Saturday, August 1, 2015

African Storytelling at Afrifest 2015

Today, many roads led to Afrifest, which was held at the Northview Junior High School in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. As is to be expected, many of us texted, tweeted, or wrote about the festival on Facebook, to let friends and the world know what was happening. No doubt, the stories will continue to proliferate. Out of the many things that happened today, I just want to say a word about African storytelling in which I was involved.

As part of the planning for Afrifest 2015, the board of the Afrifest Foundation accepted my idea that we enrich children's experience of the festival with the addition of African storytelling. This was a new feature in the history of Afrifest, but I was eager to do it, given my years of experience as a folklorist and storyteller.

We had many children at the festival today, and when the announcement was made that I was ready to tell folktales, a number of them came with me and we sat under a big tree. The gathering started with three children and an adult woman, but the number quickly grew. By the end of the session, I was surrounded by children and adults.

I chose to start with the tale of "Hawk and Crow," which features in my book, Matengo Folktales. However, I never read folktales to an audience; I perform them ex tempore. Those who have read "Hawk and Crow" in my book will remember that it ends with Hawk fighting and killing Crow in a fit of anger following Crow's attempt to run away with Hawk's chicks. I chose not to tell the kids the bloody end of the story, but concluded with the somewhat mild observation that Crow was beaten in the fight. I worried somewhat about what the adults in the audience might feel about the bloody ending.

Concluding that tale, I thought that one tale was enough. The kids had come from playing games to join me under that tree, and I thought they would want to go back to their games. I was wrong; they wanted another tale. I had no choice but to think about another tale.

I told the tale of "The Monster in the Rice Field," which also features in Matengo Folktales. I chose this one partly because I wanted the kids to participate in singing the song that occurs again and again in the tale. This worked perfectly. Each time I sang the song, they clapped their hands together with me, and some made an effort to sing along.

I did my best to refrain from saying that it was a monster that, from day to day, snatched away the children and their parents as they were out in the fields watching over the rice. Instead of "monster," I said "a very big creature."

I don't remember ever having done what I did today. In telling folktales to audiences--including children-- in different parts of the U.S.A, I have always told the tales the way I recorded them, complete with monsters and killings.  When I asked the children whether they found the tales scary, they always said no.

I have found this intriguing, especially because I know that many modern parents tend to worry about such references in folktales. This is a complicated issue, which has bedeviled scholars from the very beginning of the discipline of folklore. Still, I did what I did today, and I don't know why.

Nevertheless, we all had a great time. After the storytelling was over, my daughter Zawadi asked a little girl how the storytelling went, and, with a thumbs up, the little girl said, "It was awesome!"

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