Saturday, May 31, 2008


For a word, there is no meaning outside of context. In a way, that is also true for stories. Consider an iceberg. When we tell or hear a story, all that is understood about that story is the tip of the iceberg seen above the waterline, unless we also know all of the context that is hidden below! When we know the context, the story often takes on different or fuller meanings or understandings. Often, when we take stories from the more oral cultures to the more literate ones, some subtleties are grasped, but not all and not always. However, when we take stories from the more literate world to the oral one, oftentimes the gaps and barriers are huge and little is comprehended. So, the words and phrases used in a story then become very important, as well as an understanding of how the story will be understood from "their" point of view within their cultural, social and historical contexts. Therefore idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms don't "translate", jokes aren't understood, and, most times even proverbs, are not understood. While stories speak at the heart level, and stories speak the language of the heart, we need to be especially mindful of "packaging" the story in the language of the ear, the mind, and the emotions.

When storytelling across cultures, we need to take into consideration several things: meaning, context, cultural gaps, important or difficult words/phrases and expressions, worldview, the plot/theme and intended meaning of the story, idiomatic expressions, historical implications, implicit information, frame of reference and shared frame of reference, etc. In short, we need to do a lot of homework! [All of this kind of takes the fun out of just telling a story, doesn't it?] Anyway, cultural anthropologists repeatedly say that a culture's stories reveal worldview. And I strongly believe this. I also believe that it is stories that shape worldview. Therefore, if one is not an "insider' of that culture, sometimes it is hard to understand its stories and tell its stories. The issue of language is really an important one. If you don't know a language well, you can't really tell a story well in that language. Word choices, implicit information, grammatical structures, idiomatic expressions, etc, all come into play here, and when telling through a translator, all of these things need to be worked through with the translator so the story can be conveyed with the meaning you intended but through understandable expressions. You can tell in a local language, and sometimes there's a certain charm to it. This, however, should become part of the storytelling "style" - playing on it to the storytellers advantage - but even in the broken simple language (or I should say especially in the broken simple language) meaning must be conveyed in understandable forms.

In cross-cultural situations, it is important that the storyteller conveys to the audience that he or she understands the audience and its culture, at least somewhat. Then, the stories in some way need to touch on that audience and its culture -- telling within that shared context or shared frame of knowledge, experience, and meaning. The audience appreciates it when it can relate to your stories, when they don't seem so foreign that the audience can't relate to them. If "foreign" stories are told to illustrate, inform or enlighten, they really must be told in ways that they can be understood and appreciated! So, it is good to tell some of "their" stories and even how, being an outsider, you messed up in sometimes telling their stories. Sometimes audiences enjoy some of the cross-cultural "snafus"! Oftentimes, they also want to be exposed to new cultures (that's why they come to hear "you"). But it is important to help them understand and not be confused! Be magical, be mystical, be enchanting, be entertaining, be informative. And be YOU. You and who you are are the greatest translator from one culture (yours) to another.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


“If this is your land, where are your stories?” Edward Chamberlin asked in his book by the same name. This question carries with it the impact of a doubled-edged blade: Not only do the stories of a people define who they are and the space they possess, but the stories of a people are also the tools used to possess that space. There are two African folktales that so poignantly illustrate this. One, The Departure of the Giants, is from the Horn of Africa, while the second, Strength, is a Limba tale from West Africa. Each is too long to convey in its entirety, so a summary will have to suffice.

The Departure of the Giants is a tale of giants and how they once occupied the land to the detriment of the “little people.” Reluctantly, God decided they could no longer be on the earth and gave them the choice of leaving with his blessing or leaving with his curse. They chose to leave with his blessing, which was to honor their desire for the women to give birth to only sons and the cows to give birth to only females. Eventually both – the giants and the cows – died out. The story has a wonderful ending: "The roofs of the tombs fell long ago, and all that remains are piles of stones. Because they remember what happened to the giants, people of the tribes sometimes say when life seems too generous to them: Take care, let us not die from blessings like the giants did."

Strength is a tale that turns from delight to disaster. It is endearing, sobering and thought-provoking. One day elephant has the idea to have a contest to see who was the strongest. Chimpanzee tied a small tree in a knot. Deer ran three miles into the forest and three miles back. Leopard mightily scraped the ground with his powerful claws. Bushbuck plowed a road through the cane-fields with his horns. Elephant bought down a huge tree. With each feat, all declared that, indeed, it was a show of strength. Then it was man’s turn. He whirled, twirled, did somersaults and cartwheels. “That’s not strength,” the animals said. Man climbed a tree and threw down the palm nuts. “That’s great, but not strength,” the animals said again. Then man took a gun and shot elephant dead.

Man was jumping and bragging.
“Strength! Strength!
Wasn’t THAT strength?!”
“Strength. . . .”

Man looked around.
The animals were gone.
They had fled into the forest.
“Strength! . . .”
There was no one left to hear him brag.
Man was alone.

In the forest the animals huddled together and talked.
“Did you see that?”
“Was that strength?”
“Would you call that strength?”
“No. That was DEATH.”
“That was DEATH.”

Since that day the animals will not walk with Man.
When Man enters the forest he has to walk by himself.

The animals still talk of Man . .
That creature Man. . . .
He is the one who cannot tell the difference
between strength
and death.

Cultural anthropologist C. McKinney said, “The collection and study of oral traditions are crucial for understanding essentially oral societies, and they serve as the bases of the literature of literate societies. Events in both oral and literate societies are the bases for the continued development of oral traditions.” It is not until the role of story in worldview and culture is firmly grasped that one can fully comprehend the value of story in worldview change and in life and cultural transformation.