By Imani Sorhaindo – Community Curator – Suffolk Black Community Forum Heritage and Culture lead, Director of KMT Rising Ltd and Co-Director of Be Me Like We
Stories are more purposeful for our development and growth than we may think!
Looking at the purpose of narrative as a tool for imbibing the culture, traditions and social mores of a people, I always turn back (like the Sankofa bird) to my rich African history, culture and traditions. The world of the ancient and modern Griots (those storytellers who held and continue to hold our cultural stories and pass them on through story, song, film and music) were very significant role models for me growing up in terms of shaping my identity as an African woman growing up in Dominica, West Indies, and now living in Suffolk.
Stories provided a cultural landscape for me to navigate, allowed me to journey and view the world with mystery and wonder rather than a place of imprisonment, allowed me to be creative and tap into all my senses, so that I could truly experience life, the community, and all characters I would meet and interact with. Stories also instilled in me a sense of fairness, justice and equality and the continual battle between good and evil.
Whether it be the stories I grew up with of Compere Rabbit, or the Kweku Ananse stories of West Africa, who travelled to the Caribbean shores and became Bro Nansy, these narratives formed the basis for social conduct, community life, intrinsic values, and traditions. Whether it be the stories of Set and Heru from ancient Kamit (ancient Egypt) told in the book ‘Heru the Resurrection’ by Ra Un Nefer Amen, through all these stories I learnt about who I am, who I am yet to become, I learnt about how to conduct myself, and the consequences of incorrect behaviour. All of these shaped my identity growing up, and continue to do so, drawing on stories as a tool to stay true to essence.
Through Story, we see the deliberate and constant opposing forces between good and evil which I learnt to reflect on in my day-to-day interactions in society and learnt to navigate my way by discerning what to accept and what to reject. It was and is stories that keeps me holding on to what was truth, and how to work with others in the community and their varying characters.
Through stories, I also learnt about the trickster character (Ananse) who was always scheming and plotting his way for personal gain. I learnt about the wise ones, the courageous and bold ones, the beautiful and ugly side of each and every one of us, and soon learnt that these were all aspects of our persona or personas to nurture and develop, and some to curb or tame. So, stories become a valuable and essential shaping and honing tool for me, where I learnt about my identity, customs and a sense of belonging.
When I look at the word Culture itself, implicit in the word is ‘to cultivate’, and that tells us something about the purpose of having tools to shape an ‘untamed’ character as we sojourn through life, to cultivate something, from a seedling to a strong Boabab tree. This is where I place the value of stories, and it was with this fundamental knowledge of the power of stories that I agreed to become a Community Curator for the recent Power of Stories exhibition.
For me as a black woman, an African woman growing up locally, our stories, our narratives were seldom shared, there was a sense of white centrality which portrayed to the world that anything African was ‘primitive’ and everything Caribbean was stereotypically exotic ‘Steelband, Limbo and Rice and Peas’. It affected my confidence as a young girl when I first came to Ipswich, and silently learnt to reject aspects of blackness by wanting to be something else, fit in with the masses. I was fortunate and blessed to become reconnected with the Black narrative through the world of writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Cheikh Anta Diop, Benjamen Zephaniah, Anthony Browder, Wole Soyinka, Ra Un Nefer Amen and Calypsonians such as Lord Kitchener, and so many others, which led me on a journey of becoming a published poet and writer myself.
I did not want to continue to take on or perpetuate the myths around me, that placed Black people as peripheral to Suffolk life, nor did I want to contribute to any community work or project where we were passive players, consulted or have our stories used in a tokenistic manner, portrayed in a biased way. I wanted to be the one who was a part of the telling of it, the questioning and challenging of tone, intonation, use of language when conveying stories from the diaspora.
For me, and the people I serve as a community activist, the collaborative work and the building of relationships with statutory providers had to be mutually worthwhile and it could not remind me of the ‘trade’ which always resulted in taking away and not replenishing Africa and its people. So, stories were a perfect way to challenge, question, educate and be part of a revolution locally, liberating all cultures to view Africa, black history, and culture differently and with some level of respect and reverence. It was a humbling experience and one which I have been deeply moved by. It was truly a revolutionary act in Suffolk!