BENGALURU : If you ask Usifu Jalloh to tell you a story, be prepared to spend the next few minutes spellbound. Alongside rhythmic beats of a drum, his rich voice switches pace and tone as he narrates the tale of three storytellers vying for the title of the master craftsman. When he is done, everyone recognises that the real winner is, in fact, the one present in the room. In the city for his upcoming performance at Kathotsava 2019, organised by Kathalaya, the Sierra Leone-born Jalloh lets CE in on the tale he is weaving with storytelling.
“A storyteller is a mirror who reflects the social, political and cultural conditions of society with the stories. He or she is the engine that dictates how good the vehicle – the government – will run, since every nation is dependent on the story they choose to tell,” says Jalloh, who spends his time in England and his native country.
For example, when the Ebola virus struck Sierra Leone in 2014, Jalloh worked with BBC to construct a narrative around the situation. “People from the outside then understood how we felt. Besides helping people make sense of the horrific situation, storytelling also facilitated a dialogue between children and parents. We used stories to help youngsters understand sanitation and teenage pregnancy, and also helped parents understand how to relate to their kids,” recalls Jalloh.
His journey with storytelling began with many a tale about a spider (a recurring character in West African stories) and other folk tales he grew up hearing, which led to a career in theatre 30 years ago. Though already involved with storytelling as a thespian, it wasn’t until 15 years ago that he took it up formally. Accepting the identity of a ‘storyteller’, however, happened eight years ago, and that was when Jalloh became “the happiest person” he could imagine. So what took him so long? The educational paradigm, he replies, which was all about becoming a lawyer, engineer or doctor. “It negated my natural talent and I felt like a dog trained to mew like a cat,” he quips.
Jalloh now also uses his skill to help corporate employees. “Every organisation has a value narrative, a reason for which it was set up. We help the employees there realise why they are working there, to help them realise their endgame. If they don’t know their endgame, they are wasting their time there. As storytellers, we want people to be the best version of themselves,” he says.
While talking to Jalloh, you soon realise he is a man full of stories – and surprises. For one, he knows Hindi well enough to croon Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana sanam. The Shah Rukh Khan fan, who declares Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to be his favourite film, beams as he explains, “There is hardly a street in Sierra Leone where you don’t see a Bollywood movie or a shop run by an Indian.”
Jalloh feels Indians don’t realise the power that their culture, through storytelling, has had on many others around the world. “I have never met Amitabh Bachchan except through his movies, but they have had such a big impact on me,” he says. “I understand so much more about Indian culture through these films. And that is the power of storytelling.”
Stirring the plot
For 20 years, Geeta Ramanujam’s Kathalaya has spearheaded the storytelling scene in the city, with various events and courses. The beginning, however, wasn’t all rosy. “Initially, people wouldn’t take storytelling or the need for it seriously. I still wish more schools and colleges would see the relevance of storytelling courses,” she says, adding, “But order comes after chaos. Today, corporates have taken to it well,” she says. However, with acceptance also comes lack of authenticity. “Standardisation might help. So that way, not anyone and everyone can declare themselves to be storytellers,” adds the former teacher, who will also be performing at Kathotsava 2019, along with Dubai-based storyteller Shereen Saif.