Wangari: The master raconteur

wangari grace   Grace Wangari of Zamaleo Storytellers on Monday, November 10th, 2014.. Photo/Jonah Onyango

Once upon a time, a girl was born. Her parents named her Wangari Grace. Wangari grew up to be a shy and introverted girl who could not stand in front of people to speak.

Then one day a magical opportunity knocked and everything changed. Suddenly, she could speak to large crowds in schools, theatres, storytelling festivals and corporate functions... telling stories and watching people laugh.

It is now something she enjoys doing. Storytelling is a part of her life.

“When my former schoolmates and teachers meet me, they say I am very good at faking being coy. They do not believe I used to be a shy girl. Art has really changed me, it has given me a sense of self-esteem and zeal in life,” she says, her tone and appearance complementing her words.

Wangari got into arts through stage performances 10 years ago. She later got supporting roles for television shows Mnazi Lane, Makutano Junction and Saints.

Then her director, Alumbe Namai, informed her about Zamaleo, an arts and culture public trust organisation that focuses on African creative performances.

Alumbe invited her to their shows and Wangari found herself helping out with managing costumes for the performers and engaging the children as a warm-up before the showstoppers stepped on stage. Little did she know that she was carving herself to fit the designs of a storyteller, show after show.

“Alumbe noticed my growing interest in storytelling performance and she encouraged me to go for it. I was used to working backstage and, slowly, I found myself ready to face people and tell stories.”

In February that year, she had her first duo storytelling show with another storyteller, Susan Kungu. Four months later, she had her first solo performance as part of a show called Fireside Tales at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi.

Wangari performed the adaptation of The Noisy Hornbill, a story directed by Agan Odera, the director of the Kenya Cultural Centre.

After the opening show, Alumbe and Agan wrote down a list of what Wangari needed to improve on. After the second show, Wangari got another list. On the third and final show, the two approached her and told her that the show was perfect.

“That shaped me to be the storyteller I am today. Every time I rehearse, I ask myself the questions they used to ask me. Questions such as why this story and what changes can be made. Most of the fairy and folk tales have been read and told therefore, I have to find a more creative and personalised way to tell it.”

The Forever Tree

Wangari’s style of telling stories is interactive, to involve the audience’s participation. One of the stories she used to tell was The Forever Tree, which she later released as a book.

When submitting the manuscript, the publishers, Storymoja, also asked for a translation of the book. Wangari translated it herself.

The two books, The Forever Tree and Mti wa Milele is a tale revolving around animals. It recounts a story of a tree in the middle of the jungle that bears all kinds of fruits. Famine strikes and the animals have to trace the tree, the animals have to travel to the jungle and call out the tongue-twisting name of the tree correctly and the fruits will start falling down.

The book is a class reader for Standard Two students at Rudolf Steiner World of School, Merma Primary School and Fountain Junior School. The main target audience  children aged 10 - 12.

“I tell children stories therefore I saw it best to write children books. Parents are likely to buy a book for their children than buy a book for themselves.

They opt for motivational books but not straight fiction. We have books for the older generation and the children. What I feel is missing are books targeting teenagers,” opines Wangari, adding she enjoys having her name on a book.

The 28-paged book goes for Sh250. In writing the books as well as creating stories, her nephews and nieces are her first audience. They represent her audience, if they are not pleased, she is sure her audience will not be.

“When I started out, I found there was a perception storytellers should be old with grey hair. The audience would ask for somebody older once they saw me. That perception is changing,” says Wangari.

She adds: “There were very few storytellers years ago. There are still few, but the number is increasing. We still have a long way to go, and storytellers need to be aggressive, and do creative pieces.”

Wangari experiences stage fright occasionally when she performs for children more than adults for the former’s honesty. She also finds it hard to explain to people what she does for a living. Until three years ago, her parents would ask her to get a job.

Wangari has taken part in Storymoja festivals, Sigana International festival, Fabula Storytelling festival in Sweden, and Young Artists Week at Brookhouse international school.

She is also the reading ambassador with Start A Library, an organisation that works towards encouraging reading for pleasure in public and non-formal schools. She plans to start a rescue centre for arts, a place where artists can explore their talents.

Her parting shot: “Choose something you love doing and you will never have to work a day in your life.”