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August 27, 2014

Raconteur Storyteller Orunamamu (1921 Huntsville, Alabama – 2014 Calgary, Alberta)

See the Wikipedia article on Orunamamu


The celebration of Orunamamu’s life on 6 September, 2014 in Calgary was as welcoming of all spiritual viewpoints, artful, touching, inspiring, revealing, visually-stunning, poetic and at times humorous as an adventure with Orunamamu herself. Although there were many tears, there were many stories about her life that made it impossible not to laugh or at least smile. The collection of stories from those few hours alone, those shared during the more formal section as well as those shared in smaller groups at the reception, could have filled a hefty chapter in her biography. The calibre of creative contributions by poets, photographers, musicians, storytellers and performers (including a talented busker with some smooth juggling), all honouring her, elevated the event so that friends became witnesses of history or herstory in the making.

There will be a graveside service on Tuesday.
Arthur Koch, a very close friend of Orunamamu for many years created this series of powerful portraits of Orunamamu from c. 2002 through 2014 which is on Flickr at All about Light. The photos above have copyright restrictions. Ed Washington and Arthur Koch granted permission for me to put these in a temporary memorial photo gallery. This is the link to the thumbnails of Arthur Koch’s photos of Orunamamu on Flickr. Arthur has also provided some video clips listed below.

These three photos above were taken at the Leighton Arts Centre on a day trip with Susan Adegbesan.

These photos include a surprise visit by Orunamamu and Susan to our home and garden while our grandson was visiting from Ottawa. Our grandson recently told me that he remembered her because of the story she shared about the wide mouthed frog. He was only three at the time! Other photos show Orunamamu at one of our Friendship Circles entertaining a roomful of delighted adults and children. Eddie is playing the guitar in one of them. In another she is showing her freshly painted shoes, a collaborative effort with me holding the brush and her guiding the visual story it was to tell through colours and acrylics. She wanted the morning star, the feather and the word Raconteur. I changed it to the feminine Raconteuse.

O Thou kind Lord! Bestow heavenly confirmation upon this daughter of the Kingdom and graciously aid her that she may remain firm and steadfast in Thy Cause and that she may, even as a nightingale of the rose garden of mysteries, warble melodies in the Abha Kingdom in most wondrous tones, thereby bringing happiness to everyone. Make her exalted among the daughters of the Kingdom and enable her to attain life eternal. Thou art the Bestower, the All-Loving.

Orunamamu touched the lives of so many people through her dynamic, animated, truthful, thought-provoking and often humourous story telling and poetry. This is a collection of links to photos of Orunamamu, stories about her and stories she told. It is put here to cherish and honour a woman who aged artfully and who is now in need of our prayerful thoughts.

There is a Twitter hashtag #Orunamamu so please tweet photos of her, links to video clips of her, to her stories, poetry and music she loved and events celebrating her life…

Some of her favourite poems and stories

  • Mother to Son by Langston Hughes
  • A Feather is a letter from a Bird
  • My Heart is a Garden
  • Wide-Mouthed Frog
  • We don’t make loans to frogs story
  • Wise man on the mountain

My Heart is a Garden by Katherine Merrill

My heart is a garden where thought flowers grow.
The thoughts that I think are the seeds that I sow.
Every kind loving thought bears a kind loving deed,
And a thought that is selfish is just like a weed.

So I must watch what I think each minute, each day,
Pull out the weed thoughts and throw them away,
And plant loving seed thoughts so thick in a row,
There will not be room for weed thoughts to grow.


This is the painted rock in my garden in honour of Orunamamu who changed my life. The wild flower, the shooting star, is called an ephemeral because it only appears for a brief time around May 23 then disappears without a trace until the following spring. The garden rock is placed there to protect it so the gardener will not forget and uproot this fragile wild flower.

Professional photographer Kenneth Locke from Calgary Alberta also has a photo album of Orunamamu on his Facebook.

Orumamamu has a presence on YouTube

Mary Beth Washington was born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1921 near Saino Mountain (Harrison 2006). Before moving to Calgary, Alberta permanently, she stayed in her home in Rockridge district of Oakland, California with one son and visited Calgary regularly, travelling by train, to stay with her son Ed Washington.

Greg Young told her story in his documentary called “Do you know yellowlegs is a storytelling museum?”

“A former teacher of the Berkeley school district, Orunamamu started storytelling in her 50s, having been influenced by her storytelling grandmother and father. Her house in Oakland, California, called Yellowlegs, provides the main stage for her storytelling today, and is also a refuge for her abundant supply of storytelling parafinalia. Currently in her 80s, Orunamamu travels extensively, telling stories to everyone who will listen, and continues to work toward organizing her storytelling museum (Greg Young).”

Orunamamu began performing at a crowd favourite at the Calgary International Spoken Word Festival in 2006 and returned every year since then. James Tworow described her as a “crowd favourite the last two years, an excellent storyteller from Oakland, but also a regular performer in Calgary.” There is another series of photos on Flickr from the OrunamamuSpoken Word Festival in Calgary in 2010.

Orunamamu was featured on the cover of Amy W. Gorman’s 2009 publication entitled Aging Artfully.

Some of her favourite music played at the celebration of her life

  • Love my Momma
  • My Girl

A mobile museum, paraphernalia

  • yellow stockings
  • painted shoes
  • hand-carved canes

See also

Bryce,  Marie. 15 June 2013. “Interviews with Orunamamu.” The Wild Storyteller 

“In being introduced to Orunamamu through a Storytelling Great, Karen Gummo, Marie was intrigued with the wisewoman, Orunamamu. Orunamamu is 33,000 days old and counting and wants to leave  her legacy of storytelling behind. This opportunity has presented Marie with the humbling experience of beginning interviews with Orunamamu to tell her story which will take place over the summer of 2013.”

Orunamamu. 2013. Calgary Spoken Word Festival. Calgary, Alberta.

Gorman, Amy W. 2009. Aging Artfully. PAL Publishing. ISBN-13:9780978519209

Harrison, Craig. August 2006. “Introducing Orunamamu (AKA Yellow Legs, Mary Beth Washington, and Mary Stoffel).” Companion piece to Craig article in The Toastmaster.

North, Carolyn. 2014. “Lessons From My 93-Year-Old Kindgergarten Teacher.” Carolyn North Books.

Young, Greg. Do you know yellowlegs is a storytelling museum? Golden Bear Casting

Borucki, Bonnie. “Interview with Mary Beth Washington, AKA Orunamamu.” South Berkeley Seniors.

“In her life Orunamamu has changed jobs many times. She first started teaching in Wisconsin, then in Palo Alto, then in Utah, then here in Berkeley. Between jobs people would ask her what she does, and she’d say, “ I’m a storyteller”. It wasn’t’t as honored as it is today. but as time went on, it got to be real. It got to be a real job. The first training she took was at UC Berkeley in a class called, “Storytelling as an Art.”  She now wants to leave a legacy of storytelling as an art. Orunamamu calls what she does “neighboring through storytelling”.”

Aamot, Leif. “Neighboring Through Storytelling.” Painting. South Berkeley Seniors.

“The Grace of Great Things.” Coincidence Or Destiny? Stories of Synchoronicity That Illuminate Our Lives

Aitkens, Wendy. September 2004. “The Canadian Soul Exhibition.” Focus on FortFort Calgary.

Miss Marybeth Orunamamu, brought her bags of goodies and her wealth of stories and shared them with visitors three afternoons a week throughout the summer. Her audience received “excellent soulful storytelling” and “lots of laughs.”

Niesar, Ortun. April 2004. “Orunamamu: Rockridge Storyteller. The Rockridge News. Rockridge, Oakland, California.

I was sitting at Olivetos one recent Wednesday morning, revving up for my business day with a strong cup of coffee, cell phone at the ready. A pleasant voice behind me said, “If you see a feather, a soft and tickly little feather, pick it up. Its a letter for you. Pick it up and put it in your pocket.” I turned around and there was the lovely, ageless face of Orunamamu grinning at me with a most heartwarming smile. I had wanted to meet this wonderful lady, Rockridges very own world-class storyteller, for some time now, and there she was, green velvet chapeau, quilted jacket, yellow stockings her trademark, necklaces and bangles, numerous bags and a sturdy walking stick, the mark of the griot. Stories are like feathers, Orunamamu laughed. They blow here and there, they swing in circles and settle wherever they will, soft and mysterious. And when someone picks one up, an adventure begins. Well, she had me. I turned off the cellphone and followed her for that day. We talked together no end.
She has no cell phone or even a regular phone. She has a house, but its a house that is turned inside out and you most likely wont find her there, because to find a feather, as everyone knows, you must go out to where the feathers are. And so her house on Ocean View, just off College, is not so much a house as it is a public
private museum, a repository of all the adventures and stories she brings home with her each day. If you are lucky you will find Orunamamu meaning morning star in Yoruba sitting on her front steps among a panoply of colorful objects, handing out stories or inviting you to tell one.

Conversations that took place at the hospice

See here for regarding Anna Packwood, and Dr. Carrie Best. Eddie has posted Langston Hughes’s No Crystal Stair on the hospice door. Anna Packwood’s daughter Mairuth Sarsfield wrote her novel entitled No Crystal Stair based on her childhood in Montreal.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2014 4:06 pm

    The honored Mary Beth Washington (Orunamamu) and I, as well as my daughter Megan, have been good friends (and like family) for approximately 15 or 16 years. I will be able to calculate it when I finally am able to find all the film we took of adventures. Orunamamu and I were both watching a Calgary Stampede performance in front of City Hall when we met – and became fast friends. She was invited to our home, and over the years, she accompanied me to various activities. She was present at a 90th birthday celebration of Rosemary Peterson (who hailed from South Africa when Nelson Mandela went to prison, with her daughter, now author and living back in Johannesburg where her writings were allowed to be published.) Rosemary would be considered one of my daughter’s grandmothers – and she, along with Mary Beth shared many of their epic journeys in life, both sacrificing much, in order to create safe havens for their offspring, and to LIVE life. Rosemary, soon after her 90th birthday, passed on, and Orunamamu became my daughter’s new grandmother figure along with my mother. Honored am I, to have accompanied her on many walks, to receive many early morning phone calls and to be a companion through the many activities we did together as friends. The Aryan Guard were making their presence known in the community we lived, and where my daughter was attending the GATE program at Queen Elizabeth High School, near to where Orunamamu would make her frequent walks. I chose to accompany her, as well as walk many of the colored restaurant staff to their cars late at night. Orunamamu recognized the ‘core’ of many of the social and economic barriers, of course. My daughter (the one described as a ‘busker’ juggler at Orunamamu’s memorial in Calgary) and her established a deep bond. Megan traveled for three years with her music and stopped to see Orunamamu at her ‘Yellow Legs’ home. Orunamamu was not one to come between a mother and her daughter, but rather encouraged deeper bonding. Performance was a ‘necessity’ in Mary Beth’s life (which she chose to enjoy, and did very well), however – sitting in silence and hearing her stories from the heart is what I will always treasure. Her seven hour journey with my sister and I to a family dinner one year after my own mother’s passing was an epic experience that I shall write about at a later date. Very high respect – to a woman who knew how to LOVE – and her deep love remains. I am so very delighted that one of her deepest desire in life has been realized – that her two sons (separated since a young age) that she traveled the Amtrac so many times to and from, were able to spend time together with her near the end of her life. What wonderful and heartwarming tributes of respect and honor we heard. Today, there will be another celebration of Mary Beth’s (Orunamamu’s) life in Berkley. “I’ve got the green light, baby, and I’m on my way!” I shall share photos as I am able, but will provide copies first to her family and my own daughter, prior to making them public. So honored to be blessed by her in my life. Thank you. ❤

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