Finding My Way Back Home – The Power of Folktales
Mze Jomo Kenyatta was facing Mount Kenya when he had his epiphany. Some 500 kilometers southeastwards, I was facing the Indian Ocean when I had mine, and it came to me through a folktale.
The fading light gave the sea a mercury-like quality, like when oil mixes with a puddle of water on the road. As I looked at the great expanse of shimmering silver, I thought of Shela, the little girl who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in search of her family after they were kidnapped by European slave traders.
Shela is not real. She is a character in a story entitled Shela’s Journey, my contribution to the recently published anthology of 12 reimagined folktales called ‘Story Story, Story Come.’ But the trans-Atlantic slave trade was very real. As Mami Wata tells us in the story: “two million of our people will die in the deadly crossing, and those who survive will be forced to call a new land home for eternity.” The inspiration for the story is an equally painful reality. In July 2014 an African American man named Eric Garner was chocked to death by officer Daniel Pantaleo of the New York Police Department. He held Garner in a choke hold for nearly 20 seconds as Garner repeatedly gasped, eleven times to be precise, ‘I can’t breathe’.
This news came out amidst many other stories about police brutality against African Americans in the US. In Africa, our political leaders were silent. I thought back to a time when W.E.B Du Bois, Maya Angelou and Malcolm X forged ties with people like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. I remembered watching the footage of Mohammed Ali touching down in Kinshasa to a heroes welcome a couple of weeks before his ‘rumble in the jungle’ with George Foreman in 1974. And I wondered why and how we had lost our trans-continental solidarity. There is no denying that some Africans both at home and in the Diaspora continue to fight tirelessly on global social justice issues, but where are the voices of our leaders?
In Shela’s Journey, the song that her father would sing to her as he rocked her to sleep is repeated throughout the story. When she finds her mother in the Caribbean and they cook a feast for the slaves – “it is the best meal they had ever eaten because it tasted of their names, it tasted of their home, and it tasted of their ancestors”. When she meets her father, who is reincarnated as Eric Garner, we are told “no one knows if Shela’s father found his way back home, or whether he ever will, but from Kingston to Gorée, from Chicago to Cape Town, people swear that on a windy day, they can still hear her song”:
Shela Shela Shela,
Always find your way back home.
The story is not a call for repatriation; I think we lost that dream alongside the dream of African unity. It is merely a reminder that wherever we are scattered across the oceans, that we still have a home, a name, that our ancestors have not forgotten us, even when it feels like our leaders have. Africa is not just a physical place, but also a place that we all carry in our DNA, in our souls, in our straight backs, and also in our scars.
And as I watched the sun setting on the Indian Ocean and I sang Shela’s song, I had my epiphany. My marriage was falling apart and my life was about to change drastically. And suddenly I heard my late father’s voice, who would always say to me whenever I was feeling downtrodden, “never forget that you are a descendant of Kings and Queens.” And suddenly I realized that I had to ‘find my way back home’ too. And that through this universal story that I tell in Shela’s Journey, I was being gifted a very personal lesson.
And for me, that is the power of stories. They are as layered as we are. Their meaning is subject to different interpretations and constant reinterpretation. Every time I tell a story, I learn something new about not just the story, but about myself.
A Singaporean storyteller friend of mine who asked not be named recently posted on social media: “Stories don’t exist in isolation. They exist because that’s how we find our own place in this world, how we uncover meaning in our lives, make sense of the paths we have take and the paths we are yet to take.”
I have performed Shela’s Journey many times, but this truth was revealed to me only when I needed it most. I am ready to find my way back home.
Maïmouna Jallow is a storyteller and journalist based in Nairobi. She is the director of arts and media company, Positively African. @PstvlyAfrican
For more information about the Re-Imagined Folktales Project: http://www.reimaginedstories.com/
Join us at Africa Writes 2019 for a listening session of stories from the anthology Story Story, Story Come: bit.ly/AW2019StoryCome
Images provided courtesy of the artist: Illustration of Sheila’s Journey in Story Story, Story Come Anthology, and Maïmouna Jallow performing Shela’s Journey in Jamestown, Accra during the Chale Wote Festival. © Hathor Rao.