Her vocal chords bring to life the world of fantasy. They resonate with the sound of drums and music to tell wondrous tales. The oft forgotten tradition that is storytelling finds its home in Helen Alumbe’s heart. She dwells in this great oral tradition that is often relegated to our grandmothers and grandfathers, associated with griots in West Africa and unfortunately subdued by modernity.
Alumbe’s love affair with storytelling began 15 years ago when she told the story Asemka found in the anthology Looking for a rain God at the Phoenix Players theatre in Nairobi. Storytelling guru, Aghan Odero of performing arts organization ZamaleoACT was present and he invited her to his organization’s offices at the National Museums of Kenya.
It took her a year to take up the offer. Aghan then invited her to join Zamaleo (a Kiswahili coinage drawn from two words: Zamani (Old times) and Leo (Today) and she has never looked back.
While previously, she had, along with friends confined her telling to set books – anthologies and novels that are part of the high school curriculum in Kenya - with Zamaleo she began telling all kinds of stories. She would also sometimes just sit through the organization’s rehearsals and with the requirement of having a new story to tell every other month, she continued to perfect her art as a storyteller.
Alumbe has been quite the globe trotter. Storytelling has rewarded her thus. She finds a warm hearth place at all kinds of destinations. In 2003, she took part in her first cross border storytelling exchange program with Parapanda storytellers from Tanzania and in 2004 she was part of the Bayimba Festival held in Uganda. At the Bayimba festival, she took part in storytelling workshops centered on the theme “Story Lines.”
Her next warm hearth place was to be found in Europe at the biennale held in Sweden in 2005. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia took part in this festival and it was here that she first had a taste of life outside Africa. During that year, she also performed at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF).
The Sibikwa Storytelling Festival held in South Africa in 2006 sparked in Helen a desire to start a storytelling program for primary schools back home in Kenya. At this festival, children were encouraged to tell stories in their mother tongue and were taught how to count using stories.
Alumbe was impressed by the way in which children could learn through stories. Although they paid a fee of 20 shillings ($0.5), to be a part of her storytelling program they came in droves. At one point in time she had an audience of almost 1000 children!
“It’s the easiest job on the planet,” Alumbe says about storytelling.
“Learn the art form well. It’s good. Travel,” she encourages other tellers.
“I am on my second passport!,” she exclaims.
In 2007, she attended the Gothernburg Storytelling Festival at the biennale in Sweden. At this festival, tellers performed for two days and thereafter had workshops for two more days. She was engaged in workshops with Swedish storytellers for those two days. She learned there that she is good at her art. It could even pay well. Mats Rehnman’s Fabula Storytelling Festival of 2008 was the first time Helen got paid for telling at a festival.
Before then she would only get a daily stipend; per diem. The festival had an African night during which she and another Kenyan as well as a Gambian performed. At home in Kenya, her primary schools’ program continued with emphasis on making oral literature a part of class practicals.
With her previous rather light experience in telling set books, she also began a high school program under ZamaleoACT, training four people to work with her. A session with high school students would take three to four hours during which her team would perform and students would go about analyzing the story or stories and discuss how they would relate to exams.
The year 2009 saw her fly to Sweden again to attend the Umbly Storytelling Festival. During the festival, she had a solo performance for two hours and was involved in training young storytellers aged between 12 and 17 through workshops. It was, in addition, during this year that the first Sigana International Storytelling Festival (SISF) convened by ZamaleoACT would be held here in Nairobi.
SISF would be an annual event until 2014, when it was decided that it should take place once in every two years and revolve around East Africa. Zamaleo tellers, Alumbe included went on to attend the Fabula Storytelling Festival in 2010. They performed and attended workshops in Stockholm. After this sojourn, all her globe trotting would be put on pause for the next two years. Helen felt that she had gained enough experience on telling from all her traveling and wanted to apply some of what she had learned to her home country Kenya.
Her first stop in this regard was SISF 2010. SISF had been started with the knowledge that not many Kenyans have sat down to watch someone tell a story in the way it is done at a festival. Storytelling is not as popular as theatre is. She wanted to apply some business sense to the organization of the festival s that tellers could get paid like just as she had been paid at the Fabula Storytelling Festival in 2008. SISF 2010 went well and would carry on for four years.
Over the years, Helen has been part of several festivals here in Nairobi as one of Zamaleo’s principal tellers. These include Jukwani, Aga Khan Festival, Lamu Festival, Mombasa Cultural Festival and the Samosa Festival. She has further used the art of story telling at launches for corporate events and general entertainment.
If you have watched QTV, a local TV station in Nairobi on Mondays beginning September 2014 up until September 2015, you may have caught a glimpse of Helen and other Zamaleo tellers in action; telling all kinds of enchanting tales to an audience around a fireplace. This partnership between Zamaleo and the television station has been initiated in 2003.
Known as Sigana Moto Moto, the television program received a lot of positive feedback but this didn't necessarily translate into great business.
Although financial remuneration for tellers remains a pressing challenge, Helen has been able to build her first house through money earned from storytelling.
In 2005, a contract with the ministry of education to train TOTs in the preschool category enabled her to buy a piece of land. Under this contract, the TOTs were trained on how to use participatory storytelling in class to enhance life skills. Another challenge she has faced is getting committed storytellers who she can work with for the larger future. For the schools program for example, there are over 8,000 schools in Kenya but very few tellers.
She resumed international travel in 2013 when she performed at Iranian Storytelling Festival, the Kanoom Festival. The festival held a storytelling competition where teachers who use storytelling as a tool competed against each other and she was one of the winners. She won a trophy and was also given a carpet. In July 2014, she attended the Smithsonian Festival held in Washington DC. The festival which took ten days involved not just performing but talking about the art of storytelling as well.
“Storytelling is the backbone of all performing arts,” she reiterates.
In this vein, Alumbe feels nobly called to start a storytelling school where young people can learn more about this art and practice it. Some of her mentors and people who have influenced her in the world of storytelling include the late Erastus Owuor.
During her acting days in the late 90s, she acted with him and she would sing when he performed. He eventually started storytelling and she gained from this. Her boss Aghan Odero is another source of inspiration. She likes Swedish teller, Mats Rehnman’s passion for storytelling and his firm position that tellers ought to be paid. At the SISF 2010 she was struck by American teller Diane Ferlatte and Asian storytelling genius Jeeva Raghunath.
Her last source of inspiration is Canadian storyteller Jamie Oliviero who is excellent at improvisation.
This year, 2015, Helen has been to Ethiopia and Denmark. In Ethiopia she attended the Crossing Boundaries Festival. Where one might say that obtaining sponsorship from locals can be a challenge, the Crossing Boundaries Festival proved otherwise. The mayor, embassies and the Ethiopian ministry of culture all sponsored the festival.
Appreciation for the art of storytelling was also tremendous. The 600-seater hall was full. One may not get such a big audience in Kenya.
“Ethiopians have the culture of going to watch performances instilled in then from a young age,” notes Helen.
While in Denmark, she performed in different areas: schools, churches, cafes, libraries and theatre schools. She also met many storytellers through the Danish Society of Storytellers. Back in Africa, she was able to visit the Comoros Islands where she directed a musical poem titled Mnazi.
As a mother, storytelling has made Helen less harsh on her 17 year old son. It has taught her to talk through a situation with him and disagree politely. Whenever conflict arises, she sometimes uses a story to explain her position to him.
In striking a balance between motherhood and telling, she reminisces that her son along with his nieces and nephews would go with her for performances when they were all young. When schools would close, she would have to schedule her work program around her son. In future, she would like to adopt a girl.
Helen would never have guessed from her humble storytelling beginnings that she would travel as extensively as she has. Neither would she have thought that she might one day sleep at the posh Rift Valley lodge or be a part of launching one of politician Najib Balala's previous campaigns.
To upcoming storytellers she encourages, “believe in your art, invest in it and work hard and smart.”
Investing does not only refer to monetary input but also to being available when work needs to be done; not to work half heartedly. It is with this attitude in mind that the theme for SISF 2016 (April) is “365 tell a tale.” SISF 2016 has as its aim to showcase that you can make a livelihood through storytelling.
Helen has her hands full with all the planning for SISF 2016. She hopes to have an audience of 1,000 people at the event. She is targeting youth groups (18 – 30 years), colleges and universities, cultural centers and preschool teachers. She further hopes that embassies and the corporate world can come on board and sponsor the event.
When I ask her what she projects for her future she states that, “It’s too bright, I need sunglasses. Storytelling is getting easier and it is exciting.”
I find myself wishing that she could tell me a story there and then.