, then the story followed directly after, unfolding the
universe from the imagination of God. In emulation of the
divine, we have sought to duplicate that moment of creation
by being storytellers too. (Spangler 2000:46).
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Storytelling is not a one man’s show. Everyone is involved in the act of storytelling
consciously or unconsciously. No one in the world can deny of ever telling a story. In fact,
there is no day that passes, no second and no moment without human beings narrating one
form of story or the other.
Storytelling has become one of the most basic instruments to which humanity uses as a
medium to expressively communicate an idea, relate a message or describe an event to one
another. In the event of storytelling, individuals try as much as possible to present a story in a
way that it can be understood. Because human beings are historical species they continually
engage themselves in the act of telling stories of things that happened, things they see
happening and things that will happen. God who is the creator of the world laid the foot-map
towards storytelling. Inquisitive as we may tend to ask HOW? Genesis, the very first book of
the bible keeps reminding us of God’s creation process. Permit me to cite an instance but not
a quotation since I am still telling you a story; God said: let us make man in our own image
and likeness. This is God telling us a story of what he wants to do. God began with the oral
form of storytelling which he passed unto man and the Bible has become the written story of
whatever that ensued between God and man.
One thing that must be understood is that whether a story is relatively passive or is interactive
depends largely on how it is told. In interactive fiction, the content is secondary to a structure
and environment that allows participation. Not that the content is unimportant; it defines the
nature of the participation itself and determines what is appropriate. However, without that
participation, the interactive story dies. Storytelling requires an audience: “hearer-spectator”
who either doesn’t know the story being told or is eager to hear it again with new details or
fresh expression. Storytelling thus generates elements of character impersonation the
creation of voices, gestures, and facial expressions that reflect the personalities of the
individuals portrayed and seek means to convey character emotions to the hearer-spectator. It
also seeks to entertain, and thus it provides a structured story, rather than a random series of
observations which makes the narrative flow so as to compel audience engagement through
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suspense, varied graphic details, and a calculated momentum of escalating events that, in
theatre will be called a plot. We can see all of these features in great storytelling today, both
in surviving tribal cultures and in modern storytelling performance.
4.0. Storytelling in Literature.
Literature has become an instrument after the oral form to be used as a convenient measure to
narrate and tell stories. Literature could exist as a novel, a play, and essay etc. It could also be
a fiction or non-fictional document in which the “author-storyteller” tells his stories. The
stories told in literature are directly geared towards educating, enlightening, entertaining and
repositioning the mind and image of the African society. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
represents the ability and efficiency to which Africans tell stories just as in the extract below
[The] men of Umuofia pursued their way, armed with sheathed
machetes, and Ikemefuna, carrying a pot of palm-wine on his head,
walked in their midst. Although he had felt uneasy at first, he was not
afraid now. Okonkwo was not his real father […]. One of the men
behind him cleared his throat. Ikemefuna looked back, and the man
growled at him to go on and not stand looking back. The way he said it
sent cold fear down Ikemefuna’s back. His hands trembled vaguely on
the black pot he carried. Why had Okonkwo withdrawn to the rear?
Ikemefuna felt his legs melting under him. And he was afraid to look
back. As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised a
machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and
broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, ‘my father, they have killed
me!’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his
machete and cut him down. He was afraid of been thought weak.
[Achebe 1958:44]
This scene reveals most clearly the story of Umuohia. Achebe speaks indisputably of a lapse
of humanness. It is cruel and shocking, just as the author intends it to be. But the redeeming
purpose behind it, we are told, is-even if we do not agree with it-the greater good of the
Umuofia community. It is not the fact of the murder itself therefore, but rather, Okonkwo’s
direct participation in it, or out of his own inner insufficiency that is exposed for censure.
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Soyinka is remembered always because of his storytelling skills in his literatures. His Dance
of the Forest treated the African story and the work tried to reposition the image of the black
race before the ‘supposedly western Lords’. Kongi’s Harvest, Death and the Kings’s
Horseman, The Lion and the Jewel etc exhibit one story or the other. It is the same
storytelling that George Orwell used in his Animal Farm to bring a new revolution.
Storytelling has indeed moved from the typical African conception into an indeed globally
accepted modern world. The Osofisans can never be forgotten, why? Because they are good
storytellers, telling stories of so many aspects of the African life. Osofisan’s Richard Lander
and the Travelling Polygamist, Nkrumah ni, African ni…, Once upon four Robbers, Farewell
to a Cannibal rage etc. J.P Clark will continue singing A Song of a Goat, revolting in The
Wives Revolt and making statements in Ozidi e.t.c. Many other stories are been told by
millions of other Africans in the world through African literature which is what keeps making
the African culture known to the modern and future world.
5.0. Storytelling in Music.
Music is another form of art that relies on storytelling to make its message known. Many
stories have survived today because of their immense engagements in music. In fact, music
has become the medium through which stories have been widely enjoyed and accessed in the
world. In Africa, we have the traditional music and the modern music. The traditional music
narrates more emphatically stories of the traditional African life and through which the
modern music has today found favor. The traditional African music made use of chants,
poetry etc as a form of telling its story. In the Tiv society for instance traditional musicians
like the Late Golozo told stories of the Tiv people, just as the Hausa’s, the Igbo’s and the
Yoruba’s do in their various kinds of music.
Today, music has become a potent tool which society is updated with all that happen around
his society. For example the late Fela Kuti told many of the stories of what exists in the
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Nigerian society even up till today, his song on bad leadership, corruption and bribery etc
made leaders to sit-tight. This shows the very important function of stories. The right use of
storytelling is able to enlighten, reshape and reposition society. The late Brenda Fassi of
South Africa too used music to tell her story. For example her song on Nelson Mandela
reveals clearly all that happened even to those who were not present then. An extract of the
song will be quite relevant here
The year 1963, the people’s president was taken away by security men
Our president uniform of brutality... brutality oh! No, my president
In 1990, the people’s president, came out from jail
He wore, a long robe, back—back to freedom, back to freedom oh! No
my dear president
I will sing for my president, I will dance for my president, I will tell
them say…
This stanza by Brenda Fassi gives a clear historical process in the arrest and release of South
Africa’s first black President. History has been effectively told using music. The late Michael
Jackson has done a lot in telling us stories in his songs. Nigeria has produced a lot of
musicians who have unceasingly used music to tell us stories and reshape our mind
perception of so many issues. The likes of Innocent Idibia (popularly known as Tuface), Idris
Abdulkareem, Nice etc.
6.0. Storytelling in Dance.
Dance is another aspect whereby stories are told through body movement and gesticulations.
Often times however, people think that dance is only meant for entertainment. However,
dance has gone beyond that stage of entertainment. Dance is used to educate the society, to
tell the society of its past, its present and even its future. It requires a veritable skill by the
dancers and a careful audience to read the underlining meaning of the story of dance
especially if songs are not used to trigger out such meanings. Different cultures of the world
can be identified through their dances. The Tiv people of central Nigeria have been able to
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use dance to tell their stories. The Swange Dance of the Tiv people which is popularly
referred to by the non-tribal society as ‘Snake dance’ tells the story of Adaaker the great
trumpeter, Igyo tells the story of the chicken pox epidemic that struck the Tiv nation and
killed a number of its inhabitants, the Tsuwe Tsere otherwise known as the ‘cat dance’ reveals
the hunting ability of the Tiv people etc. The Yoruba’s have the Bata dance, the Akoto dance
etc.
Many choreographed dances today in Africa and many parts of the continent constitutes well
crafted stories of events, problems and challenges in the society. With the entertainment
aspect of dance it attracts audiences who watch and at the long run learn lessons been
enacted.
7.0. Storytelling and Education: A Theatrical Recipe for Teaching and Learning.
When one examines the definitions of theatre and that of education, a relationship exists in
their function and relevance to society. For example, if the goal of education is to gear man
towards living a harmonious life, raise a high moral standard, promote public enlightenment
and civilized behavior, as well as produce a healthy economic environment for the citizens,
then these are also the goals and relevance of theatre and storytelling to the society.
Theatre, as a matter of fact is an experience, the experience that takes place between an
actor[s] performing on a performance area, in the presence of an audience, whether paid or
unpaid. The teaching process in our schools is a theatrical experience. An experience that
uses the classroom as its theatre. The teacher becomes the storyteller or actor, the space
between the background and the first role of students the stage, while the students become
the audience. The classroom experience can by all right be qualified to be theatre.
The classroom setting provides the teacher who is the storyteller or actor, communicating his
lessons, using all elements of the theatre to communicate. He uses gesture, facial expression,
verbal expression or vocalization-this is the very spirit of acting. He wears a dress or as is
referred to the theatre parlance as costume. He aims at looking decent. A powdered face and a
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slight touch of lipstick for ladies and eyelashes drawn out with eyebrow pencils, in the
theatre this is make-up.
The teacher first digests and understands the topic, before imparting the knowledge. He
decides how best he can deliver the lesson or the lecture. He also chooses his words and
verbal communication methods to enhance a quick understanding of his lesson or lecture.
This is the same as the process of speech and oral interpretation in the theatre. The teacher is
happy only when the students have understood the lessons or lecture. This is the same as a set
of actors are happy when after a performance the members of the audience come to
congratulate them and discuss the performance. The teacher prepares his lesson or lectures, in
order to impart the knowledge logically and systematically. In the theatre this is akin to what
we refer to as rehearsals. A well rehearsed play shows within the first ten minutes of its
opening.
The argument here is that, in terms of both functions and operational method, the theatre
shares a lot of basic semblance with the process of imparting knowledge which is the
educational process. If this resemblance is so glaring and education has a meeting point with
the theatre, how come that the two have not enjoyed the desired rapport at the primary
secondary or tertiary levels?
For instance, a good teacher or lecturer, who tries not to make his lectures or lessons boring,
borrows a leaf from the act of storytelling/theatre. His logic must be sound, his voice clear
and resonant, his facial expression and gestures, appropriate. He moves among his students,
he engages their attention throughout the duration of the lecture. He puts the subject matter,
even if it is mathematics, within a frame of design very close to reality. He might even
employ some comic antics to drive home his point. For example, a teacher of mathematics
knows that usually students do not like to see him in class. Why? Mathematics is too
difficult! –the man at this particular occasion wants to teach “Discount”. He enters the class
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and says ‘Good morning students’ the students grudgingly reply, ‘Good g good…morning S-
r-r’. Then he says ‘Eh, you don’t want to greet me. Alright! I will go away. The sweet thing I
want to offer you today will also go with me’. The students reply ‘no sir…come back…
please’. The teacher returns and greets again and they now reply well. First of all, a friendly
atmosphere conducive for learning has been created. Next the teacher goes into a related
story, while involving his students. Teacher:
“Do you know what happened to me yesterday…
Hm, you can’t imagine, my wife sent me to the
market to go and buy beans”.
The students laugh. They make all sorts of comments about him and so on. He continues
Teacher: I got there. You women, eh! How many of you have mothers selling beans?
(Another point of involvement) “Good. Maybe I was buying from any of your mothers. You
see, I went to buy beans and my eyes met Garri. The women started haggling. One, two,
three, four of them, none was ready to allow me pay Ten Naira fifty kobo instead of eleven
Naira per measure. Selfish women (the students laugh), then a woman took pity on me and
said Oga teacher, come. I will give mine for ten naira fifty kobo. So I bought from her. If I
bought two measures how much would that be?
Students: Twenty one Naira.
Teacher: How much would it have been at N11.00?
Students: Twenty two naira
Teacher: That is our topic for today.
In this short scenario lies a real theatrical experience. Until educators learn certain specific
techniques and skills of the storyteller, the satirist and the interpreter, some of their lectures
or lessons will be unnecessarily boring.
Another example is a physics teacher who in employing the technique of storytelling enters
the class and begins with his students.
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Teacher: Please I need two volunteers; one should bring a full bowl of water and a sizeable
stone.
Students: Sir what do you want to do?
Teacher: Don’t worry okay, you will soon know.
A bowl of water is brought and the teacher keeps the bowl of water on the table, he requests
his students to come closer. He asks; I hope you can see the quantity of this water, and the
student’s respond-yes sir. Somebody should place the stone in the water (the stone is placed).
What do you notice? They respond: The water has risen; the teacher again asks was any
quantity of water added? They all respond No! That is what we will be learning today – the
Archimedes theory-. Do you know what Archimedes said in his theory? The students
respond; No sir. The teacher now says; Archimedes said in his theory that “for a body to be
wholly or partially dipped into water, it must experience an up-thrust which is equal to the
weight of the body displace by the object”. And that is what we just did with the water and
the stone.
The ability of teachers to use practical approaches just like in the two examples provided
helps the students to understand, builds their spirit of instructiveness and spontaneous
recollection of what is been taught.
Because storytelling requires a special skill, it is suggestive in this paper that Drama and
Theatre be made compulsory in all Teacher Training Institutions or their equivalents. These
are young people who will teach at nursery and primary schools where a lot of care and
patience are needed. At the university level, Education Faculties should have a working
relationship with their Theatre Departments and design one or two courses that could expose
the students to a few theatrical skills. This they will find useful when they graduate and go
into the schools to teach.
8.0. Conclusion.
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This paper has tried to examine African storytelling and how it applies to so many aspect of
human life like literature, music, dance etc. In trying to examine the storytelling art, it is
clearly seen that storytelling and education have a resemblance both in function and
relevance. These resemblances help us to show that the theatre artist and the educationist
need a rapport that can complement each other’s work.
The paper therefore proposes that storytelling shares a close affinity with education and is a
convenient theatrical method that can be used in the teaching and learning process in schools.
This is because storytelling as a theatrical method is able to provide a high sense of
interactiveness with the ‘storyteller-student’ relationship. This helps effective understanding
and makes it easier for what had been taught to be remembered since the dramatic picture
comes to mind very easily.
The paper recommends that government all over Africa should include Theatre studies on the
curriculum of all post primary and even tertiary institutions. For instance, in Universities
with drama Departments, education students should be compulsorily made to offer certain
sources in Theatre Art, such as speech and oral interpretation as well as acting skills.
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References
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Bates, A. 2000. The Singer of Tales, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Brunner, J. 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
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__________ 2002. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and
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Reynolds, P. 1978. A Palpable God. New York: Atheneum
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