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We are the stories we tell

Sindiwe Magona, an accomplished South African writer, literary activist and retired teacher, is a judge in Nal’ibali’s storytelling competition being run this September and will help crown South Africa’s first ‘Story Bosso’. Sindiwe, who has grown up on stories, feels that our identity is inseparable from the stories we tell:

In traditional societies, stories were an integral part of the socialisation of the child. They were about people – how they live, what they hold dear and what they consider aberrations. They conveyed the ideals of society, its heroes and its villains.

Now, there is a growing belief that children hear stories as early as in utero and science confirms that babies in mummy’s tummy hear language. Voila! ‘Mother tongue’ and a truth the ancients must have intuited.

And babies should be read to and told stories. Getting not only words, but expressions, idioms, nuance, taboos and a wealth of other cultural information, they drink this in with the same effortless ease of breathing. Yet, while all stories enrich, mother-tongue stories do a whole lot more. They anchor the child into the specific realm of the inherent self – inalienable and perpetual. And, just as no child in the world should ever be denied the citizenship of the country of his or her birth, no child should ever be denied or deprived of the privilege of mother tongue. It is a sacred birth right. To de-tongue a child, even by neglect or oversight, should be considered a criminal act.

Children who read or hear stories in their mother tongue are much more likely to meet themselves in books; see, hear and learn from characters who remind them of themselves, people like them, and situations and problems familiar to them. And, those stories that may present the unfamiliar will have a ring of ‘new’ but be contained within their world… being something someone like him or her knows, has known or could know… in other words, not totally ‘otherworld’. Thus the imagination is fired!

Language is there to help us understand and to communicate. Our children shouldn’t be handicapped by always having to struggle with language even before they get to the content of the story. How can there be any fun when understanding is absent or any benefit when half the story words or nuances are a mystery?

And this is the benefit of storytelling: anyone can do it in any language. So, let us remember that we have always been storytellers, sharing and handing down stories in our own languages. The ancients bequeathed us story, and it is ours to carry on. This is our sacred duty and obligation. Our children are waiting.

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