The art of storytelling – Oral traditions among the Agikuyu

What does it mean to embrace your story? Storytelling exists, in part, to assist in the process of addressing this question. In a time where generalising and merging experiences can take centre stage in the process of storytelling it is important that we counter this by using our energy to embrace authenticity and connect to our own stories. The beauty in knowing your story, as well as knowing that only you can tell it, is an empowering feeling which can assist in feeling more connected within yourself. The various ways in which storytelling manifests also draws attention to its fluidity as an art form. For the Agikuyu people, storytelling played a central role in shaping an individual as well as the wider Agikuyu societal structure.

The Agikuyu (also referred to as Kikuyu and Gikuyu) have inhabited the north-eastern regions of present day Kenya since the thirteenth century. Like many societies across the African continent, “the Agikuyu use[d] oral traditions as their main source of passing on history” as noted by Kenyan author Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira. Stories were used as a means of creativity to educate and instill values as well as share experiences. Looking back at Agikuyu history, here are some of the various forms of storytelling which assisted in the process of understanding self:

Storytelling through song – Music as a means of storytelling was used, particularly in the process of passing on history. One example of this could be seen in the use of lullabies to children in households. By teaching a child about the history of his or her family through song this acted as a key way of knowing the origins of one’s story and staying grounded with the connection of where you come from.

Storytelling through recreation – Storytelling through recreation was used as a way of passing knowledge of surroundings and how to navigate them in a healthier way. In his book Facing Mount Kenya: The tribal life of the Gikuyu Jomo Kenyatta described the process of a father teaching his son about agriculture: “he makes a digging-stick, mora, for his boy to play with while the father is doing the actual work of weeding or turning the soil. Through watching his father in these activities, the boy gradually learns how to handle his digging-stick, and thus becomes a practical agriculturist.” Agriculture was a key aspect of Agikuyu life and education through trial and error was a theme that was prevalent in storytelling through recreation. This example shows how knowledge was shared for the purpose of establishing a connection to the land, which in turn, assisted in the process of cultivating one’s own story. By receiving the tools to navigate through life, one was then equipped to cultivate their own experiences with the tools received.

Storytelling through dance – Storytelling through dance served as a way of representing your story. For the Agikuyu, dances were used to symbolise unity which helps to explain why certain dances are used to mark mambura (rituals or divine services) including marriage, death, homecoming, war and spirituality. The variety of dances that existed among the Agikuyu to mark the countless experiences in life that one is faced with emphasises the important role storytelling can play in bringing people together to share experiences.

The various examples of Agikuyu storytelling highlight the many ways in which it was used to nurture spaces to know and celebrate history, experiences, and character, which all serve as key ingredients to connect with our own stories. Furthermore, by using storytelling to educate and come together, this shows the importance of sharing experiences to connect with each other.  Leaving space to intimately know our stories serves as an opportunity to gain vital knowledge from our experiences, to connect with ourselves and with others.

Sources

Agikuyu – Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira (1995)

Facing Mount Kenya: The tribal life of the Gikuyu – Jomo Kenyatta (1938)

With a prehistoric people, the Akikuyu of British East Africa, being some account of the method of life and mode of thought found existent amongst a nation on its first contact with European civilisation – William Scoresby (1910)

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