Posted to the Ethnos Project by on July 21st, 2012


Handcrafted beadwork produced by the BaNtwane people of South Africa is loaded with meaning. Communicating indigenous oral stories is important for passing on culture-specific traditions and community memory, such as the meaning of the handcrafted beadwork. Oral stories are told within the physical confines of the community. The community we focus on in this paper suffers from younger generations moving away physically, start preferring the English language over their mother tongue and digital over oral communication, and therefore this co-located storytelling process is interrupted. As part of the StoryBeads project we have created an interactive system that incorporates a combination of physical objects and modern technology for recording and replaying oral stories that can help preserve the meaning of the handcrafted beadwork of the BaNtwane people.

Keywords: storytelling, culture preservation, tangible object


Harms [1] infers that the lack of written African information is problematic when academics wish to create Western writings of African history. In Africa the oral narrative in combination with ‘intangible props’, such as dance and conventions [2], are used as a mechanism for communicating community memory through personal life stories. An example of an oral narrative loved by the Manyika, of the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, relates to a fictitious person called Nzuzu [3]. Nzuzu is a beautiful woman who lures men to her watery home and drags them to the bottom, only to be released after many days if they fulfill her wishes. Some details of this story often reflect the teller’s own view of life and are always told in a quiet voice. One of the limitations of this mechanism is that issues immediately relevant to the current generation tend to be the only oral narratives reflected or preserved [1].

According to Scheub [4] the advantages of the oral narrative are that it allows (a) the use of expressions that are difficult or impossible to capture in written form, and (b) the adaptation of metaphors in the story over time, keeping the narrative relevant for the local community and up-to-date. In Africa where the oral narrative is the innate method to preserve knowledge, the oral narrative potentially captures more metaphors than would be the case with a written form. Recorded oral narratives have the benefit of providing future researchers access to the stories along with the metaphors used at the time of the recording. Indeed, Tomaselli [5] uses the metaphor of a prison when describing written text, alluding to the many limitations placed on this form of communication. Capturing oral narratives in a form other than writing could therefore be useful in preserving African history.

Our goal was to develop a mechanism for preserving the meaning that the BaNtwane people attach to their beadwork. We focused on the following two critical properties of such a system: (a) the system interface, as exposed to the storyteller and audience, must fit in well with the local culture and story-telling traditions, and (b) the system should allow an audience not physically present when the story was told access to the captured narratives.

Section II discusses the preservation of cultural heritage through storytelling, various communication modalities, the BaNtwane people of South Africa, and the StoryBeads research project in general. Section III describes the research method followed, while Section IV gives an overview of the system, its functions, the user interface design, and the embedded technology. Section V describes the operation of the system. Section VI discusses our initial findings. Section VII discusses proposed future work, and section VIII concludes.

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