Telling Tales to Teenagers or Ka Mua, Ka Muri.

In New Zealand - Aotearoa we have a wonderful Maori proverb; “Ka Mua, Ka Muri” – roughly translated as walking backwards into the future. Or a more complete understanding might be that we move forward facing backwards, influenced by all that has gone before. It is indeed the tension and wordplay between ‘mua’ and ‘muri’ where ‘mua’ refers to what is in front, and also means the past, while ‘muri’ refers to what is behind, and also means the future.

In reflecting on my last few years telling stories, I noticed a seismic shift in the types of audiences I have been working with. Whereas younger students once made up the bulk of my audiences, I now find myself working more often with teenagers. It has been a joy to work with so many young adults and to see the joy that they can find in storytelling and listening. This picture from recent performances in South America perhaps captures the fun that teenagers can have with story.

Teenagers South America

There is often a perception that students of a certain age are to old for stories, and yet I have found my teenage audiences respond well to stories that are chosen specifically for them and told in a style that does not patronise or belittle their burgeoning adulthood. These include re-tellings of medieval stories, through to stories of historical figures such as Te Rauparaha. In recent years I have also added a number of personal narratives, about my childhood growing up in rural New Zealand, including stories of my parents and grandparents.

These personal narratives have become a cornerstone of my workshops helping students to reflect on their own stories and their own identities. In an age when we talk more and more about identity, it surprises me that we consistently fail to make the link between story and identity.

As a young man one of the best jobs I ever had was working for a large corporate entity that existed to “help wealthy people gain more wealth”. I was well remunerated and had great working conditions. After a few months of work I was deeply unhappy, despite the fact that to all worldly standards I had arrived at the pinnacle of success. What I had failed to realise was that I had grown up on the stories of Robin Hood, that my entire family life and circumstance had taught me that the correct world-view was to take from the rich to help the poor, and now I was taking from the poor to give to the rich. Now for the sake of brevity this is a simplification of the whole story. I left the perfect job to go and work in a more community focussed role with less money, but greater personal reward. Proving that ultimately my identity is strongly tied to my childhood, and the stories and values of my parents, grand-parents and ancestors.

“Ka Mua, Ka Muri”. This proverb probably explains more succinctly than anything I write the importance of our teenagers telling stories and listening to stories. To understand who we are, we have to understand where we come from. Encourage your teenagers to tell stories about their childhood, their ancestors, and their culture. Through the telling of their stories, and the illumination of their history, help your teenager to understand their future.


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