African storyteller weaves her tribal tales before young American audiences

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

She beams when she tells stories to children. She waves her hands. She tiptoes among her listeners, whispering, singing, or humming -- whatever makes the stories come alive for them. She teaches African lyrics to African songs, and her audiences sing along.

When Harriet M. Masembe weaves a tale, children -- and adults -- listen. African folklore is her favorite subject. A native of Kampala, Uganda, Dr. Masembe came to the United States in 1978 for graduate study.

Teaching is her vocation; but dramatizing African folklore, especially to children, is her avocation. In September she will begin a new full-time career as an English teacher at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts. She is coming there after earning her MA and PhD in African languages and literature from the University of Wisconsin and after working as a part-time English instructor at California State University at Northridge, a suburb of Los Angeles.

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``I have always told stories to children in Africa,'' she says. ``When I attended elementary school, I learned math, history -- and storytelling.''

``Many stories from different cultures carry the same motif,'' Masembe says. They deal with the good and the bad. She prefers to tell tales that leave a message of good. ``Sun and Moon'' [See story following] is a tale with a taste of African folklore from the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya. Children ``love this story,'' she says.

But there is one story she rarely tells. It's about her sister, Margaret, and her family who are refugees from Uganda.

Dr. Masembe speaks hopefully of Margaret, who lives with husband David A. Barlow and their four children in Washington. ``He had to go to Washington before he could find work,'' she says. ``And [the job he has now] is only temporary.''

Dr. Masembe could have been a refugee, too. Uganda has changed leaders three times, not including the July military coup led by Brig. Gen. Basilio Olara Okello, since she left in 1978.

A church relief agency sponsored the Barlow family as refugees to the US in early spring. ``They received Southern hospitality, especially from one wonderful neighbor in Mobile,'' says Masembe. ``But neither of them could find a job. So they moved to New Orleans. No job there either. So next stop, Washington.''

As a Ugandan public official Mr. Barlow served under President Godfrey Binaisa -- as ambassador to Japan and to South Korea between February 1980 and October 1981. Before that he served as inspector general (chief executive) of the Uganda Police Force. Mrs. Barlow is a trained librarian.

Dr. Masembe says she is more relaxed now that her brother-in-law is employed. ``Certainly, I hope to return home one day, but now I'm about to do something I love -- teach full time at a college.''

One of her professors, Harold Scheub, discovered Dr. Masembe's story-telling ability and made her part of a three-member team.

``We participated in North Land story telling festivals in Wisconsin and Minnesota,'' she says. Then in 1981 she went out on her own with African folk tales, when she moved to Los Angeles.

She now travels around the US sharing the folklore not only of Uganda but also of East Africa with American audiences. `SUN AND MOON'

Storyteller Harriet M. Masembe tells this tale from the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya:

``The King of the Sky had two sons -- Sun and Moon,'' she says. ``He planned to divide the kingdom between the two, but Sun, being older, ruled alone while Moon was growing up. Sun was cruel to Moon. He refused to share the kingdom, not even providing a bride price -- in most parts of Africa the man pays. So Moon left Sky, disguised himself as a shepherd boy, and lived on Earth.

``Moon fell in love with the beautiful princess, daughter of the King of Earth, and destroyed a Monster on an island to win her hand. ``But his troubles were not over. Sun wanted Princess for himself!

``He slew Moon and arranged to marry his widow, Princess. She had another idea -- give Moon a special life restorer. The wedding day came.''

Sun invited everyone to the wedding. What he didn't know was that Moon was restored to life, very handsome. At the wedding the King of the Earth told everyone of Sun's cruelty to Moon.

``The King of Earth also made a decision -- Sun would rule by day, and Moon would rule by night. So to the Kikuyu in Kenya that is why we have sunshine in the daytime and moonlight at night.'' 30{et

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