The stories that make us

A regular conversation, just one of many. We talk about life, growing up, what shapes us… Somehow I was massively tempted to quote ‘The Little Prince’. This piece about the Hat and the Snake and The Elephant. You know it (or do you? cause it is quite vital for the rest of the story ;)) I am saying then that this is the exact difference between rigid thinking of an adult and the imagination, that looks at the world through the eyes of a child.

The persona I was talking to looked at me a bit confused.

‘A hat? An elephant? A snake?’

They asked.

‘Yes, you know, just as in The Little Prince…’

And then, just like that I realize that they really do not know. As a person coming from an Asian country with a very different list of ‘priority’ books to read. They don’t.

That is not the first time I am facing a dilemma of explaining cultural context of some ‘simple’ reference that just came to my mind. An experience similar to anyone who ever tried to translate a local proverb to a foreign language. Suddenly ‘thinking of blue almonds’ sounds weird and confusing as the saying itself…

what is the hat/elephant problem? (Performance forum at Coderanch)

The power of stories

When I was a child I used to sit on my grandpa’s laps and listen to the stories. About the War and the Rebuilding of the country. How was it loooong time ago to run a farm. About how the Great Grandpa walked all the way to Moscow to put forward a petition to the Tzar (and how most probably they would not let him in…) About how the grandma was shot in her leg by a German sniper during mushroom picking in the forest (as we all know, mushroom picking is the most obvious way to contribute to the Resistance movement). The Grandpa talked and talked and in my head the whole new world was created. The world of those, who are long gone, but live in the memory of those, who stayed.

Discovering stories through Senegal Tribes

Years later, not knowing how and why I was blown there by the winds of the destiny, I was wading through marshes of Casamance, Senegal and the only thought I had in my head was are those rocks, visible just over the surface of water in the blurry light of the sunset, are really rocks, or the backs of the crocodiles… the guide has disappeared long time ago, running for his village celebrations’, just waved his hand and told us ‘the settlement is nearby’, after which he just rowed away in his boat towards the sunset… Till now I do not know by what miracle we managed to put our feet finally on the dry grounds, then walk for 2-3 hours in darkness to finally arrive at some houses.

As usually during such adventures, there was nowhere to wash ourselves, nor to get dry, as we were under constant, tropical drizzle and everything in my backpack was soaked, but the locals received us warmly, fed us and provided with a place to sleep. Soon there popped up also a man, who spoke some French, so we could chat. Not me, as my French is not even good enough to buy a train ticket, as French people tell me, however my companions were proficient enough to strike a proper conversation.

The Initiation

‘You come at a great time!’ Announced the Local after the usual exchange of the courtesies. ‘We will have the boys’ initiation first time since 25 years!’

Our excitement has reached its top. This was the type of adventure we were looking for getting lost in the Senegal marshes since weeks. Finally it was happening!

‘When? Where? How can we participate?’

‘You cannot’, devilishly announced the Local. ‘This is our tribes’ secret and you cannot take part in it.’

The silence that followed was filled with disappointment.

‘Hm, allow me to guess. You are gathering in a holy place, next to a lake or an old tree and reveal the origins of your tribe.’

He looked at me, surprised.

‘Are you a witch?’ He asked.

‘Well.. if I am, can I participate in the initiation ceremony?’ I replied.

Looking for a meaning

Unfortunately, my wicked attempts of an anthropology student proved to be insufficient to earn an entrance ticket to this event. However, they were enough to get us a pass to an audience with a local Wise Woman, nicknamed La Reina. However, this story I can tell you some other time…

Telling the Origin Stories of yourself, your family, your tribe is one of the most common elements of every culture. We all want to know what we came from, what has created us, what has shaped us. And we answer those questions in different ways. In the past it was through the tribal Wise Men, who were the treasure keepers about our origin and traditions. We created myths, religions and never stopped asking, what is that thing we came from. Today not everyone enjoys the story lessons, however everyone is curious about the same thing… So the origin stories – family, nation, tribe stay relevant point of reference, point of pride, reason for enquiry…

Is there anything more universal than that?

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  1. Rodrigo E. Rebagliati February 7, 2023 at 10:42 pm

    The Origins are so important, that whenever they’re not known, they create a sense of missing it. We can live without it, but we’ll never feel it as being OK. And, at some point in life, we just won’t be able to stand it anymore and we will dedicate our time and efforts to fill that emptiness. And then we move on. Otherwise, it’ll work as an anchor (and that’s never good for whoever wants to progress). Thanks, Ula! And, by the way: how many adventures have you got there? I sense you’ve got a lot!