Since the beginning of time, people have made sense of the world by telling stories. Storytelling has been the way to shape experience, give it a meaning, explain and record events. Around fires, cooking pots and tables, communities have gathered for centuries to keep alive the collective memories, legends, myths and heroic adventures of their people.
The storyteller’s calling was a sacred art – the power of narrating was closely linked to magic. Stories were sung or acted out, or recited to the accompaniment of music or drumming. The storyteller was a highly skilled person – he had to entertain his audience, keep their attention, create suspense, as well as preserve tradition and weave a magic spell. The relation of narrator to his audience was of prime importance.
When stories were written down for the first time they became hardened into a set form. The speaker (narrator) and audience disappeared, becoming author and reader, and the written text became the focus. The whole drama of storytelling became the solitary, (often) silent act of one individual. The epic – the long poetic form about the adventures of a hero – stiffened into prose, later the novel, while songs, ballads and rhymes accompanied by music and drums, became what we now call poetry. In cultures where writing appeared later, the oral tradition still flavours the written word: the storyteller is still alive and the audience still a communal ear. In Africa particularly, literature is an exciting and ever-changing discipline. Many writers try to keep an oral flavour in their writing. Instead of imitating a ‘Western’ style, they retain some elements of African traditions of narrations. As readers, then, we are asked not simply to read, analyse and critique the stories but to respect the calling of the ancient storyteller, to listen and participate in the act of storytelling.