Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Loud listening

I love rugby. (I’m Welsh after all.) So of course I watched the final of the Rugby World Cup, England vs. South Africa. In his comments on TV immediately after his team won, Siya Kolisi, the black captain of the South African team, said he hoped their win would help bring his country together.

I felt very moved, first by the unboastful way he spoke, then by all the memories that began flooding into my mind, particularly memories from my five-week storytelling trip to South Africa in 1992 not long after Nelson Mandela was released from prison.


1. An adult storytelling workshop in Cape Town had drawn together a large group of people, white, black, mixed race. A young black man was my partner in an exercise for sharing a personal story of change. After we’d told our stories, he looked directly at me and said: ‘This is the first time I have looked a white woman in the eye.’

2. At a storytelling lecture in Grahamstown University, the lecture theatre was pretty full of lecturers and students. Towards the end, as I was telling The First Storyteller (in origin an ancient Chinese myth) I became aware of a number of mature black women in African dress entering the theatre and taking their seats in an empty row near the back. Almost immediately, they made their presence felt. At all kinds of significant moments, particularly when the story spoke about power, I’d hear them. ‘Ee-eh.’ The Emperor’s question of the blind storyteller: ‘Who are you?’ The storyteller’s reply: ‘I was thrown out because I was not thought worthy.’ ‘Ee-eh!’ Their voices rang out from the back of the hall. Afterwards I learned that they were on a part-time course for what white South Africans would refer to as maids.

3. A talk and workshop for teachers. All the participants were black. Afterwards, talking informally, one smart young black woman challenged me. ‘How can it be that you are here in my country when I cannot get to go to yours?’

Nearly thirty years later, things are changing. But not nearly enough, for many people barely at all. Which is why it was especially important that the South African rugby team, winners of the World Cup, had a black captain and that so many people worldwide would have heard him say that he hoped their win would help to bring his country together.

The First Storyteller: a brief retelling

The Emperor longed for a child. But when at last a child was born, the Emperor commanded that the baby be thrown out because he was blind.

The child was left in a forest but didn’t die. The animals of the forest fed him. The sounds of the forest engaged him and when he was about five years old, the gods above sent down a musical instrument which helped him to find his way around.

One day when the boy had become a young man, he found his way out of the forest and was seen by a man from a nearby village. Each was startled. When the villager took the blind young man to his home, the villagers asked him his story and he in turn heard theirs. After a while, he moved on. Wherever he went, he listened to what people said and told them the stories he’d heard.

After a while, news of the blind young storyteller came to the Emperor’s ears. He commanded that the storyteller be brought to him. At the palace, the Emperor demanded to be told a story. The storyteller obliged and the Emperor asked for another – and another and another. At last the Emperor demanded to know how the storyteller knew all these things.

When the blind young man told his own story, the Emperor realised who he was. Seeing that the young man knew more of his kingdom than he did himself, he asked to be forgiven. ‘You are my son.’ But when the Emperor asked the storyteller to stay in the palace and become the Emperor in his turn, the storyteller refused. He said, ‘My life is where the people are.’ With that, he left and went on his way.

PS:  Top photo is  a sprinbok,  one of South Africa’s national symbols. Bottom photo is nother of South Africa’s symbols, a protea.

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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Loud listening”

  1. Hilary Minns Says:

    What a splendid story – and it reminds me of the story Duncan Williamson tells in his book Stories of the Scottish Travelling People. This story is called A Thorn in the King’s Foot and tells how the Queen had a beautiful baby boy, but the baby was rejected by the King because he had a hump on his back and the King ordered the huntsman to take him into the forest…the travelling of tales again!

  2. Pam Says:

    Hi Mary, I like this story of The First Storyteller. I have tried to find other versions of it without success. Can you point me to some resources to find other versions please?
    Thanks and good wishes,

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