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Student Profile

Telling Stories


by Colin Smith


Among Xhosas (Ko-saws) in South Africa, storytelling is a magnificent art. Their stories are more than mere entertainment. Xhosa scholar Harold Scheub says storytelling for the Xhosa people is “not only a primary means of entertainment and artistic expression in the society, it is also the major educational device.”1 Yet beyond education, the most important role of the stories is to allow expression. Especially now, with the recent demise of apartheid and some of its effects lingering on, the need for expression about past sorrows through stories is greater than ever before. Upon investigation, these stories yield profound insights into the Xhosa’s racial identity and perception of self. For both the individual and the culture, these stories and their heroes demonstrate their own significant roles in providing reconciliation and healing for the youth of South Africa.


Stories provide a common cultural heritage that has long been one important element of the unifying force for Xhosas that resisted the divisive powers of apartheid; but, more importantly, they provide a wealth of role models and friends that see troubled individuals through difficult and otherwise lonely lives, showing them the way to ultimate healing. The challenges for poor black children in South Africa today are many. Those I taught at Daily Bread Children’s Home were AIDS orphans, abuse victims, street kids, or kids from financially destitute homes.

Some were traumatized from witnessing violent beatings and murders, others were trying to come to terms at the beginning of their lives with the disease that would soon end them, while a few felt humiliated for their young pregnancies. All of the children suffered from being marginalized in society and restricted to the small, impoverished farm. Still they consistently demonstrated amazing resilience. They all cared for each other in the enormous family of seventy or so that they had become. They knew each other intimately and accepted each other completely.

Where did this come from, this courage and hope? When I investigated where that support and inner strength came from, I found, as I had expected, that their heroes and role models taught them in a variety of ways to hold their chin up, as it were. Also, I was surprised to find that the telling of those stories was just as important, if not more so, than the heroes themselves.

In an early discussion about heroes, I asked the students to write down who their hero was and why. I was touched to read a ninth-graders’ response: “My hero is Haggan. Why is because he knows my story and I know his.” When I asked him who Haggan was, he told me it was his grandfather’s grandfather. The stories of this great-great grandfather’s life struggles had survived to support and sustain his great-great grandson, whom he had not known, but who felt deeply that he knew his great-great grandfather.

Realizing how important heroes were to the children, I prepared more lessons and games that focused on them and facilitated discussion of their problems and fears and how their heroes could help them. They told me stories of their past ancestors, while I taught them about the heroes in the struggle against apartheid. Little time had passed before I realized the authentically profound power the children found in linking their hardships to those of their ancestors. But the fact that they expressed themselves through the stories strengthened them perhaps even more. This fact was explained clearly in the following statement:

Narrative understanding is our most primitive form of explanation. We make sense of things by fitting them into stories. When events fall into a pattern we can describe in a way that is satisfying as narrative, then we think that we have some grasp of why they occurred.2

When stories are told that give voice to the repressed and ignored, it is powerful. In her book, Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog, a journalist, expressed what I noticed as a teacher: the need to relate narratives of suffering is contagious. She said all the people who hear those narratives must “tell stories not to die of life.”3 And it wasn’t long before I caught the need myself. I found myself writing in my journal for hours each night after I returned from the school. I could not handle the culminating weight of the painful narratives I would hear about the students, whether from them or the teachers, without moving it on to the page. From my first exposure to the specifics of each of the children’s own record of their respective brutal histories, I found myself impatient to write at length about the things I experienced, not being able to really relax or rest until I did so.

I soon noticed that telling these stories restored a sense of dignity to the children. By telling their own accounts of how they felt victimized, they purged themselves of their respective pasts. The simple act of speaking about those events has cultural relevance to the prominence of storytelling among the Xhosas. As previously mentioned, great value continues to be linked with oral tradition and remember that “what is important is not so much what is told . . . but rather that telling occurs.”4

Thus, the historical truth of the stories and their prominence within the culture generally become irrelevant next to the promise of speaking unchecked and undoubted. Hearing those testimonies, even if only in the privacy of a schoolroom on a secluded farm, is still “the validation of the individual subjective experiences of people who had previously been silenced or voiceless.”5 Though he or she never forgets the trauma experienced, the empowered victim sees him or herself as having absolute control and decision in their well being. A man who was dismembered by a bomb sent to him in the mail exemplifies this movingly:

I do not see myself as a victim, but as a survivor of apartheid. . . . I am not captured by hatred, because then they would not only have destroyed my body, but also my soul. . . . Ironically, even without hands and an eye, I am much more free than the person who did this to me. . . . I say to everyone who supported apartheid, “Your freedom is waiting for you . . . but you will have to go through the whole process.”6

My dear friend Lindile also exemplifies this. When he was twelve, he was assaulted by hired mercenaries for speaking out against the corruption at Daily Bread. Twenty men came to the farm in uniforms with night-sticks in their hands. They assaulted over fifteen defenseless children and left them bleeding and crying on the ground. But Lindile smiles about it now, saying, “I’ve told that story so much, and now I know that on that day those who were the most wounded were those mercenaries.”7 They had surrendered their humanity, and in so doing were the worst off. Beyond the therapeutic purging achieved through actually telling the stories, there is moral strength gained from the heroes of past myths.

Underneath the act of telling itself, the hero is the central interest of all Xhosa tales as he or she consistently embodies the benefits of overcoming suffering. Scheub said, “The hero is . . . a man who distinguishes himself by deeds of daring and bravery” as well as “destroys evil by means of his valor and wit, affirming the natural order by accepting [it] as valid.”8 In the stories, the natural order seems to be one of serious trials and greater rewards, and by accepting that order, the hero helps people understand how to enjoy life despite its terrors. His or her goal is “to enlarge the pupil of the eye, so that the body with its attendant personality will no longer obstruct the view.”9 In other words, the hero teaches the purposes and promises of suffering. The rewards can be greater than the pains.

“Suffering takes a man from known places to unknown places. Without suffering you are not a man. You will never suffer for the second time because you have learned to suffer,” author Joel Matlou writes.10 The first threshold on the hero’s path is suffering. All the insights and remedies that he gains come because he has crossed the threshold of pain. The greatness he achieves for himself and for his people dwarfs whatever troubles he has had to endure, for “the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades.”11 The trials of life can be regarded as the price to pay for wisdom and happiness.

Suffering also teaches empathy. The old saying “No man is an island”12 is relevant because shared life experiences forge them into communities that are sensitive to the bad and good that befalls its members. Writer Mtutuzeli Mat-shoba said, “What is suffered by another man in view of my eyes is suffered also by me. The grief he knows is a grief I know. Out of the same bitter cup do we drink. To the same chain-gang do we belong.”13

Andisiwe, an eighth-grade girl, spoke often about the lessons she learned from the past, or as she called them, “The things our ancestors have for us.” She explained that her predecessors held valuable lessons for her on how to endure hardship well:

There was not much food before because the whites had pushed all of us onto small little lands that was dry and not good for growing food that they needed; and then they were separated and alone. So they said, “Either we can stay hungry or we can get together and share what we have and see if it is not much for us.” So they all moved close to each other and made farms and shared their food and houses with each other. Things weren’t so bad after all; they just had to be close. And it was a happy time.14

By viewing how suffering can bring people together, when they respond appropriately (at the same time qualifying as heroes), it is appropriate now to consider the importance of storytelling more generally, and the role heroes have in reconciling an entire culture.


In a myth called “Keepers of the Flame”15 that is prevalent across the entire continent of Africa, Africans are identified as the ones who maintain that flame of humanity and common charity as a natural result of the creation. The gods call the monkey, bird, and the black and white man together to give them the four gifts of the creation. The gifts are food, water, books, and fire. The monkey and the bird make off with the food and the water. The gods give the black man the flame and charge him with the responsibility to be its keeper. The white man is pleased to have the books, but when the lights go out, and he is alone, the black man draws near him to help him see. It is significant to remember that this myth was transmitted through all the generations under the apartheid regime to survive today, encouraging at least symbolically the reunion of black and white. Yet in a more detailed description and analysis of another myth, we see one instance of how black South Africans were taught to react when confronted by hatred, oppression, and objectification.

In a tale that originated in southern Africa called “The Maidens of Bhakubha,”16 a terrible monster comes to haunt the small village of Bhakubha, where things have long been peaceful. The calm setting is soon disrupted by the presence of this barbaric monster. Unaware of him, the princess and her attending friends and maidens disregard cultural rules and go down to the forbidden waters. There they undress, leaving their clothes on the shores of the lake. They swim and play naked in the water, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. As the day closes they sense their absence in the village will be noticed, and they decide it would be best to head home. The princess, however, will not be entreated. She wants to enjoy her time with her friends and persuades them to stay a little longer. They remain until it gets so late that all finally agree they should leave. As they climb out of the lake onto the shore, they are terrified to see a huge slimy monster lying across their clothes.

The foremost girl sings to the monster to give her back her clothes. The monster looks up and down with an evil smile at her naked body during the song, and after she finishes, he hands over her clothes. All of the maidens decide to do the same, entreating the monster with their lovely singing voices and exposing their naked bodies to his gruesome eyes. But when it was the princess’ turn, she stood back stubborn and proud, refusing to be eyed by the monster.

“Come forward and sing, Nomtha-we-Langa” called the other girls. The princess yelled back, “What! Beg for my clothes from this ugly monster? How dare he lay his loathsome belly on the clothes of the maidens of Bhakubha?”17 She then marches in front of the monster making an ugly face and singing deliberately in a husky voice, showing “her defiance and contempt by rejecting the words of persuasion sung by the other girls.” The monster quickly lunges forward and bites her on the thigh, which causes her head to transform into the same head as the monster. Her maidens flee in terror and the princess, ashamed to return to her village, must live in the woods with the monster.

A long time passes before anyone hears from the princess again. Then one day, her brother hears her singing in the trees and decides to confront the monster and defeat him so that his sister can return to her old form and be allowed to go home. He goes swimming in the lake, hoping to find the monster lying across his clothes when he came back to shore but is disappointed when the monster fails to appear. Despite the pleadings of his parents, he continues to seek the opportunity to confront the monster, which he finally does. Helped by his closest friends, he slays the monster and finds the princess hiding in the back of his chamber. They all return home to the cheers and applause of the king and his court. The prince receives special congratulations from the chief councilor:

All of your fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers at this meeting envy you this great deed. Even if they don’t say it to you, in their hearts they are asking themselves at this very moment if, given such an opportunity, in their youth, any of their age-groups would have been able to display their manhood in such a worthy manner.18

The princess, now transformed back to her original appearance, is reunited with her dear friends after many years of shame. They rejoice to be with each other again. Soon they are all married to the noble warriors who slew the monster and saved the princess. The princess and her husband open the ford that leads to the forbidden waters, and the great river that results sweeps away all the old water. All the maidens and their husbands cross the river one after another into immortality.

This tale is a powerful lesson on handling antagonism from violent intruders—confrontation is the key to success. Though the first to resist was sure to endure violence, pain, and maybe death, the resistance lives on symbolically in her friends and family. The determination to rid the village of the monster spreads to everyone, even those who were at first determined to appease it and ignore its degrading and advantageous behavior. To overcome the monster it was necessary for the princess to take on some of his terrible attributes, but the ends justified the means as it rid the village of the monster. Whether the myth originated as a means to deal specifically with white aggression doesn’t matter, as the conditions under apartheid would inevitably lead most people to interpret the monster that invades a village, claims the village’s property as its own, and objectifies its women, as representative of whites.

In discussing these myths, it is crucial to remember that an exaggerated reliance on the past’s ability to provide answers for the present often ignores the fact that new troubles call for new actions. In that way, the princess of Bhakubha embodies when and how to break from the past. When what has been done is not enough to combat new dangers and threats, new ways and measures must be made. The question becomes how to connect with the past without being limited by it. As Frantz Fanon, scholar of black identity, has said, “I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny. . . . In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”19

As I witnessed the way my lessons tended to overemphasize the importance of looking to the past, I felt the need to help them see that the past does not resolve itself and that it depends on the vision and drive of real heroes who step up to solve the problems. So I began teaching them about the heroes of their present. I say “present” because their actions have so directly influenced how things were for the children in South Africa. I prepared a series of lessons about politicians and activists that fought against apartheid, many of whom were killed in that struggle. We spent several days discussing Steve Biko, because he embodies a special connection with the past while stressing the importance of breaking with yesterday.

Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, fought to improve the self-image of blacks, which was too often detrimentally linked to the colonial ideologies that equate black with evil, inferiority, and laziness. He called on the great heroes of the past to disprove that belief. But he was always quick to point to the inadequacies of the past where, for example, “The white missionary described black people as thieves, lazy, sex-hungry, etc., and because he equated all that was valuable with whiteness.”20 My goal was to get the students to recognize this aspect of Biko’s message: “There is always an interplay between the history of a people, i.e., the past, and their faith in themselves, and hopes for their future.”21 Realizing this interplay, I believe, prepared the children to become agents of change, to become heroes themselves.

A letter from Andisiwe represents the desired equilibrium between respect for the past and responsibility for the future. She wrote to Steve Biko’s wife:

Your husband has show a lot abut life and he has open our eye to see the light. Mister Biko is a roll model to us becouses to day we are free and it is all because of him. Miss Biko I am telling you Mister Biko does mean a lot in our past as blacks but know I now that we no longer say black or white because now we are united.

She told me she would have to be like Biko if the bad things at Daily Bread were to be changed. She recognized Biko’s role as a hero not only in gratitude but in emulation as well.


These stories provide the necessary link between the past and the present. They continue to transmit the responsibilities of successful adults in the culture and to render children proud of their heritage. We have discussed how they teach how to handle conflicts, but more important and relevant to today’s South Africa, they teach how races can come together and even seem to
hint that they were always meant to. The heroes of these tales cross thresholds of racism to pave and point the way to a unified society, which is largely responsible for the powerful unifying rhetoric that is healing South Africa today.

Pierre Hugo, apartheid scholar, said that during apartheid, white South Africans were terrified of the independent figures of the past, those heroes who stood up in defense of their people and demanded fair treatment, so they tried to erase them. The mission of recovering real and mythical heroes along with their histories becomes all the more urgent. Hugo quoted scholar G.M.E. Leistner who told of the irrational fear whites had (and certainly many still have) of being “drowned in a sea of blacks . . . swayed by latter-day versions of Shaka, such as Nguema and Bokassa.”22

At its root, this fear of black African heroes is a fear of self-awareness, of a life-giving connection between past and present that enables and empowers the masses of black people to be self-governing and demand the rights and opportunities that have been taken from them. A simple quote from a prominent newspaper illustrates the point: “[This continent, Africa], in fact is still possessed of an inherent savagery . . . the brutality of a dark continent surfaces shamefully and shockingly.”23 The white fear of losing power and control was willing to go to any extremes necessary to contort and confuse blacks’ history, saying they were lost without the West’s white heroes. Biko campaigned vehemently against this, and said, “Colonialism is never satisfied with having the native in its grip, but, by some strange logic, it must turn to his past and disfigure and distort it.”24

The situation demanded a new solution and Biko led the new movement in exorcising the demon of self-hate among blacks, for “black consciousness makes the black man see himself as a being complete in himself.”25 Biko’s purpose was to show how the black culture could be sufficient in and of itself and that it was inasmuch as it accessed its true roots and genuine history. Once rooted in its place, black consciousness grew independent of anything else. And it continues by adding to the wonderful array of colors and races in South Africa.

There are still lingering signs and manifestations of the old system of racial division: townships, squatter camps, etc. But hope is rekindled whenever a child hears a story about his or her ancestors and their moral courage and determination. After its first ten years of democracy, South Africa considered itself “The Rainbow Nation of God.” As each color is allowed to tell its own stories, it makes national identity wonderfully dependent on a wide spectrum of skin colors and shades.


In conclusion, I realized how the telling of these stories has the power to bring together people that would otherwise remain separated, as it did for the commissioners assigned to investigate the atrocities of the apartheid regime. When Krog asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu why he thought so many working for the commission jelled, he answered, “In part, I would say it is the experiences we have gone through together, even if they were awful.”26 By this same process, I was reconciled to the children I taught; the gap between our distinct experiences was filled by the knowledge I shared with them. The kids learned they could trust in friends, and the way I viewed people was completely transformed, having forged a hope of human resiliency: “by a thousand stories I was scorched / a new skin.”27

Realizing the reconciliatory power of sharing stories, Krog wrote at the close of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, “Because of you / this country no longer lies / between us but within / it breathes becalmed / after being wounded / in its wondrous throat.”28 It seems that the country’s future is all the more secure now that it has recovered its collective voice, which is made possible as each person tells the story of how they became who they are.

My experience as a teacher in South Africa taught me that what once seemed impossible to overcome falls down at our feet once we talk about it. We can come together despite the dividing differences: “Human relationships can be forged under the most deprived circumstances. People can cherish one another, survive, and foster the kind of humanity that overcomes divisions.”29 South Africa taught me that we are all healers. Whatever the forces that afflict and torture us, there is a simple beauty in sharing our load with others. Though our tears are of sweat and blood, we can find profound solace if our mouths meet the ears of a friend. And whatever the space that divides and keeps apart, they can be overcome by the fusing potential of sharing experiences by telling stories.

1. Scheub, Harold. The Xhosa Ntsomi, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975, p. 88.
2. Krog, Antjie. Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, Three Rivers Press, New York, 1998, p. 261.
3. Ibid., p. 64.
4. Sanders, Mark. “Truth, Telling, Question-ing: The Truth and Reconciliation Com-mission, Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, and Literature After Apartheid,” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1, 2000, p. 18.
5. Ibid., p. 20.
6. Krog, p. 177.
7. Lindile, Personal Interviews, 1–4 June 2004.
8. The World and the Word: Tales and Observations from the Xhosa Oral Tradition, University of Wisconsin, 1992, p. 86.
9. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949, p. 189.
10. Matlou, Joel. “Man Against Himself,” A Land Apart: A Contemporary South Afri-can Reader, Cape Town: Penguin Press, 1996, p. 87.
11. Campbell, p. 82.
12. This proverb exists in the Xhosa lan-guage as “Intaka yakha ngoboya bezinye.” Calana, Zolile. Xhosa Proverbs, Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2002, p. 5.
13. Matshoba, Mtutuzeli. “Call Me Not a Man,” A Land Apart: A Contemporary South African Reader, Cape Town, Penguin Press, 1996, p. 94.
14. Andisiwe, Personal Interviews, 22–26 July 2004.
15. Ford, Clyde W. The Hero with an African Face: Mythical Wisdom of Traditional Wisdom, New York, Bantam Books, 1999, p. 18.
16. Jordan, A.C., ed. Tales From Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Ad Donker Publish-ers, 1968, pp. 77–107.
17. Ibid., p. 78.
18. Ibid., p. 106.
19. Ibid., p. 229.
20. Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like, Johannesburg, Picador Africa, 2004, p. 61.
21. Ibid.
22. Qtd. in Hugo, Pierre. “Towards Dark-ness and Death: Racial Demonology in South Africa,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 26, No. 4, 1988, p. 578.
23. Ibid.
24. Biko, p. 105.
25. Ibid., p. 102.
26. Krog, p. 363.
27. Ibid., p. 364.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid., p. 244.

Balshem, Martha. “Cancer, Control, and  Causality: Talking about Cancer in a Working-Class Community,” American Ethnologist, 18 (1), 1991, pp. 152–72.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Mask, New York, Grove Press, 1967.

Colin Smith, from Omaha, NE, completed a BA in English and a minor in Spanish from BYU in June 2004. Smith joined Teach For America (TFA) in New Orleans until hurricane Katrina interrupted and caused them to evacuate to Houston. He is teaching first grade at a school they dubbed “New Orleans West.” Almost all the teachers at the K–8 facility are from TFA, who were in New Orleans as he was. Smith said, “The challenges are many, but our will to serve a community of children so in need of structure and stability holds our faces to the fray. Everyday my time in the classroom calls back the most difficult and rewarding aspects of my time in South Africa. I like to think that whatever hard work I can invest here is some payback from all that I took away from the children I interacted with there.” When his two-year commitment is behind him, Smith plans to get more involved in development and public health.

Teach For America’s mission is to eliminate educational inequity through a national corps of recent college graduates from any major who commit to teach in urban and rural schools for two years (