During one of our frequent discussions about life, the universe and everything, Msomi asked:
“Why do we have two ears and only one tongue?”
“For once, Msomi, I can answer, now you will see that I do know something.”
He tilted his head to one side, inviting my response.
“Because we should listen twice as much as we should speak.”
“Yebo, yes. No-one listens properly. And stories are dying because no-one listens.”
This is so true.
In Africa, listening is the guiding principle, one that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world where no-one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else.
It’s as if we have all lost the ability to listen, and listen well.
Everybody talks, and everybody seems intimidated by silence.
As a story-teller myself, I am struck by the differences in narrative style. The Western approach, and one I am also partially guilty of, is one of linearity. It proceeds from beginning to end without major digression in space or time.
That is not the case in Africa.
Instead of a linear, well-ordered story, there is unrestrained and exuberant story-telling that skips back and forth in space and time, blending past and present.
The San people, during their day-long wanderings in the quest for food and water, tell stories as they search.
They can have three or four stories running in parallel, told with conviction, humour and skill.
As they get close to home, or to the place where they will spend the night, they manage to either skilfully intertwine the stories to a common ending, or split them apart, giving each its own ending, and all at just the right time.
When I was looking for ways to get surrounding communities involved in caring for the wildlife, I would visit the local people to talk of my plans for community involvement.
On one occasion I had to wait a while for the previous meeting to end before I would be heard.
On a simple wooden bench, in the shade of a rather splendid tree, sat two elderly, grey-haired men. In typically civil fashion, they shuffled a bit closer together to give me room to sit and immediately switched to English so that I could follow the discussion. I was touched by their innate politeness and desire to include me, a stranger, in their world.
They continued their story, talking about a third man, an old friend of theirs.
One of them took up the tale:
“It was when I was visiting him at his house. He was telling me a wonderful story about something that had happened to him when he was a young man. But it was a long story and it was getting late, so we decided to leave the story there and I would return the next day to hear the rest.
“But when I got there the next day, this old friend of mine had died in the night.”
The old man fell silent.
His friend looked like he was about to speak, but just at that moment I was told that I could enter the meeting room to talk to the community leaders.
I was torn. On the one hand the community meeting was of tremendous importance, but on the other hand I desperately wanted to hear what the other old man had to say.
Fortunately, he spoke before I had to make the difficult decision.
“Eish. That’s not a good way to die ……. before you have told the end of your story.”
Walking across the dusty forecourt I pondered that homo sapiens should perhaps be reclassified. Homo narrans – the story-telling person seems much more descriptive.
Over eons we have branched away from the other animals, gaining the capability to listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats – and they, in turn, can listen to ours.
Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing.
Knowledge involves the interpretation of information.
Knowledge involves listening.
So … as story-telling creatures, and as long as we permit ourselves to be quiet for a while, now and then, the eternal narrative will continue.
Many words will be written on the wind, and in the sand, but story-telling will go on until the last human being stops listening.
Then we can send the great chronicle of humanity’s tale out into the endless universe.
Who knows ….. maybe someone is out there, and willing to listen.