“My name is Wangari Grace. Courtesy of my work, I have been baptized Wangari the Storyteller a name which I have cheerfully embrace.
I am a performing artist who has interest in the creative arts, especially storytelling. On the artistic field, I have featured in various productions both for stage and for television – Makutano Junction, Saints, Mnazi Lane, Jambo Toto and currently, on SiganaMotomoto, an interactive storytelling program that runs on QTV. I am also an author of two children’s storybooks and a Reading advocate. I am also a mother to an amazing girl, Subira.
I grew up in Nakuru, the eighth born in a family of nine. I am the last girl. My mother was a firm believer in the power of reading, and the ultimate gift when one of us had done something commendable was a book. Being quite of an introvert, I spent most of my free time reading storybooks.
Growing up in the countryside, I especially enjoyed the last week before closing school where we would just play all day in the field. By the way, it was mandatory to go to school on those particular days else you would get punished! At a certain point, I dabbed in a bit of acting in church.
I wanted to be many things at different times. But being a doctor was a strong contender. My teachers thought I would make a good journalist or lawyer. Come to think of it, my family at one time believed I would be a preacher. Well,I ended up being a performing artist. This was a shocker to most people especially myself.
You see, I was always that shy, introverted girl throughout high school, who everyone would tease just to see her blush. The weird girl who would work hard to be the first to get to class and last to leave for the fear of walking in front of a whole class.
Sometimes, even I do not believe in the whole transformation! I have been specially engaged in storytelling performance for the last 10 years, with short stints in between working with organizations that have an interest in offering creative solutions for children and the family as a whole.
MY FASCINATION WITH STORY TELLING…
I was always keen on reading stories, yes but not performance storytelling. I didn’t even know that performance storytelling was a ‘thing’, a career that someone could follow. I bumped into it by default.
I was looking for something to do after I finished my O levels. In school, I had excelled in languages and a friend suggested that I could join an acting group that a friend of his was directing. I joined purely out of curiosity and the fact that it would allow me to be going to town every so often.The acting group did a lot of performances in schools, travelling around the country which I enjoyed.
That really ticked my interest in that in the team that ran the acting group, there was a lady who was already performing stories with a different group. As time went by, she would sometimes ask me to sit in for their rehearsals and attend some of their performances. I fell in love with Story Telling. It was amazing to see how the audiences both young and old, would be hanging on to their every word and also participating in the various interactions. I knew I had to give it a shot.
THE BUSINESS OF STORY TELLING…
I adapt and conceptualize interactive stories which I perform to various audiences. The performances are highly interactive and are fused with music, dance, riddles, call and response and other performance skills.
Although a lot of my performances are with children, I also perform to adult, corporate and family audiences as well. I also run workshops for various groups on how to use storytelling and other creative activities in their work environment – such as teachers in class and parents on how to encourage their children to read more and enjoy it.
Having done this for a while, I realized that a good number of individuals and institutions, especially schools, were very welcoming to the idea of having storytelling sessions within their environment. Therefore I thought that instead of just waiting to be called to perform in events organized by others, I could go out and sell my product to potential clients.
I love storytelling because it involves three things that I have a passion for: reading, travelling and working with people.
STORY TELLING IS SO IMPORTANT
Stories are the medium we as human being, use to communicate. And word of mouth beats all other ways of communication in its value additions – playing with tone, gestures, facial expressions and other non-verbal communication skills that are brought alive through storytelling.
Performance Storytelling provides a platform for both the teller and the audience to interact, have fun and challenge their minds.
Storytelling is a beautiful art and is a favourite with children. Apart from being entertaining, it also assists in their intellectual and cognitive development. It greatly increases their attention span and improves their memory. It also helps them improve and increase their vocabulary. The more the children listen to stories, their comprehension skills improve. The parents can ‘test’ this by asking the children to re-tell the story to them in their own words. It is also quite engaging and active which balances other passive activities such as watching TV or playing video games.
PARENTS NEED TO ENCOURAGE CHILDREN TO READ STORIES
Children are highly impressionable. They largely pick up habits that they observe in their environment. They are keen subscribers to the school of ‘do –what- I -see -and –not- what- I- hear’. Therefore by reading with them, you are nurturing in them the belief that reading is actually important and fun. In addition to reading with them, you can ask the older ones to read for you. That way, you can be able to assess their fluency and help them with words that may be difficult for them to pronounce. This will also increase their confidence as they ‘show off’ their mastery. You can also read out loud together. Remember to make it fun!
It has been proven by various researchers that children who read more score higher on intelligence.
A child who cultivates a reading culture from an early age, especially reading for pleasure, usually performs better even at school. This is because for them, reading becomes a way of life, and not simply to pass exams.
Since reading opens up our minds to different experiences, the child’s world view also expands. It allows them to cultivate curiosity.
Books allow your child to travel to faraway places, encounter heroes, fall in love, face and conquer challenges – a sense of adventure, right there on your living room couch!
STORY TELLING IN KENYA
Oral storytelling in the contemporary society has been considered a dying art for many years. Currently, there is an ongoing revival and interest.
When I started out in 2006, there were only a handful of us, but now, there is a good number of emerging storytellers not just in Nairobi but in other counties as well.
On the part of audiences and performance platforms, they are increasing as more parents look for wholesome entertainment.
For example, sometime last year, a friend recommended me to a parent who was, in her words, looking for a ‘good storyteller’ to perform at her daughter’s birthday. That was so specific that I had to ask her why. She told me how much she had enjoyed growing up listening to stories and wanted her children to have a similar experience. I had a really enjoyable storytelling session with the birthday girl and her 7 friends in their living room, a fire cackling in the fireplace and the lights off. It was so much fun that the adults ended up joining in!
The government can certainly give more support to the arts as a whole. The creative industry provides a lot of work opportunities not just to performing artists but also to other related jobs, such as graphic designers, people in fashion, lighting, art production among others. This will help in retaining talented people in the field because many amazing artists have to do other jobs in order to make a living.
Specifically on storytelling, I sometimes do workshops with teachers on how to use storytelling in a classroom setting as an education tool. It is an efficient strategy that would definitely work especially in our current classroom situation where one teacher handles up to 60+ students at a time. However, most public schools cannot afford to fund this kind of capacity building initiatives. It would be great if the government would provide funding avenues for such projects that are for the greater good.
The proposed new curriculum plans to include sports and arts as an integral part of the education system. It would be great if oral storytelling would be widely included in the implementation, especially for the lower ages.
Also, investment in public places where programs such as storytelling could be run on a regular basis would be ideal. In many ‘older’ residential areas, there were social places or halls included as part of the must-have infrastructure. But nowadays, there are very few public places that children, the youth and families can have affordable fun and let out steam together.
My journey has been interesting, with some moments of reflection on whether I am actually on the right track. There have been quite a number of ups. First, my family finally stopped asking me when I was planning to get a ‘real’ job, I guess once they realized that I really love what I do, they took it in their stride.
It was also amazing to have my children’s storybooks published two years ago. Both titles have been approved by KICD as supplementary readers in schools and have actually been adopted as class readers in some schools in Nairobi. I have also been able to travel quite a lot, which I love.
Of course, financially, it is a bit wanting and could be better. This has taught me to diversify to offer more than just performance. That is why I got an interest in getting into writing as a value addition. I also offer workshops and training on storytelling and performance, adjudicate in art events, and other activities around performance and reading for pleasure. This supplements the income from performances. Most of my work comes in through referrals or repeat clients so I have learnt to always be at the top of my game and keep on learning, improving.
Over the last 10 years, I have had the pleasure of performing in many diverse settings and stages. I perform a lot in schools both as part of their co-curricular activities and also during their social events. As such, I participate in open days, book weeks, cultural days, closing day celebrations, graduations (from Pre-Unit to Class One) and other occasions. Sometimes, I am also called to perform to the children during club or library lessons.
OTHER PLACES I PERFORM …
Out of school, I perform during birthdays, fun days, camps and weddings. I also perform in themed events where a client explains to me what they want to achieve and consequently, I plan my performance to fit in with the goal.
I have also been privileged to perform out of the country. I have been to events ins Sweden and Iran. In Sweden, I was part of a team of 3 Kenyan storytellers invited to perform at the Fabula Storytelling Festival in Stockholm. Apart from performing in the main festival podium which had a mixed audience (both children and adults) I also performed on the Fairy Stage, aptly named because it was specifically for children audiences. I had so much fun.
In February this year (2016) I was invited to perform at the International Storytelling Festival in Iran. It was hosted by Kanoon, the Iranian Institute of Intellectual Development for Children and Youth. This was a special event because it was purely targeting children and their educators. I was one of the 11 international storytellers who were participating and the only African. There were also 37 Iranian storytellers, a good number of whom were teachers or individuals who work with kids. The storytelling culture is so big in Iran that the festival, which takes place annually, is organized in a different city every year.
To any parents curious on how their kids can get involved, they can participate in events where oral storytelling is part of the activities. Tell stories to them. Buy them storybooks. Recommend storytelling as part of the activities you would want included in their school activities. A good number of private schools have an arrangement where every so often, a parent comes in and does an activity with the children in his/her child’s class. Storytelling is a great gift and I have been asked by a number of parents to do an interactive performance as their contribution.
WANT TO GET IN TOUCH?
Telephone: 0724 884327
Facebook Page link: Wangari The Storyteller