City's chief storyteller shares her journey
At this time of year, families gather and share stories of adventures, long-lost relatives and family lore. One such storyteller is Chief Condra Ridley, whose career as a librarian transformed into a passion for sharing stories of Africa and the greater world. Find out her storytelling inspirations and how she became a chief as we play 20 Questions with Condra Ridley.
1. How did you get involved in storytelling?
Through a friend, Randal Gillen. He’d hired me to be his branch assistant at Pontiac branch library. The library paid for him to go to a story-telling convention and he loved it. He kept telling me, Condra, you’ve got to do storytelling. And I said, uh-uh, not me! (The library) sent me to the same convention in 1986. I listened to a whole weekend of storytelling, and I thought, I can do that. I took stories I liked and memorized them and did more and more until it just got into me.
2. What do you like best about it?
It’s the opportunity to pull people together to take a journey together without leaving the room.
3. Who are your heroes?
I have a lot of she-roes. They are primarily the women in my family. They’re really tremendous women. Those are the women who have shaped me.
4. How important is storytelling for families?
I think stories for families are critical for children to understand their place in the world. I think when parents tell children about their experiences as young people … it gives children a sense of who they are, where they fit in the great scheme of things, and it connects them to purpose.
5. What role does storytelling play in society?
It’s a way of sharing information about why things are the way they are. These stories connect us to our history. Everybody needs to know that they have meaning. When you understand people, understand their story, you understand who they are.
6. How did you become a chief?
It involved my connection with Chief Tony Ogunsusi, who is from Ekiti, Nigeria. I met Chief Tony back in the early ’90s. He was doing child-naming ceremonies, wedding ceremonies. He wanted to share some of the details of his Yoruba culture to help America on a (local cable access) show. It was because of all of my efforts to share things about African culture. The (Yoruba) king came to Fort Wayne in 1998. He nominated five of us to be chiefs. He decided to make all of us to be chiefs. It’s our responsibility to look out for the welfare of all the people in our community. It’s like being a mayor.
7. Do you get special police powers?
No, but we get a staff with our Yoruba name. Mine is Yeye Oba. Yeye means mother and Oba means king. It really meant so much to me to have the king come over. It was like finally, we have someone from the (African) continent come to check on us.
8. You’ve emphasized education, particularly of minority children, as a key to society’s health. Why is education important to you?
Education is the first step on the road to freedom. If you want to be free, if you want self-determination, you have to have some education.
9. You’ve had quite a battle with breast cancer. How are you feeling?
Going through the experience of breast cancer helped me actualize my faith. I was able to see the end, keep my eyes on the prize, and I was ready to be a cancer survivor. The first time I was very vocal and told a lot of people, and I was grateful for their support. The second time, I (thought) the Almighty and I can do this together.
10. What is your favorite book?
One of the most impactful books for me was “The Destruction of Black Civilization” by Chancellor Williams. That book was so important to meas a young person. I read it when I was 19 or 20 years old. It was the first history I had ever read by a person of African descent, and it just immediately showed me the difference in perspective when a person tells their own story as opposed to someone else writing about you.
11. Why do you think books and stories have such a hold on you?
Because I love learning, I like new ideas. I like knowing how other people do things. I’m not a person who thinks there’s only one way to do things. There’s all kinds of ways to do things. And I just feel like for all of us, we all have our paths, and they all eventually lead to the same place and I hope that’s happiness and love.
12. How do you bring to life the stories you tell?
I make sure the stories I tell are ones that I really like and that people should hear. You have to like it in order to tell it. I think they’re important for people to hear. I can just see those characters. I was always a mimic. I learned how to develop voices.
13. What are some universal themes?
The most important virtue to have is courage. If you don’t have the courage to just jump out there and do it, then your intelligence won’t really do a lot of good. The other one is (that) what you do comes back to you. What goes around, comes around.
14. How did you meet your husband?
I met Richard in school. He was in kindergarten, and I was in the sixth grade!
15. Where is your favorite place in the library?
When I moved over to the Main Library, I really did like my office. But I think out of every place there, I like the big round window in the conference room.
16. You’ve had your children at different stages in life. How is motherhood different as an “older” parent?
You know more, you’ve hopefully learned more about the things you need to do for your children to help them to be successful. You’re less selfish, I hope, and more aware of what things you need to do to help your child develop properly. I feel that each one of my daughters, Samiya, Rassan and Naja, has taught me something.
17. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Carry on after my mom, Alice Leach, passed in 1997. She was 63. I had just had my third child, and thinking of life without having my mom around was unbearable. Prior to that, I had a cousin who got murdered pretty much in front of me. I thought after I went through that, I thought I could handle anything. But you get through.
18. What is your secret ingredient?
I just have to say it’s love. If it’s got to be something you cook with, it has to be real butter.
19. What is your secret ambition?
I want to meet Stevie Wonder so bad. He has been the musician of my life. All along my life, there have been Stevie Wonder songs that have been with me. He’s singing my life with his songs.
20. What would you like your legacy to be?
That I wanted to build community. That I was about unifying people and motivating people to be themselves because I think everybody is a unique design. Just be who you were created to be.
First appeared in the December 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.