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Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Return of the Story

By Dennis D. Muhumuza

Many years ago, wide-eyed children sat by the fireside listening to fascinating tales about cunning little hare, how a beggar competed for and won the hand of the beloved king's daughter, how the lion became the king of animals, to mention a few.

Rich with drama, coloured by music and bustling with suspense, the stories always left the children mesmerised and yearning for more. It was a way through which they learned about the joys and pains of life.

Today, the television screen occupies the higher place in homes and students seem more interested in the latest John Grisham legal thriller than the recorded Ugandan folk stories in the library.

The argument is that society has moved on, that it is not possible to sit round the fire anymore to tell stories, and that the art that defined, empowered and harmonized generations for long cannot compete in the world of other dynamic performing arts like music and dance, and should therefore be left to die a painful death.

On how important traditional stories still are, Ms. Allen Tushemereirwe, a lecturer of performing arts at Makerere says, "the mythology and legends of our ancestral traditions were best explained through story-telling. That is why folktales such as the story of Kintu and Nambi still have a place in non-fiction sections in school libraries. We must have a firm foundation for our stories as a way of preserving the identity of a people and the richness of their culture."

Perhaps this foundation is the stage that professional story-teller, Daniel Ssettaba of Roots Africa, a theatre consultancy, talks of. He says: "Story-telling has since changed context and adapted to the stage as a new theatrical art to meet the expectations of the modern audience."

Addressing issues of humanity sounds complicated but Austin 'Mwarimu' Bukenya, a lecturer of oral literature at Makerere University, comes on to make things lighter: "Story-telling is about sharing experiences, reflecting on our modes of existence, our joys, our struggles, our fears and our expectations and aspirations. Uganda is a society in a state of formation, out of the many ethno-cultural entities enclosed with the geopolitical boundaries…the more we tell our stories, the more we share with one another and the more we contribute to the concretization of a truly cohesive community," he said through e-mail.

Mr. Bukenya who is acclaimed for his novel, The People's Bachelor (1972) goes on: "Good story-telling is itself part of the so-called entertainment industry. People want to enjoy the pleasure of intellectual and emotional discovery provided by a well-told story, whether this is in live speech –oracy, writing, theatre or electronic relay.

"One of the causes of poverty in our literature, theatre or electronic performances is a lack of good stories, or the ability to tell them competently."

Story-telling, he adds, is a linguistic skill that is acquired, learnt and mastered; although some people are born with some aptitude for telling stories, that gift must be nurtured too for them to become good storytellers.

This is the challenge that the Uganda Theatre Network (UTN) has taken on by conducting several story-telling workshops at the Uganda Cultural Centre to promote and motivate performing artists already involved in this expressive art.

Mr. Andrew Ssebagala, the national coordinator UTN, believes that Ugandan theatre needs something to spice it up, and that something is story-telling. He differs from the concept that story-telling is a thing of the past and inapplicable in modern Uganda.

"I've traveled widely and I know for sure that story-telling as a new theatre form is very popular in America, London, Holland, Sweden, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Like any consumable, we only need to get people to know that it's available, tell them where it is, what they are going to benefit from it and it will begin to pull crowds," he says.

Ssebagala adds there are so many stories that need be told, and that they can be told dramatically if other theatrical techniques such as poetry, music and dance are employed.

By the look of things, we might soon witness the renaissance of African story-telling but this time round, not by the fireside but on the stage. But whether it will meet the demands of time, space and spectacle mechanics of contemporary theatre, stays with us to ponder.

--The Ivory Post, March 6, 2008