The ancient art of traditional African storytelling has found an unlikely ally in the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of lockdowns, the Play Africa Children’s Museum in South Africa has put its African Storytelling project online, broadening its audience to include children around the world.
Thembile Tshuma is among professional storytellers who have taken traditional African storytelling online.
He was supposed to entertain youngsters on location at the Play Africa Children’s Museum in Johannesburg but the pandemic lockdown changed all that.
Now, Tshuma is performing through a camera and computer screen. His global exposure has been growing.
“Now I [have] more than like 3,000 people following me on my page.… That’s also happening to other storytellers … and to the Play Africa page,” Tshuma said.
Internet-savvy mother Pamela Seloane from Soweto explains why she initiated viewing sessions in a local bookshop.
“Some kids don’t have the opportunity to actually watch, even on their phones … They don’t have access. So, I’m like, why can’t I let other kids watch with me? It was from an excitement of discovering this and I just wanted to make it go viral,” Seloane said.
It was a steep learning curve for the storytellers, the children’s museum and its partner organization ASSITEJ SA, the South African branch of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People, to master the technology and adapt techniques and props to bring interactive African storytelling to Facebook Live. However, their efforts have transmitted African story magic far beyond South Africa, despite the COVID-19 lockdown, says Ann Simmonds of the Play Africa Children’s Museum.
“That ancient art form is now putting a human and a human together again via zippy technology. We started seeing people from Kenya and elsewhere in Africa connecting. We often see in Europe, in the UK families logging on. We’ve had families from Australia,” Simmonds said.
Despite clear benefits, online African storytelling must be dealt with carefully going forward, says applied theater practitioner and analyst, Lalu Mokuku.
“It may also exclude many people that may not have access to the digital space. That’s why I said there needs to be care. At the same time, it’s also quite important for our stories to be told widely,” Mokuku said.
Play Africa Children’s Museum and ASSITEJ SA are also working on developing complementary educational content and considering ways for wider use of the stories.