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African tales for American kids

For kids: Liberian storyteller Won Ldy-Paye uses words, masks, and music to share his culture.

By Elsa Sherin Mathews / June 17, 2008

Spinning a yarn: Liberian storyteller Won-Ldy Paye (standing) narrates a tale for his young audience at a performance in Federal Way, Wash.

Elsa Sherin Mathews

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If you're a kid who likes stories with lots of action and adventure, then you'd love the ones told by Won-Ldy Paye (pronounced Von De Pay-ee), a storyteller from the West African country of Liberia. He uses masks, dolls, and colorful backdrops to make traditional Liberian tales come alive for young audiences in schools and libraries across the United States.

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At a performance in Federal Way, Wash., kids were captivated by his story about a group of children who find a doll in a West African village.

"Minutes become hours, hours become days, days become months, months become years, and the kids play with the doll, [but then] they abandon it behind somebody's backyard. 'Wwwwaaaaaah,' the doll cries, and so would I if I were left alone like that," Mr. Paye exclaimed.

After a few months of crying, the doll grows up, he said, as a life-size doll made of hay and a black mask dramatically rose toward the library ceiling to the crescendo of drum beats.

Later, Mr. Paye narrated a story about the day he arrived in the US and met "little devils."

"There was a witch and a devil and an animal of this size," he said, pointing to a standing child. "Later, I saw them knocking at people's doors. I went home, and they were in my TV. I switched it off, as I was frightened. Then I heard a knock on my door. They got out of the TV and were now knocking at my front door!" he cried.

Fortunately, some kids in the audience knew just how to respond to this tale: They told Mr. Paye that it must have been Halloween when he came to America and that the "little devils" were probably trick-or-treaters wanting candy.

In his own words

Mr. Paye gives a lot of thought to his stories and why he shares them. "The aim of my storytelling," he said, "is not only to entertain but also to make [children] aware of another culture in which people use masks and costumes to express themselves. Here, I use the example of Halloween day when children in the USA put on masks and costumes, just like in the storytelling tradition of Liberia."

Mr. Paye also wants kids to decide for themselves what the lessons of his stories may be. "I can't tell children not to abandon the toys that their parents get for them; in my story they see a doll that has been abandoned and is sad, and they make up their own mind," he explained.

As he narrates a story, he likes to interact with the crowd. "I often bounce a joke [off] the audience. Sometimes I become part of the audience, and they respond," he said. "Also, I like to make animals and insects my characters, rather than some 'Annie' or 'Mark' because I don't want any child to think, 'Is he talking about me?' "

The Dan people of Liberia

For Mr. Paye, storytelling comes naturally because he is a member of the Tlo Kher Mehn (meaning "people who play the story"), a group of professional entertainers belonging to the Dan tribe in Liberia. To the Dan community, telling stories is serious business.

"I come from a tradition of entertaining and educating," said Mr. Paye, who, as a child, learned the art of storytelling from his grandmother, Gowo. He also learned dancing, drumming, maskmaking, and instrumentmaking. "These skills are all essential to become a good storyteller in the Dan community," he said.

There are three types of masks that the Dan use to help tell their stories. The female mask is pretty, the animal mask has feathers or fur, and the grotesque mask is ugly and scary.

Storytelling for the Dan community is about bringing people together. It is also used to teach lessons and spread important messages.

When Mr. Paye was just a teenager, he was a founding member of a group of story­tellers who helped promote awareness about healthcare. "In 1980, I, along with a few teenagers in Liberia, formed the Trow Trow [Play Play] Artist Workshop, based in Monrovia [the capital of Liberia]. The Trow Trow Artist Workshop worked with local and international health organizations, radio and TV stations, with theaters and rural areas to educate and entertain," said Mr. Paye.

Dan stories in America

Although Liberia has a long history of storytelling, it was difficult to carry on the tradition during the country's two civil wars. Mr. Paye came to the US in 1990, not long after the first war began. That's when he starting sharing and teaching this art in American schools.

Talking about his experience in American classrooms, he said, "The students often tell me that they feel that they are in a Liberian village while they participate in the storytelling session, and since they don't have any idea about the Liberian civil war, they ask me questions about the animals, food, and lifestyle of Liberians.

"Through the drums, masks, and dances," he added, "I try and bring the culture of West Africa to America, and my stories try and reflect that human nature is the same everywhere, and one ought to have respect for other cultures."

• To learn more about Won-Ldy Paye, check out his website at www.wonldypaye.com.

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