Photo courtesy Harold Scheub

Harold Scheub first went to South Africa on a safari of sorts. In 1967, at the height of apartheid, Scheub—an earnest Midwestern twenty-something with a stint in the Air Force under his belt and a freshly awarded Master’s degree in English—packed a rucksack and hopped a bus for the backcountry. But instead of guns and ammo, he was armed with a bulky tape recorder and D batteries. Scheub wasn't after big game trophies; he was on the hunt for stories.

Scheub had his first brush with African oral folklore a few years earlier, during an English teaching gig in Uganda. As a burgeoning linguist, hearing ancient tales recounted in their original tongue fascinated him, and he resolved to return with the tools and know-how to create an aural archive of stories so that they might be translated, studied and preserved. So Scheub flew to South Africa and hit the road from Johannesburg up the country's eastern coast. When the bus line ran out, he walked, and then started knocking on doors. At that time, occupants of single-family homesteads deep in the South African bush were, he recalls, "very wary, and very uncertain" about a random white man showing up outside with a newfangled recording device in hand. But Scheub succeeded in convincing locals he was neither a white supremacist nor a government official, and "once the stories started coming, they were just magnificent."

Harold Scheub (Photos by Andy Fate)
Harold Scheub (Photos by Andy Fate)

After four years in the field, Scheub had walked six thousand miles and collected nearly ten thousand stories. In the decades since, his "big job" has been translating these field recordings, and other stories from across the continent, into English from languages like Xhosa, Swahili, and Yoruba. In the process, he has emerged in the US as a champion of a tradition that is often maligned in academia as secondary to the written canon. His thirty-first book, (a collection of poems from South Africa's San people translated to English), has just gone to print, and at the age of eighty, now confined to a wheelchair with a bad leg, he stills teaches a popular freshman lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison called "The African Storyteller." (Full disclosure—I took the class myself in 2006.) I called Scheub recently to talk about the universal art of storytelling and the uncertain fate of Africa's two thousand unique languages.

*  *  *

TIM MCDONNELL: What is a storyteller?

HAROLD SCHEUB: It depends on where you go. Sometimes storytellers are professionals. In Southern Africa, the storytellers did not get paid, this is not their profession. The fact is that everybody told stories. And this really fascinated me. Storytelling, I learned very early, is a means of communicating, probably the means of communicating ideas, and communicating the organization of a society. And so it seems to me it's necessary that everybody in one way or another be a storyteller.

Storytellers are constantly in the process of taking ancient images and casting them into contemporary kinds of forms. And so there's no such thing as an original story. I don't care where it is, whether it's written or oral, the fact is that every story has been heard before. Every story has been told before. So if we're looking for originality we're going to find it, but in unique kinds of ways. We're not going to find it in the way the story is told, we're not going to find it in the story itself. It's that connection, that's the important thing. Connections are everything. Connecting the present and the past, connecting the storyteller and the audience.

So you ask a difficult question, because my conclusion is that everybody is a storyteller. We all have stories to tell. And we take these stories from the same repertory. All of us.

Scheub shares some of his field recordings

MCD: When, and for what reason, did you first go to Africa? What were you hoping to find?

HS: I'd always been interested in storytelling. I went into the Air Force right after I got out of high school, and here were people from all over the country, all kinds of backgrounds, and that fascinated me. And then ultimately what fascinated me was the sameness of us all. You know, we would go to a bar in Amarillo, Texas and tell stories, and there was a sense of familiarity about this. And the connections, that these are, you know, my brothers and sisters, that we look at the world and we experience the world in similar ways, even though it may seem that we do not.

I never knew that Africa was going to be so important in my life. And then, the big thing in my life happened, and that was that after I got my Master’s I wanted to take a break, as many people do. Eastern Africa was just receiving its independence from Britain, and what they wanted was 150 American teachers and 150 British teachers to teach in the high schools of Uganda, what was then Tanganyika, and Kenya. I jumped at the chance and taught in a tiny little boarding school in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains in central Uganda. And everything changed. First of all, I just fell in love with this place. and then I really learned a lot about storytelling.

When I came back to the United States, I taught for several years at a small university in Indiana, and then decided to get my PhD in African Languages and Literature. That brought me to the University of Wisconsin, which had and has the only degree-granting department of African Languages and Literature in the country. I came here and fell under the influence of a Xhosa novelist who was an exile from apartheid South Africa, and he taught me my first African language. I wasn't keen to go to South Africa, because apartheid was then in control, but as my major professor said, ‘How are you ever going to teach anything about South Africa if [you] don't go?’ It was the best thing I could have done.

Harold Scheub with his favorite storyteller (Photo courtesy Harold Scheub)
Harold Scheub with his favorite storyteller (Photo courtesy Harold Scheub)

MCD: Describe your methodology in the field: What was that experience like, what kind of equipment did you have, etc.?

HS: When I went to South Africa I touched base with all the universities, and all the experts told me that there's no such thing, that the oral tradition is dead in South Africa. So that really depressed me, but then I learned that was not the case. What I did was I would take one of these mountain buses as far into the mountains as I could go, on the southeastern coast of the continent, and then I would start walking. I never had a car, I never had an interpreter or a translator, I simply started walking. People did not live in villages, their homes are scattered across the countryside, and I would go from homestead to homestead, trying to get myself invited to storytelling sessions.

People understandably were very wary of this white guy suddenly appearing in this remote part of Africa. But after a time, when people saw that I was really interested, and that I had learned the language, they started inviting me.

Scheub's Uher tape recorder (Photo by Andy Fate)
Scheub's Uher tape recorder (Photo by Andy Fate)

Remember, we're talking about the late 1960s, so we didn't have the really sophisticated tape recorders and so forth. I had these tape recorders that were rather heavy, an Uher tape recorder that I picked up in Germany on my way to South Africa, and heavy five-inch cellulose tapes. The bane of my existence was getting enough of these five-inch cellulose tapes and enough of these size-D batteries—the tape recorder took five of those big things—and I was forever asking people to send batteries up country, up into these various places so that I could pick them up at the post office.

Everything I had been taught about storytelling, about the oral tradition, was wrong. It was a real education for me. During four of the ten years that I spent in Africa, I walked up and down the southeastern coast 1,500 miles during each of those years, collecting stories, and in the end I had somewhere between nine and ten thousand oral stories.

MCD: And most of them, I imagine, being translated into English for the first time?

HS: Yeah. Now, there were earlier collections of stories, in southern Africa, and so some of the stories were in the same tradition as earlier stories, and that fascinated me too: A story told a hundred years ago, and a story told when I got there, and it taught me a lot when I saw the differences and the similarities between the way stories were told.

MCD: How did you learn all the languages you needed to know?

HS: There are 2,000 mutually unintelligible languages in Africa. Translating is not easy, you know. I can do a meat-and-potatoes translation. But as the storyteller would say, ‘that's not it at all.’ The word-for-word translation is OK, but I had to learn that something else is going on here. How do you capture non-verbal aspects of a story? The use of the body, the use of the voice, the relationship between the performer and the audience. All of these play important roles.

I never had a car, I never had an interpreter or a translator, I simply started walking.

I don't pretend that I have been able to capture that. I tried, in some of my early translations, like in drama, to put stage directions in brackets, but that's not it. It's something that I continue to be very concerned about. What happens when the meaning is nonverbal? You know, everybody wants to grab ahold of the Aesop's Fable-type meaning, but that's not what these stories are about. They're much more complex than that. We kill the stories when we turn them into these simple little meanings.

MCD: Take me inside one of these storytelling sessions. I'd love to get more of a visual sense of what it's like?

HS: You have to keep in mind again that these were not professionals, so that the audiences were well-known to the storyteller: Members of the family, extended family, and so forth. Everywhere from two people to maybe as many as forty. The homes are rondoval-style homes, and so the fire would be right in the middle of the house and the people would be sitting in a circle around the fire, storytellers sitting in the middle of them, telling the story.

A storyteller from Scheub's travels (Photo courtesy Harold Scheub)
A storyteller from Scheub's travels (Photo courtesy Harold Scheub)

Sometimes the storytellers invite reactions from the audience, sometimes not. But the audience was always deeply involved, and if they weren't then they wouldn't attend. If they were bored with this, they would simply leave. So it was up to the performer to keep the audience involved in what she was doing.

MCD: You say everyone is a storyteller, but people in the States often have not had the type of experience you just described. Is there anything comparable to what we might do here?

HS: Well, my argument is that it's not unique. When you sit down in front of a television set, and watch a situation comedy, it's the same thing. When you go to the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin and sit there and talk to people, you're telling stories. As different as it may seem on the surface, the fact is that we tell the same stories, and I think we pretty much react the same to the same stories. The more I experienced stories in southern Africa, the more I was aware of this. It wasn't unique, it wasn't exotic. So the sameness, the familiarity, seemed to me to be enormously important. And it broke down all the barriers. The fact is that we human beings speak the same language. And the language that we speak is the language of storytelling.

Storytellers are constantly in the process of taking ancient images and casting them into contemporary kinds of forms.

MCD: On the subject of barriers, contemporaneously to you being out there and collecting the stories was apartheid, a time of very high racial tensions in South Africa. And here you are as an unknown white person. Did you find that being involved with storytelling, listening to stories, somehow helped to bridge a racial divide?

HS: You have to keep in mind that no matter how remote you got in southern Africa, everybody would have had an unhappy experience with apartheid. But here's the wonderful thing: The language helped me a lot, and once we were familiar with each other, all this is gone. Apartheid was no longer something that divided us.

MCD: At the risk of overgeneralizing, could you describe what these stories are like? What kinds of characters are involved, and what happens?

HS: Some of the stories have animals in them only, some have humans only, some have a variety. Typically, you don't want to take the animals literally, because the storyteller is doing something with them.

One of Scheub's favorite stories

And also, the animals are often not animals, but are fantasy kinds of creatures. They're devices the storyteller uses to take us inside the real-life characters.

Now, the storytellers do not explain that to you. The storytellers do not have obvious meanings or morals attached to the stories. These have to be worked out by the audience. As stories become more complex, these patterns and fantasy images and so forth become more complex. I remember hearing a story in 1975, a woman started telling a story one day, and it went on to the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and for twenty days she performed one story, so that in the end it was 120 hours long, and that was only one-third of the story. That was in July, she invited me to come back the following October for part two, and then the following November for part three, so that the three-part epic amounted to something like 400-450 hours. Magnificently told, and magnificently organized.

MCD: What has your study of folklore revealed about things that all humans have in common?

HS: Probably one of the most obvious connections is the rites of passage. Stories in all societies deal with change, transformation that takes place in human lives. Because these are scary parts of our lives. We're moving from childhood to adulthood, from being unmarried to being married, from the pre-midlife crisis to the post-midlife crisis, all kinds of things. And so stories place a lot of emphasis on transformation, and concentrate mainly, my experience was, on the puberty rite of passage and the marriage rite of passage. There are countless stories that deal with these enormous changes that take place in peoples' lives, and they find all kinds of ways to express this, fantasy images which suggest the way the person was before marriage, and then what happens after marriage. And then there's a pattern, in which the real-life character struggles between those two polarities, as a person moves from childhood to adulthood.

Photographs from Scheub's time in Africa (Photo by Andy Fate)
Photographs from Scheub's time in Africa (Photo by Andy Fate)

MCD: What is it about stories that helps us to understand or cope with those kinds of changes?

HS: We need a lot of help to navigate these changes. And so from the beginning of time, it seems. The oldest story that we know of in Africa, a story that's carved in the hieroglyphics in one of the underground graves in central Egypt, is about the rite of passage. A boy, moving to manhood, and struggling between a sister-in-law who accuses him of rape, and a godly human created by the gods who's the positive side of him, and we see him moving from the one to the other. It's a story as ancient as time itself, and yet we continue to tell that same kind of story today. The fact is that we need that familiarity, and we never give it up.

MCD: In the course of your career you've gone from being the collector of these stories to now, as a professor, you've become a kind of storyteller yourself. What has that transformation been like?

HS: You know, I don't pretend to be a great storyteller like the ones I met, but they did teach me a lot about how to put a story together, and I try to communicate that to my students. Look, whether we're looking at oral traditions or the novel, they're put together in the same way. In my big course right now we're just now shifting from the oral tradition to the novel, and at first glance these seem to be very different from each other. So in order to make this work, I either summarize a story or tell a story. I find that a very useful kind of a teaching device to emphasize what's happening in stories. And, you know, that's what happens in African societies, too: Storytelling is a teaching device.

The first time I ever heard a story, everything I had been taught about storytelling flew right out the window. 

MCD: And how do students react? What's your experience over the years with how students engage on this subject?

HS: Initially, I think some students say, "What the hell, this doesn't seem to be a very, you know, university-type course that I'm taking here… telling stories?" And what I've got to do is to take the students into the storytelling experience and to show that something extraordinary is happening here. I've just finished today marking the first exams in my big course, and this is one of the things that students have to learn, is that what they thought was a simple little story, and they treated it like that on the exam [laugh]—they're going to learn that's not the case. There's something else going on here. And so I have to get the students serious about this.

MCD: Are you aware of there being anyone now following in your footsteps, who's out there collecting stories today?

A photograph from Scheub's travels through Africa (Photo courtesy Harold Scheub)
A photograph from Scheub's travels through Africa (Photo courtesy Harold Scheub)

HS: Not as much as I would like. We're losing at least one of the languages every year. I havebeen urging graduate students to do their PhD dissertations on going to Africain areas where the languages have not been written down, and you know, writedown a vocabulary, and a grammar, and some of the oral traditions beforethey're gone forever. But we keep losing them, and it's very, very difficult to challenge students to go there, because they can't study the language before they go, because that doesn't exist. So it's very, very demanding, but it would be very, very exciting. But people want to go back and do the Swahili again, and the Yoruba again, and that's good, but we have a lot of material on that. We don't have a lot of material on, for example, the many languages of the Cameroon, so I hope that somebody will do that.

*  *  *

Tim McDonnell is an environment reporter for Mother Jones magazine. He hails from Tucson, AZ, and now lives in Brooklyn.

Andy Fate is a photographer and photo editor for the Badger Herald newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a second-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in Economics and Political Science.

Other stories from The Spirit of Storytelling

Icy & Sot Conquer the Art World

A knack for graffiti catapults two young brothers from the streets of Iran to the warehouses of Bushwick and into the glare of the Soho spotlight.

True Lies

A young journalist reconnects with a beloved storyteller from his childhood, only to discover a fine, artistic line between fact and fiction.

Laughing Longer

How one community of improv players elevated goofy skits to high art and inspired thousands of New Yorkers to climb, and fall, on stage with them.

Tag Savage's Sideways Brain

He was a shy West Coast transplant alone in the big city. But equipped with his iPhone camera and a healthy dose of snark, all of New York's pedestrians suddenly became fair game.
Published with Marquee