Thursday, August 11, 2011

Those Campfire Stories from Equatorial East Africa

Hapo zamani za kali…

Or as they say in English, “Once upon a time…

That’s the way many of the Swahili stories told around the early evening campfires of East Africa usually begin.  Of course, the specific words might change as you move out of the Swahili-speaking areas and move further inland, into the areas populated by speakers of other languages, but still, all over East Africa, the idea stays the same.

Listen carefully, the speaker says, I’m about to tell you a story – a story that I learned from my father, who learned it from his father and so on, back to the very beginnings of time, when mists enshrouded the earth and all the animals spoke our language. 

It’s a story about how the giraffe tricked the hyena. Or about the lizard and the elephant.  Or perhaps it's the story about the lion and the crows.

The children gather round, their eyes wide in anticipation. 


Hapo zamani za kali, twiga alisema…” the story begins.  The beginning is always the same.

Once upon a time, the giraffe said …” and thereby begins a classic story that everyone knows, yet everyone still wants to hear, night after night, over and over again.

In most of East Africa, night comes very close to six o’clock in the evening, just as sunrise comes close to six in the morning.  Every single day of the year. There are only two seasons:  Wet and Dry.  Life is mostly unchanging and largely predictable.

When night falls, however, it’s sudden. Twilight and dusk are short; in rural areas, it’s bright and cheery at 5:30 in the evening, but at 6:30 , it’s pitch-black.

In this part of the world, there's not much in the way of streetlights, or in some parts of up-country (rural) East Africa, not much in the way of electricity of any sort, so the evenings are a time for gathering around the fire and socializing.

Generally, socializing means telling those stories that everyone wants to hear, even though there are no surprises, and the endings are well-known by all.

Hapo zamani za kali…

Once upon a time, and for several years, I worked in the Republic of Uganda on a project funded by the Ford Foundation.  Our job was to re-write the textbooks used to teach English in primary schools throughout the country. We started with the text used in P5 (about the 5th grade), because that was the year in which Ugandan kids spent their entire school day learning everything in English.  English, you see, was chosen as the country’s national language when it became independent in 1966.  That way, no single tribe would control the "national" language.

We wrote the text and then the teachers' manual, commissioned the illustrations and arranged for the printing.  In between, we "field-tested" the lessons in our 26 pilot schools all over the country.

After we finished the P5 book and teacher’s manual, we moved on to the other years.  The series of textbooks and teachers’ manuals were known as “The Nile English Course.”

I was part of the tiny team of teachers/writers/linguists/editors whose job it was to take those familiar East African stories and folktales that were told around the evening campfires and turn them into vehicles for the teaching of English grammar and vocabulary, all in a way that fifth graders – who may have been the only people in their families who could recognize a few words of English – could understand.

Before we could use them as teaching lessons, the stories needed to be “de-tribalized”.  In other words, we wanted them to be somewhat familiar, but not totally identifiable as specific Acholi, Toro or Ganda folktales.  So, we re-wrote them, borrowing bits and pieces from various tribal cultures and languages, changing characters and re-doing the stories’ endings.  

 This was the “official” government position that we were required to follow.  Uganda, a new nation with many indigenous tribes, religions and languages, was set on a course of “nation-building” and wanted to develop a generation of people who identified themselves as “Ugandan”, not as members of a specific tribe.

Plus, our goal was to teach English, not tell traditional stories, and largely it worked.

Of course, we used other stories in our books as well – many of which we concocted ourselves – but the folktales were the key to holding the interest of our 5th graders.  After all, these were largely rural kids, living in villages without electricity, television or even radio.  Buses and cars were infrequent. There were no movies and no libraries. No refrigerators and no running water or indoor plumbing.  In fact, for most of them, there was no plumbing at all.

Those old, old stories that began “Hapo zamani za kali” (or with some other similar phrase in their local language) were their primary entertainment.  

And they worked.

Even though the project was started way back in 1967, the books – now published by Macmillan -  are still used in most Uganda elementary schools to teach English. 

In fact, about 7 years ago, when I was interviewing a Ph.D. scientist for a research position in NY State government who just happened to grow up and go to school in late 1980s Uganda, I started speaking to him in fractured, pitifully-poor Luganda.

Where did you learn to speak Luganda?” he asked, since, generally, people who looked like me did not speak much Luganda in upstate New York.

I told him about what I used to do in Uganda and about the text-book project.

His eyes grew wide and a big smile took command of his face.  
Amazing!”, he said.  “You wrote the Nile English Course!  That’s how I learned English and was able to go on to secondary school and then on to college.  Amazing!  Wait till I tell my wife!  That’s how she learned English, too!  Amazing!

Of course, all of this happened “hapo zamani za kali”  - once upon a time and far, far away. 

And now, it’s kind of its own campfire story.

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