Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Tellable tales

It’s great to come across a new collection of extremely tellable tales. Girls, Goddesses and Giants by Lari Don (A & C Black) has just this week come into my hands as one of a lovely pile of books I’ve been sent to review for School Librarian magazine. Chris Brown, the magazine’s long-term Books Editor, is just about to retire from that position. He’s done a marvellous job over all of the years. I shall miss him. He always seems to know what books I will value receiving.

Girls, Goddesses & Giants addresses a continuingly important need in stories, namely for strong girl heroines. When I was growing up, I always identified with the young men who were the usual fare in the hero department. Heroines were in shorter supply. Whenever a brave prince was rescuing a kidnapped princess doomed to be sacrificed to a voracious dragon, I became the sword-wielding prince as well as the princess.

Lari Don is not only an author. She’s a practising storyteller too. She has felt the same strong need. And as she says in notes at the back of her book (these include helpful hints on adapting stories to suit your own style), she has felt compelled to satisfy it even while actually being in the middle of telling to an audience of children. The 12 stories in her collection come from all over the world. One of my favourites is a Cameroonian tale, Mbango and the Whirlpool. It brought back to my mind Philip Pullman’s point, made in the interview I quoted a week or two back, that a main reason why children love folktales and fairytales is their belief in justice. They want to see fair play being done.

Hear, hear! Only last weekend, I met a real live equivalent of Mbango. She was a lovely young African woman who came to this country seeking asylum. Her mother had died when she was three and since there was no sign of her father, she’d had to grow up with an aunt who made her work from morn to night and never gave her affection. This young woman had never been able to go to school. The food she’d been given was poor and the aunt’s two girls had also treated her badly. By now, however, through sheer determination, it looks like she’s managing to turn her life round – she’s actually studying to become a nurse. How one wishes and hopes she will eventually achieve the happiness Mbango gains in the folktale.

So here’s the story of Mbango as retold and summarised by me from Lari Don’s words.

Mbango and the Whirlpool

Mbango was brought up by an aunty who always treated her badly while treating her own daughter well.

One day when Mbango went to the river to fetch water, her calabash slipped and was swept away in the river. As Mbango watched in dismay, she saw it being spun towards a whirlpool where it disappeared down through the middle, sinking into the depths of the river.

Mbango dived in to try to fetch the calabash back and when she reached the bottom of the river, she saw she was in a village of huts. As she looked round, she saw her calabash being picked up by an old lady. Mbango begged to be given it back and in return offered to do a day’s work for the old lady.

So the old lady took Mbango to her hut and Mbango worked very hard doing jobs that needed to be done. At the end of the day, before she left, the old lady offered her a meal. But when the meal came, Mbango saw it was Pig Dung.

PIG DUNG (and we can all imagine, can’t we, how children listening to the story would react: Pig Poo? Ugh! Disgusting! They’d love it!)

Well, Mbango didn’t want to offend the old lady. So she picked up the smallest piece and when it reached her mouth, it turned into her favourite fish stew. Then the old lady gave her something else – three large eggs. Mbango was told to take these home and break them on the floor of the hut. If she did that, they might change her life.

Of course, Mbango was scolded when she reached home with the calabash. But when she broke the three eggs as the old lady had told her, out came wonderful riches – silver chains, gold nuggets, diamonds.

As soon as she saw these riches, the cruel aunty told her own daughter to go and fetch three eggs as well. But when that girl  came to bottom of the river, she was extremely rude to the old lady there. And when the old lady offered her Pig Dung to eat, she refused: ‘Just give me my three eggs and I’ll be off.’

The old lady gave her three eggs as she’d asked. But when the girl got home and smashed them, what came out? Snakes. Scorpions. Spiders. In that way, justice was done. The aunty and her daughter ran away to the forest, Mbango’s life became happy without them and she enjoyed her riches.


More Tellable Tales

Parallels to the story of Mbango exist all round the world. One I’ve told many dozens of times is a Japanese story called Roly Poly Rice Ball which I found, years ago, in an excellent book called Twenty Tellable Tales by the influential American storyteller, Margaret Read MacDonald.  Come to think of it, I think that book was also sent to me by Chris Brown to review for School Librarian. Anyway, I’d recommend it to anyone who is getting involved with telling stories to children. Its subtitle, ‘Audience Participation Folktales for the Beginning Storyteller’, speaks volumes about its approach. Just like me and Lari Don, Margaret Read MacDonald clearly believes in the power of stories to engage children when the children are allowed and encourage to become involved. And, like me and Lari Don too, she knows from experience the value of subtly adapting stories on the hoof in order to achieve that engagement.

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