The South has a Good Story to Tell

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The fast-changing modern world is raising the living standards of billions in the South – China alone has lifted 400 million people out of poverty since the 1980s – but it is also risking the loss of many rich cultural traditions. One of them is storytelling.

Oral storytelling is a critical tool for passing on history, while teaching morals and ethics, especially in societies with low rates of literacy and little formal education. But with the rise of modern media and advertising, few traditional storytellers – many of whom are old – stand a chance. Populations are on the move like never before. As more and more people end up in sprawling cities, many are becoming disconnected from their roots.

Yet across the South, people are finding ways to re-invent story telling — and also to make money, preserve cultural pride and feed the appetite for novelty in hungry, modern media and business.

In 1997, storytelling was acknowledged by UNESCO, which pledged to back humanity’s oral and immaterial heritage, and to protect a vast number of oral and musical traditions, crafts and knowledge – plus the “living human treasures” who possess them. It backed this up in 2003 with the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It supports storytelling through its International Programme for the Development of Communication.

But what about the young – the most important generation for storytelling to have a future? In Bogota, Colombia, students have started a movement of urban storytellers. Aged between 17 and 35, they draw on the things they have learned in university. They eschew linear narration and instead adopt the popular language of films and advertising. Inspired by one television commercial, a story revolves around a drop of tomato sauce falling from a high-rise building, sparking a gun battle. The staccato narrative takes inspiration from post-modern authors like Italo Calvino. It is also the perfect narrative to capture modern, urban audiences who live in a world saturated with media.

By blending together ancestral and post-modern tales, these student storytellers are luring Latin Americans back to listening to stories. Live storytelling, when done well, has an ability to connect with other people like no other medium. This new generation also is helping make Colombia a gathering place for storytellers in Latin America, expressed in events like the Hay Festival Cartegena, a literary event that draws authors from around the world.

But is there any money in storytelling? Tale-spinners like Argentinian Juan Moreno say yes. Moreno quit teaching 17 years ago to tell stories for money in theatres, bars, universities and libraries, tapping into a contemporary marketplace for storytelling.

In fact, it is better paid than acting in the theatre, he claims, and if you are good, it comes with lots of travel. There is a global round of congresses, festivals and seminars to keep storytellers connected, inspired – and paid.

Moreno now makes money teaching many professions how to use stories to be more powerful communicators. He told the UNESCO Courier, “the value of the spoken word, words that heal and restore, that can give life but also take it away,” are key to many fields, like law and social work.

The world centres of storytelling are very much focused on the South. The International Congress of Oral Storytelling, part of the Buenos Aires Book Fair, has been running every year since 1995. At the Congress, tips are exchanged over the subtle tricks of timing and voice, gestures and facial expressions. Other Southern cities with storytelling events, include Bucaramanga, Colombia, Monterrey, Mexico and Agüimes, in the Canary Islands.

While young people are breathing new life into storytelling, Morocco’s legendary storytellers have been facing a common dilemma seen across the developing and developed world: how can they compete with flashier and more distracting pastimes like computer games and TV?

Illiteracy in Morocco affects 40 per cent of the population, so telling stories is an excellent way to reach this non-reading group. Stories and parables have long been seen as a great way to convey ideas, values and philosophies.

But Morocco’s storytelling sages, or halakis, are using their heads and turning to computers to get their stories told, and prevent their thousand-year tradition from dying out. With the help of UNESCO, the halakis have created a digital archive of their stories in audio and video.

Based in Marrakesh’s famous main square, Jemaa al-Fna, they compete in a hury burly of street entertainers and aromatic foods; it is a place where men with monkeys vie with snake charmers for your attention. Morocco’s storytellers would set up in the public squares of the cities of Fes, Meknes and Marrakesh to entertain crowds and educate about morality. These would include the ethical values of kindness, honour and chivalry. But Marrakesh is now the only place where a half dozen old men (there used to be 20 in Marrakesh) still practice this ancient art form.

UNESCO declared the square in 2001 part of the world’s “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Video recorders have been documenting the storytellers and chronicling them on the internet.

Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, who spends part of his year in Marrakesh, has championed the halakis in his book, Marrakesh Tales, and in bringing UNESCO in to help them. He has defended their corner against the plans of city planners and developers.

Seventy-one-year-old Moulay Mohammed is blunt about the current state of storytelling: “Young Moroccans would rather watch TV soap operas than listen to a storyteller, much less become one themselves,” he told the BBC. Mohammed’s stock-in-trade is the Old Testament and all of A Thousand and One Nights: both tales of sultans, thieves, wise men and fools, mystics, genies, viziers and belly dancers. And he has been telling these tales for 45 years.

In South Africa, digital technology is also breathing new life into storytelling – and infusing the stories with urgent, contemporary issues like HIV, and domestic and sexual violence. South African women are using digital technology to preserve traditional storytelling: A collection of 15 digital stories – called “I Have Listened, I Have Heard” – made in 2006 are being distributed along with books. They assembled the stories using audio recorders and made movies of the readings with digital cameras. It was funded by the Foundation for Human Rights and made at the Women’s Net Computer Training Centre in Johannesburg.

The storytellers worked together on each script, taking a day. They would tell the group a story focusing on particular experiences or meaningful moments in their lives. The group would comment and draw out the best bits of the story. The whole process helps the story teller to flesh out the story with metaphors, narrative techniques and milestones.

Resources

  • The basics of story telling are answered in this webpage: www.timsheppard.co.uk
  • Singapore International Story Telling Festival 2008: This year’s festival also includes a new addition: Asian Digital Storytelling Festival
  • International Congress of Oral Storytelling: Held from 2-4 May 2008 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Website: www.el-libro.org.ar
  • Folk Tales: Online project where Pakistani students and their teachers share folklore and fables with students around the world. Website: www.edutopia.org
  • Thirsty-Fish: Story and Strategy: A consultancy that helps businesses build their brands based on age-old practices of storytelling. Website: www.thirsty-fish.com