Opinion:‘Rayila na Mpira…A Story of the Power of Narratives’




In dark the days of 25th-29th AUGUST 2003.

‘The narrative is neither a filler-material on the festival programme nor a comic relief tonic’. ADJUDICATORS’ REPORT, APRIL 2003.

‘We encourage them to go back to our fables (sic), stories with animal names and human characters; stories narrated by our grands; complete stories, brought on stage creatively with modern (utility) for us.’ JOB OSIAKO, CHAIRMAN KNDF.

‘…. that African stories are above all designed to convey morals….But there is no evidence at all to suggest that this is the only or primary aim of the stories-and plenty of evidence that many African tales contained neither direct nor indirect moralizing.’ RUTH FINNEGAN.

‘I ming’ ka ng’ama nene ok onindo e siwidhe’ (You are so uneducated like one who never slept in siwidhe) LUO PROVERB.

The courts of law and justice (today that assertion is not necessarily a truth) rely so much and heavily on a tool called evidence so as to come to a binding ruling. This evidence must be corroborated for it to pass the test of credibility. Evidence is story! The giving of it is storytelling. The corroboration of it is the storytelling of the same story from a different point of view! And because of evidence, a man has faced the hangman, a murderer has walked out scot-free and an old woman has rightfully left her tribe-in-law for another that can provide a younger, stronger and fresh looking mason for a husband. And in some cases, the absence of evidence, the lack of story, has led to a young girl, raped by an honorable missing access to justice. The power of evidence is the power of a story!

The Bible and the Koran and the Gita are the bedrock of spiritual alignments in the world today. These good books and many others that I haven’t mentioned here are essentially recordings of past happenings, presented in such soothing, persuasive, musical and mysterious manner that they have come to define what one has to believe and practice in life. And because of these spiritual stories, India separated from Pakistan and to this day threaten brimstones and hail against each other; a woman has sold her all and donated the money to the service of the Lord at the expense of her family; the Irishmen still go after each other’s necks in a festival of murder and the catholic church still fight off the condom. The power of the Gita, of the Koran, of the Bible is the power of a story!

In a certain far away country, two political groupings were pitted against each other in search of the right to lead and rule (and by extension enjoy all the executive juices that come with being the rulers of the day!) The competition was ferocious, expensive, emotional, confusing, comical, dangerous and even fatal. A whole population of that far away country abandoned their daily chores so that they could partake to this battle. In the workplaces in that faraway land, people picked up quarrels with straws and in the homes, children and mothers and fathers quarreled with their bread and butter. Foreign countries, even our own, were glued to the proceedings with bated breaths. Aliens who had gone to that country to make money hurriedly withdrew their accumulated cowry shells, deposited them in overseas banks and promptly bolted to escape possible bloodletting. Things were bad and uncertain. Cocks had their heads chopped off in public and their red colors added to the rainbow and, in retaliation, the cockerel owners started a project of pouring black indelible paint all over rainbow drawings done by the children of the nation. It was a battle like no other. In the end, and out of some simplistic inspiration, a member of that faraway country who was known for his trickery, boldness and shiftiness told the story of a football match. And that conclusively settled the political competition. The one group was so thoroughly defeated, that they too have started courting storytellers within their ranks. That political power is the power of a story!

Within the setting of performing arts, and even as set out by the practice of the schools drama festivals, the narrative supersedes all the other genres of performance namely drama, dance and verse. This, even if only for the reason that the other three genres have, as a test and parameter, the extent to which they tell a story. What is the story in the play? What is the story in the dance? What is the story in the verse? Conclusion? The power of the Kenya National Drama Festivals is the power of a story.

In normal circumstances, texting connotes the permanence and inflexibility of an artistic piece. The student performer is expected to cram the words in the play and then act the conversations and dialogues out. The words have a reason for which they are sequenced in the play, and a deviation from it has the potential of grinding the whole play to a halt. The significance of words for musicality and mood effect in a verse cannot be gainsaid. And who has ever heard of the replacement of the words in a dance without fatally affecting the piece of art?

Now, if the other forms of art are primated on the word, the narrative by contrast is based on milestones. These are the never changing points of reference of the artistic piece. They are the instances that give impetus and direction to the story. The forward movement and flow of a story depends on these landmarks. For example, in the story in which Hare defeated Elephant and Hippo in a duel, we can identify the following signposts;

Hare challenges Elephant to a duel…Elephant laughs at Hare’s folly and vows victory…they set a date for the duel…Hare challenges Hippo to a duel…Hippo laughs at his folly and vows easy triumph…they set a date of the duel…Hare provides the rope to be pulled…Elephant and Hippo struggle with the rope pulling as Hare basks and enjoys the duel…Hare goes back to each individually and they concede defeat by him.

How the conversations between the animal-characters go, is completely at the creative discretion of the student-narrator. The diction will be dictated by the mood of the scenario, the audience’s experiences, cultural norms and so on and so forth.

That being the case then it is imperative to note that the requirement that a script of the narrative be given out, and that the narrator has to follow it is unrealistic and unacceptable. What is required then is for a good synopsis that details the milestones in the story. The narrator should be tested in his or her ability to string the milestones together to form a concrete and artistic whole. In a way of speaking, we are giving the student-narrator a skeleton and then asking him/her to create a human being. Others will come up with a female human while others the male of that species. Others will create an obese being while others will have us witness a skinny and hardy homo sapien! This then is a point that the teacher-director has to strive to have the student-narrator understand. And in the process of grasping this texting of the narrative, the student-narrator will also have to understand the concept of creativity in performance.

The most distinctive feature of a narrative vis-à-vis other genres of performing arts is creativity in performance. In the other genres – drama, verse and dance – creativity is distinct to two phases. The first is the coming up with the piece, a phenomena universally referred to as scripting. This is done away from the bringing to life of the artistic piece. It is imaginative at an instant that is removed from the rendition. This gives the artist an opportunity to change, refine and even deface the artistic piece without the hindrance of time long before the artistic piece is actualized on stage. The second creative phase is the performance of the imagined artistic piece. What some low cadre artists call staging. This creative phase is tested by the ability to use one’s body to present to an audience what was scripted earlier.

Narrative creativity is however, barring the setting of the milestones, a one phase creative exercise. The scripting and the giving of life to the script go on simultaneously and complimentarily; the scripting instantly dictates the performing and the performing induces scripting at that very moment. What this means then is that a narrative is an instantaneous artistic form. It lives in the moment. The possibility of its being replicated in the same manner is very remote. All narratives live only a single life – the moment of performance. What we deem to be the same story will show evidence of subtractions, additions and even improved manner of rendition; elements of newness, freshness and at times, due to monotony of performance and dullness of the audience, some element of staleness.

What then feeds creativity in performance? It is simply the performance environment and attending/participating audience. It is from the instant-venue of performance that the student-narrator will draw his or her script. Audience mood; artificial interferences; competition syndrome; performer’s mood; time of rendition; appearance of the minister in the middle of the performance and the accompanying bootlicking rituals; the yawn of an adjudicator; a catcall from the opposing school; the inadvertent falling off of the backdrop; the smile from a girlfriend/boyfriend; the fainting of the teacher collecting monies from the overcrowded gate; all these and many more instances contribute to the scripting during staging. The mark of a good narrator is therefore judged by his or her ability to draw from the environment and the audience the flesh with which to fashion the milestones into an ideal Adam and then move on in the next competition level and fashion an Eve who has an affinity of listening to the counsel of a snake at the expense of God’s warning!

Bottom-line? In the narrative genre the narrator is keen-eyed and bat-eared and takes in the happenings in his environment at the time of performance, using them to spice up his story, spinning them creatively at that very moment of rendition, thus localizing the tale and giving it an element of immediacy. Narration is a spontaneous activity.

But creativity in performance has its own hazards. Out of enthusiastic and excited creativity, instances of audience embarrassment may be realized. Thus the student-narrator alienates his/her very partners in creativity. To curb this, it would be worth considering when and how to draw some flesh from the environment/audience. Involve the audience in flattering episodes and characterize yourself in the ridiculing episodes. The audience does not like to be laughed at – they like laughing at a removed object. Therefore, let the student-narrator make himself a laughing stock and see how the millionth wonder of the world creates itself. Timing and judgment are crucial in creativity in performance.

In terms of face value, narrating connotes orality of rendition. That is, this performance term zeroes in on the mouth at the very onset. And this is important. It is the mouth that the narrator will depend upon mostly so as to have his audience identify with the story. The narrator’s manner of tonation, singing, sound imitation, voicing, laughter, wailing, chewing will appeal to the audience depending on how he is using his lips and the general oral cavity. But then, that is not the long and short of narrating. Narrating as an act also connotes the manipulation of the whole body and the parts that accompany it so as to elicit the visualization of the story episode or happening by the audience. How the narrator’s body moves and shakes, how his hands fly, the manner of her countenance, the heaving of her chest, the tiptoeing of his feet, the gyration of his bosom, the wagging of his finger and the energy of his performance are all significant in helping the audience visualize the setting and unfolding of the story. Body narrating, for lack of a better term, can be achieved by mimicking the characters. The narrator not only tells us what a character did, but she also becomes that character and illustrates to us how she did it. She will at once be the narrator, the ogre, the striker, the referee, the ball, the spectators, the hare, the sun, the rain and even the tree that stood by the roadside. She will enact what these characters did. He will run as they did, jump as they did, he will sulk as they sulked and he will dance as the antelope danced. And then he will comment on how slow a runner the character was, how stupid the sulking was, how graceful or otherwise the dance was. If performance art be work, then narrating certainly is work!

The point to note here then is that narrating as a term captures both tenets of basic performance which are to be seen and to be heard. Narrating appeals not only to the ear but also to the eye. And these two appeal-points need to trigger the audience’s imagination for the story to be adjudged a success.

A word of caution though: By stating that the narrator uses his/her body to tell a story, we do not mean that s/he is enacting the character’s actions in the literal sense. What we mean is that there are some vivid suggestions made that border on acting. If we are not careful, there is a danger of turning the narrative into a drama and thus being guilty of trespassing the genre’s boundaries.

We acknowledged above that narration implies, to a greater extent, orality. For the reasons of audibility and clarity, narrations necessitate the need for a better than normal voicing. However, due to the stresses we undergo in life, our voices tend to be strained, breathy, high pitched and poorly placed. From the physiological point of view this is due to unnecessary tension in muscles that should ideally be relaxed. Psychologically it is fears, anxieties and lack of security that are responsible for the tensions. Other factors include insecurity, stage-fright, excitement, overconfidence or lack of confidence, intake of excess sugary drinks and even lack of motivation. For good voicing, relaxation and confidence are essential. Voice also has a lot to do with the way we breath. Repression of real feelings keeps the voice under stress. Short breaths make speech choppier, quicker, sound tense and nervous; shallow breathing causes voice to be unsteady and taper off at the end of a sentence- the speaker sounds half-hearted and apologetic; holding breath makes the upper body taut and tense thus disabling us from making sounds. Breathing exercises help you control stress and in turn control your voice. At no time should the narrator be encouraged to strain to unhealthy levels. There have been cases of narrators losing voice on stage in an attempt to mimic a character in the story, and in other situations, permanent change of voice have been noted. Our voices are important elements both to our character and to art. Lets do our best to preserve them.

Apparently, it has been suggested in some other fora that a narrative must have an opening and closing formula. This assertion is based on the argument that historically, most communities peddled a certain mini-ritual that was universally accepted by all as a sign of the beginning of a story or the termination of one. I submit that this is the wrong approach. Because of it, student-narrators and teacher-directors have been coming up with some absolutely unnecessary nonsense in the name of opening formula – they even explain the formula in their synopsis to the adjudicators. Ha, ha, ha, ha, haaaa! I would suggest that we should approach this issue from the point of seeking the reason for which there were ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ formulae. Could it be that they were meant to set the performance mood? Were they intended to draw the attention of those still making noise? The same purpose that is achieved when the master-of-ceremony does when s/he announces that, ‘next on stage is a narrative from Misukosuko General Studies Academy entitled Kosukosumi’? Were these formulas a way of reminding the audience that they are just about to enter the realm of fiction and imagination, and that what was said or heard there was not to be taken as a serious life-defining issue? If we answer these queries and more, then we will realize that it is time to liberalize the formulaic requirement to be consonant with our days in time. We must not forever zombie about and close our minds to creativity with the suggestion that this is how it used to be, and so shall it be today, tomorrow till the constitution comes!

What advice then am I giving? Set yourself free. Analyze the reason for the so called formulae of opening and closing, find out if your narrative setting accomplishes those reasons or not and then creatively come up with a formula to suit you if you really need one.

We live in the age of madoido. It is only in this age that your clothes not only covers your nakedness, but also communicates something to those unfortunate enough to set their eyes upon you. Our phones no longer just allow you to speak with another person far removed from you, it also allows you to play a game or two in those lazy moments and even write, draw and send silly notes and images to the one you are obscenely involved with. Our children’s shoes spot lights, our vehicles have computers etc. I am saying that we are going beyond the functional attributes of our gadgets, artistic items and even ourselves. We are in the age of aesthetics.

The age of aesthetics is clear on one thing: that you only engage in beauty after you have achieved the functional element. Our narratives too must first fulfill the functional part. Then the spicing will come. Songs, mimicry, dance, suspense, postponement of episodes, pauses and many more roiko-mchuzi mixes are, on their face value, spice items. But they become very important tools of narration especially when their function is to inspire and enrich the participating audience’s imagination. In intense moments when the audience is getting emotionally and dangerously attached to the narrative, it is important to jolt them back to reality, maybe by a song or impromptu dance. When the audience can so easily predict the plot of the story, it is advisable to take the course not imagined. When the anticipation of the audience in some episode is heightened and eagerly expected, it is wonderful to be mean for a while and suspend the fulfilment of that expectation as you embark on some different thing altogether. All these are tools of spicing the narrative.

Now, there are others that I consider fundamentally aesthetic tools that need not really hold a thousand tonnes when evaluating the success of the narrative: costuming, backdrop, sound effects from the most modern audio systems, gadgeting, useless propping etc. I think that before you waste your resources by investing in dear accompaniments, evaluate the need. Narrating is not a forum to show us that your school, college or university can afford a set of uniforms fit for the local security firm, a canvas fit for drying maize and beans on the roads of Kabarnet and paint that the KICC so desperately need! Adjudicators must not be duped by these para-artistic nonsense, but be objective enough to look out for the artistic value of the story as narrated using the mouth and the body. As for the rest, God strike dead all those that waste resources in our working nation!

The Blue Book of Wisdom states on page nine that a narrative shall have a maximum of 15 participants. That is the law; that is the rule; that is the point of reference. But pray, 15 participants doing what? Narrating? But narrating is a multi-tasked, multifaceted artistic activity. Singing? Why should 15 people sing? They should wait for the music festivals in second term! Acting? God forbid, we are narrating, not acting. That category falls under the ‘play’ for your information. Then, 15 whole human adolescents doing what?

A major issue has been on how to utilize this generous provision of numbers. And the most evident scourge has been a situation where a play-let has been instead presented in the name of a narrative. The ideal storytelling is a solo affair. PERIOD! This calls for the narrator to assume the roles of all the characters in his piece- he is, in deed and in fact, the personification of the story, if you see what I mean. He is at once the hare, the lion, then the monkey, the next moment the beautiful maid, the ogre, the chief, the thief, and, all along, the narrator; – reporting, vilifying, commenting, exaggerating etc. This can’t be achieved unless the narrator fully embraces the principle of abandonment, putting away all his inhibitions and immersing himself totally to the duty of performing. This is a difficult task, and in the school setting, an all-rounder pupil/actor will be ideal.

But we have been diluting narratives by trying to divide all the roles above to as many students as possible. In the extreme, we have been having one narrator semi-circled by a bunch of rag-dressed colleagues enacting to us a story-telling session of yore. Let have us ONE narrator. Turn-taking and creativity in performance are so complex and cannot be choreographed to be executed by fifteen people on stage. Further, it is the role of the narrator to create in our minds the story. It need not be enacted on stage for us to see. We have to imagine it. By having so many people on stage, we are even negating some of the very concepts of narration. Audience participation cannot be stage-managed. Our audience is, primarily, those people in the auditorium who have paid to come to the festival to watch the children of Kenya in action. It is with them that we have to create the story. I recommend that we work with one narrator. Think of it, how many people narrated the football story with one Rayila?

Audience involvement is a not a military term! We need not have our student-narrators coercing the audience to sing along, or say something after the storyteller. Neither is audience participation measured in terms of upward decibels. What of those that secretly cry? What of the hushed audience? And also think of the hosting school that fills the auditorium with its idle pupils who will laugh and sing along and generally participate artificially. Audience participation is spontaneous and a reflection of a student-narrator’s expertise in churning out a story that the audience identifies with. It is not a stage-managed, choreographed or coercible act.

A narrator has to be bold. That does not mean that he has to verbalize some words that even my computer refuses to acknowledge. It also does not mean that he can come next to the high table and hold out my soda to illustrate an example of governmental extravagance.

Narration is not stand-up comedy! It is not. It is a respectable and independent genre by itself. Who said narrators are some rag-clad old men who have lost their gait coordination? Who ever said that a crooked walking stick is a definitive prop to storytelling? Who ever said that clowning and comical spectacles are the soup with which we have to eat narratives? I am telling you a story; am I old? Am I dirty? Am I a circus clown? Did Rayila bandy a walking stick around as he narrated the greatest football match ever played in that faraway country? We are in serious business and as much as I encourage laughter as a comic relief tool in the narrative, I would advice that we do not exaggerate our limits to the extent of creating a new genre in the process of narration.

Narratives do not necessarily talk of past events. We can have stories of ongoing events; we can have futuristic narratives; we can have stories that bestride the past, the present and the future. Therefore, let us not imagine that ‘long, long, long ago’ is a formulaic need of a story.

We cannot talk of the narrator’s stage, but we can of the narrative’s stage. For a narrative has the narrator and his audience, and these two bodies basically fill the space available.

What is a topical theme? How do we evaluate topicality? Topical to who? When? Where? Is AIDS topical? How? Is FGM topical? How? To who? Between a common mwananchi and the de facto mwenyenchi, who is topical? Topicality is a subjective matter. If a story emanates from Kakamega on how scarce chicken are these days; and yet another narrative comes from Kacheliba that herdsmen are no longer adept at shooting rustlers accurately; and even yet another comes from Jawatho to the effect that you can beat the cold by sleeping in the midst of goats, what will be the parameters of judging that the one story is more topical than the two and the three? Topicality is certainly important: significant in the sense that it provides the passion and even the reason for presenting a certain story. It is a motivator that brings out of the narrator the necessary qualities that help her actualize a story. Therefore let us understand it in that sense and use it to concretize the narrating and the narrative. It should not be used as a parameter for the success of one story over the other.

On Adjudication. In another forum, I have discussed the subjectivity and objectivity of the art of adjudication. I have said that both are necessary when issuing hukumu on the many items that are presented. Adjudication as we know it calls for sobriety and an ability not to be swayed by the audience. But narratives call for audience participation! I would say this; let our adjudicators read widely on the narrative and balance the need for the audience, the narrator and the functional accompaniments before they read out their judgment. Never fall victim to mesmerization or awe at the name of a school (some are called powerhouses, team kubwa and even tail-leaders). Remember that narration is a one instant art, and history plays a very remote role towards its success. Give the best the crown and flog the worst!

In conclusion, I would like to invite you to an evaluation exercise in which we want to unravel the mystery of the success of a story told in a faraway country by one Rayila, A story that, it is imagined, you are all well aware of. That story was called ‘Rayila na Mpira’ and it had a run of many, many weeks.

This is why I think it was a success:
• It was simple. It wasn’t circuitous and neither did it use symbols fit for atomic science. The plot of the story was well defined by the narrator and it was liberalized depending on the audience that was present;
• Its characterization was functional for the purposes of audience participation. If the audience was tilted towards a certain character, whether the character was male or female, it is this character that was reserved the greatest praise. By extension, audience rapport was achieved by flattering the audience, not ridiculing it;
• It employed exaggerations very well. Rayila na Mpira had one team with 14 players and another with 8. At another moment, the players were equal in number but each team had 27 players on the pitch. That was no matter for as long as the story was fleshed by other more credible scenarios;
• The climax was arrived at systematically. And please note that the narrator never ever told us that the goal was scored. All his narration ended with several repetitions of hatari kwenye lango. The scoring and the resultant excitement and celebrations were narrated by the audience;
• The narrator’s mastery of language and the manipulation of it in terms of accent and diction added spice to the story. In the end it was not a comical piece but an entertaining one;
• The narrator did not go into the pretensions of being old, senile, badly dressed, dirty, carrying a walking stick, chalking his hair white, bringing along his own audience so that the larger audience can watch an enactment or even having a closing formula. He had ten minutes of narration, a stage, an audience and a story. Period!
• Creativity in performance was evident. The story was different each time it was told and all the while it drew from the occurrences around the audience’s environment for credibility and localization. It certainly had it’s milestones which the audience did know in advance;
• The narrator also personified himself as one of the characters. He was a striker in one of the teams. He owned the story.
• Finally, it is evident that the narrator did sleep in the siwidhe at some point in his life.

What else do you make of the story? Can you identify other elements that led to the success of this story? That is your homework and I will need to get your answers during the actual festivals. As a closing remark, while I am grateful at the organizers for inviting me to share with you my story, it is my hope that one of these fine days they will approach the narrator from that faraway country to come and share with us his narrative skills.

I have told my story. May my cows forever graze in the succulent grasses of our fertile hills and abundant mountains and quench their thirst with the sweetest waters from our ever flowing streams; but may yours wallow in drought and famine and be forever infested with rinderpest, ticks, mad cow disease and all the horrible maladies that plague the cattle of such like you! Tinda, may I grow to be as tall as the trees behind my uncle’s homestead.


Author: Faith Oneya

Lover of the written and spoken word.

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