African cultural storytelling from the perspective of journalism in the Moaaga society

The strength of the elderly' is in the ears and on the lips.

(Burkinabè proverb)

In suggesting that African approaches to journalism need to be strengthened, it is important to understand African ways of diffusing information. We take the example of the Moaaga society' in Burkina Faso to first show how information structures were organised, and then demonstrate the typical method of storytelling in this society.


The findings of this paper are based on qualitative research. For the purposes of this research, in-depth personal interviews were conducted with participants in Burkina Faso, comprising cultural persons and practitioners of journalism in Burkinabè languages. These interviews were interpreted in the socio-cultural context of the society with which this study is concerned.

Furthermore, a literature review complements the results of the interviews. Aside from academic literature, we also reviewed African literature to understand the ways that African proverbs, myths, wisdom sayings and traditional stories can be integrated in more conventional ways of literary storytelling. This helps to gain perspectives on how African ways of storytelling can be used in journalistic productions.

‘Kibaya’ or ‘koееse’: news or information in Moore

Moore is a language spoken in Burkina Faso. It was originally the language of the population group, the ‘Moose’.2 The profession of ‘journalist’ in Moaaga society was related to musical instruments and was the duty of the yovma,3 called griots. There are two categories ofyovma, as the bend naaba in Gounghin explained in an interview. This participant is the ‘information minister’ of the Moog Naaba, the emperor of the Moose. ‘General news about city life was the responsibility of the “yuuma”, who used instruments such as “gàngàogo” and “lunga”. But if the griot diffuses information using the instrument, “bendre”, it means that he is giving information from the royal court’ (see Figure 11.1).4 As benda, or bend, is the plural form of bendre, the bend naaba in Gounghin means the head of the information system in the royal court.

Both categories of staff took their profession seriously. ‘In general, before the "yuuma” diffuse any information, they first discuss whether it should be spread. If yes, they determine together the aspects to give out and the appropriate narrative form depending on the type of information’, the bend naaba in Gounghin explained. However, he noted a difference between the processes of distributing information from the royal court and general information. The former enjoyed greater seriousness in its treatment and diffusion. It went through a strict official process within a limited circle that decided whether information should be issued or not: ‘This involved news about private affairs of the royal family, public issues of the kingdom, as well as inter-kingdom issues, such as trade and conflicts’, explained the bend naaba in Gounghin. Even the relay of this information between theyuuma, who were responsible for dispensing information from the royal court, did not lead to their distortion. By contrast, announcing general information was the purview of the second category' ofyuuma, who issued notices about things happening in the city: feasts, burglaries, lightning injuries, conflicts between herders and farmers, etc.




Figure 11.1 Photographs of Gàngàogo, lunga and bendre instruments.

The notions of ko££se and kibaya emerged from the difference between these information processes. The most used terminology by newspapers and broadcasting in Moore is ‘kibaya’. It is common to hear on the radio phrases like ‘tond tenga, la zamaan zens kibaya', which means ‘national and international news'. Kibaya is the plural form of ‘kibare’, which means ‘news’ and can be used in relation to a person (the news about someone) or in relation to occurrences or events. This second usage takes us to the activity of journalism in the sense that the yuuma were gathering and diffusing information about events and occurrences. Kibaya therefore refers to the retrieval, the constitution of and the relay of information.

Information conveyed by the second category of yuuma, however, is prone to distortion:

the first griot giving information might report it correctly. But when other griots relay that information in public places, such as markets and taverns, it eventually gets distorted. The message is no longer the same; the names change and little authenticity remains. ’

‘KoEEse’ also means news or information. In contrast to kibaya, it refers to the kind of information from a given person or authority to be issued without comments and generally using the wording agreed upon with the person or authority. Ko££se mostly came from an authority, especially the royal court. It also came from private entities or individuals who could contact ayuuma for an announcement. The difference is that ko££se issued from authority were diffused by ayuuma using a ‘bsndre’, and due to the rigor and threat of sanctions in this information system category, the news from authorities were transmitted exactly as agreed. By contrast, the announcements from private entities or individuals were diffused by ordinary yuuma, using any percussion instrument except the b£ndre. Ko££se is the plural form of ‘kosfiga’, meaning ‘the voice’ in both literal and figurative senses. Here again, the notion of information is based on the second sense.

The reflection on these concepts highlights their etymology and their connotation in the profession of the yuuma in Moaaga society. But it also shows some similarities with contemporary universal journalism. In fact, it distinguishes neutral and factual formats, such as news and reports, from judgmental ones where the personal speculations and perspectives of the journalist - such as commentaries, columns or features - are allowed. Making the parallel with contemporary' journalistic rules, Jimas Sanwidi noted in an interview that ko££se tries to address the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ questions in a neutral way with reference mostly to official sources, whereas kibaya go beyond these aspects and touch upon the ‘how’ and ‘why’.


The categories of information described above require a certain narrative strategy in their diffusion, and this leads us to deal with storytelling. Storytelling in the Moaaga society is similar to most African ways of telling stories. This is why' many authors who dealt with the topic generally speak about ‘African Storytelling’ (Achebe 1958; Thiong’o 1964; Soyinka 1978; Kouyate 1989; Mandela 2002; Alidou 2002). Like theyvuma in the Moaaga society, storytellers in African societies were highly educated people, especially in the history' of their region and beyond. It was a culturally transmitted activity, thus they had been initiated since their childhood and trained in the verbal use of proverbs and riddles as well as musical and memory performances (Achebe 1958; Chinyowa 2000; Vambe 2001).

Setting out the typical characteristics of storytelling, whether for koeeseor kibaya, the bend naaba in Gounghin points out that a story always has a head, a body and a cue, formally expressed as the introduction, body and conclusion. The musical aspect is reflected throughout all three parts of the story': ‘Before starting to speak, the yinrma plays the instrument. Besides catching the attention of people, the sound of the instrument also makes the origin of the information clear’, the bend naaba in Gounghin stresses. The instrument’s sound and songs were also used from time to time in between the narration of thejui/m«. Doing so, he gave a signal to people, who had not been there at the beginning, so that they' could join the audience. Depending on the mood of the information, the audience sang or clapped their hands to accompany the storyteller's sendee.

Repetition was also part of a rhetorical style of Moose storytellers. Classified in the contemporary' classical literature studies as ‘figure of amplification’ (Burton 2015), this was observed mainly in the body of the story; It contributed to draw the audience’s attention on important details. Theji/tzma sometimes even brought listeners to repeat with him some words, expressions or phrases as participants in the storytelling. This dynamic and dialectic interaction was not only a strategy to ensure concentration, but also enabled the yuvma to maintain the central theme as the story' unfolded.

Another characteristic that was found throughout the whole story is the use of formulaic means, such as proverbs, myths, parables, images, symbols, humour, excerpts from tales and even historical occurrences. In fact, the typical storytelling does not go straight to the point; rather, it uses some of these elements to introduce the topic or the subject line. Depending on the type of information, the yvuma uses one or another element: ‘You do not start a story just like that’, the bend naaba in Gounghin says ironically; explaining that, in the introduction, these formulaic elements give an idea of the expected type of information and prepare the audience to receive the information. In the body' of the story; they' enhance the weight of the subject, enrich its content and make it more relevant to their listeners. Used in the conclusion, these elements constitute a neat end, reminding the audience of the collective wisdom and responsibility' or proposing a life lesson.

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