The art of listening
I wanted to see the world from another perspective – a different perspective than the narrow European perspective. I chose Africa, of course, I could have gone to Asia or South America, but in the end I ended up in Africa because it was the cheapest place to fly.
For twenty-five years, on and off, I have lived almost constantly in Mozambique. One foot is on the desert of Africa, and the other foot is still on the snowy and poetic land of Sweden, where I was born and raised in Europe. I live this split life in order to see and understand the world more clearly.
What life in Africa has taught me can be described in the simplest metaphor: Isn’t the reason why people have two ears and one mouth is to listen more and talk less?
In Africa, listening is the bare minimum. In the Western world, however, it has long since disappeared, and people only care about their own chatter, and have no time to listen to others. I am deeply touched by this. In TV interviews, I can answer questions many times faster now than I did ten years ago, or even five years ago. We seem to have lost the ability to listen, talking endlessly, and once we stop talking, those who should be answering are silent, and the silence of this moment makes us feel terrified.
In the beginning, it was South American literature that forever changed our view of human nature. Now it is Africa’s turn to play its part. People are writing and telling stories everywhere on the African continent. Soon, African literature will be flooding the world stage – just as Gabriel García Márquez and other South and Central Americans expressed their outrage at the fabricated truth a few years ago and struggle.
In the near future, African literature will show us a new perspective on life. Mozambican writer Mia Coto pioneered Afro-dream realism, fusing text with African folk traditions of oral storytelling.
If you listen carefully, it is not difficult to find that the narrative structure of Africans is completely different from ours. It sounds simple, but how much truth does it contain: Western literary works are generally straightforward, and the time and place of the story will not deviate too much from the beginning to the end. But in Africa, it is boundless and eloquent, the sequence can be reversed, and the past and the present can be integrated. For example, an old friend who has been dead for many years can insert himself into a conversation between two living people at will.
Nomads living in the Kalahari have a habit of telling stories when they forage for food or hunt in the desert. They often tell three or four stories at the same time, and they don’t finish the story until they return to the residence. Sometimes they weave all the stories together and give a big ending, and sometimes they separate the stories and say an ending for each.
A few years ago, I was the artistic director of the Avenida Opera House in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. One day, it was so hot that we had to interrupt rehearsals and everyone went outside, hoping to get a little cool off. I sat on a stone bench in front of the theater, and there were two old Africans sitting beside me.
I heard them talking about a man who died not so long ago. One of them said: “I went to see him at his house and listened to him tell the amazing things that happened to him when he was young, but it was a long story. It was getting dark, so we decided that I would come back the next day. He finished telling the story. But when I came again, he had passed away.” After that, the
old man fell into deep thought. I still sit there quietly. “Dying without telling your own story — that’s not a good way to die,” another elder continued.
Hearing this, a thought flashed in my mind: We call ourselves “human beings”, rather than “telling people’s stories”. What separates us from animals is our ability to listen—to each other’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, hopes, and disappointments.
Many people confuse information with knowledge. But the two are not the same thing. Knowledge includes interpretation of information, and it means listening. If I’m right, we’re all storytellers, and we just stop and get quiet for a moment, and get on with the story, and tell it forever. Many words were spoken to the wind or sand, or sealed in that dim electronic safe. But the story will go on and on until there is no one listening anymore. Then, we can send the great chronicle of human beings to the vastness of the stars.
Who knows? Maybe someone outside is just ready to listen at this moment…