Siganas – African Luo Stories in Slovakia

This week we welcome Julia Sherwood who has been speaking to Sheba Juliet, a Kenyan teacher in Slovakia who is introducing African Luo siganas, or fairytales, in English and in Slovak to children in Slovakia…

By Julia Sherwood

“When Slovak children listen to my African fairytales, they are not at all fazed by the cultural differences,” says Sheba Juliet, a teacher from Kenya who has made use of her storytelling skills and linguistic prowess to build bridges between her country of birth and her new homeland. Having lived in Slovakia since 2010 she has mastered Slovak and won the hearts of local children with the fairytales she tells at weddings and other social gatherings. 

Sheba, who grew up in a large multigenerational family in a village near the town of Kisumu on Lake Victoria, learned storytelling from her grandmother. Last year she teamed up with the Slovak branch of Partners for Democratic Change, PDCS (an international NGO, now known as GlobalPartners, founded in 1989 to build local capacity for conflict resolution and change management in the developing world) to produce the audiobook Siganas – African Luo Stories. Aimed at children aged eight to nine, all five siganas or fairytales, read in both Slovak and English by Juliet, are accompanied by a song or songs that traditionally go with a particular story.

The result is captivating and utterly charming, thanks in no small part to Sheba’s lively rendition and lovely singing in the original Dholuo dialect of the Luo language. To recreate the atmosphere of the original setting, the recording also includes snippets of instrumental music and sound effects – the crackling of bonfire, chirping of birds or mooing of cows.  The siganas end with a brief moral, which often emphasizes the importance of kindness. “Empathy and kindness are vital – it’s the bottom line in big families,” explains Sheba. But at the same time, these are universal values that Slovak children can easily relate to. 

So how did a Kenyan teacher end up in Slovakia? After graduating from teacher training college and gaining experience at a local primary school, Juliet spent a further two years in South Sudan, teaching former child soldiers who ranged in age from 18 to 32. While there, she met some Slovak volunteers who encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to study in Slovakia.  Winning the scholarship – probably the only one that went to a Kenyan that year – she gained her M.A. in education studies and now teaches technical English at the University of Žilina. She is currently working on a PhD thesis based on the fascinating concept of Human Libraries, in collaboration with the University of the Third Age.

Sheba spent her first year in Slovakia on a language course in the capital, Bratislava, but as someone who grew up in a village, she found the pace too hectic and settled in Strečno (a village in the north of the country not far from the town of Žilina) with a local family who couldn’t speak any English. Today Sheba proudly refers to herself as a Strečňanka – a girl from Strečno although in rural Slovakia it can’t have been easy to blend in. She acknowledges with a smile that she may well be the first black person the locals have ever met. Sheba feels that people tend to be afraid of what or who they don’t know but personally, she has not encountered any overt racism and people have been generally welcoming once they get to know her. Her mastery of the language and her open, bubbly personality and sense of humour have certainly helped.

Siganas – African Luo Stories is available as CD or to download in MP3 format from major Slovak booksellers such as the independent bookstore Artforum as well as from the PDCS Slovakia website, which also offers illustrations and colouring-in sheets for children and model activities and worksheets for teachers (free of charge, in Slovak only). The PDCS project has now finished but the audiobook has been very well received and Sheba has already started to think about a follow-up and begun to scour her childhood memories for the next batch of stories. Provided she finds a publisher and keeps receiving invitations to weddings and birthday parties where she can hone her storytelling skills, we will have another remarkable treat in store.

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Julia Sherwood

Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Since 2008 she has been working as a freelance translator of fiction and non-fiction from Slovak, Czech, Polish, German, and Russian. She is based in London and is Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia.