Mining South Africa's folklore

HAROLD SCHEUB brings riches out of South Africa, but not the usual diamonds, gold, and gemstones. The treasures he brings back are tales. This folklorist from Wisconsin has hiked 6,000 miles along the continent's southeastern coast, collecting oral histories, myths, poetry, and narratives from African populations.

Dr. Scheub gathers stories with the ease with which most people pick up pine cones in the woods. One here. Two there. Another, then another. On four separate trips he roamed from village to village, watching, listening, recording. And talking. He went equipped with a reading-writing-speaking fluency in Ndebele, Swati, Xhosa, and Zulu; he can stumble-bumble through Sotho, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Afrikaans, French, and Portuguese as well.

Over the years, he has garnered 10,000 taped stories. Scheub, a professor of African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, creates courses around this cache of stories, shares them with students, and translates them into books. But most of all, he collected them for posterity - both black and white - because unrecorded stories can be an endangered species amid South Africa's apartheid turmoil.

``There's a universality to these stories,'' he says. ``The folk tales center on moments of crisis in the lives of human beings. And the big moments are rites of passage - birth, puberty, marriage, and death.'' People in the Western world go through the same experiences in their own way, Scheub says, explaining that these tales can tie cultures together.

In the Transkei area of South Africa, Scheub struck the mother lode of his story wealth. Here, he met Nongenile Masithathu Zenani, a grandmother with a golden tongue. Scheub has just completed translating into English a narrative of epic proportions that Mrs. Zenani told back in the '70s. ``I'll have to admit, I'm not quite sure what this is, but it's massssive'' - indeed, it's 150 hours long.

``We're not talking about little vignettes idly linked together with no relationship. We're talking about one long, beautiful narrative,'' he says. ``I counted 40 story designs that through the alchemy of storytelling she welded into a unified whole, with all threads coming together.'' Scheub labels Zenani an African ``Homer.''

Zenani performed before villagers - and Scheub - in a traditional rondoval (circular house) with thatched roof. It took 17 days. Then, exhausted, she went back to ``work.'' Zenani farms, cares for her family, and is a traditional doctor in the Transkei, a rural area along the Indian Ocean inhabited primarily by Xhosa.

Zenani's story is exquisitely crafted. And its subject matter is something of a bombshell. It is feminist enough to make even Gloria Steinem applaud.

``I have a lot of stories [told by males] from that area, and the women do get short shrift,'' Scheub acknowledges. ``The roles of women are important, but you don't have women as the `shapers' of society. What Zenani did was set the record straight,'' showing that women, too, can hammer out a society's destinies. ``The feminist movement isn't peculiarly Western,'' says Scheub. ``The kinds of things Zenani is struggling for are exactly what women here are struggling for.''

A pause. ``My personal feeling is that she may have stacked the cards a little heavily against men,'' he says, smiling.

In summarizing Zenani's narrative, Scheub explains that the core centers on Mityi, a girl who ovecomes a Cinderella situation with an evil stepmother, plus a host of other hardships, to emerge finally as leader of her people. And then, of all things, she hands the leadership over to her husband. But she does manage to play the power behind the throne.

Although the fictional tale is steeped in historical and ethnographic data, it is geared to contemporary times and related to realism - unlike the bedtime tales in Western cultures, says Scheub. ``Take, for example, the Brothers Grimm stories. They were written down in the early decades of the 19th century and frozen.

``We continue to inculcate [children] with these 19th-century ideals, especially the view of women. Women are chattels - the princess will be given to the male who wins the contest,'' says Scheub. ``Today we have women who are struggling for liberation, yet, we tell children stories ... which place women in subservient positions. These views become a part of children's emotional life.''

On the whole, Scheub finds African oral tradition more dynamic. Although stories focus on ancient characters and images, the action generally sprints along with the times.

``In our society, television has taken over the role of storytelling,'' he says. ``It's simply today's way of telling a story,'' and he finds this appropriate, because ``we live in a technological society.''

But in the commercial medium of TV, Scheub says, we lose balance. ``There's violence for violence' sake; sex for sex' sake. In the [African] oral tradition, you have both violence and sex, but they're placed within the social context.

``After all, though, TV is a very young medium. Let's say our folklore is still working its way through technology.''

Scheub finds Zenani's performance every bit as exciting as any TV drama. ``I've always been convinced that the body is 50 percent of the story, and she has a wonderful way of using her body. Those storytellers never stand up; they're always in a squatting position. And there's a metronomic movement in the upper thighs and upper arms that supplies a rhythmic background.''

Originally, Scheub gravitated toward early-English oral traditions. ``Beowulf and so forth,'' he says, and he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Then he switched to African oral tradition, when he discovered the South Africa's untapped wealth.

To collect his tales, he walked - both barefoot and in tennis shoes - with a knapsack, recording equipment, and two cans of beans that he never opened, because ``hospitality there goes so deep.''

``These people were delighted that I recognized the grandeur of their tradition,'' he says. ``Mind you, though, you have some hack storytellers, too, because everyone performs.''

Zenani invited Scheub to tape her epic-like performance because ``she found her grandchildren going to Western-style schools with Dickens shoved in their back pockets,'' while Xhosa oral tradition was declining, he says.

Scheub has not had word of Zenani for months now. He keeps in touch with her through a bank, where he sends money monthly for her. This grandmother, who never possessed money before meeting Scheub, has not visited the bank recently. Although Scheub has other information channels open, he's looking toward a trip back to the Transkei to find her.

Meanwhile he'll keep busy teaching - and translating, because Zenani performed a Part 2 and Part 3 to her first narrative. And they're 150 hours each.

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