The holiday season is one of the hardest times of the year to listen.

Amidst the cacophony of commercial consumer culture – engineered by manufacturers, megastores, merchandisers and marketers; you often cannot hear yourself think. It was thus refreshing, to turn to this past Sunday’s New York Times, and read The Art of Listening by Scandinavian author, Henning Mankell.

Some of us are familiar with Mankell’s Wallander novels and Swedish television series, which have also been serialized by the BBC with Kenneth Branagh playing detective Kurt Wallander. Here is what one of Mankell’s many fans said recently about his novels in the Wall Street Journal Books of the Year:

“A 2011 favorite in the detective genre, to which I am addicted, was Henning Mankell’s “The Troubled Man,” a heart-rending conclusion to the exceptional   Kurt Wallander series.” – Drew Gilpin Faust, president, Harvard University

What I recently learned about Mankell, was how well he knows Mozambique, the home of Mezimbite Forest Center:

For nearly 25 years I’ve lived off and on in Mozambique.

Time has passed, and I’m no longer young; in fact, I’m approaching old age. But my motive for living this straddled existence, with one foot in African sand and the other in European snow, in the melancholy region of Norrland in Sweden where I grew up, has to do with wanting to see clearly, to understand.

The simplest way to explain what I’ve learned from my life in Africa is through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.

Mankell seems to have discovered the sweet silent secret of Africa. For those of us, such as Allan Schwarz and me, who were born in Africa, who went to school there; we know exactly how vital and vibrant the “African narrative” is; and we sorely feel it’s loss in Western culture – particularly modern manufactured media culture. That is one reason Africa appeals to us.

Here is a charming insight from Henning Mankell, reminiscent of that other wonderful western author, Alexander McCall Smith, who also appreciates the rich textures of African storytelling:

If we are capable of listening, we’re going to discover that many African narratives have completely different structures than we’re used to. I over-simplify, of course. Yet everybody knows that there is truth in what I’m saying: Western literature is normally linear; it proceeds from beginning to end without major digressions in space or time.

That’s not the case in Africa. Here, instead of linear narrative, there is unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present. Someone who may have died long ago can intervene without any fuss in a conversation between two people who are very much alive. Just as an example.

The nomads who still inhabit the Kalahari Desert are said to tell one another stories on their daylong wanderings, during which they search for edible roots and animals to hunt. Often they have more than one story going at the same time. Sometimes they have three or four stories running in parallel. But before they return to the spot where they will spend the night, they manage either to intertwine the stories or split them apart for good, giving each its own ending.

A number of years ago I sat down on a stone bench outside the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique, where I work as an artistic consultant.

It was a hot day, and we were taking a break from rehearsals so we fled outside, hoping that a cool breeze would drift past. The theater’s air-conditioning system had long since stopped functioning. It must have been over 100 degrees inside while we were working.

In Africa people share more than just water in a brotherly or sisterly fashion. Even when it comes to shade, people are generous.


Two old African men were sitting on that bench, but there was room for me, too. In Africa people share more than just water in a brotherly or sisterly fashion. Even when it comes to shade, people are generous.

I heard the two men talking about a third old man who had recently died. One of them said, “I was visiting him at his home. He started to tell me an amazing story about something that had happened to him when he was young. But it was a long story. Night came, and we decided that I should come back the next day to hear the rest. But when I arrived, he was dead.”

The man fell silent. I decided not to leave that bench until I heard how the other man would respond to what he’d heard. I had an instinctive feeling that it would prove to be important.

Finally he, too, spoke.

“That’s not a good way to die — before you’ve told the end of your story.”



  1. Connie12-19-2011

    I appreciate the insight from Mankell about African storytelling. I will remember that in my interactions with the African American students and families I encounter.

    We do need to become better at listening in western cultures so we don’t leave people to die before they’ve told the end of their story.

  2. Tesa12-19-2011

    A lovely reminder of the importance of listening – especially at this time of year. Thank you, also, for the welcoming introduction to the Mezimbite Forest Centre.

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