Bringing African folktales to life

July 3, 2017
Source: BBC
Bringing African folktales to life

Folktales and the art of traditional storytelling are in danger of being lost and Nairobi-based performer Maïmouna Jallow is on a mission to reverse the trend. But on her journey to revive the art she has also discovered the relevance of performing contemporary stories.

There is something mystical about Zanzibar's Stone Town. It is a place where past and present collide, and where a mosaic of sights and smells from across the Indian Ocean weave themselves together down narrow alleyways.

It is perhaps fitting then, that my exploration of traditional East African folktales began here, leading me on an unexpected journey into storytelling and adapting contemporary novels.

In 2015, feeling nostalgic for the tales of Anansi the Spider that I had grown up with in West Africa, I travelled to the historic centre of Zanzibar in search of folktales.

On arrival, I went straight to the Old Fort, an imposing 17th Century structure built by the Omanis to defend the island from the Portuguese. There, with the help of the painter Hamza Aussie, I met a group of women who owned curio shops that lined the grassy courtyard.

I asked them if they would share the folktales of their youth with me, and within a couple of hours, I had recorded a dozen stories, or rather, fragments of stories.

Around us, children pressed inwards, eager to hear their tales. But even in those magical hours, I started to feel like I was grasping at clouds. The women had to dig deep into the recess of their minds as they tried to piece together scattered bits of ancient tales.

Like an old discarded puzzle, some pieces seemed to be lost forever.