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Elinor Sisulu: Take “Our Stories” Back to School

Walter The Day Gogo Went to VoteBy Elinor Sisulu for The Times

Among my earliest childhood memories are evenings on my grandfather’s farm in Zimbabwe, sitting with siblings and cousins around an open fire, listening to stories told by an older cousin.

The occasional howl of a jackal in the distance and the flickering of glow-worms in the darkness around us provided an eerie atmosphere for the recounting of the stories, some of which were really frightening.

During my second year at school, my father’s sister came to live with us. Apparently my two brothers and I were quite a handful, and Aunt Mirika came to help my mother.

Aunt Mirika was a great raconteur with an endless store of Shona folk tales which she used to great effect to hold us spellbound until we nodded off to sleep.

One day my mother came home from a parent meeting looking very concerned. One of the teachers had complained that we were coming to school with our heads filled with nonsense, stories about witchcraft and wizards, stories which had no place in a civilised school. Sadly that marked the end of storytime with Aunt Mirika.

Many years later I was amazed to find some of her stories in a book entitled The Lion on the Path and Other African Stories. Internationally acclaimed ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey had come across the folk tales during the course of his research on traditional Shona music spanning several decades between 1920 and 1950.

I showed Tracey’s book to my mother, pointing out that around the same time he was having Shona folk tales published in the US, our aunt was banned from telling us the very same stories.

The great irony was that we were fed a steady diet of goblins, elves, fairies and witches in Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Enid Blyton books which were staple fare in our school library.

Evidently white people’s witches were quite acceptable, but not our own.

I really identify with the views of Chenjerai Hove, one of Zimbabwe’s most gifted writers, who has argued that education in Africa has been a profoundly alienating experience because African children have to dump their stories at the school gate before entering the classroom.

The denial of our own stories was perfectly logical in the education system of a racist settler society such as Rhodesia, but I find it difficult to understand why we remain in the same grey area of confusion in post-colonial societies.

Throughout Southern Africa there is little conscious investment in ensuring that African folklore and traditions are reflected in the literature that our children consume in classrooms. I believe education should move from the particular to the universal and not the other way around.

Children who can connect viscerally with what they read will be more receptive to literacy and a culture of reading.

Sisulu is a writer, human rights activist and chairwoman of the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation. Send your comments to letters@ or

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    January 22nd, 2013 @22:08 #

    Elinor, another gem.


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