The story of Rudolf Janke, the brain behind the Peter Ballah Award for traditional storytelling
When Rudolf Janke, a German, came to Liberia in 1982, he considered the country’s cultural and traditional practices as primitive and out of touch with the modern world.
Janke’s school of thought, according to him, came from what foreign media portrayed of the country’s cultural and traditional practices in the early 70s and 80s, until he met the late cultural icon Peter Ballah in 2011, who debunked his beliefs.
“After our interaction and several studios together about the country’s cultural practices, I came to realize that unlike what foreign media portrays of Liberia, it is a land that has a beautiful culture heritage,” Janke said. “I think the foreign media I know of have not treated Liberia well in terms of positive news coverage about the country’s culture. No country have a perfect cultural practice, so branding other people’s own as primitive does a lot of damage and make people think they are not civilized.”
Now six years later, since that encounter, Janke is now fighting to save a culture he once considered as primitive through a storytelling competition titled “the Peter Ballah Award for Traditional Storytelling.” The competition is intended to save the country’s lost culture.
The competition, now in its second stage, carries a cash prize of US$500, which will be awarded to three storytellers whose stories stand out among the many. The competition is open to all age groups and have seen an increase in the number of traditional stories submitted, from 40 during the first edition to 100 this year. The only criteria for application is that stories should come with cultural and traditional values before it can be accepted.
“We focus on traditional stories with moral values because it reflects social values in a culture that motivates people in their pursuit of a meaningful life.
“Liberia is a land rich with culture and when I got to learned it, I felt that I had a role to play, to preserve it for the next generation, for part of it is gradually decaying.
“So that is where the traditional storytelling competition comes and gives the opportunity to Liberians to write about their traditional stories, whether it is about family or clan or a deity. These stories will be compiled into a book and distributed for free to schools across the country.
“This country is at a crossroad, and if nothing is done to preserve the culture, maybe four decades from now, the next generation will have nothing to relate to. And to avoid this, I am getting involved,” Mr. Janke said with a smile on his face.
Historically, oral storytelling or its documentation has been an integral part of Liberia’s culture. Masters of the craft would gather children around the fire or in their house to tell traditional stories ranging from family history to clan, deity, and morality tales.
These stories had a profound impact on the minds of the listeners back then, like the stories of renowned author Wilton Sankawulo, who wrote numerous traditional stories. But nowadays the act of storytelling or documentation is disappearing.
For Mr. Janke, keeping the country’s culture alive through storytelling competitions is important and crucial for the survival of Liberia’s cultural practices before it is finally lost.
“This is a great beginning of many more things to come. With storytelling, it is easy for one to develop a complete understanding of one’s culture because one can easily relate to it and learn a lot about the world in a short period of time.
“The oral tradition of storytelling makes it possible for a culture to pass knowledge, history, and experiences from one generation to the next,” he said.
The German’s passion for storytelling comes from the fact that he learned about his country’s culture mostly through traditional stories, which have been documented, and the one told by his parents’ older people and at festival.
According to Mr. Janke, these stories, documented over 60 years ago in his country, are still taught in schools and continue to have a profound impact on Germans, which have helped to keep their culture and tradition alive.
And this is the same reason he is working towards establishing a traditional storytelling competition.
“Preserving the country’s heritage means to save the story from being lost. This is why we are encouraging parents to get involved by telling their children traditional stories every night,” he said, adding, “by doing so, they reawaken and save their country’s culture.’
Apart from the storytelling competition, Mr. Janke, whenever in the hinterland or in the counties, usually in the evening gathers the children in the village square or town hall and invites each person in the town to tell a story. His initiative is gaining momentum.
Meanwhile, Mr. Janke has revealed plans that before the year’s end, they will start to create awareness on the importance of storytelling, to get Liberians involved and to have more people embrace their oral tradition.