These stories: A novel solution to sharing folk stories in Dzaleka

In 2019, Tumaini Letu, Malawi National Commission for UNESCO (MNCU) and Rei Foundation embarked on a project aimed at safeguarding the traditional folktales of residents living at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Dowa, Malawi. The Storytelling Project was developed to reinforce the diverse cultural identities of residents in Dzaleka, a camp that was originally built to house 14,000 people, but now has a population of over 46,000, a number that is increasing due to ongoing conflicts in neighbouring African countries.

Christopher Magomelo, Senior Assistant Executive Secretary (Culture) at MNCU, explains, “The Dzaleka folktale documentation and sessions are testimonies to the common heritage of humanity. Having migrated from a diversity of countries and cultural backgrounds, the residents of the Dzaleka community, particularly children who left their countries at tender ages or are born in the camp, discover the similarities among them through the similarities in the folktales told in their different countries as well as in the surrounding host communities.”

In order to celebrate and safeguard this important cultural heritage, and to create an opportunity for children currently residing in Dzaleka to learn about their cultural heritage in their home away from home, a series of folktale storytelling sessions was launched to share the documented stories with children from all ethnic backgrounds at Dzaleka. The call-and-response style of storytelling is dynamic and performative, requiring both the skill and charisma of the storyteller to effectively engage the audience. Tumaini Letu recruited storytellers from within Dzaleka, providing “a training ground for young artists in the camp, who otherwise would not have such an opportunity to be creative through storytelling to a wide audience”, Magomelo says.

Restrictions on movement and group activity at Dzaleka due to Covid-19 have meant the planned storytelling sessions were paused, but the project team wanted to find a way to continue to share the folk tales and fulfil their commitment to the project’s objectives. A plan was devised to broadcast the stories on the local radio station, 99.1 Yetu Community Radio, under the programme name These Stories. Tumaini Letu’s director Menes La Plume explained, “We felt that the community needed some mental relief and opportunities to smile during this tough time. We came up with the idea to bring the folktale project to the radio to benefit the whole community and keeping on educating children from their houses.”

To date, 11 stories have been professionally performed in Kiswahili (the most widely understood language among residents at Dzaleka) and recorded and engineered by team member Remmy Gakwaya. The project team have recorded intro and outro theme music to frame These Stories and help people to become familiar with the programme, which airs three times weekly.

Although the immediacy of storytelling with a small group is lost in the shift to the medium of radio, some audience interaction is still possible; listeners are encouraged to call in to the station with their comments between each story. Menes La Plume says that their broadcasts have a greater audience size than with physical gatherings; “The best thing about the radio folktales is that we reach more children at once, and adults as well.” Yetu Community Radio can be heard not only by the host community in Dzaleka, or just the wider Dowa District where Dzaleka is, but also in the surrounding Kasungu, Lilongwe, Dedza and Mangochi districts.

Teachers in the area say that the radio programme has real educational value. Imanishimwe Ela Grace, who teaches at Umodzi Katubza Primary School, said the “folktales on the radio help to keep the knowledge alive, and memories are kept fresh.” Angeliques Niyirora, a teacher at the same school, agreed, saying “I think these stories are very helpful, they remind us of the past stories.” However, she argued that that the programme has its limitations, noting that many families in the area do not have radios.

The project team looks forward to the day when groups of children can be captivated by a talented storyteller performing live once again. La Plume says, “The feedback for These Stories is encouraging so far, but many children and parents are still asking for the in-class folktales sessions to start again soon. Due to the pandemic this is not possible for now.” In the meantime, the adaptation of the project to radio broadcast demonstrates creativity and perseverance in the face of challenge, and continues to share the rich cultural heritage of some of Dzaleka’s displaced people with the wider community.

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