Prepared by Laura Simms. One evening I told my son a story that I had read from the Lemba tribe of Sierra Leone, West Africa. I was delighted to find tales from the country where he was born. Sierra Leone has been involved in a horrendous civil war for ten years. The war has resulted in some of the most hideous atrocities of our recent history. My son, who has been with me for less than three years and who I know from a special project I worked with at the UN five years ago, is the rare example of a young person who has successfully undergone detraumatization. One of his only cheerful childhood memories has been the recollection of stories he heard in his grandmother’s village.
The story that I told him was a difficult and complicated story about a mother and a son, about revenge, and the rebalancing of energy after a disaster. I asked him what he thought of it. His response was to tell me a story about a story. The context of the storytelling is vital to understand the way in which stories function for every sort of teaching, sharing, and healing in the Mende tradition of his birth.
Every evening in the village of Matru Jong young and old sit in a circle and exchange stories. Each person is expected to tell or retell a story as part of the evening event. A stone is passed from one person to the next. Children are taught to listen carefully because they are also expected to repeat stories that they have heard. My son is an excellent listener. He has the capacity, bred from his history of storylistening , to reflect on what he hears instantly. Each person was then asked to discuss the story and what he or she thinks the boy should do. Everyone had an opinion.
A young boy went into the bush to hunt with his bow and arrow. He saw a monkey on the branch of a tree and aimed his arrow. The monkey spoke to him, “Stop. You must think before you shoot me. If you kill me, your mother will die and if you do not kill me, your father will die.”
Ishmael could not remember what each person had said because he was too busy trying to find his own answer at the time. He was afraid that if he made either choice, then his mother or father would think that he favored one of them. So, he refused to give an answer. He was about seven years old at the time.
Needless to say the story haunted me. What a strange story to tell? And to leave without an ending. Ishmael as other traditional peoples have told me about the many stories that are told where the ending is left to the listeners.
I could not rest easily with this story.
In the middle of one night, I thought it must be about the fact that death is inescapable. There is nothing more profound and necessary to acknowledge than the reality of impermanence. It is true that no matter what the boy chooses, both his parents will ultimately die as will the boy and the monkey.
Then, I thought about the monkey who stopped the boy’s mind from hunting at that moment to reflect on what he was doing. He was taking a life and all actions have effect in the energy of the world. The monkey is often the playful intelligence that is beyond convention. For instance, in the frame story of The King and the Corpse, it is the monkey that tears open apple which a King has thrown away after a beggar has presented it to him as a gift. The rotting apple has a ruby inside of it.
Can a hunter afford to think when he is hunting about the outcome of his action? Or, does he not have only to think about what he is doing and the food he is taking? How many African stories talk about the danger that faces the hunter who takes a nap in the afternoon confident that he can not find any game. In one tale, the gifted hyena hunter is hunted by a hyena who pounces on him while he naps.
Then, I thought about the very disturbing tale and the whole process of listening and thinking at a profound level, rather than always being spoon-fed a simple answer for our stories. Here was a living example of the power of story to heal, since it put us face to face with the most challenging dilemma. The community as a whole grapples with the issue at hand, like a Zen Koan as they unravel the inner meaning.
I am offering this story, this context, and some of my ideas because it is worthwhile for us who are in challenging situations to think like storytellers. To think with a vast view and to look at all the possibilities of the effect of story. To not be afraid of the difficult questions and the life risking activities. To look at and think about death, about hunting of every sort, and about our process of making sense of stories. In the end, I am struck by the generosity of the storyteller who allows everyone to come up with all the answers, rather than one right answer. At the depth of the images of the story is an important series of reflections.