Stories travel across the world

Ambika Shaligram
Thursday, 1 February 2018

A storyteller from Kenya, Hellen Alumbe Namai, will perform at Sakal International Storytelling Festival, to be held in the city this weekend

Hellen Alumbe Namai is a well-known creative artist, known within Kenyan educational circles as a persuasive storyteller-teacher. Alumbe, who started off her career as an actress, has an integral role to play in Zamaleo Sigana Storytellers. She combines the art of animated banter, chants, sing along tunes, persuasive dramatics, dance and movement, in her performance.

Alumbe, who has performed in Sweden, South Africa, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, runs master storytelling workshops besides mentoring young tellers. Excerpts from the conversation:

You started off as an actress. What prompted you to switch to storytelling-teaching?
As an actress, I used to perform mainly before high school students and once in a while for adults. Storytelling gave me an opportunity to cut across all ages — from pre-schoolers, high school to university students, at family conference, performing arts festival. I could participate in different events with my bunch of stories. But acting in the plays was limiting.

How do you combine storytelling and teaching? Do you teach the younger kids?
Since time immemorial, storytelling has been a teaching tool to all forms of knowledge. The catch is how well do you deliver the information. My team uses storytelling to teach basic life skills, communication skills and as a platform to open up discussion.

Do I teach kids? Yes, as a storyteller, I hold sessions in schools, church and gatherings. Depending on the programme, I receive slots that range from five minutes to three hours where we jam as they learn different things.

Can you tell us something about Zamaleo Sigana Storytellers? 
Zamaleo is a coinage of two Swahili words — Zama meaning ‘a long time ago’ and Leo is ‘today’. Basically, we borrow from the past and make it very relevant to our current life. Sigana is a word borrowed from the Luo community in Kenya, which means ‘interactive’ moments. So Zamaleo Sigana storytellers share experiences through stories.

We are a group of storytellers that include narrators, musicians, dancers and percussionists. Zamaleo was founded in 1998 by Aghan Odero and I was honoured to join them in 2002. 

Are you familiar with Indian tales/stories? What sort of tales do you like to hear?
Yes, I am familiar with the Indian tales. How? Ten years ago, I found a book titled Indian tales in the office; I think it was amongst Aghan’s collection. After reading the book, I affirmed the fact that stories travel and indeed our communities have similar stories with different twists here and there that are relevant to our own community.

From the book, I re-adapted some stories and one of my best human tale came from that collection. I had invited Jeeva (Raghunath, a storyteller) to Kenya where she shared some stories from India, last year at ‘Under the ...’ edition by Kathai Kalatta 2017. I met Vikram from Mumbai, who also shared a couple of tales from India. In fact last year I held a workshop on ‘Gandhi’s story’. I am proud that it was a successful venture. I like hearing folktales with animal characters and especially tricksters.

Has there been a change in the way stories are being told and heard?
As we all know, culture is not static. Storytelling being an aspect of cultural interaction has taken different forms. For instance, our Sigana pieces can be packaged for different settings apart from the traditional format. Now, we share tales with combination of dialect. Also, the emerging tellers are young. In fact, we have a TV programme titled Sigana moto moto that is recorded with live audience. So the tellers are adapting different ways of making sure that the art form is rekindled.

Does your audience like to hear fairy tales? Or do they want more present day stories?
Personally, I love sharing fairly tales. It is usually recommended that you share tales that you love, enjoy and have a relation with. I started off with a combination of fairly tales with animal and human characters which 75 per cent of our audiences like. For the last decade, we have been creating at least two pieces in a year with present issues. 

ST Reader Service
Sakal International Storytelling Festival will be held at Phoenix Marketcity, Viman nagar on February 3 and 4. To register, visit Sakal Times office, Shivajinagar, from 10 am to 6 pm

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