In October of 2013, I wrote this post for the United Nations World Development Information Day. as a guest writer on Write Paragraphs. Today four years later, the sentiment behind it remains unchanged. It is a bit long, but it is once again a reminder of the values that I have come to stand for. I hope you enjoy it
Part of the things my siblings and I enjoyed when we were growing up was the stories our father used to tell us. We would sit in a circle, moonlight style (but indoors with a fluorescent bulb acting as the moon,) while he told us folktales. One thing he also did that time was to write down the stories he told us and ask us to read them and learn to tell the stories as well as to form our own. But these stories were not Cinderella or Snow white or Sleeping Beauty (though he made sure we read those as well). They were folk tales, tales of the greedy tortoise and his regular cast of cohorts, the dog, sometimes the snail, or the pig usually a medicine man and a king as well. We were able to follow the tortoise on his numerous adventures trying to cheat the other animals but whose capers and adventures always end in disaster. I had the fortune of having a teacher father who made those tales so appealing, that it was like I was watching the tortoise as he puts his father-in-law’s porridge into his cap or as he hatches his plot to kill the king’s favourite hunchback and blame it on the Snail.
However, as I grew older, the talking animals started to lose their appeal, but the virtues and vices the stories represented did not go away. Now that I am grown, I finally understood the reason why the storyteller always asked at the end of each story “what lessons can we learn from the story?” Right from that tender age, I was taught to make inferences; my listening comprehension was being tested. As a result, I learned about the evils of greed, stealing, cheating and duplicity before I was old enough to read and comprehend the Bible. The tortoise stories had already thought me anything I needed to know about sin, even before I sat under any pastor’s ministrations. I learned about the punishment for crime even before I read any constitution. I learned about physical characteristics of animals and not being cruel to them, even before I entered any science class or heard anything about animal rights groups (Tortoise taught me that talking to them will teach you to care for them and respect them). Folktales taught me that flying into the heavens was possible so when I read about NASA and Neil Amstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and the first moon landing it was something I easily internalized. I already knew I had to care for my environment even before I started to read about issues like climate change, recycling, greenhouse effect or global warming. This is information that Al Gore and his ilk are winning prizes to carry around the world yet, it was available to me through a bunch of talking animals.
Folktales have been a part of African culture for as long as it has existed. It has served as the foundation of how Africans survived and even thrived before the arrival of the colonial masters. Simple as their plots may be, fantastic as their characters may be. When the British came, they met a thriving culture which had learned to build peaceful and sustainable societies, people who already knew talking animals and therefore were not afraid of talking people with a different skin colour. People who could not read and write but who knew about being global citizens and respect for the creatures around them. And it was all lessons they learned at the foot of their elders, lessons taught by the tortoise and his cohorts. Anytime we talk about the tortoise and his cohorts, it is a way of telling our own stories, our ideas, and our values. When we tell stories we are informing the world about who we are and how they can understand that and appreciate our heritage.
According to Dr. Hae-ri Kim, of the Seoul University of Education, Seoul, South Korea,
“As globalization and social transformation demand renewed dialogue among communities, educators and artists are more motivated to protect and promote oral traditions and related cultural heritage.”
Dr. Kim’s statement becomes important especially in a world where many nations are complaining about a loss of moral, linguistic and cultural identity. Folktales thus represent one of the last strongholds of cultural knowledge preservation and identification. In a world that is torn by strife and war, young children traumatized by conflict need a place they can escape to, an ideal world where their imagination can roam free of their environment, a place where they can learn to appreciate other cultures in order to stem the vicious cycle that will be created by war . Today is the United Nations World Development Information Day. Information is crucial to development. Every nation must add its own voice to the call for development and it can only do this by telling its own stories the only way it can.