A voice nearly silenced teaches art of storytelling

May 19, 2008

by Jenny Price

Moji Olaniyan pulls a plush tortoise puppet onto her hand, asking an audience of eager third-grade students for their help in telling a story about how the animal cracked his shell (answer: because he was too greedy). “How did the birds feel when the tortoise ate all the food?”

Photo of Olaniyan

Moji Olaniyan, an assistant dean in the Academic Advancement Program in the College of Letters and Science, poses in her office in Ingraham Hall.

Photo: Jeff Miller

Olaniyan started doing storytelling when she was invited to share tales from her native Nigeria with her daughter’s kindergarten class. Now her daughter is an undergraduate at UW–Madison and Olaniyan is an assistant dean, advising students in the College of Letters and Science. But the demands of her job and storytelling reached a level where Olaniyan sometimes thought, “wouldn’t it be great to kind of clone myself” and reach even more young students?

Now Olaniyan has that chance, launching “African Storytelling on Wheels,” with an $88,000 grant from the 2008 Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment to fund the program for three academic years. With Olaniyan’s guidance, about 20 UW–Madison students of African origin are preparing to tell stories to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in racially nondiverse elementary schools in eastern and northern Wisconsin. But the students won’t just perform for these young audiences, they’ll teach them about African culture and basic human truths.

The program, which receives additional support from UW–Madison’s African Studies Program, could reach as many as 500 students in one trip. “We are not only outreaching to future Badgers, but helping teachers look at a different way of teaching,” Olaniyan says.

It almost didn’t happen. In May 2006, Olaniyan was suffering from hoarseness and could not speak much without coughing; she gave up storytelling and her intensive daily prayer and worship, which involves singing for up to 90 minutes.

“We pass all our emotions through our larynx and it’s reflected in our voice. … and lots of times if there’s something wrong with the vocal folds, the regular kind of intonation and stress patterns are altered,” says Sherri Zelazny, a senior clinical speech pathologist at UW–Madison’s Voice and Swallow Clinic. “That’s part of Moji’s talent, is bringing people in with her voice.”

Mobolaji Olubunmi Falomo, a junior and aspiring doctor from Nigeria who is majoring in chemistry, thinks interacting with students will help break through some of the generalizations Americans have about Africa and provide an opportunity for them to realize “'that this person’s African, and they’re so cool and I learned this and I learned that.'”

Zelazny worked closely in therapy sessions with Olaniyan before and after a July 2006 surgery that removed lesions on her vocal folds. By last fall, after surgery and daily voice exercises, Olaniyan's vocal fatigue was gone. Zelazny suggested Olaniyan consider applying for the Baldwin grant, though at first Olaniyan was not sure a storytelling program could win any funding.

“It’s as if I was the only one who didn’t see how exciting it was,” Olaniyan says.

James Leary, a professor of folklore and Scandinavian studies who also directs the Folklore Program, wrote a letter of support for Olaniyan’s grant application.

“I think there are lots of little outreach things that happen in the Madison area but to have something that ranges farther away — and especially into rural and small town areas — is really special,” says Leary, who is a northern Wisconsin native.

Leary spoke to the African students about the ethnic groups and occupational traditions of northern Wisconsin, as well as the older storytelling traditions at work in the region “so when they go in there they realize that these aren’t people who are bereft of storytelling traditions … that may help the students to, in some ways, relate some of their stories.”

The students involved are either directly from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia and Nigeria or their parents came to the United States from those countries.

Harold Scheub, an African languages and literature professor who teaches the popular course The African Storyteller, explained the significance and structure of stories to the students based on his experiences collecting oral traditions in southern Africa. Scheub was impressed with the students and the questions they raised. “They were searching, very serious questions and it’s clear they already have, I think, a pretty good sense of how oral tradition works.”

Fredrick Nana-Tuyee Yeboah, a freshman from Ghana, has fond memories of his grandmother telling stories when the electricity went out, something that happened up to three times a week.

“Grandma would gather all the cousins, sit us down to tell us stories,” he says. “Her tone would change every time she was at a different climax or different point of the story, so it just kind of brought us together as a family all the time.”

Yeboah wants to tell the young students stories about Kweku Ananse, a trickster whose tales usually end with a moral or proverb. “I hope they can pick up some of the morals that we picked up through storytelling,” he says, “…(and) just get what we got from it and be able to tell another person the same stories.”

Mobolaji Olubunmi Falomo, a junior and aspiring doctor from Nigeria who is majoring in chemistry, laughs as she recounts her mother reminding her of a proverb during a phone conversation the previous day.

Falomo thinks interacting with students will help break through some of the generalizations Americans have about Africa and provide an opportunity for them to realize “’that this person’s African, and they’re so cool and I learned this and I learned that.’”

On an early spring day at West Middleton Elementary School, Olaniyan awaits a class of third-graders as they return from recess. She is wearing native Nigerian clothing: a deep red long dress with wide sleeves, a red and gold brocade scarf and a headpiece in matching fabric.

Olaniyan spends the first few minutes of her presentation talking to them while showing a map of Africa, not only to give students some time to get accustomed to her Nigerian accent but also ask the students what they know about the continent and give them context for the story.

“It’s hot and dry,” answers one student. “Yes, a lot of it is,” Olaniyan says, but informs them in some places, like Kenya, you would need a sweater most days of the year.

“There are bushmen all over,” another student answers. While it’s true there are bushmen in Africa, she explains the continent is not all desert and villages; it also has towns and large cities. When the children file out at the end of class, they will not only remember the story of how the tortoise broke his shell because he was greedy, they’ll also know that Africa has more than 50 distinct countries.

“I feel like I’m an ambassador of Nigeria to the world and, by default, Africa,” Olaniyan says. “It’s something I take seriously.”