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Africa culture/tradition folklore Igbo culture

Tradition: Storytelling

The African Storytelling Tradition

When I, the storyteller say: Ifochakpii! You the audience will reply: Waa!! (Pronounced as ‘War!’) This is Igbo people’s storytelling tradition. There are different ways of introducing a story to the audience. To the Igbo people it starts with a chant-like ranting that tries to capture the attention of all present. So the storyteller greets his audience in that manner as they reply him in excitement. The storytelling mood is a lively one and such introit may play a role in keeping the mood so.

Storytelling is a unique culture in Africa. Storytellers are revered across the land. We may compare them to the present day actors because they actually act. I can compare storytelling to the modern day stage drama. Storytelling is respected because it passes ancient knowledge and wisdom from one generation to another. It’s a time when everybody, young and old gather to listen and learn about the tradition of a place and life’s virtues through stories told by their ancestors. Though much of these stories have been lost or modified with time, the morals, which is the crux remain intact. Sometimes they act as bedtime stories meant to aid or lull people to sleep. All over the world storytelling precedes reading.

Tortoise: Main Villain & Hero
Growing up in West Africa I came to learn that Tortoise is the dominant character in most stories. He is called Mbo or Mbe in Igbo. Some clans gave him, his wife and children other names. His wife is called Alibo in Ovim. I can’t remember his son’s name but it may not matter for now. The Tortoise play funny and shrewd roles. He is generally perceived as a cheat who goes about causing mischief for others. Sometimes he gets to win, other times he is a loser and a lesson for the little ones. The Tortoise has been featured in many stories, few I can remember myself. He has duped the Boar in one story, deceived the host of birds that lent him a feather each, cursed the spider that saved him from the ghost town and dealt with spirits. In fact he is a star in the African folklore scenario.

Yet why he was chosen for these wonderful roles is what I have not been able to understand. We have bigger, faster, smarter and funnier animals but the Tortoise was picked to play lead roles in most of West Africa’s traditional folklore. Naturally the Tortoise is a slow, lazy and seemingly dumb animal but in tales he is a kingmaker, a genius or the wise one. Looks are truly deceptive in African folklore.

Why should we preserve stories?

Apart from the Tortoise that fell from the birds’ firmament party, no one in reality and fiction had the privilege of falling from the skies. What I mean is that nothing just happens. Every story serves a purpose, be it fact or fiction. And no society is complete without a history, a story. So stories are careful documentations, written or oral. We have histories and traditions to discuss today because people had kept accounts and details of them. I’ll write more on this topic in a separate blog post.

For now, can you tell me which African story is your favourite?

6 replies on “Tradition: Storytelling”

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