Traditional Stories in Sierra Leone: What Role for Librarians?

Traditional Stories in Sierra Leone: What Role for Librarians?


Stories are as old as language, as old as the earliest societies. A few of the earliest stories even survive: those told in pictorial form on walls of cave in Lascaux, in France or in the Mpongweni Mountains in Lesotho. And others have come down to us in the world’s myths and folklore to which we now have access on the printed age. Storytelling is older than printing, older than writing, and the first stories to be set down on paper, papyrus or parchment were not the work of those authors but records of the oral traditions of past centuries. In Sierra Leone as it is in most African countries storytelling is an integral part of the country’s life although oral traditions have very largely yielded to the written word.

We learn as we live while we are children, young people and adults. Learning is not confined to the classroom alone: it can take place anywhere. Moral values and social norms, beliefs and codes have to be transmitted from generation to the next, whether modified or not. Informal learning settings are relevant and might be dominant even today when more formalized and specific institutions have partly taken over.

While Sierra Leoneans guard themselves against their past both educationists and librarians see a lot in storytelling that could be used as foundation to orient and develop the young in the school system. There are many indications that an immense richness of traditional pedagogy in respect to the principles, contents, methods and institutional arrangements existed and still exist in Sierra Leone. Story tellers, their stories and songs, proverbs and riddles are still important assets and subjects for indigenous learning and education. Oral traditions do not only pass the mores and standards of a society. They set out to explain the world and behaviour of the people in it. Oral traditions offer accounts of how the world began and these creation myths are part also of the Holy Books of all the world’s long-established religions such as Christianity and Islam. Also explained in allegorical terms is all human behaviour in which good does not always triumph over evil.

Stories which do not depend on literature in turn do not depend on literacy. They can reach all of the community and their interactive quality is itself power, for it facilitates the functions of stories in social instruction, what Leeson (1985) called “passing on the country’s shared wisdom and values to the next generation.” Sadly there is a missing link in Sierra Leone as school going children are well acquainted with the stories of Great Britain, the United States of America, Canada and Italy to cite a few examples but know very little about their traditional stories.


Sierra Leone comprises sixteen (16) ethnic groups. The largest of these is the Mende found in the Southern and Eastern Provinces. Next to them in number is the Temne in the North. The third largest group is the Limba, also in the Northern Province, followed by the Kono in the Eastern Province. There’s also the Koranko in the North as well as the Yalunka, Loko, Soso, Madingo and Fula. On the coast, North and South are the Bullom and Sherbro followed by the much smaller groups of Krim, Vai and Gola, with the Kissi further inland in the Eastern Province. The Western Area, including Freetown, is more mixed in population, but is basically the home of the Creole group. In all these ethnic groups storytelling is common as part of their culture.

Ogutu and Roscoe (1974) had this to say about storytelling in Africa: “The continent has its own fiction traditions; it has the tradition of storytelling, narrated orally… the medium through which Africa down the centuries has bared its soul, taught its people and entertained itself” (pp. 43-44).

Traditional stories in Sierra Leone are perceived as embodiment of the beliefs, customs, rituals and structures of society that need to be maintained. Stories operate within society to insure conformity to the accepted cultural norms of continuity from generation to generation through their role in education and the extent to which they mirror culture. Most traditional storytellers claim to derive their art through dreams, spirits, and apprenticeship to professional storytellers; others claim to acquire the art directly from God while some say they paid to acquire it. Storytellers possess the following features:

• Fluency in the local language and mastery of a wide range of vocabulary for all levels of audiences;
• Creativity and ability to establish rapport with their audiences;
• Knowledge of their audiences and their needs;
• Familiarity with and ability to refer to their culture and environment to enliven their stories and make them appeal to their audience;
• Good memory of accurate retention and narration of a large corpus of material; and
• Candour.

The contents of traditional stories can be grouped into:

• Myths-stories tinted with religion, superstition and traditional beliefs especially about the origins of mankind and phenomena;
• Legends-stories about historical events and memorable people such as war heroes, outstanding medicine men and migration;
• Fiction-imaginary tales categorized into allegory, fables, fantasy and parables.

These can be further classified by social function or institution namely:

• Political stories-stories about leadership and the relationship between leaders and their subjects;
• Tribe stories-these reveal the structures, families and communities i.e. marriage and genealogies;
• Religion and deities-stories about creation and phenomena such as death and rain;
• Moral virtues-stories intended to deride such vices as pride, greed, thievery, murder, dishonesty, foolishness and lack of insight;
• Economics-stories that deal with work, borrowing and lending, industriousness and laziness.

Characters in typical traditional Sierra Leonean stories range from people to animals, stones, trees, plants, deities, spirits and birds. These characters are symbolic: Bra rabbit- trickery; tortoise-wisdom; elephant-nobility; vulture-patience; lion-bravery and strength; sparrow, parrot and crow-intelligence; dove-good fortune; spider-cunning. Stories are told purely for evening entertainments. Sometimes storytelling sessions could be any time of the day with audiences in private verandahs, ‘court barries’ or other public places. However, the traditional setting where twenty to forty people sit together around a kerosene lamp or fire at night after a day’s work is done and food has been cooked and eaten. Storytellers are also invited to cultural social functions such as weddings, burials, secret society celebrations and crowning ceremonies. Tobacco is often provided for without smoking storytelling ideas will not flow.

Stories go together with songs; a song starts off a story; an important line in a story makes up a new story; a proverb ends a story; a song in the middle of a story is used to wake up listeners or to prepare for the coming climax. Very often songs do invite participation, and listeners become active supporters of a chorus, clapping their hands, reaching to lies and jokes of the story teller, who in turn answers the comments often with another story. Songs are backed by the beating of traditional musical instruments like ‘kaylain’, ‘sira’ ‘seigureh’ and ‘sangba’ (local drum) to add rhythm. Story telling audience is usually active. It catalyses the narratives by spontaneous exclamations, questions to the narrator, echoing of the narrator’s voice, and joining in the singing of choruses. For all these to take place discipline is maintained. The audience is made to laugh and exclaim but without jeopardizing the continuation of the narration.


Foremost is socialization. The telling and listening of stories is a social activity that brings people together to share in artistic and creative affair. The occasion is meant to entertain so that people could forget the drudgery of daily life. People are transplanted to a world of make-belief. As the narration goes through the nuances of recreating the fictional world the audience is carried along like passengers on a flight. The enjoyment derived is facilitated by the social organization of the audience. The atmosphere is generally informal with no coercion or harassment; everyone is on equal footing regardless of gender and age.

Participants have a chance to narrate and listen. The situation underscores the value of social cooperation. The discipline inherent in the narration is inevitably transformed to spheres of life. Participants learn to respect others, appreciate personal differences in abilities and temperament and be able to relate in a common activity.

Mental stimulation is derived from storytelling. Stories are told and received through the ear. The demand they place on the narrator is to remember the story and tell it for a possible retelling in future. This is good training for the memory. One has to be attentive to get the essentials of a story and assimilate it into repertoire. Thus the mind must be very active to accommodate the new knowledge or varieties of what is already known. As well as training of memory the narratives sharpen critical appreciation. One has to inquest the message of the narrative and evaluates the events related.

Stories are not just told for their own sake but have important pieces of social instruction to impart. The allegories of events and characters reflect on human life and are a source of learning. In the characters of stories the audience will see laziness, sages, cowards, agitators and the arrogant to cite but a few examples. Stories give hints as to how to react to them. The narratives give guidelines on what is cherishable. In other words they seek to change life.

Stories are cultural records. The culture of a people is the totality of their ways of life which include religion, beliefs, customs, practices, music, literature, attitudes, and philosophy. By being didactic stories present to people the philosophical essence of the society. The contents of oral traditions epitomize the foundations of that group. The tales of religion, creation and supernatural give the religious foundations of that group. Biographies and historical tales present the mundane landmarks in what is the society today. Through the traditional heroes, people appreciate what the society admires.


Stories are rich in tradition and a valuable heritage which are the country’s source of oral literature. Storytelling is like history: it reveals the past, educates the present and throws lights on the future. Stories touch the soul of society and jolt them into an awareness of their condition. In Sierra Leone however these treasures of oral tradition are in danger of being disdained, forgotten and buried. By promoting the collection and publication of these oral sources of information school librarians will not only contribute to a worthwhile revival of interest in a hitherto neglected field but will ensure that posterity will derive maximum benefits from such an endeavour.

Sierra Leone is, in political parlance, a relatively new state following a decade-long civil war (1991-2001). Recording stories and including these in the school curriculum could find solutions to the country’s problems of non-integration. Just as the country’s National Dance Troupe over the years evolved into a family national ensemble so will recording traditional stories present a less heterogeneous origin and assume a truly national and homogenous character.

Traditional stories teach moral lessons common to all the ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. Sir Winston Wilson once observed that the further back we look into the past, the more into the future we can see. Recording traditional stories could help Sierra Leoneans to look back to their past with a view to seeing into their future. Besides, schools alongside public libraries are the most popular places to tell stories to children. The type of audience determines the kind of story to be told. For instance children from ages three to five enjoy stories about animals and about children themselves. While school-age children go in for long stories. Junior High School pupils like myths and epics. They are fascinated by heroes and enjoy adventure and romance.

The right to read one’s own world is an essential part of the right to learn. Stories and songs are the media through which Sierra Leoneans have been to pass to their children the traditions, customs, culture and oral history of their society. Indigenous literature however is necessary to prevent the literate person from becoming alienated from his own culture and tradition. It strengthens the appreciation of one’s own cultural values and cultural identity in a rapidly changing environment. In Sierra Leone where for a long time education has been based on books that relate to other cultures this is very important. Like everywhere else in the world the awareness of people’s cultural heritage is also a prerequisite for the continuity, cohesion and progress of their society. Over and above all the rich oral traditions of Sierra Leoneans with their different languages can easily get lost with the propagation of modern means of communication, if not preserved.


Libraries are the gatekeepers to the world of information and knowledge. Kinnell (1992) opined that Good libraries empower. Using their resources can unfetter our imagination, disclose hitherto unrealized worlds; promote knowledge; induce pleasure; make us laugh; insights; challenge our misconceptions; assuage fears; prick our conscience; influence our sensibilities; and provide professional refreshment. “What we learn from good books and other resources become part of us”(p.5).

Libraries are the neutral grounds on which the individual child may grow through independent and unhindered discovery. They are places to learn and practice information skills. Libraries provide sources of information for young people, enabling them to discover and use the power of access that information skills can bring in the society of today and that of tomorrow. Amonoo and Azubuike (2003) opined that libraries are catalysts for human progress as they aid the development and transmission of knowledge and culture, and foster civic awareness in support of democracy. Libraries preserve and promote cultural heritage and diversity, and foster mutual understanding and respect for cultures and peoples. For Johnson (2013) “good school and college libraries can enhance the educational experience, encourage reading and fostering the critical thinking that students will require to survive and prosper in an increasingly complex society”(p.295).

An advantage that libraries enjoy is that they are centrally placed within communities. As such they are well placed to fulfill a role as cultural centers. They are natural places for the promotion of literature including poetry, drama, prose and storytelling. They also offer venue for visual arts and music. In addition they are cultural centers in the true sense of the word, highlighting local culture and able to highlight the culture of children representing the various groups within the community.

Le Roux (2005) averred that the school library is nothing less than the conscience of the curriculum. Schools libraries provide relevant and up-to-date materials and services for teaching staff and pupils to support the curriculum. Implicitly the collection so developed should be one that reflects not only the known needs of users but also anticipated needs of prospective teachers and pupils. By presenting their users with a representative collection of children’s literature libraries could stimulate teachers and pupils alike to develop imaginative use of storytelling materials that could be passed on to pupils in subsequent years.

Provision and promotion of services presupposes a knowledge and understanding of the world within which children live on a global, national and basis. Children can derive from libraries enjoyment of story experience, of language, and of associated art. The resources of the library may foster knowledge of a wider world and an understanding of other people with regard to behavior, culture, or situations (Johnson,2013). Children can gain self-knowledge through relating to situations, events and characters. Libraries can provide for children’s information needs. Good services may help to engender confidence in the acquisition of vocabulary, speech and language. Libraries provide opportunities for shared experience between adults and children. Central to the philosophy of library provision for young people is to support formal and informal education.

School libraries are communication centers. They constitute an ideal means of disseminating / knowledge. Their purpose is to facilitate access to the clientele they serve to the tools of knowledge to assist their cultural and professional development (Wehmeyer, 2005). Ultimately this function is associated with the intellectual development of pupils and their attitudes towards situations of all kinds, moral, intellectual, social, practical and recreational.


Traditional stories are aspects of peoples’ indigenous knowledge systems and considering their social functions in society there is every need for these to be preserved. The fact in the main is that much of the art of storytelling is owned by adults most of whom are growing old and dying. And in Africa for instance when an old person dies it is believed that a library is burnt. This is where school librarians should come in to play a crucial role. Traditional storytelling is an inexplicable phenomenon of Sierra Leonean life and is indispensable for future development. Already steps have been undertaken by some organizations like Partners in Adult Education (PEA), the Department of History and African Studies and the Division of Extra-Mural Studies (DEMS) at Fourah Bay College to record some traditional stories, songs, proverbs and riddles for future use. School librarians should be part of these efforts by recording traditional stories using conventional information and communication technologies such as telecommunications (mobile phones), computers, microfiche, and audiovisual technologies( e.g. cassette recorders, slides, video tapes, tape recorders and CD-ROMs) to record, repackage and disseminate stories for their intended audiences. Given the importance of web technology in information gathering and dissemination librarians can also record stories in web OPACs so that teachers, pupils, and researchers can read different stories as well as biographies of renowned story tellers in the country (Kochtanek and Mathews, 2002).

Further school librarians should be transcribing and publishing stories into booklets and anthologies for use in schools. Such efforts will contribute to the modest stock of written materials in the country available for schools, youths and even adults. Translating traditional stories into several languages will contribute to intercultural understanding in the country. Through these efforts the country’s cultures would become the content of learning and even the form by taking it from its roots.

As traditional stories and songs are living in certain contexts rudiments of these could be presented in pictures: village life, arts and crafts, landscapes, peoples and travel routes. Central in all these efforts will be pictures of story tellers and their audiences, dancers and artists. The visual impressions created by photos will further strengthen children’s understanding and interest in school. Story telling sessions should not only be filmed / videoed but librarians should compile biographies of storytellers for use in schools. Such strides will enrich children’s knowledge of the various ethnic groups in the country and could go a long way in reducing illiteracy.

In school librarians should advocate for increased slots for storytelling on the time table. They should also lobby for the introduction of traditional storytelling up to Junior Secondary School level as aspects of Literature. Children should be brought to the library for special storytelling sessions so that they could not forget their culture. Parents and Storytellers should be invited to narrate stories in school for the benefit of children. Such efforts need collaboration with subject teachers who better understand the needs of pupils and the curriculum. School librarians should also maintain links with public libraries and nearby schools in their areas. Children should be taken on visit to public libraries within their localities where storytelling sessions could be held. In all these moves school librarians should possess extensive knowledge of storytelling appropriate for the varied needs and levels of pupils in their respective schools. Links should also be made with tertiary institutions and organizations engaged in adult literacy which are already involved in traditional storytelling activities as part of their curricula. Lecturers and animators could be invited to school to talk to children about the importance of traditional storytelling and even tell stories for the benefit of pupils and teachers. There are community radios stations all over the country and schools can buy air time to hold discussions on storytelling. If possible storytellers should be invited to such talks to be either interviewed or tell stories. In fact the national broadcaster, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) could play a leading role in this direction by creating at least a slot in its weekly programs for storytelling.

The school librarians, to be effective, need to be able to “sell” the art of storytelling in the same way other competitors for children “sell” their wares. They should organize Book Weeks with storytelling sessions included in the activities to be carried out in such Weeks. During such sessions storytellers and parent could be invited to tell stories to children. Teachers, parents and older pupils should be encouraged to write and read stories to the younger ones. They should also show video clips or slides/musical versions of renowned traditional stories.


A well used school library promotes learning, raises achievement and enhances pupils’ personal and social development. It is an asset to the school, both in terms of physical resources and the wider resources throughout the school it will harness for the benefit of its users (The Library Association (1998). Invariably, traditional stories have passed from the ancient to present day generations by word of mouth. They have survived the test of time because of the universality of their messages across time and boundaries. Thus Sierra Leoneans still find traditional stories relevant and adoptable to their experiences today. As time passes on traditional stories still have to be passed down to their descendants. Noticeably this should not be solely through the oral word. Literacy and other aspects of modern life come in to aid the preservation and further transmission of traditional stories. And this is where school librarians should come in. Through compilation of anthologies, recording stories into audio tapes, CD ROMs, and cinema films and creation of networks to cite but a few examples, school librarians will be able to create a more permanent record of this valuable asset for future use.