Sunday, November 04, 2007

Q & A with Janet Grace Riehl on “The Culture of African Story” – Part 1

I first met Janet Grace Riehl, of Riehl Life, when we both took part in the Lieurance-King Article Challenge in August/September.

It turned out Janet, who is American, spent some time in Africa, including Botswana, and has a section on her blog dedicated to Africa.

I was honoured when she asked me as a guest blogger.

Janet is an award-winning author, artist, performer, and creativity coach. Her poems, stories, and essays have been widely published in national literary magazines such as “Harvard Review” and the anthologies “Stories to Live By: Wisdom to Help You Make the Most of Every Day” and “Hot Flashes 2″.

Janet, you spent five years living and working in Africa in the 1970s in both Botswana and Ghana. You also travelled throughout Western, Eastern, and Southern Africa. What impressions of the culture of the storytelling in Africa did you gather?

Story in Africa is sacred (thus my capitalization), and Story is interwoven in the daily fabric of life. Story is not just words in Africa; Story is told through baskets, fabric, dance, ritual, and relationship. A slight gesture of a body might reveal entire Story Worlds. I experienced an enormous depth and subtly in communication in every country I visited. Quite ordinary interactions became extraordinary. I recall a woman in the Accra market in Ghana breaking into a spontaneous dance with me as part of our Story Time together.

Initially, you taught English as a Second Language (ESL) and Literature in Secondary Schools through Peace Corps. What do you recall about how your students chose to tell their stories?

My Botswana students made beautiful drawings to go with stories they wrote to include in the school newspaper. They drew Story with ease and confidence because this was part of their early training at home.

Can you tell us a bit about the curriculum you taught and how you used storytelling as a teaching tool?

The curriculum I taught was a mix of English classics such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer combined with marvelous African books like China Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born.”

I prepared students for two sets of examinations that pretty much determined their futures: “O” Levels, or Ordinary Levels (roughly the equivalent of late middle school in the USA) and “A” Levels or Advanced Levels (roughly the equivalent of a high school diploma or even first year of community college in the USA). My students did rather well.

In Botswana one of the books we studied was “Lambs Tales from Shakespeare.” I set my students the task of writing scripts for each of these tales and acting them out.

When one does this kind of analysis, the commonality between classic European literature and World Story comes into sharper relief.

I understand you went to Botswana as an independent volunteer after your Peace Corps tour ended in secondary schools and became involved in three projects.

With the villagers in Gabane you set up Tshwaragano Craft Center, became Puppetry Consultant for a Popular Culture Team, and wrote stories and lesson plans of a literacy curriculum. What did you learn about Story through working on these projects?

Story is the life force that moves brain, heart, and limbs forward. I became Puppetry Consultant simply because I picked up a puppet in the back of a pick-up truck, started wiggling its arms around and giving it a voice and lines to speak. In the Popular Theater work we built on the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's Critical Theory.

Community Development workers brainstormed critical issues and then we built stories around these, performed in drama, dance, song, and puppetry. We stopped at the high point of the action to ask the audience: “What would you do now?” these discussions led to common work projects in the village. We did something similar in the literacy curriculum we designed and had illustrated.

I was so impressed by the results I’d seen in the other two projects that I started using puppetry performances at Tshwaragano to work out critical incidents and stimulate discussion of tricky situations any new venture encounters, like “Whose turn is it to sweep the floor today?”

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