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Conserving culture through folk tales

STORYTELLER Elias Chuulu of Mandevu township with schoolchildren during a storytelling session at the Lusaka National Museum.

ZIO MWALE, Lusaka
INTAGIBLE cultural heritage such as local dialects and indigenous folk tales in Zambia is threatened with extinction if nothing is done to fast-track the ‘Zambianisation’ of the new generation.
In the past, before the country’s formal education academic system was introduced, people learnt and taught each other through folk tales. However, this culture is fast fading as Western culture takes over the people’s way of life.
In the pre-computer era, oral stories were passed from generation to generation and survived solely on account of people’s good memory. However, with the coming of the new media such as books, radio, television, including DStv, folk tales are no longer part of most Zambian homes.
The ancient stories were not only told for entertainment purposes, but often to teach children about Zambia’s norms and values, and in a way this helped to uphold morals in society.
The Oxford dictionary defines folk tales as traditional fictional or true stories.
Unlike works of original literary fiction, they are normally anonymous narratives that have been transmitted from one teller to another over an uncertain period of time, and have been shaped by multiple narrators into the form and style that are characteristic of oral narratives.
In a bid to preserve this valuable but vanishing heritage, the Lusaka National Museum has identified itself as a safeguard for this fast-disappearing ancient Zambian tradition.
The museum is running a programme called ‘Re-living Folklore of Zambian Communities through Storytelling’.
The programme is conducted in conjunction with elders from the museum’s catchment area who are able to tell stories to the children about customs, traditions and beliefs of different cultures, as well as about real-life situations.
The stories are told to children in schools and communities, as well as adults and other members of the community.
Lusaka National Museum director Victoria Chitungu said the museum has come up with diverse deliberate measures to deal with challenges linked to the disappearance of indigenous languages and folklores that were told in Zambia’s local languages.
Speaking during a storytelling session at the museum recently, she explained that the initiative shows the importance of preserving the intangible heritage of the Zambian people through folk tales that preserve the country’s traditions, customs and beliefs.
“In any society, the elderly members of the society are considered as living testimonies of traditions, customs and beliefs of their societies.
That is why we invite the elderly or children here to tell stories,” Ms Chitungu says.
The folk tales are told right in the museum under a village set-up where artefacts are used to stimulate the audience’s imagination sense and captivate their attention to the stories.
The storyteller brings out the experience, while the audience perceives the message and creates personal mental images from the words heard and the gestures seen.
“The stories are shared in different languages and represent both traditional and contemporary issues on themes such as fishing, hunting, farming, cooking, house building, cloth making, modelling, travelling, the stars and the cosmos, ghosts and monsters, tricksters, animals, fairies,” she explains.
“Trust me, the stories are worth listening to and we learn a lot from them because after each session, a story is evaluated and both children’s and adult’s views on the story are shared among the group members,” she said.
The museum’s assistant education officer, Precious Chisanga, shared that the objective of the programme is to preserve intangible heritage by enhancing creativity, imagination and innovation through storytelling.
“Whenever we have a storytelling session, we invite elders who can bring out things from the past. We also invite children who can tell new stories; every generation is welcome to either be the storyteller or audience,” Ms Chisanga said.
She shared that oral storytelling is an improvisational form of art that allows the audience to engage in creative thinking as the story is being shared.
The programme is meant to broaden the knowledge base on folklore for the appreciation of cultural heritage.
“The programme is ongoing as it is also aimed at encouraging museum visitors to discover hidden information about their culture through storytelling,” Ms Chisanga said.
The Lusaka Museum records all the stories told during the storytelling sessions for the purpose of cultural preservation, research and future use by posterity.
“We record the stories shared because we want a display in the museum that will tell the old as well as modern stories told from a Zambian cultural perspective by both children and adults,” she said.
The museum would like to see schools, families and the general public to emulate this culture of teaching the current generation through traditional stories.
“We always have storytellers here available for the community, we have at least 20 sessions in a month,” Ms Chisanga said.
The initiative is supported by Sotrane and USAID.
“We appreciate everyone that has partnered with us. We also appreciate our elders, especially, who spend their time here telling stories,” she said.

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