St. Paul, Minn. — Nothando Zulu has been telling African and African American folktales for 27 years. On a recent day, she was at the Children's Museum in St. Paul, warming up a group of about 15 toddlers and their parents with a song that is a Swahili lesson. The warm-up helps the kids get ready for the story. Zulu has taught them how to say. "Hello children, hello."
Zulu tells an African folktale about a rabbit who asks Niami, the sky god, to give him wisdom. For Zomo to acquire that wisdom he must bring Niami the scales of a large fish, the milk from a wild cow and the tooth of a leopard.
When storytelling began, I'm sure it was to give guidance to children. But to also let them know that even though they were children, that if they thought and they planned if they were smart, that they could overcome some of those obstacles.
"Zomo is not big. Zomo is not strong. But Zomo is very, very, clever," Zulu tells the children.
Zulu tells how Zomo sets off to fulfill his task by using his wits. And soon he finds a way to get the big fish to part with its scales, just by beating a drum.
"He was beating his drum so fast, and big fish was dancing so fast," Zulu shouts. "Big Fish danced all of his scales off! They shook right down to the ground! And big fish looked and said, 'Oh no! My scales are gone! I'm naked!'"
The kids giggle as Zulu impersonates an embarrassed fish. Zulu also mimics the physical characteristics of each of the story's characters, as she tells how the rabbit tricks the wild cow into letting Zomo milk her.
The rabbit then uses his wits to entice the leopard to roll down a hill, hit his mouth on a rock and knock one of its teeth into Zomo's awaiting paw. Once Zomo brings the items back to the sky god, Niami presents the daring rabbit with this lesson.
"You have no caution," Zulu says. "So my wisdom to you is this, Zomo. Whenever you see wild cow, or big fish or the leopard, you had better run fast. And that's the story of Zomo the rabbit."
Zulu says she can tell when shes connects with children just by looking in their eyes. The story of Zomo the rabbit, she says, has a message intended especially for children.
"When storytelling began, I'm sure it was to give guidance to children. But to also let them know that even though they were children, that if they thought and they planned and if they were smart, that they could overcome some of those obstacles," Zulu says.
Zulu says this theme was also used by captive Africans in America, who told stories of Brer Rabbit, a character who uses his wits to put one over on the larger animals who want to kill him. Zulu says it was a way for slaves to maintain hope that they could one day overcome their oppressors.
At the end of the Children's Museum show, Zulu is slightly winded and her skin glows with perspiration. She says she tries to limit herself to one or two performances a day so she doesn't wear herself out. Zulu says she'd like to see people pay more attention to black history all year round.
However, she does perform in schools throughout the year. And Zulu says she already has dates booked in March for Women's History Month events.