Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

(African Culture of Story Series) Damaria Senne on “Stories from the Place of the Mist”: Part One

Damaria Senne
Damaria Senne

We begin by enjoying the cover of Damaria Senne's adult reader titled BOITSHOKO (meaning "perseverence" in Setswana). The book was published by Heinemann Publishers, and was translated into a number of local languages.

Boitshoko by Damaria Senne

The book is of interest (in the context of the essay about the story) because Damaria named the title character after her younger brother Boitshoko. "I like to name characters after friends and family, to honour them," Damaria told me.

You've met Damaria on Riehlife before and reader's of her blog Storypot have met our USA and South Africa blog swap. Click here to read previous post on Riehlife on finding relatives in unexpected places.

Click here to find Damaria's STORYPOT (Throw an African folktale/legend into a pot, put in an interesting setting, pour some real-life events and characters, sprinkle a dash of modern twists and turns, cook over a smoking laptop and then serve.)


Stories From The Place of the Mist – Part 1

Storytelling was an integral part of my upbringing in Phokeng [translated as The Place of the Mist], a village based 150 km West of Johannesburg in South Africa. We didn’t think about it, or discuss what it was, how it should be one or what it meant. It was simply one of the ways we used to communicate the various aspects of our lives.

Aerial View Pokeng

For my grandfather, storytelling was a way for him to share our history as a family and community. Born in 1890, he and my grandmother saw a different world to the one I grew up in.

Ntate told the stories of how his elders went to the diamond mines in Kimberley, so they could earn enough to buy the land that is now Phokeng.

Years later, he and my grandmother joined another generation of youngsters who left the village to work at the gold mines in Johannesburg.

Ntate’s stories about Kimberley and Johannesburg came in episodes. They were laden with the moral to explore the world, but remember where home is. “If you are thirsty, you don’t leave to go look for water,” I learnt. ‘You dig a well right in your backyard.”

My father’s love affair with English literature introduced me to Thomas Hardy, Henry Chaucer, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. We didn’t read the books and he didn’t read for us. He simply told the stories to entertain us and to teach us that there were other people out in the world, with their own stories and cultures. It was only later that I linked the stories my father told to the worn hardcover books piled on the bookshelf in my parents’ bedroom.

But the greatest storyteller who influenced my writing is my mother. She has never written a book; and to my knowledge, doesn’t contemplate writing one. In the beginning she didn’t even understand why I would want to work as a writer. To her, telling stories was what you did to entertain your children; it was not a reliable way to earn a living.

Magadi ceremony for younger sister, cousins on  left and sister’s best friend, Natalie, in the middle.Magadi ceremony for Damaria's younger sister; her cousin's on the left and her sister’s best friend, Natalie, is in the middle. Natalie is like a baby sister. She's been friends with my younger sister since high school about 15 years ago.

Through her storytelling, my mother, Minkey Senne, introduced her children to a community of beings living in the dam that runs past our house. In that world, there were mermaids, monsters, gods and human beings going about their normal lives, oblivious to us. Except for the occasional lost soul who stumbled onto us by accident, that is.

My mother told us a vast number of folktales and fairytales, both local and international. She told a ghost story like no one I knew.

Mma Damaria at Magadi Ceremony

The most memorable character is Vera the ghost, who liked waiting at the corner up the road from our house to hitch a ride with local drivers. She must have told that story a thousand times, and we never tired of hearing it again. “Mma, tell him/ her about Vera,” we’d say when a young relative came to visit.

When my younger brother’s pranks to scare us girls got out of hand, she’s the one who gave him a taste of his own medicine by wearing white sheets, from top to bottom, at night. She then knocked on our living window [from outside], calling his name in a deep, breathy voice begging him to please let her in before the night creatures caught up with her. Years later, when I began my career as a writer, I wanted to tell stories just like she did.

copyright 2007 by Damaria Senne.

Read Part 2, tomorrow on Riehlife

1 Responses »

  1. Damaria,

    Thanks for sharing this story ~ I too am from a long line of storytellers. My favorite ghost stories were told by my Uncle Alphonse (we all called him "Pine"). His stories always featured non other than "Bloody Mary!" He would sing the song about her ~Bloody Mary's gonna getcha tonight~uhn uh huh~Bloody Mary's gonna getcha tonight~then he would pull out this big, blue eyeball, which we learned later was a pigs eye, most likely from one of the butcherings.It was such great fun to be spooked to senseless by Pine, Bloody Mary and "The Eye."

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