WAKANYI HOFFMAN is a Global Education Specialist and founder of the African Folktales Project. Here, she speaks with SARA BUBBER about the value of storytelling and passing down wisdom through generations, her Kikuyu culture, and how all of us are indigenous people contributing to the world.
Q: Hello Wakanyi. It is a pleasure to meet with you today. I love listening to stories, reading them, and meeting people who tell stories, so I’m very happy we are talking.
WH: Thank you! I’m also quite excited to have this conversation with you, Sara.
Q: In the Heartfulness community, we often talk about the Wisdom Bridge – the transfer of wisdom from elders to youth, and from youth to elders, because learning is a dual process. It signifies the relationship between traditional cultural heritage and wisdom, and the present. What is the importance of the Wisdom Bridge from your perspective?
WH: Wow, that’s a really important way of framing it! Off the top of my head, the Wisdom Bridge is a rite of passage from one generation to another. It signifies the idea of passing the baton from the old to the young, so that they become custodians of knowledge, whether that is cultural knowledge, spiritual knowledge, or values.
Of course, there is reciprocity as well. Children offer wisdom to the old, so there is a kind of remembrance for our elders that wisdom is an ongoing pursuit, and that they can gather wisdom from the young as much as they can gather from their peers. Then, the other way around, elders are passing down wisdom to the younger generation, signifying, “It is our task to carry you forward.”
To some degree, I see the Wisdom Bridge as a reminder that we are all indigenous to this planet. It is very important to hold that in our hearts, to understand that we’re all human beings and our knowledge is ancient. It has been growing. It never ended. We tend to put indigenous people to the side and have parallel worlds going on. I think it’s important to recall, and to recall from each other, that we are all indigenous to our planet.
For me, the Wisdom Bridge is a symbolic movement of knowledge from one generation to another. It is also a symbolic movement from one culture to another. That way, we’re not stuck. You can take the wisdom and knowledge that has been passed down to you and recreate it, using it to learn about others. It is also a bridge to other worlds. There’s a lot there. I see it as a rite of passage from one generation to the next, and a way to connect with others who do not come from your cultural background.
It is the gift of elders to the next generation, and it is a way for elders to recall who they were when they were younger, receiving that gift from others. There’s a whole exchange of knowledge that goes on when that is allowed to happen.
Q: I really like what you said about it being a rite of passage and a gift. It’s a wonderful gift! As you said, we often keep indigenous people aside, so we are losing out on their wisdom.
The Wisdom Bridge is creaky and in need of repair. The relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, tribes and urban populations, are not so strong now. Many of our ancient cultures are either being absorbed into modern urban life, or people are moving away from them. So we are losing a lot of wisdom from our past. This affects all areas of lifestyle. What can we do to save and preserve the bridge that we have?
First of all, I want to start on a hopeful note. I’d like to think of this as the audacity of hope – we are all human beings, and we are all indigenous to this world. Yes, there is a crisis around how much of our old oral traditions and cultural knowledge have been passed on, whether it’s to global modern culture, or national modern culture. There is definitely a big divide between indigenous knowledge and the rest of the world, however, I believe that all the knowledge is carried in every generation. Like we started off with the idea of the Wisdom Bridge, I believe my mother holds within her heart the knowledge of the past. Now she’s living as a modern woman, but that knowledge lives somewhere in her.
It’s less a question of where to find the knowledge, and more an issue of how to open up the path; for people to open their hearts to share the knowledge. It’s a living thing. And we can recover that knowledge through storytelling. Telling stories is something inherently human.
We all tell stories. You and I are telling stories now, and we’re telling stories on social media, and we’re telling stories on the news. We’re telling stories with friends when we gather, and when we’re at the supermarket we’re telling a story. I believe a story is a living thing, and it lives from one person to the next. As soon as we have a conversation, we exchange some form of story. You will carry part of my story with you, and I will carry part of your story with me. That’s the link.
We can bring storytelling into classrooms, so that children who no longer live in their indigenous communities, or rural communities, where a lot of this culture and wisdom is practiced don’t have to lose it. We just shift it to the masses.
The Wisdom Bridge is a symbolic movement
of knowledge from one generation to
another. It is also a symbolic movement from
one culture to another.
Also, indigenous knowledge and wisdom is not something that is stuck in the past. It is not lost; it is living in modern populations. It’s just not being utilized in the same way that it was in its indigenous settings. There’s a need to recall it from each other. The power of storytelling is such that we can recall the past by beginning from where we’re standing.
If you know a folktale from your own community, that is a way to recall some part of your indigenous heritage. The more people are telling stories from the past, the more we are recollecting that knowledge and bringing it into the present. We don’t necessarily need to move backwards. In fact, that’s what the hesitation usually is.
There is the challenge of how to embrace indigenous cultures in the modern world. I think that’s the wrong question to ask. We are all indigenous. We’re indigenous to this planet. The question should be, “How do we work together? How do we bridge the gap?” One good way is to open up the avenues of storytelling, whether it’s digitally, through social media, or orally. Create storytelling sessions. In that way, we begin to discover where we have deviated, and the cultural values and principles we’re still applying to our modern world that are from the indigenous past.
Don’t forget, also, that indigenous folk have been moving on. They’re not stuck in the past. They are using knowledge that they have refined over time. Through storytelling and openly wanting to learn about each other, we create the space where knowledge is considered as another source of being, rather than separate from who we are.
I think storytelling is the answer to your question. I have realized that we are made up of stories; it is our stories that feed us. If we’re able to understand that and bring indigenous wisdom into schools, without distorting the way knowledge is passed down (usually, orally is the best way to do it) then we will regenerate and recollect this wisdom.
Q: This dialogue is breaking a lot of myths: for example, indigenous people are not stuck in the past, we are all indigenous, and we are not separate from each other. These are great insights.
WH: There are age-old traditions all over the world. What are the initiatives you are taking up in your culture as a storyteller to bring them back, to tap into them, and to open things up?
I’m a Global Education Specialist, and through my research I discovered the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I discovered that there’s a lot of talk about how to engage children in classrooms to understand and embrace the SDGs, and how they can become better-informed global citizens who can find solutions to the challenges of achieving these goals.
But the SDGs are complex for young children. So how can we package them for young children who just want to be children? They want to play and learn and be happy. They don’t want to be bothered by big ideas about what the world looks like, and what the problems of the world are. Take climate change, for instance. Even though we’ve seen an amazing movement of children around the world protesting for climate justice, there’s still a big question mark around how they truly understand the crisis itself. They can understand that there is a lot of pollution, there are a lot of fires and earthquakes, but to what extent do they understand that this major crisis could signify the end of times as we know them?
As a result of my research, I founded the African Folktales Project. I collected African folktales that contain ideas about sustainability, and through that process I discovered that all folktales have some lesson or idea about the future. A lot of stories are about conflict between humans and wildlife, and about climate issues like drought. There are a lot of African folktales related to climate change. This was a very exciting discovery for me. I realized that storytelling was one of the ways I could bring the Sustainable Development Goals to the classroom, so as to help kids understand them and get inspired to do something.
So, I started taking stories tied to the 17 SDGs and reimagining them. For example, I have taken a story about a big fire that happened, and how the fire was put out and the land was regenerated and recovered. I’ll use the same characters, the moral of the story remains, but I reimagine it in the present time. Often, folktales are set in the past, so they are not relevant to kids growing up in today’s world, especially when you’re telling stories to children in modern settings versus indigenous settings. As I tell these stories, I ask the children to take them and remake them, recreate them. It is that Wisdom Bridge you were talking about initially – passing down stories and leaving them incomplete, so they can have ownership of the stories.
I’m trying to create an environment
in which we can embrace
the idea that these are our stories
– all of us indigenous people on planet Earth.
I’m deconstructing the idea of folktales being held by a certain group of people. I’m trying to create an environment in which we can embrace the idea that these are our stories – all of us indigenous people on planet Earth. I don’t discount the fact that the stories came from a certain space, but even within an indigenous population there is a clear understanding that stories never had an original storyteller anyway. A story was always meant to be passed down. When I heard a story from my grandmother, she couldn’t possibly tell me where the story originally came from. The objective was for me to take the story, use it in my own life, and pass it on to my children. That keeps the stories going.
This is one of the ways I’m trying to promote storytelling, promote indigenous wisdom, especially in my country, Kenya, where there is a rich oral tradition from indigenous cultures that is not seen any more in classrooms.
I’ve transformed the stories into podcasts, and next year I will publish a book of the first series of UN SDG folktales. I’m trying to use as many forms of communication and media as possible – digital, audio, and live sessions in schools. These stories can become our stories, not stuck in one space.
Even within indigenous communities, there is a concern that children are not always told stories by their elders, because of the formalities of going to school and the way in which the culture has been separated from formal education. So, I’m hoping that these storytelling sessions will also engage indigenous elders in the process of recollecting, retelling, and recreating their stories. Then we’re all learning from each other, and we’re doing something relevant for the times with what we already have.
I’m trying to bridge and marry cultures through storytelling, using folktales as a pedagogical approach to learning more about who we are.
To be continued.
Interview by SARA BUBBER
Illustrations by SANTANU CHATTERJEE
Wakanyi is a Global Education Specialist, writer, editor, storyteller, and founder of the African Folktales Project. The theme of peaceful, cross-cultural cooperation is a common thread in her writing and personal life. For more than a decade she has lived in 7 countries, on 3 continents, as a global nomad, developing a rich intercultural intelligence... Read more