Who’s Afraid of the Storyteller?

I finally watched the film, Rafiki (2018), on Kanopy, thanks to my Howard County library membership. Then I wondered why on earth Kenyan authorities had banned it. It is an excellently told story, simple and true. Yet is sent men in charge of a country’s storytelling business frothing in terror.

There was a time in Kenya storytelling terrified the government. They would shut down stories they didn’t like, send storytellers into detention and exile. Then people fought in the 2nd liberation, and storytelling began to boom.

You could tell any story of the human experience that you wanted, and you didn’t have to like someone’s story either. You just didn’t gag them anymore because as a society we had fought that fight and become wiser, less afraid, more humane and smarter.

There are stories that are like the colorful painting of a flower– appeasing to the eye, and soon forgotten. Others are like observing a masked dancer– what you see with the naked eye is only one layer, and what lies beneath (what you get to understand as the story unfolds) could be unsettling or affirming. Storytellers are masters of conjuring the unknown.

Other stories are like the dissecting of a human body – they force you to look inside. The sight of deep red human experiences laid bare may be shocking, offensive, confusing or inspiring. It may also invade the boundaries of your beliefs and prejudices. The storyteller’s scalpel invites you to question your mind.

Some fear they may recognize themselves there in that exposed experience. Some suspect they may have caused wounds that are exposed by the story. Some have been taught to see the ugly in what they do not understand. Stories make us look at and into ourselves, and what you do with that looking is entirely your responsibility, your decision, your take-home.

I am aware that the storytelling freedoms we won in Kenya, thanks to those who made the huge sacrifices – because freedom is never free – have started fading away. Religious fundamentalism has found its way into power positions in bodies that control the storytelling industry and in courts.

But the saddest thing this time is that now it’s not just the government that is back to being afraid of storytellers and their scalpels; a good number of ordinary Kenyans are too. They are pee-in-your-pants terrified. They belong to the isma world of moralism, culturalism, fundamentalism, ignorantism…

They celebrate when the courts gag a storyteller whose story makes them uncomfortable. They want comfort storytelling, no scalpels please. And if difficult stories are to be told, they should be confined to the shallowness of numbed subjects, zones that come with no pain, no complex emotions. It’s like cutting fingernails. We’re back there.

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