A lack of identity can be one of the most devastating of human conditions. One of the most powerful ways to find and preserve a sense of identity is by finding and documenting our stories and our ancestors’ stories. An excellent way to do this is to reach out to the custodians of your story: your parents, uncles, aunts, and siblings. Ask them questions about who you are and where you come from, the people who came before you, their way of life, their cultural practices, achievements, losses and wins, failures and successes, likes, hates, and beliefs.
One of the custodians of my stories was my father. My father was a great storyteller. He was a walking catalog of stories told to him by his father and grandfather. My father and I used to talk for hours. We talked about everything: Politics, science, art, religion, relationships, and history. I enjoyed those conversations. But what I enjoyed the most, were his folktales and fables. He started telling me stories when I was about five or six. I remember how they made me feel. They transported me to a rendition of the world created through my ancestors’ eyes. My father and I would sit on the verandah, stars twinkling high above in the open, dark skies. He would tell me stories about talking animals, superhumans, magicians, sorcerers, and heroes. My father’s stories opened my eyes to the limitlessness power of imagination.
I decided that one day, I would write down all the stories my father told me. But then I grew older, and my life began, and in the three-ring circus that life can sometimes be, writing took a back seat. I did write a book in 2015, but I was too busy with life, so I didn’t give it too much attention.
I didn’t think that writing would ever become a significant part of my life until my father fell ill. We still talked for hours, and I began to recall the stories he told me, well snippets. I decided to ask him about those stories so we could reminisce about the “good old days.” My father couldn’t remember his own stories anymore, and shortly after, he passed away. I was devastated. Among other obvious reasons, was the fact that somehow, I just assumed he’d always be there, and that I could always go back to him for those stories. I procrastinated, and the stories were gone forever, at least whatever I don’t remember. I remember once picking up the phone to call him and ask a question about a piece of our history and then remembering I didn’t have that luxury anymore. Can you imagine the wealth of knowledge I could have had at my disposal if someone had written down all of those stories, not just my father’s, but the stories of the many fathers and mothers like him all around Africa and the world?
You see, African storytelling is an oral tradition. That’s how we pass down stories from generation to generation. All it takes is one break in the chain, and so much wealth is lost forever. Multiply the chain breaks, and critical parts of history and culture begin to disappear, almost like they never existed. The only way to prevent this loss of information is to write down our stories. We can still share them orally, but we must write them down, too.
Writing things down is the only way our stories are preserved forever in history. It is the only way, for those who come after: our children, their children and the ones we’ll never know, to experience the past, learn about their ancestors, and in so doing, learn about themselves: who they are, and what makes them unique and exceptional.
Our stories define us. Our stories are appealing, educational, and beautiful. If you don’t claim and write your stories, someone else will re-imagine and write them for you from a lens that isn’t your own; someone else will define you and tell your children who they are.
Our stories become our ancestors’ hands, awakening, enlightening, and guiding us as we journey through life.
Do you know your story? Do you know where you come from, who you come from, who you are, where you are, or why you are? Have you asked clarifying questions? If you know your story, write it down. Your story might change your life or the lives of those that come after you.
One day, you become the ancestor, and your stories might be the only way the world, and more importantly, your descendants will know you were here.
May you never lose your story.