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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Once upon a time: the festival that is preserving folk tales in Benin

The annual Memories of Africa festival helps to keep traditional stories alive

A Togolese professional storyteller speaks to the public gathered in Sainte Cecile Square in Cotonou during the African Memories Festival. AFP
A Togolese professional storyteller speaks to the public gathered in Sainte Cecile Square in Cotonou during the African Memories Festival. AFP

Dusk settles and oil lanterns cast a soft yellow light as a storyteller takes to the stage and bounds the audience with a magic spell of words. The tale is about a naughty girl who disobeys her parents and whistles at night – a way of summoning evil spirits. She is attacked by beasts, but is saved from death, thanks to the intervention of her neighbour, a hunter.

Djimada, a high-school student, is among those captivated by the centuries-old story. “I was always told never to whistle at night, but never understood why,” she says. “Now I know.”

The tiny African state Benin has a rich cultural history that includes a seam of folk tales, many handed down by walking storytellers known as “griots”.

Each year, the Memories of Africa festival, is held in Cotonou to honour the proud tradition. For two nights in mid-August, more than 30 communities from across Benin hold the event, which is organised by the Franco-Beninese association of the same name. Amelie Armao, a storyteller from France, came to steep herself in Benin’s oral treasures – an extraordinary but vanishing catalogue of spirits, talking animals, magical creatures, kings and queens, heroes and villains and witches.

“I started my career telling African stories,” Armao says. “I find them steeped with meaning, humour and philosophy”.

Like Djimada, this is the first time many of the audience hear the stories, a reflection of the reality that oral storytelling has been losing its cultural prestige.

Chris-Mael Tonoukouin, a teacher in Cotonou, says: “In the good old days, we sat on the floor around a kerosene lamp. We were listening to our grandparents tell these funny stories between humans and animals.”

The point of the festival, whose tales are recounted in French and local language Fongbe, is so younger people can hear the tales, “then teach their children”, Memories of Africa’s Raoul Atchaka says.

The association held a storytelling contest in 2000. More than 1,000 young people took part, creating books containing more than 1,500 stories.

“We must create African heroes to stand alongside Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood,” says Carmen Toudon, a Beninese author.

“It plays a role of conservation of heritage, history, knowledge and perpetuates the identity of peoples,” says Patrice Toton, a Benin storyteller based in France. He hopes in 100 years, a child in Benin will still know not to whistle at night.

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