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African Storyteller Dazzles Young, Old at Quincy House

By Leondra R. Kruger

The questions were tough: Why do hares have long ears? Why shouldn't a young woman marry a man just for his looks? Why is it that some women never leave their houses?

An audience of both young and old gathered in the Quincy House Junior Common Room last night to hear African storyteller Harriet Masembe provide answers to these and other mysteries.

Masembe, an English professor and African storyteller who currently studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies, told four stories representing four regions of Africa.

Her presentation of African folktales, sponsored by the Harvard African Students Association (HASA), attracted not only the older members of the Harvard community, but also six young students from Academy Homes Term afterschool program.

When Masembe told the traditional Ugandan story of a young woman who falls in love with a man for his beauty only to discover that all the parts of his body--from his arms down to his legs--have been borrowed from others, she asked the audience what qualities young women in America look for in young men.

"Nice," one boy said, then reconsidered. "Like me!"

Masembe's other stories, South African, Nigerian and Kenyan folk tales, combined the educational aspect of storytelling with pure entertainment.

Masembe said storytelling was central to her childhood in Uganda, where elementary school students are required to tell stories to their classes as part of the curriculum.

But, Masembe said, her stories are for adults as well.

"One of the mistakes people make is to think of storytelling as just for children," Masembe said. "In Africa, storytelling is a means of entertainment and education."

Masembe ended her performance with a nine-minute presentation of slides depicting "the other side of Africa"--the cities and countrysides that many Americans never see in the news media.

Masembe said she started including the slide show on Africa after members of her audience asked her questions such as, "In Africa, do they have houses?" and "Do they have food?"

Taziona G. Chaponda '97, co-president of HASA, said part of the purpose of the event was to give the Harvard community a chance to "see a different side of Africa."

"In the media there are only negative images of Africa, of war-torn Africa," Chaponda said. "There are conflicts, but there are also very peaceful countries. That's not often reflected."

The children, no less captivated for the nine-minute geography lesson than they were during the stories, were delighted with the performance.

Candes Brown, 9, said she thought the South African story was the best--but she wasn't about to name a favorite.

"I liked them all," she said.

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