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I performed at the SIGANA INTERNATIONAL STORYTELLING FESTIVAL in Nairobi (8 – 14 June 2016) alongside tellers from Tanzania (Christa D Komba), Uganda (Andrew Lwanga Ssebaggala) and Kim Seung-ah from South Korea. Zerihun Birehanu, a lecturer at Adis Adaba University School of Arts, was an active observer who led an excellent story-related theatre workshop; what he saw at the Festival inspired him, and we all hope his dream of a Story Festival in Adis Adaba will materialise in 2017!

The Kenyan tellers were led by festival director Alumbe Hellen (whom I met at the 2013 Kanoon Festival in Iran) and included John Titi (Video) , Wangari Grace and the effervescent Onyango Owino (whose energy and humour levels reminded me of Bobby Norfolk!)  as well as theatre studies students from the Nairobi University who made a most encouraging debut.  

It is to Alumbe’s credit that she was able to stand back and let others do most of the performing: while I was sad not to see more of her in action, I was impressed at the way she has nurtured this group to the point where they can fly without her being in the cockpit!

The African telling I saw made exciting use of percussive accompaniment – our shows in schools had two drummers, those at the Cultural Centre four. Tellers frequently broke into song to punctuate their performance.  As the songs usually featured a catchy refrain (which the tellers delighted in teaching us!) or a call-and-response element, audience participation was guaranteed, generating a joyous, and often uplifting, feeling to the performance.

John Titi’s version of the Two Goats on the Bridge (link to follow) makes wonderful use of the singing as he gently walks us through the story and I love the back-to-back dancing with which it joyfully concludes.  I saw him tell it three times – at the Centre, in a kindergarten and a Library, and he played it beautifully every time. At the kindergarten I suggested we do a tandem (Aesop’s fable of the Sun and Wind) and we had a lot of fun, after minimal rehearsal (in an adjoining room while Seung Ah told her second story of the session!) improvising in bi-lingually (John in Swahili).  Sadly, as kids grow up, it seems they come to view Swahili as the language of guards and gatekeepers and prefer to converse in English.  Apart from the impact on their awareness of their own culture, Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa, so we felt good presenting an African and a European side-by-side as friends, with both languages on par.  Certainly the youngest members of the Centre appreciated having the Swahili to help them enjoy the story!

Among the lively and personable students, Adeti Samantha stood out – she’s the one who opened every performance with the calling-on song which summoned all the tellers country-by-country.  Apart from her superb voice, she’s also an award-winning actress, a dancer, has huge stage presence and an abundance of creative talent, if her own composition (Sing me a) Song of Africa is anything to go by.  A talent to watch – if anyone is looking to cast an international production of The Lion King, do audition her!

If you haven’t seen Kim Seung-ah in action, then make sure you catch her when she comes your way.  Although presented as an ambassador of Korean culture (which she does with great charm, humour and efficacy in her stories) Seung Ah is way more than just a cultural curio – she really is a storyteller. Trained by tellers in Toronto, she doesn’t need the hanbok to define her, but could just as memorably engage us in her own right (and when she shares her own personal journey to becoming a teller, it’s poignant and unforgettable).more

See me tell: The Tailor’s Cloth