by Nomsa Mdlalose
I first became interested in storytelling through drama, which I loved, but it left little time for me to pursue other activities. Storytelling, as a solitary and occasional performance art, allowed for more flexibility.
There are many storytellers in South Africa, but they mostly operate in a traditional context, as opposed to performing professionally. It's a tradition in African culture to pass on culture and information through storytelling, educating people about themselves and the world around them. People think of storytelling as a form of entertainment for children, but I think it's more necessary for adults. I see the form as a way of passing on morals and values, and it's my belief that children have more of those than adults.
In my work, I draw on African folktales and history, and many of my stories are about preserving the environment. I also incorporate traditional songs and chants, as well as some of the body movements from the dances I did when I was growing up. Although I wouldn't describe myself as a poet, I incorporate poetry in my performances. Sometimes I use praise poems from our family--Southern African families have izithakazelo, praise poems connected with our family names that are passed on from generation to generation.
An Uncertain Path
Being an artist involves lots of challenges and sacrifices, and after embarking on my path as a storyteller, I felt like I was in a constant dilemma, having to decide which direction to go. By the time a friend told me about Buddhism, in 2001, I was faced with a choice between full-time employment, which meant forgetting all about performance, or continuing with storytelling, the love of my life, and living on an unreliable income.
After starting to practice Buddhism, I realized I didn't have to accept what was for me an impossible choice. After this change in my attitude, I was able to find a full-time job that left me enough time to do storytelling on the side. Then, in 2005, I was offered an opportunity to study for a master's degree in storytelling in the U.S.
On my return to South Africa with my master's qualification, and now married, I was once again faced with a seemingly irresolvable choice between looking for a stable life in academia or continuing to pursue my passion. There were no academic institutions in South Africa that offered courses in storytelling, where I could lecture and maybe perform during my spare time. But once again, unforeseen opportunities opened up.
I was offered a position as a scholar-in-residence at one of South Africa's most prestigious universities, where my task is to introduce storytelling as a pedagogical tool and a means to promote dialogue within the institution. For example, as far as I'm concerned, medical students need to be taught to connect with people, as well as to treat disease. Through storytelling they can learn how to listen to their patients, and, for many people, simply being listened to properly is a major part of their healing process.
With the help of my Buddhist practice, I have been able to combine my experience, interests and knowledge together to shape a dream career.
I also feel that my Buddhist practice and storytelling connect perfectly. Buddhism talks about the importance of creating heart-to-heart connections between people. I think storytelling is about just that.
Stories are spiritual, they deal with our emotions, and a good story contains the spirit of what we in South Africa call ubuntu, a concept which includes love, generosity, respect, sharing--all the things that are the values of Buddhism. That's why a good ending is important, because it has to touch your soul in a positive way.
[Courtesy, January 2008 SGI Quarterly]