As a child, I was always drawn to stories from faraway lands. For my baptism, aged 8, my godmother gave me an A-Z of the world. It featured disparate groups, tribes and locations, all of whom were under threat of disadvantage of some kind. I prayed for these people from my bedroom in South-East England.
My grandparents met at a hockey match in India in the 1930’s. My grandfather had been posted there with the British Army. My grandmother was working as a nanny to a British family and had required parental permission to travel overseas as an unmarried woman under 21. I’ve always marvelled at how much pluck such a trip that must have required at that time. They were married quickly on the eve of World War Two and later lived in Penang, Malaysia with their two young sons. In her 80’s, her small bungalow was filled with deep mahogany carved ornaments and furniture collected on her travels.
Whenever I travel or work as a nanny I often think of her. She was warm and patient and made friends easily with children and adults alike. Three years after her death I made my own way to India, my flight her last gift to me.
Ever since I began telling traditional tales professionally I have tried to source stories from as many diverse places as possible. Many of my favourite stories, short in length and rich in warmth, have originated from East or West Africa.
This year I finally took the plunge and made my first visit to East Africa. To Kenya, and Tanzania then onwards to the South; Zambia and Botswana. I then returned to India and visited Sri Lanka. If I hadn’t heard stories from these places it never would have occurred to me to go. I’m also aware that any stories that reach me in Britain would be told through the lens of post-colonialism, and that countless stories and cultures have been lost and brutalised by the horrors of colonialism.
I stayed with local people and taught in local schools. I travelled halfway across the world, spoke English the entire way and never once had to even drive on the opposite side of the road. I heard countless stories, both personal and traditional.
Now I’m in Australia. Back in Western society. In a country where colonialism essentially still exists. Where white people tack respects to traditional owners of the land onto their email signatures from their concrete towers built upon sacred land.
And all I can think is that I’m not ready to stop listening. I want to hear more stories from cultures other than my own. And I don’t want to hear them from someone like myself.