Folklore, oral history and storytelling are inextricably woven into the fiber of East African life. Even though Africa does have an ancient written tradition, most communities pass their cultural knowledge and history from generation to generation orally.
Storytelling was a way of life as I was growing up in Uganda. Elders tell stories that explain where we come from and the origin of our laws. Women tell their granddaughters stories that transform embarrassing subjects into instructive tales.
Children are a vital part of storytelling and they actively contribute as the tales unwind. Many storytellers use a call and response technique in which they incorporate audience responses into their stories.
In schools, stories teach important lessons about history, society and values. Students regularly share the stories they know with classmates as a part of the school curriculum.
East Africa includes many different groups of people with varied heritages, and storytelling is one practice that brings them together. Many groups recount slightly different versions of similar stories as well as telling their own unique tales.
Characters include wise animals and birds that act like humans. Some characters are people and some are supernatural beings. The stories explain natural phenomena, such as how cattle came to be, or give reasons for common practices like why people dig. They almost always have a lesson.
Even though television and the Internet are replacing storytelling as sources of entertainment in East African cities, new uses for the oral tradition keep it relevant. For example, one organization adopted storytelling to help former child-soldiers come to terms with their horrific experiences. A health care group employs storytelling as a means of teaching impoverished people about health and maternity care.
Harkiss Designs keeps this heritage going and shares many of its products with the world. Part Two, coming soon: Some of the stories that enrich the tradition.