Monday, September 30, 2019

The Beauty in the Tale: Medieval Story Camp with the Világszép Foundation

Gather around, people, I'm going to tell you about my day job.
Two years ago I joined the Világszép Foundation as one of their resident storytellers. The Foundation was started in 2010 with the goal of aiding and supporting children in the state care system. Originally it organized summer camps, and then they added a volunteer storytelling program that sends tellers to group homes to tell bedtime stories to the children (we don't call these orphanages because most of the kids are not orphans, they just can't live with their family for various reasons). Since then, we have added several new programs, such as an inclusive kindergarten, inclusive after school programs, volunteer mentors, and career and crisis help. Still, the summer camps remain a large part of our work; we organize 6 or 7 of them every summer in the Story Center in Paloznak, a magical, peaceful lace by Lake Balaton. Storytelling is an integral part of every camp, but for kids aged 8-11 we specifically organize Story Camps around a theme. This year, our theme was Knights and Chivalry, and I would like to tell you more about it.

The camp was five beautiful, sunny days long. We started off each day with nursery rhymes and storytelling, and closed each one with a story and a lullaby (it might seem like nursery rhymes and lullabies are strange for this age group, but they create a connection that the kids rarely get to experience). The theme was all about chivalry, especially virtues: we used the stories to start discussions and activities about how real knights treat each other and the people around them. We had many adventures, built castles, made shields, and even held a tournament at the end of the week, after which we knighted all fourteen children.

Of course all of this would not have been a coherent whole without the storytelling. Story Camp is always especially fun for the tellers because we get to tell to the same audience regularly, opening and closing every day. The story collection for the camp took a lot of research, planning, and collecting to fit the age group, the virtues, the themes, the activities, and the Világszép philosophy - I had a lot of fun compiling it, and I was quite proud of the result. We ended up having nine "official" stories:
Prince Milinkuc (Hungarian folktale about a prince who has an incredible dream that he holds on to through many trials, and an evil ing who sends him various riddles to solve)
Dame Ragnell (A 15th century feminist classic, asking the big question: "What is it that all women want the most?")
Sistram and the Dragon (King Dietrich and his mentor drag a young knight out of a dragon's mouth - teamwork, people!)
The Kitchen Knight (Sir Gareth arrives to Camelot as a kitchen lad, but then goes on a quest with sassy Lady Lynet and proves his worth)
Astolfo travels to the Moon (A snippet from Orlando Furioso where an English knight takes a hippogriff to the Moon to find the lost common sense of his best friend)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (I LOVE telling a classic to an audience that has not heard it before!)
The Bonny Lass of Anglesey (Scottish ballad about an epic dance-off between a brave lady and some English lords)
Culhwch and Olwen (Old Welsh superhero team-up with a brave prince and some famous knights from Arthur's court)
Damon and Pythias (A medieval retelling of an old Greek tale of Friendship where one friends offers to die in the place of another)

It is always great fun for a storyteller to tell to the same audience for days. Kids get used to the stories and the medieval world, and become familiar with some of the characters (Sir Gawain, obviously, became a fan favorite). Three of us shared the nine stories above, so the kids also got to hear different styles of storytelling. You could tell that they were very much engaged because they made comments, asked questions, and even corrected us when we said something wrong (sometimes to the point where I had to take a pause to laugh myself).

Beside the "official" storytelling times, I also adored spontaneous storytelling moments, of which we had quite a lot. We had afternoon nap time every day, but since this age group doesn't really nap (or stay quiet) anymore, I offered them that they could join me in the Story Room (yes, we have one) and lie down to listen to some tales. These were my favorite moments of the entire camp: I sat on a couch surrounded by children - some listening intently, some dozing off, and some lying quietly until it was their turn to open their eyes and tell me what I should tell next. They were peaceful, beautiful afternoons filled with stories. At one point the kids discovered that I like superheroes and I speak Marvel (we got into a conversation over lunch about whether or not Thor's hammer is made of vibranium) (it isn't) they came to the afternoon sessions to ask for "superhero stories." I defaulted to Thor and Loki since the interest was already there... and I ended up telling them my entire Norse mythology repertoire. They listened with rapt attention, asked questions, discussed details, compared myth to Marvel, and even acted out some fun moments of the stories (such as Thor pretending to be a bride). Once again, I discovered how pop culture can be a bridge to traditional stories, and I got to nerd out to my heart's extent.
Every once in a while a kid asked for a story when no one else was around. These moments also had a certain kind of magic, and I tried my best to select stories that would fit that very special one-person audience.

I told twenty-three stories in five days, and each of them was a very memorable, unique experience. Whether it was with the whole group, or with a few kids, or just one child, they all carried the story-magic of Paloznak and the Világszép (lit. "Beauty of the World") atmosphere. They were days filled with smiles, hugs, sunshine, swimming, fruit straight from the trees, and peace. It was the perfect place to be, and I would not trade it for any other gig or performance.
I'm already counting down the days for next summer!

Animal tale bonanza (Following folktales around the world 124. - Gabon)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Where Animals Talk
West African Folk Lore Tales
Robert H. Nassau
The Gorham Press, 1918.

These tales have been collected by the author at the end of the 19th century from local Bantu peoples along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. The first chapter presents folktales from Mpongwe storytellers from Libreville, the second from Benga tellers from the island of Corisco, and the third from a Batanga teller who learned his tales from Bulu people from Cameroon. (In this post I will only talk about the sixteen stories of the first chapter, since Equatorial Guinea has a whole other book). The collector took notes during oral storytelling evenings, trying to keep as much of the vernacular as possible, but he also translated a few of the stories from other written sources. The book comes with a short introduction, and a long list of local animal names at the end. Each tale comes with a list of characters and settings (almost like a theater play), and comments from the collector.


The book is full of animal and trickster tales, both familiar and new types. One of the resident tricksters, obviously, was Tortoise. In one story he fulfilled various clever tasks to win a wife, and though Leopard stole her for a moment, eventually Tortoise had the last laugh.
Next to Tortoise, the other popular trickster figure was Rat, who also was in the business of making a fool of stronger animals. Like Tortoise, he also stole a wife from Leopard, this time by changing his name to "Strangers", so that every time the bridal party was addressed, he claimed all the goods. In another story he stole back the meat that Leopard kept taking from him by force. Leopard eventually caught Rat with the classic "tar baby" trick, but when he came to see the thief, Rat started yelling "I got him! I got the thief! I'm holding him!", which is pretty genius. In the end, Rat managed to take what was his.
In a third similar story Leopard pretended to be dead, to catch animals who came to pay their respects. Gazelle did not fall for the trick, and with the help of Tortoise came up with some tests: He threw bees, ants, and pepper at the corpse, which immediately came alive...
One of my favorite stories in the book was about animals gathering for Crocodile's funeral, and trying to decide who the next of kin was. Birds claimed it was them, because they are also born from eggs, while beasts said they walk on four legs and so did Crocodile. The argument was never fully decided. (In another chapter there was a similar tale, but with Bat).
In another fin tale Manatee, Oyster, and Hog were having a contest over who had the most fat, and used it to decide where they will live. Manatee (the winner) moved into the rivers, Oyster into the edge of the salt water, and Hog, who messed up the contest, lost its horns forever. I was also thoroughly entertained by the story that explained why mosquitoes buzz in people's ears. Apparently, Ear promised some oil to Mosquito, but never delivered, and the insects have been bugging Ear ever since, asking for some ear wax.


There was yet another classic tug-o-war trickster tale: here Tortoise claimed to be as strong as Elephant and Hippo. Another classic, about two animals making trick feasts for each other, featured Tortoise and Monkey. The story about the suitors of Princess Gorilla reminded me of all the tortoise-and-hare tales: Here, suitors had to drink an entire barrel of rum. The contest was won by a family of tiny monkeys, who all pretended to be one monkey that sometimes ran away into the tall grass to pee.
Among the longer stories there was once again a variant for the mysterious and dangerous husband - here, a Leopard in disguise. The girl who married him was rescued by her faithful horse.

Where to next?
Equatorial Guinea!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Strange dilemmas and just decisions (Following folktales around the world 123. - Republic of Congo)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Fjort
(French Congo)
R. E. Dennett
The Folk-lore Society, 1898.

It is tricky to find folktale collections from some parts of Africa, because political and cultural borders shifted around so much in the past two centuries. This book contains folktales from French Congo, mostly from the regions that are now the Republic of Congo (and a small part of Gabon). Since I could not locate any more recent folktale collections from the RC, I settled for this one, collected by a British merchant in the 19th century. He spent 17 years in the colonies, learned the local languages, and studied customs, folklore, and religion. The book was organized and edited by famous traveler Mary Kingsley, who also wrote an introduction and some additional studies for it. There is a separate chapter that introduces storytelling traditions, complete with examples of call-and-response stories and story-songs. At the end of the book we find some local songs, in the original language as well as English and Latin (translated with the help of Ms. Kingsley). The book was not always easy to follow, and parts of it are definitely dated, but I found a lot of cool stories on its pages!


I appreciated the tale about the married couple that went on a journey and entrusted their son to a neighbor. The neighbor mistreated the boy, who fled into the forest, and was threatened by chimbindi (ghosts). Luckily, his parents got home, decided not to believe the neighbor's lies, and went looking for their son. They arrived just in time to chase the ghosts away with a gun loaded with chili pepper, and a basketful of pepper powder.
The story of How gazelle got married was thoroughly entertaining. The suitor had to find out the secret names of two girls in order to marry them. His dog spied on the girls and found out the names, but on the way home was always distracted by something and forgot them, so he had to keep returning. Eventually he made it to the gazelle and disclosed the names... but on the way to the girls' home they both forgot them again, so the names had to be retrieved one more time.
My favorite story from the collection was the surprisingly titled Ngomba's balloon. A girl was abandoned by her mean sisters, and kidnapped by a monster. While the monster was away, she worked together with the other prisoners to create a balloon, and they eventually flew safely home. When the monster followed them, the villagers helped chase it away. I also loved the story about The younger brother who knew more than the elder. They lived apart, but when the younger brother almost lost his wife as a result of his pride and a bad agreement with someone, the elder showed up just in time to trick the other party, and help save the wife.
I was very happy to find a new fire-theft tale in the collection, in which a team of animals - spider, tortoise, woodpecker, sand fly - stole fire from heaven together. Since spider was their leader, he would have won a wife for the effort, but the girl's father decided not to make her life miserable, so he gave everyone money instead. This was not the only wise decision in the book, either. A crafty woman overreached herself when she set a trap for someone in the hopes of demanding a payment for her stolen goods. However, the judges examining the case decided that her loss was intentional, and thus the decision was not made in favor of the trickster. Even Nzambi, the creator mother goddess was called in front of judges once, for stealing the world's first drum made by a small wagtail bird. She claimed that as creator, she had a right to everything, but the judges declared that she did not create drums, only creatures with free will who had a right to their own inventions. Therefore Nzambi had to pay for the drum, and also had to pay a fine for stealing it.
Flora and fauna featured prominently into the stories. In one "true story" a local man described a fight between a gorilla and a chimpanzee ( in which the latter lost). Another tale explained Why crocodile doesn't eat chicken - with the fact that chicken convinced him that they are related, since they are both born from eggs.


I once again encountered the tale about the wives who saved their husband together. Dreamer, Guide, and Raiser of the Dead brought the man back to life, and then demanded to know which one of them was the most valuable. The man chose the last one, and the men of the village agreed, but the women declared that he should have given each of his wives equal appreciation.
The story of the Twin Brothers is well known in Europe, and I have also seen it in Africa before. One brother sets out on an adventure and dies, but the other saves him. In this version there was an intriguing house full of mirrors that all showed different places (including the forbidden village where the first brother perished). Sadly, after the rescue, the two brothers had an argument and they killed each other.
Among the local beliefs there were mentions of people who could shapeshift into crocodiles or leopards - the crocodile-people even had their own village on a river island.
A nameless trickster started a fight between two friends by walking between them in a coat that was half red and half blue. I knew this story with the Yoruba trickster Eshu. Another trickster tale featured Rabbit secretly eating up the food he stored with Antelope - for which Antelope captured with with the use of the classic "tar baby" trick.

Where to next?

Monday, September 16, 2019

Genets and genesis (Following folktales around the world 122. - Democratic Republic of Congo)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Tortoise and Crocodile
and other folktales from the Komo People of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Barbara Thomas
Amazon Kindle Services, 2011.

The twenty tales in this book were collected from the Komo people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The collection is intended as a children's book, but it does contain stories that might be "sensitive" for Western readers. These have been marked with parental guidance warnings. The book notes the names of the original storytellers, but doesn't assign them to the tales, and the introduction is mostly just a foreword about sensitive content.


I was fascinated by the tale of Motondo, the Magic Carpet, in which sisters went fishing and wanted to leave their little brother behind. He followed anyway, and when at night Father Spider stole the eyes of the girls (repeatedly), he stole them back. Eventually he warned his sisters of danger, and they wove a magic carpet and flew away to safety. The same moral (don't leave at home someone who wants to go with you) showed up in some of the Ashanti folktales in Ghana as well.
I was delighted to find a tale featuring one of my favorite feline creatures, the genet. The story was fairy simple; Rooster tricked Genet, and Genet died as a result, so his children have been revenge-hunting poultry ever since. The tale of Ingee's betrothal was one of the "parental warning" tales - a man heading out to find a wife took a dump where he was not supposed to, and his feces kept rolling after him everywhere as an ever-present reminder of shame. Needless to say, he did not get a wife.
Tortoise, the resident trickster, appeared as a fairly questionable character in many of the stories. In Tortoise and his friends, he invited animals along on a journey, then tricked them out of their food and weapons, framed them for theft, and had them killed. He did so with Endo, the red antelope (a symbol for death), and many others, until Mboko, the white antelope turned the tricks against him. In another tale Tortoise pretended to be a midwife for Crocodile's wife, and ate up all her eggs - that's why crocodiles have been hunting tortoises ever since.


I was reminded of Adam and Eve by the story of Abha-Betombetombe, Father of the Forest, where he warned fisherwomen not to eat from his sacred plantains. Of course they did, so he cursed them with monthly bleeding. After last week I once again encountered the story about why hens scratch the ground, looking for tasty morsels. The tale of Kaunga and Tombai was an all-devouring type folktale where a monster ate up everything and everyone, until a wild man named Kaunga had himself swallowed and rescued everyone by cutting the monster open from the inside, and staring a new world.
As I said before, the local trickster is Tortoise. I was reminded of Anansi and his moss-covered rock by the tale where Tortoise tricked animals into climbing a tree and being eaten by Leopard, until Mboko, the white antelope, once again came to the rescue. There was also another trickster figure, He-Spider, who tried to copy elephants and got hurt in the process, as tricksters sometimes do.

Where to next?
The Republic of Congo!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Animal friendships, animal enemies (Following folktales around the world 121. - Central African Republic)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Central ​African Folk Tales
An Imaginative Collection of Wisdom for Children
Thomas G. Schaefer
XLibris US, 2014.

This book features twenty short folktales collected by a Peace Corps employee in the 1970s. Before violence broke out in the country, the oral tradition was still uninterrupted and stories could be gathered. Schaefer used these tales to teach English and show children that their own stories were just as valuable as the foreign literature used to teach French. He published a larger collection for educational purposes; this current ebook is a short selection from those stories. All tales are included in English and French, and accompanied by cute little drawings.


Out of the origin stories, the one about the origin of rivers was the most intriguing. It claimed that in the beginning people lived without water, drinking juices of fruit and animal blood, until a hunter found a well, and released the first rivers into the world.
The strange and eerie tale of Birds, birs, and more birds was included in the book in two slightly different versions. This story said that originally there was only one bird in the world, the Bird of God. A hunter trapped it and ate it, despite the warnings of his wife, and was punished: In one story his stomach burst and birds flew out, in another he himself transformed into thousands of birds.
Among the animal tales my favorite was the story of Pig and Tortoise. Tortoise lent his shell to Pig, who forgot where he put it, and has been rooting around in shame ever since, trying to find it and give it back. The scratching of hens was similarly explained in a tale where Dog and Hen shared a meal, but the impatient hen ate the top of the rice, and left the choice parts in the bottom of the dish. She has been scratching ever since to make sure she gets the best bits of food.


Image from here
Animals sometimes helped, and sometimes tried to outdo each other in the stories. Bee and Pigeon saved each other; Elephant and Hen had an eating contest (which hen won, on account of number of items consumed), and Lion and Mosquito fought for the throne of the jungle (Mosquito won). There was also once again a tale where a hunter was rescued from a lion by a mouse that pretended to be a lion-hungry monster.
I was reminded of all the sky-raising myths by the tale that explain why there is rainfall. It was a story of war between earth and sky; earth tried to shatter sky with mountains, while sky tried to melt earth with rain, even though the moon tried to bring them to peace.
There is not one famous trickster in residence here, according to the collector, but rather many tricky animal characters. Still, there was a mention of a mischievous character named Tere, but only in one tiny story.

Where to next?
The Democratic Republic of Kongo!

Monday, September 2, 2019

The story door (Following folktales around the world 120. - Cameroon)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

The Sacred Door and Other Stories
Cameroon folktales of the Beba
Ohio University Press, 2007.

The thirty-six tales in this book were recorded between 1979 and 1989 by a lady from Cameroon who emigrated into the USA. Makuchi is Beba, and she grew up in a living oral tradition with regular storytelling in the evenings (children were told that if they told stories in the daylight, the ghosts would take their voice). She also wrote her master's thesis on folktales she collected and translated, but she only started working on this book when she began sharing the stories with American children, to bring Beba culture closer to them. Each story comes with useful footnotes, and they are peppered with proverbs and wisdom. From the Afterword we can learn about the history of Cameroon and the Beba, as well as the Beba oral tradition, and we even find a collection of riddles to open storytelling sessions with.


I really enjoyed the story of the curious and brave little girl who saved herself from a man-eating lion. I also encountered women who turned down all suitors in favor of a handsome stranger who turned out to be a cannibal spirit; this should be under the Connections category, but all of them were so unique that I wanted to mention them here. In one of them a bunch of fish disguised themselves as suitors (they even borrowed a car!), while in another the girl was rescued from the spirit world inside the belly of a toad, with a straw in her mouth so that she could breathe. The storyteller explains that these stories were supposed to warn young people that a marriage unites two families, and you should not run off and marry strangers.
I was also thoroughly entertained by the most R-rated story of the book, about the friendship of Penis, Testicles, and Vagina.Or rather, the friendship of Penis and Vagina, because Testicles offended Vagina, and she has been refusing to have anything to do with them ever since.


There was yet another story about why bats fly at night (in this case, due to their quarrel with the sun, because the latter did not shine long enough for bat's mother's funeral). The story of the feast in the sky was also familiar from both sides of the ocean. Tortoise joined in with the help of borrowed feathers, but when he ate up all the food, his bird-friends took the feathers back, and he had to jump and crack his shell. Another traveling story motif that made an appearance is "a bundle of sticks is harder to break than a single one."
I was reminded of Aesop's tales by the story of the monkey and the bee, whose friendship was tested when they tricked each other out of shared meals. In this case, however, they made up in the end and became friends again. There are also Aesopic parallels to the story of the flutes, where a boy lost her flute, and the spirits offered him a golden one instead that he humbly refused, earning a reward. Another boy was not so humble, and got punished. These "kind and unkind" type tales appeared in quite a few versions in the book, both with boys and girls. Out of the latter kind, the best one was the story where the two sisters were hosted and tested by a mysterious drum-maker who did everything - talking, cooking - with his buttocks.
Cameroon has a good football team
The story of Sense-Pass-King was a variant on the Clever Maid story with a male hero, while the unhappy stepchild was a straight up male Cinderella story, where they even tried the shoe on his foot. It was accompanied by a female Cinderella as well, called Dance in the Sky, where the girl had crocodile skin, and wings in her armpits. Mbaka and the magic ring was a classic dog-and-cat Aladdin type tale, except here the magic ring brought success to the hero's soccer career...
The evil predator that got tricked back into the trap was Leopard, defeated by Monkey and Cow. The trickster in residence is Torokee the Tortoise; he did the tug-o-war trick with Elephant and Hippo, and ran the infamous race against Hare with the help of his family.

Where to next?
The Central African Republic!