Written by Boipelo Madito
Storytelling is a common thread that runs through African cultures. Storytelling binds us together and carries our history. It connects us with our people, heritages, cultures, and traditions. Through it, we are able to connect and understand each other regardless of background differences and circumstances. Storytelling is a tool that brings comfort in distressing situations and an escape that brings safety to those in need. It is the experience of a honeybee seeing the world in colours that are invisible to the human eye (Nooijer & Sol Cueva, 2022). A feminist approach considers storytelling a unique practice for women to use their voices and express themselves uninterruptedly (Nooijer & Sol Cueva, 2022). This storytelling approach reminds me of my late grandmother and how she used storytelling to educate us about life and our history as Africans. Many black women relied on and continue to use oral literature to narrate stories (Ngcobo, 1987).
I consider my late grandmother one of the greatest African storytellers alive, and I state this with pride and confidence. My sisters and I would wake up excited and curious to listen to the day’s story. One story that comes to mind is the famous SeTswana story of “Tselane le Dimo”. She would tell this story whenever she was in a happy mood or use it as a peace offering to unite and calm us down or to correct our behaviour. The story of Tselane and the Giant is about a little girl who lives with her mother in a village near the forest. Tselane’s mother worked in the fields and would come home during the day to give Tselane lunch. However, they had a big problem, an evil giant who liked eating little girls lived in their nearby forest. As a result, the family lived in fear. Tselane was forced to lock herself in the house whenever her mother went to work in the fields. Tselane would only open the door when her mother sang their magical password. She would sing, “Tselane ngwanake, Tselane ngwanake, tlo otle go tsaya bogobe o je”, stating that Tselane must come and fetch her food. She warned Tselane never to open for anyone except for her. However, the giant learned the magical password and kidnapped Tselane with the help of a rabbit. To cut a long story short, the giant got tricked through the same secret code that Tselane shared with her mother, and she managed to escape.
This story brings back fond memories of me as a child holding a warm bowl of porridge, beaming with excitement and singing the magical password loudly with my chest out. My grandmother would use this story to warn us about life outside our comfort zone, encourage us to listen and support each other as sisters, and trust our instincts whenever we face challenges. Storytelling allowed me to have a special bond with my late grandmother. It was a gift from her to my sisters and me. Her storytelling was an investment in our freedom, autonomy and choice (Speekumar, 2017). Throughout my upbringing, I have learned that storytelling had the power to bring women together and create a community where they can express themselves and share stories. This relates to the feminist lens of storytelling that it is “characterised by allowing more interpersonal and reciprocal relationship, the stories that we create as women come to explain us, and we find ourselves in them, listen to them and re-tell them we can become a collective” (Speekumar, 2017, p.50).
Now that I am interested in research and narratives within this academic domain, the very same essential tool that forms part of my background as a black woman is used as a necessary “active and interactive practice that usually includes diverse women being together” (Nooijer & Sol Cueva, 2022, p. 252), narrating their differences and similarities. Storytelling has the power to challenge and provide solutions to complexities that women face daily. This comes with the acceptance that stories are subjective and unique to every woman.
Gcina Mhlophe, one of South Africa’s prominent female storytellers, captures the essence and beauty of storytelling by stating that “stories are our friends, our counsellors and our teachers. They are a means of nurturing a moral culture in the hearts and minds of people. They stir the imagination, bring people together, and break down barriers.” I am reminded daily that storytelling plays a significant role in how we function as women and get through challenges. I am grateful to my late grandmother for affording me the privilege of stories every day throughout my childhood. Now I have been gifted with a practice that allows me to see the world in different colours.
Lauretta, N. (1987). Let it be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain. Pluto Press
Nooijer, R. D., & Sol Cueva, L. (2022). Feminist storytellers imagining new stories to tell. In W. Harcourt, K. van den Berg, C. Dupuis, & J. Gaybor (Eds.), Feminist methodologies: Experiments, collaborations and reflections (pp. 237–255). Springer.
Sreekumar, S. (2017). Equivocations of gender: Feminist storytelling and women’s studies in the contemporary. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 24(1), 47–68.