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    International Storytelling Center

October 1, 2014

Storytelling is Now Part of the International Day of Peace

Velma Mukoro, award-winning storyteller chosen by the ISC/MasterPeace Project with Ban Ki-moon Secretary-General of the United Nations.

We are pleased to introduce you to Ms. Velma Mukoro, 24, of Nairobi, Kenya, and her award-winning story presented at the International Day of Peace this year.  Our thanks go to the International Storytelling Center Executive Director, Kiran Singh Sirah and Ms. Mukoro for agreeing to share this wonderful story. Kiran says, “…having met Velma, I was incredibly impressed with the fact that she followed her dream and desire to use storytelling as a way to build peace and enable more people to hear her story. Velma’s story resonates with us all, as peace builders, as storytellers, and as human beings.”

Here at the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation-USA, we think Little Pitchers exemplifies the power of storytelling to help us see how closely we are connected to one another.  The Art of Storytelling permeates the walls that separate us, clearing the path for universal understanding among the cultures of the world.

Now, sit back and enjoy reading Velma’s award-winning story, Little Pitchers.

Little Pitchers
by Velma Mukoro

Someone once said you must go through storm to appreciate sunshine.

Listening to Nyankir recount her haunting moment of terror during Southern Sudan’s war, I couldn’t help being appreciative of the lasting peace and stability we had in Kenya. She was very grateful having the rare second chance to start over, as not many of her countrymen had made it across the border. My country was her safe haven. Maybe I wasn’t grateful enough, and was I just sorry for the unbearable capacity of cruelty she had been exposed to. It was humbling watching her stay, as Nyankir marveled at our inter-tribal harmony and peaceful co-existence. To me, these were just words pieced together in our national anthem after gaining independence from colonial rule.  It was nothing to write home about. I didn’t share in her excitement.

Then came the fateful day when the disputed presidential elections of 2007 stirred up well concealed hatred, turning men into beasts of vengeance who littered streets with innocent blood. There were gunshots and cries, fire and burns. It wasn’t amusing running from an understocked food store to an out of stock pharmacy with hands lifted high as a sign of surrender. Extensive international calls for calm and dialogue cooled thing off leaving behind a dwindling economy and shattered trust.

For the first time, I knew why Nyankir had been thrilled to arrive to Kenya. It upset me that it had taken a war to make me understand the urgency of preaching peace even where it prevailed. The media, backed by the government and humanitarian organizations took to peace campaigns. Seven years later, the effects of the conflict are still evident, the scars still raw.

Amidst the blame game and uncontrolled hate across social platforms, I noticed them. Little pitchers, a generation of boys and girls that had been left out in the recent nationwide reconciliation programs. Harmless they are, until you hear them speak with venom trickled down to them from days spent eavesdropping on adults’ spiteful talk. So young, so faultless yet so corrupted. It was sad watching children, being caught up in all the hate and ethnic profiling. No child should be raised that way. I was concerned.

I remembered Nyankir and how the thought of peace had elated her. It had taken the shoe pinch to make me share in her excitement. What were ‘mere’ words of our national anthem now bring tears to my eyes. I know what we had and what we are missing. These children I saw in the street, don’t. In my own simple way, I will try to make them see that though they’ve had a rough start, it doesn’t have to be this way. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

I went through the storm to appreciate the sunshine.

Velma Mukoro
International Day of Peace 2014

August 31, 2014

The Storyteller’s Art – Bringing Ancient Wisdom and the Philosophy of Ubuntu to Life

An Interview with Kiran Singh Sirah – Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center

Kiran Singh Sirah began his career as an artist and teacher, which led him to establish a number of award winning peace and conflict resolution programs in museums and cultural centers in the UK. These initiatives address sectarian, ethnic and religious conflict, poverty, and gang violence. Kiran went on to develop arts-led projects exploring modern slavery violations, war, and issues facing socially marginalized peoples. Kiran is a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellow program and a folklorist interested in the power of human creativity, arts and social justice, and the notion of a truly multicultural society. Kiran currently lives in Jonesborough, TN.  He was selected as Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center in 2013.

I had the opportunity to talk with him recently about the power of storytelling to unite people across different cultures and belief systems.

Rebecca Popham:      The 42nd Annual National Storytelling Festival for 2014 is rapidly approaching. This is already your second annual Festival.  Your selection as the new Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center (ISC) in Jonesborough, TN, last year came just as the 2013 Festival was ramping up—kind of a “baptism by fire.”  Tell us a little bit about why the position of Executive Director of the ISC appealed to you.

Kiran Sirah:      A baptism by fire indeed! But a great one. To some extent it was like being placed in the middle of story! I still have to pinch myself everyday for this wonderful and unique opportunity. I love my job and I am grateful for the people that support storytelling. To be in this position gives me the chance to work with storytellers of all kinds, to draw from all my experiences and my education in the storytelling arts, folklore, and peace-building and global networks to contribute to our international and regional storytelling communities. What attracted me initially to this job was the chance to promote and develop our ancient art of storytelling, to bring it to new heights and to expand the role that storytelling has to enrich people’s lives here and across the world and make a real difference to people’s lives.

RP:     As a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellowship program can you describe the connection between storytelling and working toward global peace?

KS:     Storytelling is a powerful social force. Telling stories opens doors to help bind and form communities and find important connections to the entire human family. In essence it helps us to holds up mirrors to ours and other cultures and establishes a sense of a global identity. Storytelling is what forms relationships with others, it is the powerful expressive realm in all its dimensions that gives voice to who we are and where we are going. Used wisely it may also be the one of greatest conflict prevention tools the world might ever know. As a Rotary Peace fellow I have had opportunities to learn not only techniques to building peace but also how complex, multifaceted and diverse our peace community is. My main thrust in peace work has been to encourage intercultural dialogue and therefore Storytelling offers what I believe is the greatest way we can do that to help us all work towards a peaceful world.

RP:     Did the ISC have a history of including the concept of nonviolence and the philosophy of Ubuntu in presentations at the annual festival, or is this a new dimension that you are adding to the spectrum of human behavior already covered in stories told by the Master Storytellers who perform at the ISC Annual Festival?

KS:      The tellers that have performed over the 42 history have come from all over the world and from a diverse spectrum of storytelling traditions. Many tellers draw from family, humor, local, and global traditions as well as personal narrative and experience. There is often ancient wisdom that one can hear in the stories they tell. It is not a new idea introduced by me, but something I think storytellers have been doing ever since people started telling stories around campfires or from the time when humans etched visual pictographs onto cave walls to today when NASA scientists use visual storytelling inscribed space probe and send them out into the universe. Storytelling has always connects us to indigenous ways of life. I guess what I am doing here is expanding the way we can translate the Ubuntu concept into new disciplines and arenas, to invite partnerships and collaborations, so that we can share ways as an organization to live up to this great concept of Ubuntu.  By sharing ourselves with others and vice versa being open to learning from others we can ignite the belief in Ubuntu in really creative ways.

 On Thursday, August 21, you appeared on NPR’s Religion in Life program.  What is your primary message to that audience about the role of storytelling in our culture? (Hear Kiran’s NPR interview via podcast at http://religionforlife.podomatic.com/)

KS:      I have great respect for Reverend Shuck who hosts the NPR series Religion for Life, so it was honor to be interviewed by him. My primary message was that by sharing my own stories of my upbringing and how storytelling changes my life, I hope others may also think about how storytelling can play a part in their lives. Across the world the voices of young people need to be heard, and so the message was for us to think about how we can help to nurture the next generation. Certain stories may belong to different people or different groups and cultures, but the Art of Storytelling as an art form is something that belongs to us all.

RP:     What projects are you working on at ISC, in addition to the annual Festival, for 2015 and beyond?

KS:      Our story at ISC is constantly evolving. As the world’s oldest public storytelling festival, we are at a great time right now in our 42 year history. Right now we are developing a number of new initiatives connecting storytelling programs and establishing international storytelling programs as well as regional and national programs. We have a number of digital programs under development to reach youth, new learning programs, and we also have a long-standing relationship with the Smithsonian Institution which we are continually developing. We are also developing new strands to our key event, the annual National Storytelling Festival as well as to our Storyteller-in-Residence series that takes place between April and November. Beyond that we have some exciting work with organizations including the global Masterpeace Project and the United Nations to invite storytellers to tell their stories of peace and change.

Here at the ISC we are reigniting and discovering new ways to bring the broader Art of Live Storytelling to even more arenas and audiences. Not only is this my personal passion, it is my life’s dream to elevate this great art form to a position where it is seen as an effective tool in helping to establish intercultural dialogue.  Such a dialogue would celebrate diversity and respect for life and difference, which I see as the key components for creating a more peaceful world. Part of our mission is to connect emerging Storytellers and new audiences to the great Master Storytellers who already offer so much to the world. Ultimately, everything we do here at ISC, and my life from here on in, is about the Art of Storytelling contributing to building a better world. Storytelling for all!

RP:      Thank you, Kiran, for giving us more insight into the role of storytelling in the pursuit of peace.  Clearly, it is a critical part of any effort to true understanding among cultures within nations, and among all of the nations of the world.  And we can’t forget that Ubuntu really starts within the family unit and also between just two people.  Stories are at the very root of our human experience.

May 31, 2014

Storytelling—How every culture expresses “Ubuntu—I am because we are.” (Part 2)

Storytelling is a natural part of being human.  This creative, compelling way to communicate ideas, ethical beliefs, spiritual foundations, and cultural history might manifest as graphic artistry, spoken words, sign language, or be written.

Festivals celebrating the art of storytelling, primarily in the oral tradition, are found around the globe and can be one of the best ways to experience different cultures.

In Part 2 of Storytelling—How every culture expresses “Ubuntu—I am because we are,” we introduce you to Linda Goodman, a Master Storyteller who will be a Teller In Residence performing September 16-20 at the 42nd annual, world-renowned International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. We asked Linda if, in her experience, she sees a benefit in teaching diplomats and others at the top levels of government to use the Art of Storytelling as a tool to break deadlocks during peace talks and other negotiations?  Can a great storyteller craft stories that enlighten listeners enough for some to permanently change their minds even about long-held beliefs that stand in the way of coming to agreements?

Linda answered us by saying, “The answer is an emphatic YES!!  A few years back I heard Master Storyteller Ray Buckley tell a story about how he was able to forgive the man who had killed his wife and son, his only child. By first getting to know the man’s son, who was the same age as Ray’s own son had been, Ray was able to steel himself and visit the man in prison. Getting to know the man who killed his wife and son led to Ray being able to forgive him.  Before hearing Ray tell his story, I did not believe such a thing was possible. After hearing it, I understood that when you know another person’s story, you can sometimes forgive even the unforgivable.  I have served on numerous nonprofit boards and on occasion have used my storytelling skills to bring those on the opposite side of an issue around to my way of thinking.”

Linda shares her mastery in a story that embodies the Art of Storytelling within a personal tale entitled, The Punishment.

Linda Goodman – The Punishment

When asked how she felt her story, The Punishment, illustrated the concept of Ubuntu, Linda said, “We are all products of those who came before us. In The Punishment, my father teaches both me and my mother the power of compassion. His fake whipping (which she believed was real until the day she died) resulted in the first hug I ever remember receiving from my mother. Before the punishment, I saw my mother only as an enforcer. After the punishment, the memories of that nurturing hug softened my heart towards her, and I became a more loving daughter. I am a kinder, more loving person because my father orchestrated a fake whipping that brought out the secret, compassionate side of my mother.”

You can learn more about Linda at www.lindagoodmanstoryteller.com.

October 5, 2013

Pruning Branches on “Peace”

Thank you to all who are responding to the question we, along with the International Storytelling Center, are asking at their upcoming festival, October 4-6, 2013, in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Early responses are already coming in for our question:

How might the art and power of storytelling contribute to global peace and collaboration in a troubled world?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King  Jr.

I didn’t post earlier in the week because I wasn’t quite ready to write about peace. After the Boston marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt, I felt like I couldn’t “authentically” comment on peace since I was struggling to find it within myself.

I didn’t feel “at peace.”

I felt overcome — sorrowful and tormented that the tragedy resonated so deeply. Similar to my feelings after the Sandy Hook shootings last December, I felt stuck in a state of empathy that truly ached.

As a parent, I am experiencing the joy and sacredness of my children ‘daily’ as they discover who they are – fresh with the light and energy of innocence.

At the same time, I am discovering who they have the potential to be. Where can peace be found in the face of that kind of loss?

Searching for explanations only raises more questions: disconnected young men, misguided ideologies about freedom, faith, and religion. As a society, where do we go from here?

Where is peace in all of this, and what can we learn when we feel as if God is absent?

However, in the same moments I have ached over Newtown and Boston, I have also rejoiced that cancer no longer invades the bodies and lives of several dear friends, and the beauty, celebration, and complexity of life continues.

The paradox is that God is present in all of these moments, and peace and patience come to fruition with that understanding. Irish poet John O’Donohue says that somewhere within us, a ‘dignity’ presides that ‘trusts’ the form a day takes, continuously “transforming our broken fragments into an eternal continuity that keeps us.”

Trusting the ‘form’ that each day takes (the good and the bad) requires the understanding that within each moment, we can choose to move forward in patience (with love or generosity) or in haste (with indifference or hostility).

The act of patience reminds us that we are not in control, and staying ‘in the struggle’ allows us the opportunity to improve our world and ourselves, rather than accepting the easy answers of apathetic approaches or adopting attitudes of intolerance.

In the New Testament, Paul reminds us that human beings cannot help but see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections.

If we allow ourselves to trust the form each day takes, and choose to accept that grace essentially explains that life happens within the arms of God (as 16th century poet St. John wrote), then we get a glimpse of heaven on earth.

Being still and patient in those moments of struggle reveals the notion that “when we are . . . aware of the inadequacy of our table, it is to that, uninvited, the guest comes” (Thomas).

Through patience, we are acquiring peace of the spirit, so that we can trust the form each day takes.

October 5, 2013

Because a Story Was Shared in a Far Off Land

Thank you to all who are responding to the question we, along with the International Storytelling Center, are asking at their upcoming festival, October 4-6, 2013, in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Early responses are already coming in for our question:

How might the art and power of storytelling contribute to global peace and collaboration in a troubled world?

Shortly before my Pop died, I was working on a play with a Christmas theme. I’d had him over for dinner and just offhandedly asked, “Well, Pop, you got any Vietnam Christmas stories?” not expecting an answer, because he rarely talked about his three tours in Vietnam.

What happened next in the story he shared allowed me to understand the true, life-saving power of story, and how because of story, I did not become an orphan during the TET offensive, when I was born and his life was saved— all because someone knew his story.

It was November of ’67 and Pop was in Quin Hon, Vietnam. A Refrigerated ship pulled into port– the kind that holds lots of food. My dad and his buddy Bobby Noble had the task of “inspecting” the ship. They loved that job, because infractions on refrigerator ships were quickly and magically fixed with a supply of turkeys and steaks. My dad and Bobby found enough infractions to provide a feast. They didn’t bring the food back to the other guys at the base. But– it’s not as bad as you think. My dad was Catholic, and there was a Vietnamese priest there- they called him Father Paul because his real name was hard to pronounce. He spoke English, and Dad would go see him sometimes. They’d share stories about their lives, what it was like for each of them growing up. Dad showed him pictures of my mom, my sister, and talked about the upcoming birth of their new baby, which would happen pretty soon. Father Paul ran the orphanage, and my dad would often bring candy bars and other things there, and sometimes play with the kids. On this day, Pop and Bobby took the food to Father Paul at the orphanage, so the kids, who usually get nothing but rice every day, could have Christmas dinner. In fact, it was enough food for several weeks.

Dad remembers going up the hill that day, carrying the load. He would always call out to let Father Paul know not to worry, but he forgot to this day and he heard father Paul call out. “Ai do! Day la nhung gi? Who’s there? What’s this?”

Pop just shouted up to him, “Xin Chao Cha! Hi Father! It’s Magic Turkey. Give me a hand.” And Father Paul and a few of the older children began taking the boxes into the gates of the orphanage.

Father Paul of course asked, “How is your wife, and the new baby?”

“No baby yet. It’s due in a couple of weeks. Maybe it’ll be a boy this time.”

Of course, they were talking about me.

Father Paul tells him, “When you hear, you come tell me. We’ll celebrate with a steak dinner. I save this one for you.”

Pop replied, “Will do. Gotta get back to my unit. Merry Christmas.”

The orphans and Father Paul had a real feast that Christmas. A few weeks later, there was a huge Offensive by the Viet Cong. The TET Offensive. Dad’s unit was getting hit from all sides. The Viet Cong surrounded the village, even came to the orphanage gates. Father Paul held them off with nothing but a 38 caliber pistol. The Viet Cong soldiers saw him defend the children and left the orphanage alone. My dad survived the offensive. He went up the hill to check on Father Paul once fighting had let up.

Pop called up as usual, maybe not as loudly. “Xin Chao Cha?” and Father Paul appeared. “It’s good to see you safe, father. I heard you had visitors.”

Father Paul met him and said, “I held them off with pistol.”

“That rusty old thirty-eight?”

Father Paul stood firm and explained, “They will not come onto property without a fight from me. Come, I show you why.”

“I know Father, the children. I told you before, I can’t bring any of them home. I just had another baby, two weeks ago. The Red Cross couldn’t find me. Just found out today. What a world to bring a kid into, huh? So you don’t need to show me…”

Then Father Paul cut him short—“Look down hill!”

Pop said he stood speechless for a minute when he realized what he was looking at. “That’s…my unit.”

The Viet Cong thought, and dad thought, that Father Paul held off the soldiers to save the children. Father Paul knew the Viet Cong wouldn’t hurt the orphans. But he also knew that the orphanage sat on a hill with a clear view to dad’s location. The Viet Cong could have completely wiped out the platoon. My dad had been kind to the orphans. He also knew Pop had a child at home and another on the way. Father Paul wanted to return the kindness, so Pop’s children would not be orphans, too. For every small gesture of peace, a miracle happens. For every small story shared, understanding and possibility is created in this world. Because a story was shared in a far off land, in a different culture, during a time of war, I got to grow up with a mom and a dad, and two more brothers and another sister, who then gave me 20 nieces and nephews, and 3 great-nephews. I owe my family, and my father owes his life, to a story.

October 5, 2013

Discovering Our Deepest Human Connection through Stories

Thank you to all who are responding to the question we, along with the International Storytelling Center, are asking at their upcoming festival, October 4-6, 2013, in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Early responses are already coming in for our question:

How might the art and power of storytelling contribute to global peace and collaboration in a troubled world?

Julie-GabrielliI recently had the experience of sitting with two women I had just met and listening to their stories. I was also able to tell a brief personal story. We all marveled at how vividly we lived into each other’s stories, how we were so easily right there with them. Storytelling opens us to wonder, enchantment and imagination – all of which are our birthright as humans. When we experience this deep, previously unobserved connection, we shift from “us” and “them”
to “we”.

It has been suggested that one of our core purposes on this earth is to be the storytellers, to use our imagination and love to give voice to our fellows in the community of life. And to listen – a sacred way of giving attention to another that connects and heals both people.

I love that you are asking this question; it’s my firm belief that there are new stories emerging through each of us – stories of belonging, welcome, abundance and connection – that are replacing the old cultural stories of scarcity, competition, separation, and superiority. Thank you for your important work.


Julie E. Gabrielli
Restorying retreats
Gabrielli Design Studio, LLC
Baltimore, Maryland