Open Book Fest

Passing experience from mouth to mouth

Nal’ibali: It starts with a story, 20 September 2012, Central Library


Ntombizanele Mahobe, Nadeema Jogee and Malusi Ntoyapi.

I’m on my way to town to attend a talk by the group Nal’ibali as part of the Open Book Festival. Fleeting images flash past the windows of the train. A man stands in the centre of the carriage with a deteriorating black Bible under his arm. “Here! Jesus!” he passionately preaches to people who look back with distant stares.

There’s something in-between, a message, I guess. I’m balancing a blue ball-point pen and Walter Benjamin’s “The Story-Teller” on my lap. I can’t make out what the preacher is saying. “Here! Jesus! Here! Jesus!” is all I can make out. The train stops, and the Preacher gets out. A man carrying a bag of sweets announces himself: “I got sweets for you, neh!”

He stands right in front of me. “I know some of you don’t go to church. I know some of you don’t even pray. Not even at home! But you people, here in this carriage, are very privileged people. Very privileged. You have a preacher in the morning and you have a preacher in the afternoon. I’m not preaching neh! But … they give you bread for the heart. They give you bread for the soul. Now it's time to buy sweets for the body! One rand for four! One r-r-rand for four!!”

I burst out laughing and try to find myself again in my reading. I start where I stopped: “Familiar though his name may be to us, the story-teller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force to us. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant.”1

This line gets me thinking: Are story-tellers the ghosts of a past, from a history swallowed up by neoliberalism, globalisation, and all those other “-isms”?

Eventually, after the stappie from the station, across the Parade of pigeons and people, I get to the Central Library. Seats in the seminar room are lined with brightly coloured pamphlets and stickers bearing the slogan: “Ewe, konke kuqala ngebali. It starts with a story.”

The story-tellers of Nali’bali, namely Nadeema Jogee, Ntombizanele Mahobe and Malusi Ntoyapi, open the seminar with the story of a song that travelled from somewhere in Africa, via Nigerian taxi drivers and eventually finding its way to South Africa.

This story of a song is then followed by another story about a tailor and a king. They “cut” and “stitch” a practical demonstration of the Nal’ibali methodology, which is to use “the power of stories – oral and written, and in many languages – to inspire children”.

Nal’ibali is a “national-reading-for-enjoyment intiative to get people in South Africa – children and adults – passionate about telling and reading stories”.2

Nal’ibali works with partners in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal to train and support literacy organisations

They do this by creating reading clubs outside of the spaces of school and home for children to read, play, write, sing and draw. Unlike formal education, which breaks and boxes stories into language, comprehension and grammar, the pedagogical approach of Nal’ibali is that “nothing can be taught in isolation”.

Instead, “we live through narrative”. We learn through stories. Stories teach, without being instructive. This is because “it is experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth”.3

Yet in South Africa the space to tell one’s story, the platform to communicate experience, is complicated by inequality, language, race, and class. It is this set of entanglements that Nal’ibali creatively confronts on a practical, grassroots level. Literacy is not just access to literature. It is also access to making meaning, making sense through story-telling. The core principle of literacy should be instilling confidence to tell your story and to listen to others.

I’m not sure if it's because it is heritage month, or maybe it’s because Benjman has been on my mind. But, the worst thing that we can do is allow stories to grow silent with historical dust on contemporary street corners and in train carriages.

1 Benjamin, W. 1963.“The Story-Teller: Reflections on the Work of Nicolai Leskov”


3 Benjamin, W. 1963.“The Story-Teller: Reflections on the Work of Nicolai Leskov”

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