Storytelling and Identity


thanks to helen Williams for the image
thanks to helen Williams for the image

I was recently invited by the British Council and Ntukuma to take part in the Ananse Soundsplash festival in Jamaica. The time arrived and I went. What a joy to be in a place of dreams! And more wonderful of all was to spend much of the time there in the company of Amina Blackwood Meeks. A larger than life, passionate and wonderful woman with a laugh to rival that of the Gods. To be in a new place in the company of a storyteller who knows that place and the deeper significance it has to the people who live there, lends an insight that draws you deeper into a place.

In 10 days, not once did I place my toe in the cool Caribbean sea or dance on the beach, but I went to a Pan Chicken festival, I learnt of the Goddess of the Cobre river who was swept away and all that remains are her genitalia, (a giant rock that indeed resembles her magnificent part) and the frustration of the storyteller as she recounted the theft of the male counterpart ( a rock on the other side of the road – a glorious phallic symbol)  as legend had it that at night when the moon was full the two would meet.

You never hear that story in the tourist brochures!

During my stay, I had the privilege of working with some of the Cultural Studies students at the University of the West Indies. The discussions we had were astounding and could have continued for hours. Stories link us to people and place. We know things deep within us passed down from our mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers. We know of our histories and seemingly simple little traditions like the best way to cook belly pork ‘the family way’. But these are important. They let us know who we are, where we came from. They give us pride, knowing (like in the case of Jamaica) that they come from a line of Maroons, or our great grandfather was the mightiest dancer around and challenged thunder to a dance. Or our grandmothers carried our mothers across rivers and mountains to safety or that they were simply good, strong, proud people.

The values held dear to a people are seen in their stories. We see for example, nations that celebrate their conquering of other nations, their wins and their enemies defeats and we fear them. We also see nations who value their determination, who have built something from nothing, who strive to succeed against the odds and we respect them. We see nations who celebrate peace and honour and dignity and we aspire to be like them.

In Kenya, in fact, across the whole of Africa, where our stories are told less and less, I worry that we will lose sight of these most incredible experiences. We will forget the lessons that we have had in our blood for hundreds of years. The memories of deeds done by our great grandparents will slowly fade away and the real danger is that because our literary tradition is not strong when we stop telling stories and they are gone there is no way of getting them back, unless we invent, and oftentimes that what we invent is nowhere near as good as the truth.

So let us think more highly of our saltfish and ackee, of our irio and githeri, of our haggis, neeps and tatties, our sima and sukuma because those simple foods sustained those who have gone before and helped is making us who we are today. Let us celebrate the dancers and the artists and the poets and storytellers because they feed our souls and delight in seeing the light grow brighter. Let us never forget our ancestors because the decisions they made have resulted in some way to who and what we are. And we should think of those who are not yet here but will be soon. We will be responsible for them and surely we will want them to know our stories too.

That’s all for now. I leave you with a couple of websites I found online celebrating storytelling and identity and hopefully will take you further.

Mara x – a child’s take on her grandfather and how he inspired her

Quotes from:

My Grandfather's Blessings : Stories of Strength, Refuge, and BelongingMy Grandfather’s Blessings : Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging by Rachel Naomi Remen

“Most of us lead far more meaningful lives than we know. Often finding meaning is not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways. ”
― Rachel Naomi Remen
“Our purpose in life is to grow in wisdom and in love.”
― Rachel Naomi Remen
“How strange to think that great pain may be impermanent. Something in us all seems to want to carve it in granite, as if only this would do full honor to its terrible significance. But even pain is blessed with impermanence…
p 259”
― Rachel Naomi Remen
“Life wastes nothing. Over and over again every molecule that has ever been is gathered up by the hand of life to be reshaped into yet another form.
p 259”
― Rachel Naomi Remen
“It has been said that sometimes we need a story more than food in order to live.

And  a story from the Native American perspective. A young mans account of the first story that truly touched him and changed his view of a worlds so familiar and yet after the story so different. 

Tears from a Grandmother’s Story                 Author: Spiritriver Striped Wolf

On a hot spring afternoon, my mother brought my sister and me to visit our grandmother. The three of us were sitting at the kitchen table with our only living grandparent. Such a beautiful afternoon it was, with the sun shining through the windows and onto the clean floor, the Rocky Mountains in the distance, and the hills close by. Surely I couldn’t have asked the Creator for a better day to hear my grandma’s story.
She had been making berry soup from Saskatoon berries that she had frozen from the past summer. We all had already been telling stories of the past. As my sister and I were talking about living in the city, laughing and having fun with the time we were sharing with our grandma, I asked her, “Mom, what was it like when you were a child?” I call my grandma “Mom” because of how much she is like my own mother.“Well, my son. It was a difficult time,” she said. Immediately I knew she was talking about when she had to leave home to attend boarding school. “What kind of difficult time, Grandma?” asked my sister, who had no idea of the troubling time of colonization and boarding school. “When I and my brothers and sisters had to move away from our family to attend residential school,” Grandma replied. Looking a bit uneasy, she got up from her chair to tend to her soup. “But I won’t bore you with my old depressing past,” Grandma said.

“But Mom, it’s the past that tells us who we are now.” I remembered talking about that in social studies: how the past is important because it tells our individuality, who we are today. I thought it would be amazingly interesting to hear the story firsthand from someone instead of from a textbook, so I pressed on. “Oh, all right,” Grandma gave in. “You see, back then, it was a time of turmoil and depression for our people . . .”

The story went like this:
Until my grandma was about seven years old, she lived with her mother, father, and all her brothers and sisters. They lived poorly: they didn’t have a lot of money or food. Her father worked all that he could. They didn’t have any type of electronics, except a radio, so she spent her time outside playing in the bushes and simply using her imagination.

One afternoon, playing in the plains of the reserve near her family, she spotted a truck coming down the road with a white man inside. When the truck reached the house, her father came out and greeted the man. They talked outside for a little bit, then proceeded inside. This is where it got sad, something neither my sister nor I could ever handle.

After awhile, she saw some of her brothers and sisters crying and getting into the truck. She had seen this before with other brothers and sisters she had that were her age when they left. Her mother was crying and her father was the most upset she had ever seen him. As young as she was, she knew that she was now leaving her mother and father for a new, alien place. She did something not a lot of children of her age would have thought of doing in those times: She ran, ran straight into the bushes with tears streaming down her cheeks. Deeper and deeper into the bushes she ran, afraid of being caught by the scary white man that once had had to chase one of her brothers who tried to escape. She found a ditch that she lay in, hoping no one would find her.

Around evening, still hiding from everyone and crying aloud, she heard something in the bushes coming toward her. In fear she screamed, not knowing if it was the white man or a wild animal. Either way, it knew where she was. “My… my daughter,” said a familiar voice. Her father came and sat next to her and held her. “My daughter, a new life is waiting for you, and you must go to it. Just do what they say, and don’t fight them or run away from them. Eventually you’ll understand, and you’ll see your mother and me again, I promise.” She was in tears, but got up. And then he took her to the truck. Her life changed dramatically, with sorrow and depression while she was in the residential school from kindergarten to her graduation in grade 12.

“While I was in the school, I had my hair cut short and dressed in clothes materials I never felt before. We weren’t allowed to speak our traditional language or talk back; we had to eat whatever was in front of us, if we liked it or not; and we were beaten when we didn’t really listen. I, however, listened to my father and did all that he told me to do. I never got beaten or abused, but the emotional abuse from seeing my brothers and sisters and friends getting beaten was torture. Sitting there, unable to do anything about what was happening right in front of you . . .” she looked down, seeming sad. “I got off lucky. But a lot didn’t. That’s why afterwards a lot of us went to alcohol.” She shook her head and smiled as she gave my sister and me a small bowl of the berry soup that we both enjoyed.

She sat down, taking a big breath. “My past was difficult but I learned how to deal with it through counseling and self-healing.” I looked down, remembering something particularly interesting I had heard of. “Didn’t you get money from being in the school? Residential or boarding school apology money?” I asked nervously, not sure if it would be rude or offensive, since I already knew she had gotten money. “Yes, I did,” she said. “I was almost not going to take it, either.” My sister looked up from eating her soup. “Give up free money?” she asked naively.

“No, you see, I didn’t need money to help myself. I got back on my feet, went to AA meetings, got myself a big house, a family I love and that loves me. I knew that if I took that money, it would show that all the suffering our people had to go through was worth just whatever was on the check, and I think that’s just stupid.” She emphasized the “stupid” and shook her head. “But when the deadline day came to get the money, everyone was pushing me over the cliff to get it. So I went and got it.” She took another deep breath; we could all feel the emotion in the room. “And when I came home, seeing no one was home, I sat on the couch and cried.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “I can’t remember how long I cried, but it must have been hours.” And that was the first time I was ever really touched and made teary by a story before.

The residential school changed the Aboriginal people’s worldview, their identity. Today’s generation has many opportunities to help our people, but stories like the one my grandmother told my sister and me really opened our minds. Imagine a world if Aboriginal youth like myself can change the world of tomorrow.
A world that would be.

Spiritriver Striped Wolf, a member of the Piikani Nation, wrote this account about his grandmother, a survivor of both the residential schools and of alcoholism, because her story “really touched me and allowed me to take my identity seriously,” he says. Striped Wolf feels this “story needs to be told . . . .to show others how some elders today need to be respected, take pride in their Aboriginal heritage, and do their part to help make our bruised heritage a better one for the future.” This story was selected as a winner of the Historica-Dominion Institute’s 2009 Canadian Aboriginal Writers Challenge. For information about the Challenge, see or

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Published by Mara Menzies Storyteller

I am a full time storyteller based in Scotland and deeply passionate about the power stories have on us. I find, create and share stories to audiences all over the world. I train in storytelling techniques, providing ways for different people to find their own unique way of telling a story.

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