UPon Talk #4 with Maïmouna Jallow (Kenya)

Storytelling as a strategy to navigate urban contexts (EN)

talk date 08.02.2023

Maïmouna Jallow is a multidisciplinary artist and content creator who works to preserve African storytelling traditions, and in 2018, edited an anthology of twelve re-imagined African folktales entitled Story Story, Story Come (Pavaipo/Ouida Books), which were performed in  libraries, civic centers and on the streets. In 2021 she released her debut film, Tales of the Accidental City, an experimental feature-length in which all the action takes place on Zoom. Without the audience ever seeing the city, the film explores what it means to live in an African metropolis through the experiences of its characters.

UPon: You are reviving the old art of storytelling by re-imagining African legends, folktales and myths from a contemporary and feminist perspective. How did you start with your work as a feminist story teller?

Maïmouna: When I got to Kenya, I really wanted my child to have access to Kenyan tales, to see the world around him reflected in the storybooks that we were reading together. And one thing that struck me was how difficult it was to find traditional tales. So what you had were books like the Tinga Tinga series, which are beautifully illustrated stories based on African folktales, but created by a UK-based production company. The other thing I found was that the stories published locally were very text heavy, with very little illustration. So, really not very attractive for small children of 3-6 years old. And there’s this myth that in Africa, most of us have had this opportunity to sort of sit with a grandmother, listening to stories maybe under the baobab tree or something. But the reality is that for many of us, that wasn’t part of our tradition either, we grew up in cities. So what really spurred me to go in search of traditional folktales is this sense of urgency, especially when you’re talking about oral traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. I really had this sensation that when that generation dies, then we lose the stories with them. So I initially started small and I chose to go to Zanzibar, firstly because it was close to Kenya, but also because it’s a small island. I thought perhaps stories there might have been protected by the fact that it is slightly isolated and it’s a small place where traditions are very much lived. But I was quite shocked. So much historical memory had been wiped out. I  spoke to different people, elderly people, asking them, can you share stories that you might have heard from your childhood? 

I did meet this amazing poet, Haji Gora Haji, and he was in his eighties and he had a whole treasure trove of stories. He used to be a fisherman and he said that back in the day, somebody had been teasing him through this story process. So he realised that in order to retaliate, he had to say it in story form. And that’s when went from being just a fisherman to becoming a storyteller. He also said that people here were not interested in his stories. The only people who had come to collect his stories and to interview him were from outside.

So I left Zanzibar with this real sense of how little value we are giving to this very important tradition and this legacy that we can pass on to our children. Because stories are not just stories. They don’t exist in an empty space. They’re really important in a way, for children and even adults to learn how to navigate the society around them, to learn what the cultural norms are. I remember one of the stories I was told was about a tortoise that had been cheated by a hare, who sold it land on the beach while the tide was out.

So, it was a way to teach the community, to be careful about being duped by unscrupulous salesmen. It gave very specific lessons that spoke about the physical context that they were living in at the time. I remember telling this story to a group of children who didn’t live by the sea and they were left quite confused because they didn’t understand how the tides work. So that’s why I also got into this process of saying, yes, it’s amazing to preserve these stories, but let’s also reimagine them in a context where they make sense to our children today. So if you’re telling this story in an urban setting, how can you tell it in a way that a child who’s never seen the sea can understand the same lesson in the story?
In Zanzibar the things that really struck me in terms of storytelling and the loss of it was the impact of television. But also the move from the village to the city and the breakdown of the extended family because when people move to the cities and everybody in the nuclear family is working, storytelling is one of the first things that goes. So when I returned to Nairobi, I thought, well, I’m really interested in seeing how we can preserve the form, but with a different type of story. And this can be quite controversial. There are some storytellers who feel like you can’t mess with what is a traditional story and I fundamentally disagree. Society is constantly changing, and if we see that this is a form that is not being preserved in its current state, why not try and find new ways of presenting it and engaging audiences? So that’s when I started the project where in the end we published Story Story Story Come, an anthology of 12 reimagined folktales.
Another thing that I realised in the stories I heard in Zanzibar was that in a lot of them, men and boys were always protagonists. Also, sometimes the messaging was not the kind of messaging that we would want today from a feminist perspective, which is why we took a lot of care in Story, Story, Story Come to ensure that most of the heroes are girls or women. There is one story in which a blind little girl, who was considered worthless her whole life, takes away the fear of a monster from children by convincing them to close their eyes. Basically, the strength of how her lack of sight actually gave her another power, to feel through her other senses, which would mean that she wasn’t afraid of something that was so grotesque and that she could look beyond the physical. 

UPon: You have been a BBC correspondent and worked for several NGOs. How did that influence your work as a storyteller? In a BBC interview you say “(…) folktales have always been a vital way to transmit important information, as well as moral lessons, and as such, they are often rooted in specific places and contexts.” How do you approach people and places that you are referring to in your stories?

Maïmouna: I took advantage of been sent to a place as a correspondent. The role of the fixer, your local contact is super important, because you’re coming from outside. So for me it was important that this fixer was an artist himself. Because in these communities you don’t just approach people and stick a microphone in their face. That’s an issue I have with some of the way foreign journalists and journalists in general behave in these countries. There’s a lack of respect for private space, for consent. And so I go very slowly, so somebody like Haji Gora Haji, who is this elderly man, it wasn’t a case of just meeting him once and then sitting down and asking him to tell me all his stories. It was really a process of meeting him several times, going to his home and also supporting him in the sense of buying a copy of his book of poetry. Because, of course, you have a certain ethics that dictate that you can’t really pay for material. But at the same time, working with communities who are very disadvantaged and drawing something from them in the expectation that you give nothing back it’s something I’ve always struggled with. I think that it’s a very Western notion in a sense that you just come in and extract information. But here I was working as an independent person, and I could do it in a more humane way. We went around the island and would spend three or four days in each location and really spend time getting to know people, talking to them. Also making sure that when you leave a place, you still remain connected to it, because at the end of the day, this is their material, this is their content, and without them, it wouldn’t exist.

With Doctors Without Border I got to know my continent in a way that I would never have known as a middle class African woman. Because you live in your bubble of relative comfort and there’s no reason for you to go to a refugee camp if you’re not doing anything there.
On the other hand, working with Doctors Without Borders made me really question: What is the role of international NGOs? Of course there has to be global solidarity and intervention when there is a humanitarian crisis, but when aid becomes development aid, it absolves our governments of responsibility. And we have very rich countries who have basically left a lot of the care of poor people in the hands of people who are not from there. And what needs to happen is that we demand more of our governments.
By the end of my period with BBC and MSF I wanted to tell a different kind of story, and I didn’t want my job to dictate what stories I was telling. And I really wanted to come back to this love of writing, which is what made me a journalist to begin with, which is why I decided to go down the more traditional storytelling route.

UPon: You also perform in open air urban spaces. Talking about the moment of bonding through stories and also the democratic aspect of your storytelling: can you describe the collective moment taking place in the audience? How does it differ to theatres, how does the audience interact with the stories and with each other?

Maïmouna: I love performing in public spaces, where passers-by can stop and listen. To be able to tell a story in a public space is part of the charm of going back to the tradition where the story is owned collectively by everyone. I want to mention telling Shela’s Journey in Jamestown. I wrote Shela´s Journey when Eric Garner was killed by the American police. He was selling cigarettes outside a convenience store and he was choked. And he’s the one who said ‘I can’t breathe’ eleven times six years before George Floyd was also tragically choked to death by the American police. I remember being in Kenya at the time and being really struck by the brutality of this act and wondering why we as Africans were not responding in tremendous anger, remembering the connections that we had historically, where for example the civil rights movement in the US was linked to independence movements in Africa. And I wondered, where did that solidarity go? That’s when I wrote Shela’s Journey, which is a story about a little girl whose parents are kidnapped into slavery and who goes on a journey to find them.

Along that journey she passes through Brazil where she finds her mother in a slave plantation and she asks her: ‘What can we do to make sure all our people here know that they still have a home, that they still have a name, that their ancestors have not forgotten them?’ And Shela’s mom says: ‘We’re going to cook a feast.’ You know, between Brazil and Africa there are so many similarities in terms of food, so for people that have been ripped from their land and had to survive in other places, home and territory can actually survive through things food, music and dance. So I wanted to show our similarities through this story. Eventually, Shela gets to the USA, and when she finds her father, laying on the ground, being held in a chokehold, she runs to him and says: ‘Just remember that you still have a home, you still have a name. Our ancestors have not forgotten you.’ No one knows if Shela´s father will ever find his way back home. But people swear that from Goree to Chicago, from Berlin to Dakar, they can still hear her song when the wind blows so that we still remain connected.
It was so powerful to perform that story in Ghana, in Jamestown, which has a fort where people who were captured were kept chained until they were transported in the transatlantic slave trade because it really felt like the ancestors were with me and that we were bringing their story back alive in a sense. 

When you’re performing in a public space like that it’s not a controlled environment. You have to get used to the fact that not everybody is going to be captivated. But when you are able to connect with some of the people, it’s really amazing. Also, we have to teach etiquette. I remember performing in Nairobi and a group of schoolkids passed by and they stopped, but the teacher was on the mobile phone the whole time whilst I was telling the story and I had to stop and say, ‘Excuse me, can you take the call somewhere else?’ We also have to reteach what it is to be an active listener because the story only exists if you have the teller and the listener.

UPon: In a comment you wrote about Shela’s Journey you say that the story is a reminder of Africa as a whole, even though African people are scattered. You refer to Africa not only as a physical place, but also as a place in your soul. On the other hand, Africa is such a big territory with great differences between the regions. Maybe you can tell us how this imaginary of a home faraway works.

Maïmouna: Because of the history that the African continent has had, where millions of its people were ripped away from the homeland and scattered across the world, there is a sentiment, this feeling of displacement, but at the same time, a hankering for something past, something ancestral that the black diaspora really does feel. Last year I gave a creative workshop in Brazil with mainly Afro Brazilians and indigenous Brazilians. And what struck me during that process was that whilst I was coming from Africa, there was such an important connection between us. There was this desire to connect as people and to say we do have a shared history, even if it was 100 or 400 years ago. And we actually ironically have very shared problems today. Whether you’re in Sao Paulo, in New York or in Paris, a lot of the times when you walk in the world with this skin, the issues that you face are quite similar. So although you’re not in the same physical territory, your stories are still a massive link between you.

I think something very powerful can happen when we connect as diaspora people without any kind of intermediary. There’s very little knowledge, including from people who originated from the African continent, about what it is today. And I think it’s been a deliberate political agenda to make sure that we don’t know each other because I think there is danger in our unity. 

In the sixties, seventies, as we were newly independent, there seemed to be more of a desire to connect as a black diaspora across territories. But with global capitalism, what mattered in the end really was hanging on to power and making trade deals. And when you put power and profit over people, then what happens is that we all kind of dissipate and lose those bonds. 

UPon: In your movie Tales of an Accidental City you join four people from different social status. How likely is it that such different people meet in Kenia´s urban space? And which kind of dynamics bring them together? 

Maïmouna: One of the things that really shocked me when I initially moved to Nairobi was how stratified the city was. I grew up in West Africa, in Togo, and in the 1980s it wasn’t a very rich country but it felt like a more egalitarian society. Of course, there were different levels of privilege, but all of us lived together in a community. Even though we knew we had different amounts of money, there was an interaction, poverty wasn’t hidden away somewhere. And when I got to Nairobi, I was just so shocked with how you had incredibly wealthy neighbourhoods. And next to it, a slum, separated by an invisible line. You cross this line and you’re in a different world. The people that live in the deprived neighbourhoods often are the ones serving and working for these other people. 

This is like an apartheid without us talking about it. Perhaps because we all have the same colour, but this is no different. So that is why in Tales of the Accidental City, I say that it’s very unlikely that a character like Louis, who is the grandson of the first mayor of Nairobi, would be sitting across the table having an equal amount of say as a domestic worker because usually if they were to be in the same space, it would be very much the power dynamic of I am the overlord and you are the servant. To be able to speak and have the same right to speak on the same platform is something that seldom happens. That’s why it was interesting for me to put them together in this kind of room to see what kinds of conversations they would have and to give Jacinda, the domestic worker and who in a sense represents the conscience of society, the voice of the people, the opportunity to speak truth to power, because there are very few opportunities for us to do that. 

UPon: The Accidental City is about people dealing with anger. Do you think urban spaces in general are prepared to release emotions publicly? And if they do so, which kind of emotions do you think they give space to? Do you think public space can be a space to channel or transform these emotions?

Maïmouna: I think that public spaces in urban settings because of the fact that they’re often very congested restrict people’s self-expression. That is why churches and mosques have become such important spaces in urban settings, because that is where people go to release. But there’s very little space to talk about our pain, our anger, or frustrations. We’ve also lost the sense of community. When you live in your own village or in a close knit community, a problem is shared and there’s a community to help you. But when you come into a city like Nairobi, if you come into one of its slums, you are in survival mode immediately. Cities are hostile places. If you don’t have a certain kind of economic power they’re very oppressive places.

There’s this African expression, it’s specifically from the Akan people in Ghana and it’s a symbol, the word to represent the symbol is Sankofa. Sankofa is represented by a bird whose feet are facing forward, but its head is looking back. And the philosophy behind Sankofa is not to be afraid to go back and get it. Meaning that even as we go forward, it’s so important to remember what we left behind. So many of the solutions to contemporary problems are in the past. Like, how have we lived before, how did the architecture really support the family and the community. In Togo, most of the houses had a big compound and people’s rooms where they would go to sleep, but everything else happened in a communal space. This means that there were always other women there to help, for instance young mothers when they´d just given birth, to make sure that they have enough food, that they know how to breastfeed. And I think women in particular have lost a lot as a result of the architecture and the living of today because we’re often very much isolated at critical moments, such as after childbirth. And that didn’t happen historically.

UPon: Talking about community spaces and moments and how to re-connect them to spaces that are not part of the city’s daily life anymore: In one interview you mention the role of the environmentalist Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize, and her fight to protect Uhuru Park in the centre of Nairobi. Are there any network of artists, architects, urbanist or urban activists like Urbane Praxis that fight for a more solidary, diverse city?

Maïmouna: The organisation called PAWA254 run by Boniface Mwangi, a big activist in Nairobi, has been such an important space in the last decade, bringing together graffiti artists, people working on different social issues, all kinds of artists. And they would have a lot of discussions in that space. 

There are other spaces like that, such as one called Creatives Garage and Cheche Bookshop, all independent, privately run spaces, where people are trying to create open spaces, that allow conversation and people to group together. 

The organisation Book Bunk is also renovating the McMillan Library, a big old library in the centre of Nairobi, which was built during colonial times and was in a state of disrepair for many years. Beyond keeping a good catalogue of the old books and bringing in new books, they are also creating spaces for storytelling, poetry and performances. I think it’s the first time that you’ve seen this kind of renovation and opening up of a big public space like that to everyone and a concerted effort to make sure that it’s not just for a certain group of people, but that it really belongs to the city.

UPon: How does the urban youth connect to the content of the reimagined stories?

Maïmouna: Well, actually I think it’s very much ingrained in their historical memory, even in their bodies. And so they connect very quickly with the stories. In 2019 we held a storytelling festival where we brought storytellers from different countries. They performed at a public library in Buruburu. There were hundreds of children there and they were absolutely mesmerised. So when people say storytelling is dying because children are not interested, it’s a very lazy excuse because I have yet to find a group of children to whom you say in an excited way, let me tell you a story. And they say ’Nah, I would rather just go and play on my PlayStation’. We’re not giving them the opportunity. So in Buruburu, they also started dancing with us, you know, with African storytelling, dancing, singing is such an important part. And when you have a storyteller like      Usifu Jallow from Sierra Leone, who is also an amazing drummer and brings in songs, it’s a lot of fun. And then we also went to one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Nairobi, which is Mathare. There are not many activities specifically geared for children and so these are really important moments for them. I think culturally we’re very used to the call and response. So they react with laughter and if you get too close, they start running away. So it’s very much a participatory kind of experience.

Interview with Maïmouna Jallow, Lorène Blanche Goesele, Valeria Schwarz

Transcript edition: Lorène Blanche Goesele, Valeria Schwarz

Translation EN to ES: Bruno Mattiussi

Graphic design: Stephanie Becker

Public Relations: Lorène Blanche Goesele, Tomma Suki Hinrichsen

With many thanks to the team Netzwerkstelle Urbane Praxis!

This series of talks is supported by the Senate Department for Urban Development, Building and Housing as part of the expansion of the Netzwerkstelle Urbane Praxis, carried out by Urbane Praxis e.V.