As South African storyteller Bongiswa Kotta Ramushwana sifted through her mind for the best stories to tell at the third edition of Udaipur Tales, she remembered the words of a former First Lady of the United States—“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something you own”, wrote Michelle Obama in her maiden book, Becoming.
Raised by a single mother who was a teacher, Bongiswa believes loneliness was her best companion. “My siblings had friends to be with when mother left for work. I would be all alone. This invited trouble from people in the community who tried to do me harm,” she says, refusing to elaborate. She was also mocked at school for not having enough money. These experiences drove Bongiswa to become an achiever.
She found solace in stories and made them her ports of escape. She enrolled herself in Zanendaba: The Institute of African Storytellers and received advanced storytelling training at Kwesukela Storytelling Academy in 2010. This became a turning point in her life when she began using the medium to provide comfort and healing in the manner she healed herself in childhood. “Stories are safe places. Sometimes when you go through hardship, you don’t know where to turn, especially when you have tried everything else to make yourself feel better. Stories manage to touch the tender-most part of your being, parts you don’t want to deal with. But after listening to a story, you’re forced to,” she says.
Today she is more than a storyteller—a mother, a wife, a pastor, a sister, a friend, a facilitator, an interpreter, a praise poet, a motivational speaker, an event organiser and a writer—all hats worn with equal aplomb. Working presently as a professional storyteller at a heritage site called Freedom Park based in Pretoria, she partakes in private performances whenever there is a chance. Which is what brought her to Udaipur in February.
The piece she presented at the festival was a Bantwini village story from a book titled Hatidi Yetu written by storytellers of the Freedom Park. Hatidi Yetu means ‘our stories’. She writes her own tales and takes inspiration from the work of others. Needless to say, she is perfectly at home in Rajasthan, the land of endless eternal stories—Rana Pratap and his horse Chetak, the battle of Haldi Ghati, the story of King Rana Kumbha who was slain by his son when he was at prayer, and many more. Sushmita Singha and Salil Bhandari, founders, Udaipur Tales, say, “Today, this land is being re-visited through stories, old and new.”
Bongiswa’s favourite story is also an old one—The Monkey and the Crocodile which she heard from her grandmother as a child. “I’m glad it has lived on,” she says. She is a story herself.