Telling stories are the stepping stones to literacy

06 August 2013 - 03:15 By Marlene Winberg

As a storyteller and writer, I am part of a worldwide movement dedicated to reviving the art of storytelling.

One story project is based in the Kalahari region of the Northern Cape, where I work with San speakers to promote the telling and documentation of the elders' traditional stories.

!xun was an unwritten language until recently, so the elders cannot read nor write and the youth has only just begun their journey in mother tongue literacy. Storytelling plays a crucial role in these families' endeavour to make the transition from oral to written literature without losing the riches of the !xun tradition. Our project is dedicated to harvesting the elders' knowledge of storytelling to inform the process of literacy in their community.

In this creative process, we are discovering the multifaceted challenges of translation; from the deep past to the present, from one generation to another, from oral to written, from !xun to English, from visual to text, and in the process we revive the act of story. We draw, tell and write them down so we can make modern books from ancient stories.

Human s started telling stories long before we could write them and read them. The ancient storytellers' memories were our archives that kept knowledge alive and passed it on.

In our single lifetimes, we still learn like this - children listen to their elders' stories before they can read and write. When no one tells them stories, they find it very difficult to become literate and develop a lifelong relationship with story in any form.

This ability to tell and listen to stories and later read and write them is an act of translation and part of the same process in our brains.

Winberg is founding curator of the Manyeka Arts Trust, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the art of storytelling. The Nal'ibali supplement will be in the Sowetan tomorrow. Send your comments to or