Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Mirror, mirror

What happened became something I’d never forget as the young Masai moran stared at the camera, stared again, then summoned the others to come and look. One by one, they took turns to do so.. And why? What the first young man had seen was a reflection of himself in the camera lens. Now everyone else had to have a look too. Camera had become mirror. And this was fascinating to those Masai people for, at that point anyway, they had no mirrors.

This encounter occurred during a weekend safari trip made by myself and my then boyfriend at some point during the nine months I spent in Kenya as a VSO (Volunteer for Service Overseas) before I went to University. At that time, the VSO scheme was for school-leavers in the belief that the time those accepted onto it spent in developing countries would have a powerful and probably beneficial effect on them and also, in terms of what they could do to help, on the communities they went to. They were certainly right in regard to myself and the long-term effect.


It was the links that were made, the thoughts that arose from the links, the experience of getting to know how others lived: all those things about my VSO experience have helped to form me. Many individual experiences have remained vivid. For instance, I’ve never forgotten that small group of Masai people I met, living in the middle of what I might have once seen as nowhere, and the courtesy they showed to me and my boyfriend after their initial suspicion, inviting us into their home, a single oblong shaped room made from bricks of cow dung. Each time the encounter has come back to mind, the incident has made me think about them and their lives. It’s been a kind of two-way mirror.

What prompted me to remember them again this week was a story I happened upon while looking for a story, any good story, to read with some children I know who absolutely love reading stories. ‘This is a good one,’ I thought as I trawled through The Ghosts who Danced by Saviour Pirotta, a storyteller I remember meeting on one occasion. I hope he won’t mind if I retell the story briefly here. It originates from Bengal. In the book, it’s entitled The Ghost and his Uncle and, of course, it made me think about mirrors. Where would we in the West be without them? What do they do for us? What do they do to us?

A story from Bengal:

A poor man who was a barber by trade (hence the mirror) was on his way to the big city to seek his fortune. By sundown, he’d come to a dark forest where, settling down under a tree, he opened the box of food his wife had prepared. Unfortunately, the delicious smell of the lentils within woke up a ghost who was sleeping in a tree nearby. The ghost was also feeling hungry. He fancied eating the barber. So, roaring loudly, he leapt out of his tree and confronted the barber.

The barber was terrified. The ghost had a green face, sharp teeth and long bony fingers and it said, ‘I’ve come to suck your blood.’

The barber kept calm. ‘You won’t,’ he said. ‘I’m a ghost-catcher and in my sack I’ve got room for one more ghost.’

The ghost, who was still quite young (and naïve) had been warned about ghost-catchers by his uncle. But he didn’t think this man looked dangerous. So he said, ‘I don’t believe you’ve got a ghost in there.’ ‘Don’t you?’ replied the barber, bringing out his mirror from his sack. ‘See!’ he said, as he held the mirror in front of the ghost. ‘The poor fellow looks just like you and I’m warning you that all I have to do is chant a magic spell and you’ll be next inside my bag.’

Of course, the young ghost pleaded to be spared and the clever barber agreed to let him go as long as he’d make some wishes he had come true. When the ghost enquired what these wishes were, the barber said he wanted a bag of gold and a barn to be built next to his house and filled with sacks of lentils.

Of course, the barber got what he wanted. First, a bag of gold appeared and by the time he got home, there was a new barn filled with sacks of lentils.

But (and of course there’s always a but) the young ghost really did have an uncle who was even more horrible than he was. When the young ghost told him about his encounter, the uncle was enraged and demanded to be taken at once to the man who, he said, had tricked his young nephew. He’d find out how the outwitting had happened and then he’d suck that man’s blood right out of his neck.

That night, the barber was lying in bed, thinking about all the things he could do with his gold, when he saw the hideous face of a ghost looking through his window. He guessed at once what was happening, pulled his mirror out of his sack and held it front of the horrible face.

Never having seen a mirror before, just the same as his nephew, the terrified uncle pleaded not to be put in the barber’s sack and, in return, vowed to give the barber not just one wish but two – or, on reflection, three.

So the barber did well out of his mirror. Along with a diamond necklace for his wife and another new barn filled with sacks of rice, he obtained satisfaction of his wish never to be bothered by the uncle ghost, the nephew ghost or any other ghost ever again. ‘Be gone!’ he said. And (since stories have a habit of making wishes come true) they went. Gone!

The end.

PS: I have no memory of why or when I took the top photo. But it’s certainly of my own hands holding my own old camera. The middle photo is of the little mirror I generally carry round in my storytelling bag. The bottom photo is one of a number  I’ve taken over time – a pool mirroring the sky above.

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One Response to “Storytelling Starters ~ Mirror, mirror”

  1. Meg Says:

    Love the expression ‘trawled through” when looking for stories, Mary.
    It certainly feels like that when you know there’s got to be one somewhere that will serve your telling. The Ghost and his Uncle strikes me as close to the notion of ‘bullying’ in the beginning. Have been fishing for those kinds of stories stories that might throw light on that issue.
    Last week came across that great story about the man in the market who sees a mirror for the first time and takes it home … and the consequences when he shows it to his wife. The version I found in Garrett Bang’s collection of Japanese tales – Men From the Village Deep in the Mountains. It’s s longer than most with an ending that clinched it for me!
    Thanks again for helping me make more story connections!

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