Indigenous stories and storytellers Harriet Deacon & Inez Stephney

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Indigenous stories and storytellers

  • Harriet Deacon & Inez Stephney

  • HSRC


  • Stories are a key part of our rich legacy of intangible heritage: language, memory, ritual, traditional knowledge systems, practices, etc.

  • This presentation is about:

    • Collecting indigenous stories
    • Recognising indigenous storytellers

What do we mean by a story?

  • Folktale / parable / Nonwane / Ntsomi

  • Fairytale / buntsomi

  • Legend

  • Praise poem (imbongi / izibongo tradition)

  • Difela

  • Proverb

  • Life history Historical narrative / siganeko or mbali (even modern ones like the TRC narratives)

Why are stories important?

  • All societies tell stories to their children, and each other, as forms of entertainment and education. Stories bring the community and its members together in a shared understanding of the world and their place in it.

  • The medium of language is as important as the message. In fact, ‘folktales, legends, proverbs, epics and praise songs in the indigenous languages,…[are]… the bedrock of any meaningful national literature’ (Bhebe 2002)

  • Even if a story is about talking frogs or talking dogs, it speaks to real issues. ‘Storytellers [may] deal in fantasy images, [but] those images are meant to … shape our experience of the real’ (Scheub 1996:150)

Stories are our knowledge base

  • Stories are ways of transmitting and safeguarding knowledge about society and the world.

  • This includes knowledge about:

    • Who we are and where we come from (identity, history)
    • How society should work (spirituality, moral issues, education, beauty, power)
    • How the world works (philosophy, agriculture, medicine, science)

Stories tell us how the world began

  • The creation story of Ngiyaampaa country in Australia (told by Aunty Beryl Carmichael) tells how the ancestral spirit Guthi-Guthi calls on the water serpent Weowie to come out of the mountain so that the land can become green

  • The shepherd trickster Huveane, the first human in BaPedi and BaVenda legend, who made a baby with clay and breathed life into it

Stories tell us about nature

  • Scientists today find stories useful in learning about the geology of Northwestern America. Indigenous people there still tell stories about roaring two-headed serpents and epic battles between Thunderbird and whale that relate to large earthquakes around AD 900 and 1700 that caused massive flooding, tsunamis and landslides.

  • Among the Tswana, the stars of Orion's sword are traditionally known as `dintsa le Dikolobe', three dogs chasing the three pigs of Orion's belt. Warthogs have their litters while Orion is prominent in the sky --- frequently litters of three

Stories tell us how to make rain

  • Our mothers used to say that when a star falls from the sky, it goes into a waterpit. As it enters the waterpit, it sounds like a quiver … enters water which also lives, as does he who is a !gi:xa … For this is the water from which !giten are wont to fetch water-bull

  • Dia!kwain, a San man from the Katkop hills, 1870s (direct translation by W. Bleek & L. Lloyd)

Stories tell us about history

  • The Ngoni of Mzimba district in Malawi sing praise poems that tell the history of Ngoni chiefs and clans which illustrates their historical link to Zwangendaba and the Zulu

  • Their proverbs still use the Nguni language, although its use is fast fading: Iqhude alikhale emzini wabanye (the cockerel does not sing in a foreign land)

Stories tell us who we are

  • As in Mbeki’s I am an African speech, the storyteller relates the past, shaping a shared reality that people can use to develop a sense of identity and imagine the present and the future.

  • I am an African…

  • “I owe my being to the hills and the valleys,… to the Khoi and the San,… the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land … In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East … My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert. … I am a child of Nongqause …

  • “I am born of a people who would not tolerate oppression… The constitution whose adoption we celebrate … aims to open the doors so that those who were disadvantaged can assume their place in society as equals … Today, it feels good to be an African.”

    • Thabo Mbeki

Stories teach moral lessons

  • In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o discusses the importance of oral literature in his childhood. He says:

  • I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around the fire side. It was mostly the grown ups telling the children but everybody was interested and involved. We children would retell the stories the following day to other children who worked in the fields …

  • Hare being small, weak, but full of innovative wit, was our hero. We identified with him as he struggled against the brutes of prey like lion, leopard and hyena. His victories were our victories and we learnt that the apparently weak can outwit the strong.

The danger of greed

  • When Nomxakazo is born, her warlord father promises her when she comes of age so many cattle that their dust would cover the sun. At her insistence, he acquires enough cattle through war, but afterwards, she is captured by his enemies to compensate, her parents become impoverished and on her return to them, she marries the son of one of her father’s former enemies.

  • AC Jordan, Tales from Southern Africa

  • Abner Nyamende, ‘The relevance of folktales to 21st century society’

Stories tell us what happens when we die

  • A star does in this manner, at the time when our heart falls down, that is the time when the star also falls down; while the star feels that our heart falls over … For the stars know the time at which we die. The star tells the other people who do not know that we have died.

  • Dia!kwain, a San man from the Katkop hills, 1870s (direct translation by W. Bleek & L. Lloyd)

Collecting stories is not new

  • For centuries, people have protected their stories from loss by telling them over and over again.

  • There have also been a number of efforts to document stories in Europe and Africa since the 19th century.

  • Encouraging people to submit stories to the Xhosa newspaper Indaba in 1862, Tiyo Soga said, ‘The activities of a nation are more than cattle, money or food… Fables must be retold; what was history or legend should be recounted.’

Why collect stories?

  • Safeguard our intangible heritage (the practice of storytelling and the content of stories)

  • Enrich and promote indigenous identities

  • Enrich national identity

  • Honour neglected stories and storytellers

  • Value and access indigenous cultural, historical and scientific knowledge for communities, and where appropriate, for the nation and the world

  • Distribute commercial benefit, if any, to owners of indigenous knowledge but minimize negative impact on social cohesion or heritage practices

Why focus on indigenous stories?

  • Stories are particularly important in societies that value orality, which include many indigenous societies in Africa

  • Under colonialism and Apartheid, and with industrialisation and migration, indigenous African communities have experienced massive social disruption and loss of social cohesion

  • In this process, stories have been neglected and devalued

  • Many stories, and mechanisms for transmitting them have been radically changed or even lost

Finding neglected stories

  • Getting out into rural communities: Kramer’s music project

  • Looking in unexpected places, looking at little stories as well as grand narratives

  • Looking in our own communities for taken-for-granted stories

  • Recognising indigenous stories in life histories: the heritage we hold within us

  • Indigenous language texts collected in the past

Programs to collect stories

  • Enhance national facilitating, coordinating and funding capacity

  • Broaden programs on indigenous knowledge to include storytelling

  • Gather information on best practices:

    • Promote storytelling in indigenous languages
    • Promote community involvement and ownership of programs
    • Link storytelling heritage to development and identity
    • Protect intellectual property rights of storytellers and communities
    • Allow them to control who has access to secret and sacred stories
    • Archive stories appropriately

Who owns a story?

  • Storytellers should be recognised and rewarded for their skill in telling stories (e.g. Living Human Treasures)

  • But the intellectual property of indigenous stories often ‘belongs’ to a larger community, even when stories are already in the public domain

  • There have been cases where corporates have patented indigenous knowledge and taken the benefit from commercial use of it

  • We need to protect the rights of the community over traditional stories and the knowledge in them, and to help people rediscover heritage that has been lost

Understanding change over time

  • Stories are not always told in the same way

  • People have different reasons for telling stories

  • Change is a necessary part of a story’s life-blood – they are always being made relevant to the present

  • We need to document and understand changes in stories, not ignore or resent them

  • Writing stories down fixes them in time, helping us to track changes, but in doing so we often lose elements of performance, context and gesture

Audience and format

  • Social conventions affect who can say what to whom, how, when and where

  • The age, gender, knowledge and status of the audience affects how a story is told

  • People often give stories different levels of detail and content for community and outsider audiences

  • Public and private versions of stories

  • Narrative formats (e.g. praise poem, ntsomi) also affect how a story is told

Places for stories

  • Among Sotho-Tswana and Ndebele, women traditionally told fictional tales in the hut area, often to younger children and teenage girls

  • Men told historical stories in public spaces between huts, often to young men before initiation. ‘A boy receives his training at the men’s place’ – ‘Ngwana’a mosimane o seya molao kxorong’

  • These storytelling traditions changed as with resettlement under apartheid, the public spaces (kgoro) were lost

Getting the stories we deserve

  • We need to understand:

    • How have stories changed over time?
    • Who is telling stories and for what reason?
    • How are the stories affected by who is collecting stories, and for what purpose?
  • Good preparation, careful research design and analysis earns the best range of stories and the capacity to understand them


  • Stories help us to understand who we are, where we come from, and how to live in the world

  • Indigenous stories, devalued and neglected in the past, need special promotion and protection

  • Storytellers need encouragement to continue telling stories

  • Researchers should be trained to help collect stories in their own communities in a coordinated series of programs

  • These stories need to be responsibly used and carefully archived

  • Communities need assistance to protect their rights over commercially useful information and secret or sacred stories


  • Wells, Julia (Rhodes University and NHC Council)

  • Manetsi, Thabo (SAHRA)

  • Van Wyk, Carol (Freedom Park)

  • Deacon, HJ with Dondolo, L, Mrubata, M and Prosalendis, S. The subtle power of intangible heritage (2004)

  • Bhebe, N. Oral tradition in Southern Africa (2002)

  • Hofmeyr, I ‘We Spend our Years as a Tale that is Told’: Oral Historical Storytelling in a South African Chiefdom (1993)

  • Jordan, AC ‘Tale, Teller and Audience’ cited in N. Masilela, ‘The Modern world of Xhosa Folklore’

  • Scheub, H The tongue is fire: South African storytellers and apartheid (1996)

  • Nyamende, A Isikhundla Sababhali on Lit Net (

Examples of good practice

  • First Nations American stories analysed as literature in US schools; Stories across Africa project (PRAESA)

  • SA San Institute (SASI) community researchers in Botswana and SA

  • ‘Living Human Treasures’ system in East Asian countries

  • IKS policy launched by DST in March 2005

  • HOODIA benefit sharing agreement in SA; Patents amendment bill (2005) protects indigenous communities from others patenting their knowledge

  • AITSIS indigenous knowledge database and research in Australia

  • Traditional knowledge digital library in India (used as a model for the planned IK digital library in SA)

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