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African Storytelling Tradition

Aired August 25, 2007 - 12:30:00   ET


FEMI OKE, HOST: Hello, I'm Femi Oke, bringing you a special edition of INSIDE AFRICA. Now, today we're going to take you far and wide into the land of storytelling. For thousands of years, we have told stories to help us make sense of the world. Perhaps as a way to explain the unexplainable, open the door to the imagination, or just to entertain ourselves.
In Africa, storytelling has mostly been an oral tradition, passed from one generation to the next. And that's exactly how one of the world's most famous collection of stories is believed to have started. Remember, (inaudible) "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves" are just a few of the ancient tales told in "One Thousand and One Nights." Alphonso Van Marsh has this look at how some of those old stories are looking today.


ALPHONSO VAN MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Remember these scenes from "The Prince of Egypt"? Well, Hollywood visual designer Hani el-Masri's job was to make sure the film was accurate and authentic.

Now, the Egyptian's next big project is authenticating Arabic culture by illustrating "Alaf Laila va Laila" -- "A Thousand and One Nights," he says, to help bridge the gap between East and West.

HANI EL-MASRI, ILLUSTRATOR/ANIMATOR: When I went to America, I realized that we as Arab people have also stories to tell. And especially after 9/11, it was very, very important for us to claim back our culture from all the things that disfigured it.

VAN MARSH: El-Masri, who holds a patent in a few Disney designs...

EL-MASRI: It's fine and dandy to be called the designer of Minnie's house or Goofy's house, but this is not really what an Egyptian artist would hope to achieve.

VAN MARSH: He's putting his paintbrush to "1001 Nights", the centuries old tales passed down by word of mouth that gave the world Ali Baba, Sinbad and Aladdin.

EL-MASRI: My project is to make a series of 50 stories. My audience is somewhere between 8 and 14 years old, but this is the time when children are open to new ideas and discovery.

VAN MARSH: The origins of "1001 Nights" are disputed, but it's understood the stories were collected over hundreds of years, translated into dozens of languages. It centers around a fictional queen, Shahrazad, who stays off an execution order from her husband, the king, by telling him cliffhanger tales night after night after night.

Some academics say eastern and western writers, from Nagib Mahfouz to Chaucer, to Edgar Allan Poe, were inspired by Shahrazad's spellbinding technique.

FATEH NOSY, "1001 NIGHTS" ACADEMIC: Shahrazad here is the prototype, you know, figure that uses, as we say -- she saved her life with her tongue.

VAN MARSH: Shahrazad's stories within a story weave images of sultans and spells, of heroism and humility, of traveler adventure and treachery.

Despite criticism of what some today consider racist, sexist and sexually graphic language, "1001 Nights" has spawned countless artistic works.

"1001 Nights" takes us from Damascus to Baghdad, from Persia to the Indian subcontinent. Yet many of the tales feature Egyptian locations, themes and characters.

There is even a passage in "1001 Nights": "He who has not seen Cairo, has not seen the world." The sights and sounds from the tales' vivid imagery, so-called Orientalism, still exists in Cairo today.

No surprise then, that audiences thrill to the Cairo opera ballet company's interpretation of "1001 Nights."

UNIDENTIED FEMALE: Just as a story, I think it's really intriguing, and I've never gotten to see it before, so -- and to see it in Cairo is just a real treat.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wanted to read the book, but (inaudible) I wanted to see the ballet.

VAN MARSH: No surprise either that Egyptian storyteller Sharina Lansari's (ph) bookshelves are stacked with versions of the novels.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was fascinating for me to realize that one work, one piece of work could have such a strong influence all over the world.

VAN MARSH: Known by some as a modern-day Shahrazad, Lansari has told "1001 Nights" stories from Britain to Kenya, Eastern Europe to the United States, performing, perhaps, just as Shahrazad performed for her husband king.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a woman from the Arab world, and it was quite an obvious association. I was doing it for the sake of story, and not for the sake of embodying the character of Shahrazad.

Hani el-Masri says he wants his illustrated books to embody "1001 Nights" Arab influences and to reach a larger audience.

EL-MASRI: I have an ulterior motive. I am using the "1001 Nights" to tell the story of the Arab culture.

VAN MARSH: And he says, he does not regret leaving Hollywood to do it.

EL-MASRI: I would really like if at a certain point, someone would say, a culture that produces all this is not as bad as they say it is.

VAN MARSH: Bringing centuries-old stories to a new generation of audience, "1001 Nights" tales of good and evil, some argue, just as applicable today as when they were first spoken.

Alphonso Van Marsh, CNN, Cairo.


OKE: Thanks, Alphonso.

Now, our next story can't be found in a book. To check it out, you need to take a trip to South Africa's Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, armed with some very good walking shoes and lots of stamina. In a mountain rock shelters are hidden thousands of paintings done by the San Bushmen, who once roamed the hills. The paintings tell us about their lives and spiritual world of the San people.


OKE: Tired, hot and sweaty -- this is not usually how you feel approaching great works of art, but in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa, paintings dating back 3,000 years are hidden amongst the rocks. So, if you want to see them, you have to take a hike.

PAUL DISCH, TOURIST: It's absolutely worth the effort. You feel so closely connected to -- to human history and to spirituality.

OKE: An hour and a half later, I finally arrived at the Game Pass shelter, where painted on the rocks are some of the most famous images in Africa.

JEREMY HOLLMAN, ROCK ART CURATOR, NATAL MUSEUM: People sometimes think the art is a menu, painting the animals that they ate, or they think it's like a diary or a photo album.

We know now that the art is much more like stained glass windows in a church, and that the figures that look so realistic and so lifelike are, in fact, symbols.

OKE: At a site known as Giant's Castle, there is an exhibition to show how the Bushmen tribes who created these paintings used to live. They're long extinct, but have left their own monument to their lives and beliefs on the landscape.

The most popular animal you see on the rocks is a large antelope called an eland. It was considered a sacred animal.

HOLLMAN: We just call this the eland panel (ph), because there are so many elands here. I don't know if you can notice, but in the background is an enormous eland.

OKE (on camera): Oh, yeah.

HOLLMAN: We also look at the colors that they chose. These are not the natural colors of an eland, but these are all colors that have spiritual power attached to them, red and white, and they have a way of influencing the landscape around.

OKE (voice over): The natural ingredients in the paints include materials like okra, charcoal, white clay, egg, and sometimes even blood. The paint merges with the rock face, and the mountain climate preserved the art naturally for thousands of years. It's exhilarating to see it close up

OKE (on camera): Those characters out there, it looks like they 're skiing.


OKE: What's that?

HOLLMAN: One of the common motifs we found in the Drakensberg. Not easy to interpret.

OKE: I don't know, Femi. Move along.

(voice over): Just in the Drakensberg mountains, there are at least 600 sites and more than 40,000 paintings.

HOLLMAN: I think there are many stories in here, and they're also (inaudible) stories. I think it does not really translate to like a folk tale that's going a beginning, a middle and an end. There are an endless amount of stories that you could tell here.

OKE: Thirty generations of paintings that began long before Jesus Christ was born. Now that's quite a story.


OKE: When we come back, a new generation of storytellers learn of Osiris, rebirth and the life-giving waters of the River Nile. Plus, a storyteller here in the studio. Stay with us.


OKE: You may think there is a simple explanation for why the crocodile has a rough back. But one Angolan children story begs to differ. While the crocodile used to have a smooth back, its back toughens after it meets a rabbit who dares it to go looking for trouble. The arrogant crocodile, in his quest to find trouble, accidentally causes a smoking monkey to drop its pipe, sparking a fire that burns the crocodile's back, leaving it forever rough.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sierra Leone is aiming to take its diamond industry a step furthers by processing its uncut gems at home. The process is known in the industry as beneficiation. So far, the diamond-rich nation has primarily exported its diamonds raw. But it hopes a new diamond cutting and polishing sector will create added revenue and jobs.

One of the last productive sectors in Zimbabwe, manufacturing and retail, has reportedly fallen victim to the country's economic crisis. Government- imposed price controls have forced many businesses into massive losses, but they're reportedly risking government takeover if they close down.


OKE: Good to see you again. You're watching INSIDE AFRICA from our little library here at the CNN Center.

We have a special today about African storytelling. Now, the ancient Egyptians have long captured our imagination. We're fascinated by their society, their myths, beliefs, and, of course, the miraculous way they built pyramids.

Our next story traces back thousands of years, and has changed very little since. As Shahira Amin tells us, the story of Osiris and the Nile remains very much alive and relevant to Egyptian life today.


SHAHIRA AMIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Nile. Since ancient times, it has been the source of life, fertility and development for Egyptians.

ISMAIL SERRAGULDEEN. DIRECTOR, ALEXANDRIA LIBRARY: Without the Nile, there would be no Egyptian civilization.

AMIN: And so the river became a centerpiece of religious practices, myths and stories.

SERRAGULDEEN: It becomes plentiful and brings bounty to the land, and then diminishes, but then is reborn in the following year. And this cycle is the echo of the story of Osiris.

AMIN: One of Egypt's most important stories, the tale of Osiris, has made the same references to resurrection, treason, renewal and life for thousands of years. Here, it is recounted to children in an Egyptian village near Aswan by the village rawi (ph), or traditional storyteller.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is as eternal as the Nile itself. It lives throughout ancient Egypt, and in many ways it still survives this day. Osiris is betrayed and is cut to pieces, but his faithful wife Isis manages to gather the pieces, and a spell to bring him back to life, and with him, she conceives the son Horus.

AMIN: And the story of Osiris did not just influence the ancient Egyptians.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is the notion of life after death, the notion that people's actions will count for the kind of life they will have after death. It is a notion of eternity versus the temporal. It was through here that Christianity spread to all of Africa, through Alexandria with St. Mark. It was through here that it spread -- Islam spread to all of Africa through the arrival of (inaudible), and it was from Egypt that the emergence of Moses from the Nile carries forth the message of the one true God.

AMIN: It is storytelling at its best, and for Egyptians, the story of Osiris rings as true as ever.

A new generation of storytellers are being prepared to keep the myth of Osiris and the Nile alive.

Shahira Amin, CNN, Aswan.


OKE: There's still much more to come on INSIDE AFRICA.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look out! Here it comes! Here it comes!


OKE: The art of storytelling. We get a private session. See you on the other side.


OKE: According to the Ashanti tribes in Ghana, wisdom was brought to the world by a spider. In his quest to become the wisest of all, Anansi the spider gathers all the wisdom of the village into a gourd. He unsuccessfully tries to hide it in a tree, until finally his baby son advises him to put the gourd on his back.

When Anansi reaches the top, he realizes that despite all the wisdom in the gourd, his son was wiser than him. So he decides to pour the wisdom into the wind and into the world.




OKE: Truth is contagious, according to this Ethiopian story. A leopard steals a calf and claims his own pet goat gave birth to it. Doubtful, the cow's owner asked the other animals if the goat can really give birth to a calf. Scared of the leopard, everyone agrees, except the wise baboon, who pretends to listen to music from a rock. When the leopard makes fun of him, the baboon says that if a goat can give birth to a calf, a stone can surely play music. And so the story goes. This encouraged all the animals to tell the truth.


OKE: Excellent to see you again. You're watching INSIDE AFRICA, with a special look at African storytelling.

Africa's oral tradition remains to this day both rich and varied. It's both history and art come to life.

We caught up with a professional storyteller, who's made it his business to spread the art of African storytelling here in the U.S.


CHESTER GALLOWAY, PROFESSIONAL STORYTELLER: You ever know anyone who talks and talks and talks and talks? They don't only talk about the things they know, they talk about things they don't know. They talk about things they think they know. They talk about things they say you ought to know, even though you know they don't know a thing in the world about what they're talking about. You know what I mean?

OKE (on camera): What makes a good storyteller?

GALLOWAY: Good storyteller has to be a good listener. Not many people are good listeners.

My mouth brought me here. (inaudible) to bring you here (laughter).

A good storyteller also can connect with any person at any place at any time, and that -- and that connection comes from the type of story that you tell. I should be able to tell the same story to a group of plumbers that I can to a group of Wall Street businessmen and make them both connect.

OKE: You use a lot of props in your storytelling. Why are they important?

GALLOWAY: Props are important sometimes for sound effects. Props are important sometimes for visuals. Props are important. Sometimes they just need to be there. We all aren't the same type of learners.

People still say, you can hear their voices, the singing, the chanting, the moaning against the midnight sky. Even the eerie sounds of chains.

Very emotional, very physically exhausting.

Is that my friend? My buddy? My pal? My (inaudible)? He was my best friend in the whole wide world, now he's gone, gone, gone.

OKE: What is it about the African stories you tell that appeals to you particularly?

GALLOWAY: Tell them the story you love, is makes a good storyteller. Tell them the story at the right time, at the right place, that's a good storyteller. Because storytelling, much like your life, is all about timing.

So my friends, remember, don't speak all you see. Don't say all you know. The talking scull, a West African folk tale.

The stories I tell are hundreds of years old, and they're still alive, and they're still powerful and effective. They're yours to tell, so continue to keep telling. And they will never die.


OKE: Well, that's a wrap for this week's show. Thank you very much for watching, and be warned, I'll be telling stories all weekend.

I hope you'll let INSIDE AFRICA be your window to the continent.

I'm Femi Oke. Until the next time, take care.