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Yesterday and Today

July 24, 2015


2005 – Yaounde, Cameroon, Central West Africa

In a newly opened art gallery, I gave a workshop on storytelling to a group of elementary and “gymnasium” (high school) teachers. The space was a bit cramped, but the teachers were eager, so we plowed ahead. I soon discovered: they were delighted to listen to me, but did NOT want to tell or present themselves… there was so much pride and fear. So, I slowed down and listened to their stories – told from their seats. They spoke of their hardships: 45 – 50 students in a class, not enough books or materials, rigid, uncaring administrators, etc. On the spur of the moment, I asked them to remember a moment in their childhood when someone told them a story. Slowly, faces softened… smiles appeared as men and women began to remember… a grandmother, an auntie, the man from the next village… people who told them stories. I asked them to remember how it made them feel. One woman said softly, “I haven’t thought about my village in years…” Heads nodded. These teachers were proud of their academic success; their hard climb to become professionals. But they had forgotten – or sometimes consciously put aside -the simple pleasures they had enjoyed as children – in their villages and towns. Then I asked them to tell a story about one of those early experiences. Finally, I had broken through…and their stories were tender, funny, wonderful. Later,  I showed them how a story – a simple story, no additional books or materials necessary – could teach – mathematics, reading, writing. They were stunned – that something they thought was only for children could actually be a teaching tool. Their  excitement was almost palpable…I will never forget it.

Ten years later – yesterday – I did a program using African stories and activities for residents in an Alzheimers/dementia facility. Participants started out grouchy, irritable. You could see it on their faces: ‘ I don’t WANT to listen to some woman tell stories.’ But then I passed out some traditional dolls –  faces softened and, as they handled them, I could almost see them… remembering. With a flourish, I gave a cow-tail switch (used only by a chief) to a particularly obstreperous man; he  beamed. Then we passed out two  traditional foods – and the participants ate them – with their hands! And by the end of the hour, ALL of them were shaking rythmn instruments as an accompaniment to my final story. And, as I watched their animated faces, I remembered…my teachers in Cameroon.

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