Every other week in the basement of a Halifax apartment building, Ifeoma Esonwune gets to her feet and holds two dozen children spellbound for an hour.
She does it without toys, without videos, and without technology — using nothing but her animated storytelling.
What began as informal playgroups at home between her children and their friends grew roughly six months ago into a storytelling club that Esonwune calls Inspire by Tales.
The club meets once every two weeks in her building’s communal room and more than 50 children regularly attend along with their parents.
Esonwune or another parent tells the children stories, sometimes read from books or jotted down on a piece of paper. The children also discuss ideas and lessons from the stories, which are drawn from cultures all around the world.
“I found that during all the sessions that we get to read, none of the kids would get on phones, on iPad, on anything — but just listen to one another, interact with one another,” said Esowune.
“And I said to myself, you know what, we’ve got to make this something that should happen all the time. And before you know it, Inspire by Tales was born.”
Esonwune is an event planner by profession and says she has never worked as a teacher. Still, she handles a room full of children with ease, drawing out ideas from those who are shy, soothing away the odd tear and reminding excited kids to let others speak, too.
Lina Bizimana, 5, said she has made friends at the club and likes coming to the gatherings.
“She makes me feel love,” Lina said after a storytelling session.
A tradition of storytelling
Esonwune has fond memories of hearing her grandmothers tell her stories in Ibo, the language spoken where she grew up in eastern Nigeria. It’s one of the reasons she felt so strongly about carrying on a tradition of storytelling with her own children.
She often thinks of the values passed on to her through those stories.
“You know, we don’t know what these stories do to us until we begin to see ourselves behave and take lessons from these stories and impact them in our daily behaviours,” she said.
Other mothers who bring their children to the storytelling club say the same.
“It’s something that we grew up with, and it’s lovely to have it here,” said Ola Ekechukwu.
Jane Chijuka agreed.
“Children these days don’t get to enjoy what we did back then. So it’s a way for them to be together and learn together.’
Both women are originally from Nigeria and moved to Halifax with their families this year. They were pleased to discover the Inspire by Tales community and their children love coming to the club.
“I like the fact that children get to share their thoughts,” said Chijuka. “There are so many things we don’t know that go through their minds. But you hear them say things that happened to them and how they are learning a lot.”
The club has done no advertising and has expanded only through word of mouth.
All the club’s activities are paid for by the parents, but Ann Divine, the president of the Rotary Club Halifax North West, said she is encouraging Esonwune to formally register the group as a charity so it can apply to her club for some funding.
That might have to be the next step, says Esonwune.
“What happens is, when a mom comes and goes home, she tells her friends, ‘Oh, there’s this place I take my children. They read stories, they talk about it. You might want to bring your kids around.’ And before you know it, it was growing. They outgrew my basement,” she laughs.