Once upon a time, the sky provided everything the people living in a small village wanted. All they had to do was reach toward the heavens for their necessities, such as food and clothing. The sky also provided them with luxuries that made their lives comfortable. Life was easy, and the people grew lazy. They wasted everything the sky provided. One day, the sky moved away from the village, and the people quickly fell on difficult times.
It’s a simple African folktale, but it offers several powerful messages, said LaDoris Bias-Davis. “Seize whatever opportunities are available and make the most of them,” she emphasized.
Davis, a professional storyteller, has been educating children through her entertaining tales for two decades. In the past few weeks, she has been presenting Kwanzaa stories to children in the metro area—most recently at the Flat Shoals Library in Decatur.
Kwanzaa is Swahili for first fruits and has its roots in ancient African harvest celebrations. It’s also a time for people in the African diaspora to celebrate family, community and culture.
At each Kwanzaa storytelling event, Davis arrives early to set up her table. The kanari (candleholder), with seven mishumaa (candles), stands at the center of the table—representing the seven days of Kwanzaa that begins on Dec. 26. One will also find on her table a libation cup–to honor the ancestors, a basket of fruit, ears of corn, which represent the number of children in the family, a gift and children’s books.
Her stories teach lessons to children (and adults) about living a moral and socially purposeful life. Kwanzaa stories are unique in that Davis ties in the seven principles of the holiday into her tales. These principles, which go by Swahili names, include umoja (unity), ujima (collective work and responsibility) and ujamaa (cooperative economics).
One of the African folktales she tells at Kwanzaa involves a father who wants to teach his seven children the principle of umoja. He leaves them deep in the jungle and challenges them to survive and find their way home. To succeed, the children set their differences aside to work together—each one contributing his unique skill to benefit the group. Together, they overcome the obstacles and navigate their way home to safety.
Kwanzaa is suited perfectly for storytelling. Since ancient times, storytelling has been the preferred method in many African cultures to pass on the traditions, beliefs and wisdom from one generation to the next.
“Storytelling is not unique to Africa,” Davis pointed out. “Other cultures, such as the Chinese, also have a storytelling tradition. But in the African context, stories tend to revolve around the community and family and how families struggle but persevere.”
To say that Davis is an interactive storyteller is an understatement. Her storytelling style includes call and response in Swahili, playing traditional African games and acting out stories that highlight the principles of Kwanzaa.
Davis, who has a bachelor’s degree in drama and a master’s in early literacy education, said effective storytelling involves making sure children can relate to the story. “The story has to teach without beating them over the head,” she said. “One of the things I do is create colorful, vivid characters that kids could remember and understand.”