A closer look at storytelling in Africa

The tradition of storytelling ‘Orature’ as we call it, in East African countries started a long time ago. Folklore, oral history and storytelling have been handed down from generation to generation by communities passing their cultural knowledge and heritage on. Stories have been recognized as one of the most powerful means of communication back home in East Africa, through words, songs, chants, sayings, proverbs, banter, miming and body language. East African stories, not only myths and legends, teach morals, educate, illustrate, enlighten, inform, persuade, stimulate and inspire. East African storytelling is integrated into everyday life.

East Africa, as we know, comprises ten countries: Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya. In all of these countries, there are so many inherited myths and legends. Leaving East Africa for a moment, I will take you briefly through Kenya so as to better understand the tradition of orature.

Kenyan communities were attracted to Kenya from different regions by good climatic conditions. They moved into the country between 2000BC and 1500BC. The country has three main ethno – linguistic groups, namely Cushitic, Nilotic and Bantu speakers. Over the years, however, this linguistic grouping has changed as a result of intermarriage and other groups of people having migrated into Kenya. In Kenya we have over 42 different tribes. For example, I come from the Bantu-speaking people and my tribe, known as the Kikuyu, is one of the largest. Each and every tribe has its own myths and legends. For example, in my tribe the best known myth is called ‘Gikuyu and Mumbi’ ; it is about the first man and woman who were created by God, whom we call ‘Ngai Mwene Nyaga’. Our God lived on top of Mount Kirinyaga, now known as Mount Kenya. Another tribe, known as the ‘Luo’ from the Nilotic ethnic group, has a legend known as ‘Lwanda Magere’. So all tribes in East Africa have an endless list of their own myths and legends that are shared.

Often, after a hard day’s work, the adults would gather the children together by moonlight around a village fire, and tell stories. These are traditionally called Tales by Moonlight or commonly known as ‘Fireside Tales’. Usually the stories were meant to prepare young people for life, and so taught a lesson or moral. Stories also explained where we come from and the origin of our laws. Women tell their granddaughters stories that transform embarrassing subjects into instructive tales.

In East African folk tales, we also have very well-known animal stories. These, again, will vary from tribe to tribe. The animals that are commonly used are the hare, the leopard, the snake and the lion. The stories reflect a culture wherein diverse types of animals abound. The animals and birds are often accorded human attributes, so it is not uncommon to find animals talking, singing or demonstrating other human characteristics such as greed, jealousy, honesty etc.

Stories that are passed on orally vary with their genres like Myths, Legends, Tricksters, Dilemma stories, Fables and Human/Ogre Tales. East Africa includes many different groups of people with varied heritages, and storytelling is one practice that brings them together. Many groups recount slightly different versions of similar stories as well as telling their own unique tales.

Our stories communicate ideas that drive the listener into the inner world of the imagination, fantasy…in other words a world removed from your own, where problems and troubles disappear. This world helps the East African people share their own understanding through their own language; it is a form of personal communication. The tales drive an amazing journey of reality, connecting one to situations and characters that attach themselves to those that you have either encountered or will encounter. Your emotions are impelled to believe what you choose to believe, to take in hand and accept what you think is right, and most definitely our African stories infiltrate deeply into your imagination, and stimulate and challenge your senses in smelling, tasting, seeing and feeling.

The wise words help us to identify with characters and events, touching our cultural heritage and rooting us firmly to the rhythm, beat and movement of who we are as a people. The traditional tales build our personality and identify us with our beautiful envied ways of life, and makes us proud to appreciate and keep our tales alive. African stories can only make us express our aspirations, dreams, hopes, values, fears, threats, inspiration and will.

The story, the storyteller and the listener blend as one East African story. The warmth of connection is evident and it leaves us reflecting and yearning for more and more and more!

Performance Art is still a valuable means of cultural education. It is widely appreciated in the East African communities and shared widely via different mediums such as orature and film festivals, civic education etc. Our main education system, 8-4-4, has incorporated this into its syllabus under the subject of English and Literature, where ‘Oral Literature’ is mandatory. This explores the different tales from different tribes from a range of genres and it is examined as part of our national curriculum. In schools, stories teach important lessons about history, society and values. Students regularly share the stories they know with classmates as a part of the school curriculum.

As a storyteller and story teacher, I encourage an interactive approach (participatory telling techniques) to storytelling as this was the only way that we were brought up, listening and telling stories in East Africa. This would apply to all audiences, not only of children. We use several creative narrative performance techniques in telling traditional
stories to children as they participate more freely, and unfolding of the narrative certainly facilitates a greater understanding of traditional stories. Some of these interactive approaches are (They have been compiled by the founder Aghan Odero of Zamaleo Sigana Storytellers in Kenya):

Call and Response: They can be selected from traditional singsongs, call/response chants and choruses that children already know or they can easily learn. We use these repeatedly to create a participatory atmosphere with the children before one starts to tell the story. Most of the time they are accompanied with movements/clapping/playing of musical instruments. Often, they act as a way of creating and maintaining positive participatory energy among children in a group.

Riddling Games: Riddles are found in every community. Children like riddling because it gives them a chance to engage in interesting competitive thinking processes of finding answers to creatively crafted questions about everyday things. They like creating their own riddles to test each other’s ability to find answers. This makes riddling games a means of sharpening children’s wits, concentration and thought processes.

As a way of getting them ready to listen to a story, you may start by enabling this process through an interactive game of riddling. It is even more interesting because in every culture there are usually riddle starting and/or closing formulas. The riddle-poser always calls out and the rest respond, to indicate readiness and attention to answer. So we use the riddle game as much as possible as a way of creating a participatory mood among children.


Shared Singing: Often, traditional tales do have songs within them. A character in the stories might sing as a means of sharing information, warning others, celebrating, and praising etc. It’s a very good idea to first teach the children the story’s songs because in the course of telling the story thereafter, the children will find it easy and enjoyable to join you (the storyteller) in singing, as part of the process of telling. This may take the form of responding to a call or just singing along. In this way, the children become deeply involved in the story as co-tellers or even characters in the story!

Question and Answer Posers. This involves asking children to respond to questions as the story is being related. Such questions might be asked to have children describe the characters in the story: to say what action they think should take place in the story, or try to explain happenings as the story progresses etc. All these will help to maintain attention; having the children think through the story and experience it intimately.

Imitation of Situation and Characters: Teach children different sounds that can be imagined in the story. These could be how characters in the story react, cry, roar etc. It might, equally, be abstract sounds: what sound the wind or the rain make, or animals make when running. If taught in advance, the children, with the teacher’s help, can imitate such sounds appropriately in the story as it is being told. This process helps to absorb them thoroughly into the fantasy world of the story, so that they experience its reality. They will hardly forget the stories and lessons yielded afterwards.

I specialise in African stories and therefore maintain an Afro-centric approach as much as I can. This is the only way that the audience can learn about our culture.  It makes it more unique and gives it greater emphasis.

I make sure that I tell my stories with all of my heart, full of energy, always improvising creatively and maintaining a sense of the dramatic through good use of voice variation, gestures, facial expressions, dance and movement, and finally, I always remain open to responses from the audience as I tell. If I greatly enjoy my telling, then the audience will enjoy it too. Whatever it is that comprises the telling of the story, I do it very well.

Storytelling makes a big difference to real lives, and many people, both past and present, with whom I have shared the stories have remarked upon and communicated to me the effects of storytelling on their own lives. Differences of response, will, of course, vary according to the nature of the audience and my platform of approach.

After most of my performances and if time allows, I use a short facilitation session to wrap up through feedback. Most of the responses that I get praise my performance techniques as a very powerful teaching tool; others have noted that audiences feel educated, enlightened and inspired by my storytelling methods.

About the storyteller: Githanda Githae was born in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a professional storyteller, teacher of communication and performance, independent researcher, performer and writer. To find out more about  Githanda Githae or to view his work, you can go to his website.


The article has been edited from a previously published interview in Settle Stories in March 2016 as part of their interview for storytellers featured in the 6th Settle Stories Festival 2016. This piece has been edited and published in AOST with the permission of Githanda Githae 2017.