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Sue Guinn Legg

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Locals mining for stories in Africa

June 30th, 2013 8:42 pm by Sue Guinn Legg

Locals mining for stories in Africa

Jimmy Neil Smith and Jules Corriere with items (a Comoran game, drum, sea shells, homemade wooden box, and spices) they brought back from a recent trip to Comoros. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)

Jimmy Neil Smith, president emeritus of the International Storytelling Center, and Jules Corriere, outreach director for the McKinney Cultural Arts Center, are just back from a nine-day “story mining” trip to Comoros, East Africa, a tiny island nation near Madagascar and the target of ISC’s first international outreach.

Ambassadors of ISC’s new partnership with the Comoros National Museum, the Jonesborough duo were there to lay the groundwork for a project being funded through a $75,000 grant from the U.S. State Department to mine, craft and present the important stories of Comorian culture.

Smith, who retired from the ISC in January and is now doing business as part of Partnership for a Better Future, said the goal of the project is to bring more relevancy to the museum’s collections through interpretive storytelling and, ultimately, to enhance the country’s tourism trade.

Corriere, who led a similar project gathering stories of Jonesborough and crafting them into the town’s 2012 “I Am Home” production, has been  contracted to serve as the project’s lead story crafting trainer. And Smith, who secured the grant while still serving as president and CEO of the ISC, has been contracted to execute the project.

Now some nine months into the work, Smith said their trip was a way to further the ISC’s relationship with the museum, the American embassy in Madagascar, the University of Comoros and the students who will gather the country’s stories and train others to help them. 

“We were learning to dance together, building the platform for the project,” Smith said. “And we think we have that, a very strong and very good platform for a strong, working relationship.” 

Like the Comorian people, Smith and Corriere’s introduction to Comoros was very warm and hospitable. “They couldn’t entertain us enough,” Smith said. There were many events hosted in their honor. And because the country is so small, their access to its national leaders was surprising. They attended a meeting with Comoros’ chief military commander and they had coffee with its Vice President.

But it was Corriere’s work in Comoros, training students how to gather, interpret and present stories that relate to the artifacts on exhibit at the museum, which will advance the project most.

There were story gathering workshops in which Corriere and Smith heard the legends of the islands’ major geographic features, stories of its ancient Koranic schools that date back to the 16th century, of Comoros’ early fame as “the perfume islands” of the Indian Ocean shipping routes, of woodcarving traditions as old as Comoros itself and of how the importance of hospitality rose in their culture.

While the Comorian civilization is ancient, Courriere said, the county itself is only about 40 years old. It’s among the poorest nations in the world. And tourism is a relatively new concept there. “Their tourism department opened in January,” she said.

But like Madagascar, Corriere said, the biodiversity of the islands is amazing and “ecotourism is something they feel they can hang their hat on.” But first, Smith said, “the idea is to record the stories of Comoros for interpretation of the museum’s artifacts and present those stories in print and in audio and video displays at the museum. 

“The museum is applying for a grant from the embassy to purchase the electronic equipment they do not have,” Smith said. “The students have training materials Jules gave them to take back to their college and train others. They have a meeting place at the museum. They have a work space at the university in an area they call the American Corner. And now that we have that relationship, we will stay in touch by e-mail and the Internet. 

“We left 37 trained, eager students. There is energy there for it to continue.”

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