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Reviving African tales, a writer helps educate girls
ZIMBABWE, 19 June 2008 - When the writer Lisa Grainger was growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), she loved nothing better than listening to the tales told by her nanny, Ida, round the fire. Twenty years later, she gave up a full-time job as the Features Director of Elle to return to her native Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries to gather stories that have been passed down by generations of grandmas (or “gogos”).
Over the course of three months, Lisa interviewed countless people – from professional poets in Zimbabwe to San nomads in Botswana to the residents of a leper colony in Zambia – persuading old men and women to share with her stories that they had heard as children. After three months, she had recorded more than 200 stories – the best of which have made it into Lisa’s new book, Stories Gogo Told Me (Penguin, 2008).
In her foreword to the book, Somali supermodel Iman writes: “As with modern tribes today, this book is a reminder of the power of wonder and a symbol that personifies a group unity in our families, communities and the world at large. Share it and pass it on.”
During her travels, Lisa was struck by the desperate need for girls’ education in Africa and decided to donate all the profits from Stories Gogo Told Me to Camfed. We asked Lisa to tell us about the story-gathering process, and about why it is important to her to help more girls go to school.
I put the word out about what I was looking for. Once the bush telegraph started working, all sorts of people emerged: men whose grandmothers were the village storytellers, peasant farmers who couldn’t spell their names because they’d never been taught to read or write, teachers in rural schools.
Naturally, often when I arrived at a village, I was treated with some suspicion. But once I’d let villagers hear what I had already gathered on tape and see pictures of other storytellers, there would be great enthusiasm.
Then we could begin business. I was seated round a fire on a rock or wooden stool, surrounded by dozens of inquisitive villagers, and for hours, be regaled with story after story, new storytellers joining in and volunteering their tales. Often they would leap about, scream, mimic animals, whistle and dance. They were listened to with awe, as they recounted stories of magic rivers, of talking crocodiles, of thunderous gods in the sky.
What were the highlights of your trip?
It was an unforgettable three months, full of moments I will never forget. Sitting under a full yellow moon round a fire on the sands of the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, surrounded by Bushmen in loincloths. Being hugged by people suffering from leprosy, who had lost their legs, fingers and their confidence, and had regained some pride at being asked to tell a story. And being told by a very thin, poor teenage girl, Maureen Chirembwe, a born storyteller sitting on a pavement in a shanty town, that her dream was to learn to write. It was a tragedy that she had never been able to go to school.
Why did you decide to donate all the profits from your book to Camfed?
It was Maureen, really, who spurred me on to find a relevant African charity to which to give the proceeds of the book. Having taken the stories from villages, it didn’t feel right to profit myself. And having grown up in Zimbabwe, where schooling for girls is not a priority for poor families, it seemed logical to try to benefit girls, who would otherwise have no chance of being educated.
Camfed’s work appealed to me because I had seen firsthand how much money is sent directly to schools, so I knew that this wasn’t going to be a great big charity that gobbled up donations. Last June I visited a rural school in Zimbabwe and met 56 girls whose entire education will be funded by Camfed. I also met two young women who, with Camfed’s support, are studying social sciences at university, in order to help their own communities. None of them had ever seen a book of traditional African stories… Each begged me for a copy, and every one said that, without Camfed, they would not have been educated.