National Storytelling Week: African folktales in Norfolk

January 28 2019

Picture showing concept designs of the characters Kaka and Zaza.

With such a rich literary and storytelling history, Norfolk is the perfect place to celebrate National Storytelling Week (26 January – 2 February).

We’ve been working with a Norwich animator, who is offering up a storytelling tradition with a difference, to mark the beginning of her work to create a children’s TV series.

Designer Zainab Balami, 34, who lives in Cringleford, will launch a crowdfunding campaign this year to fund the production of the pilot episode of her animated series, Kaka and Zaza.

The series is based on West African folktales, inspired by Zainab’s childhood in Nigeria, and she is using National Storytelling Week to celebrate the role of stories in African culture and raise awareness here in Norfolk.

“Storytelling was a big part of my childhood,” she said. “I loved hearing stories from my grandparents, aunties and uncles, and Sunday evenings were known as storytelling time in almost every household in Nigeria.

“Tales by Moonlight was the must-watch programme and I remember my cousins and I ensuring we had finished all our chores and homework before it was on. However, apart from that, most of what I remember seeing on TV was heavily influenced by Western culture and there wasn’t much positive content with an African theme.

“When you can’t identify with the characters or storylines you are seeing, it can have a negative impact on how you perceive your own culture. I felt like my own heritage wasn’t good enough to be on TV and was somehow an embarrassment.

“When we moved to the UK, we lived in a predominantly white area and I went to a boarding school where I was one of only about 10 people of African heritage. In a way, I lost touch with my own roots.

“This led to a bit of an identity crisis for me until I was studying for my Masters degree in animation in Bristol in 2013. While working on a film project about a West African folktale, How the tortoise cracked his shell, I began to feel reconnected to the stories I had enjoyed so much as a little girl.”

In the same way that oral storytelling is found in cultures all over the world, from Homer in Ancient Greek to the traditions passed on through Buddhism and Judaism, storytelling is one of the most ancient of African cultures.

Stories were created to help people make sense of the world around them, often involving anthropomorphised animals, while teaching about important aspects of their culture. For young people, particularly, stories were a way of teaching them lessons and thinking about morality.

Storytelling was, and remains, a serious business; it was a taboo in many African cultures for people to engage in any serious work during what was considered storytelling time at night. There was even a social caste of people called Griots (male) and Griottes (female), still around today, who were essentially professional storytellers, as well as fulfilling other roles like royal advisers, tutors and local historians.

Such was their knowledge of their communities and the shared history, they were known as the ‘memory of society’.

Zainab hopes her show, Kaka and Zaza, will be enjoyable both for families in the UK with African and Afro-Caribbean heritage as well as families who want their children to know more about other cultures and traditions.

She aims to lift the lid on this world of storytelling by focusing on the relationship between a grandfather (Kaka) and his granddaughter (Zaza), as he shares tales with her about a trickster tortoise character called Musa.

“Just like the stories I remember, I want the show to promote togetherness within both families and communities,” she said.

“I am really passionate about preserving the African storytelling culture, but also incorporating my Western experiences too, so that children in the UK can enjoy and identify with the stories, regardless of their heritage.

To follow Zainab’s crowdfunding project to create Kaka and Zaza, and find out more about African folk tales through National Storytelling Week, visit https://bit.ly/kakazaza