Griot's tales about an ornery spider help keep alive the art of storytelling

February 18, 1994|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,Contributing Writer

Jambo!

Don't be surprised if someone enthusiastically greets you by saying "Jambo!" It merely means hello in Swahili.

Patricia Mack-Preston, 35, teaches this and other lessons as she travels and tells traditional West African tales about Anasai, the spider.

Mrs. Preston is a griot, a storyteller. She helps keep alive the oral tradition of African and African-American stories.

She performs, in costume, as Anasai, a spider who loves to play tricks.

"I perform in a black sweat suit," Mrs. Preston said. "I sewed legs on it and some flies."

Mrs. Preston is a kindergarten teacher at Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City, Howard County.

She has bachelor of science degrees in early childhood education and psychology from Towson State University and a master's degree in special education from the Johns Hopkins University. In 1991 she was chosen the Howard County teacher of the year.

Storytelling is an extension of her love for children and of her teaching skills.

"I started in 1992," she said. "I would tell stories to the children and another teacher said, 'You know, you really have what it takes.' "

What it takes is the creativity to keep the audience interested as she weaves her web of tales. To do that, Mrs. Preston uses musical instruments and songs to keep the stories flowing.

"I practice in the car," said Mrs. Preston, who lives in New Windsor. "It's 50 minutes back and forth [between home and work], and on the country roads there's not too many people on the roads to stare at you as you move your hands and sing and stuff."

She also practices on her husband, Mike; daughter, Eboni, 7; and son, Marcellus, 22 months.

"My biggest help is my daughter," she said. "I tell her stories, ask her advice.

"I tell her she's my minority partner," Mrs. Preston said, laughing. "Now every time I do it [perform] she gets $5."

Mrs. Preston said she learns stories through reading. At present, she concentrates on the Anasai stories because, she said, she "wanted to become an expert in a certain area and then I'll branch out later."

She has attended the National Association of Black Storytellers Convention and storytelling sessions given by the Griot Circle of Maryland Inc.

One workshop even discussed the economic aspects of being a professional griot.

"I go and try to watch over storytellers," Mrs. Preston said. "It sharpens your skills."

Everyone who sees her presentation seems to find something to take away.

Youngsters who see her away from school often whisper "That's the storyteller" or gleefully yell "Jambo."

The reaction of parents and teachers has also been favorable.

"The teachers I've come in contact with want that cultural diversity," she said. "They see the value in it."

The art of storytelling is very important to Mrs. Preston.

"I am sharing a part of my heritage with everyone," she said. "As I share it, I am learning."

Mrs. Preston believes the stories appeal to children and adults because they are about universal qualities.

"We're so much alike we shouldn't always look at differences," she said. "The things that are different about us only add to our humanism."

Carroll County Women on the Move sponsored a performance by Mrs. Preston Wednesday night at Carroll County Community College.

"I liked the stories and the involvement of the kids," said Brian Cook of Taneytown. He listened with his sons Quinton, 11, and Brian, 5.

At the end of her performance, the Spider Lady handed out Anasai spider rings to the children with the guarantee that a ring would make help them think up tricks.

"But," she said. "You have to promise that you won't play any tricks on your parents."

VTC

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