By HENRY AKUBUIRO
The folktale: Ontological and epistemological ligament
It was an ambiguous moment in history. Western colonialism in Nigeria, like other parts of Africa, was designed to deliberately weaken the superstructure of African culture and replace the peoples’ ancient heritage with western paradigm. As western civilisation gained momentum on the continent in the 19th and 20th centuries, aspects of our cultural heritage, especially the folklore, recreated under moonlit settings, with the elders regaling the younger ones with tales of animals and human heroics and hubris, gradually began to give way as television, radio, cinema, newspaper and magazines became new forms of entertainment and cultural praxis. Urbanisation, too, didn’t help matters as it uprooted idyllic infrastructures used for nocturnal, leisurely congregations.
From tales by moonlight, oral narratives suddenly morphed into tales by twilight in most Nigerian communities towards the end of 20th century. The twilight, as we know, isn’t particularly a shiny light. It marks a transition between limited light and total darkness. In semi darkness such as we experience in twilight, the soft glowing light from the sky is barely enough to illuminate the rustic imagination, and optic illusion is a possibility. Disturbingly, many Africans have been jigging to the seductive tune of Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (Times change and we change with it). But it remains a doubt whether this curious transition can compensate for that fascinating time capsule that is now distant from the dead moonlight.
A verse in Infiraji, a collection of songs on religion and morality by the Fulani poet, Namangi, drawn from the Fulani oral tradition of northern Nigeria, emphasises on the importance of knowledge, as echoed by Bello Musa Dankano in his book, My Cousin and I:
If knowledge is imparted to you, get hold of it,
Grip it like your life depends on it,
If it slips from your grip, search for it as frantically as you can… (8).
Before Chinua Achebe burst onto the literary scene in Nigeria in 1958, the legendary Amos Totuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, among others, contributed immensely in importing the morality tales and linguistic collocabilities of oral tradition into their stories, thereby creating hybridized narratives. Many of emerging Nigerian writings preceding Things Fall Apart carried the same historical undertow to assert the Africaness of the African through cultural valorisation and exploring the matrix of its civilisation and subsequent dislocated fabric. Elechi Amadi is a fabled apologist in this regard.
Fairytale and fable are part of the protean genre of folktale, what the French refer to as le merveilleux traditional, in which witches, wizards, ogres, dragons, etc., recur in adventurous, supernatural encounters. From Greco-Roman civilisation to the Anglo-Saxon, fairytales have been a means of recreating values emphasising morality.
It must be noted, however, that folktale is not necessarily short story, but it is a precursor to the modern short prose, the latter which has appropriated its narrative techniques, spontaneous actions, conflict development or deployment of dues ex machina. But, unlike the modern short story, the folktale drew from the common idioms of our everyday life. Charles Nnolim’s definition of the folktale and how it has impacted on the writings of Africa’s most widely read author, Chinua Achebe, invites immediate attention here:
The folktale is a popular tale handed down by oral tradition from a remote ambiguity and usually told either by animals or the common folk to draw attention to their plight and teach a lesson. Achebe usually weaves the folktale into the narrative fabric of his novels to arouse interest and underline thematic meaning (415).
In Towards the Decolonisation of African Literature, Chinweizu, et al, locates Achebe’s experiment in Things Fall Apart as a deliberate effort to recreate a per-westernised African reality, using authentic Igbo characters, situations, values and religious concepts, and bending of English language to express Igbo proverbs and idioms (1980: 288-289).
Instead of bemoaning the death of the moonlight narratives, it is better to do the macarena for a moment because of the ongoing revitalisation of the primordial genre. To guide against perpetual loss and make the tales travel beyond their sociological home base, it has become imperative to recreate them in book form as Bukar Usman has done in his books of folktales, whether in Hausa language or in English. His folktales in English include Bride without Scars and Other Stories (Klamidas 2005), The Stick of Fortune (Klamidas 2006), Girls in Search of Husband and Other Stories and The Hyena and the Squirrel. Stories like these are a veritable means of connecting to the culture of people with their moral allegories and mythical explanations at a time disinterest is becoming a norm among this generation. But Harrell-Bond reminds us that we “cannot go forward without culture, without saying what we believe, without communicating with others, without making people think about things,” emphasising, “Books are a weapon, a peace weapon perhaps, but they are a weapon” (52).
To appreciate the role of literature, a little help will suffice from Horace’s conception of the functions of literature –dulce et utile (to teach and delight) and ridentem dicere verum (to speak the truth laughing). This, without doubt, is a carryover from the tradition of folktale, which is famed for its utilitarian values. Charles Nnolim, writing on “Literature and the Individual Welfare”, tells us:
Literature teaches us about life while it entertains. Every short story, every novel, every poem, every drama worth its salt as a work of art, has a thing or two to say about life, has moral view of life that it enunciates, has a philosophy of life that it imparts. A study of various works of literature is, in fact, a study of various philosophies of life, for every author implants a little stamp of his philosophy of life in his story, poem, novel, drama (23).
Likewise, T.S. Eliot believes that the author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us, wholly, as human beings, whether he knows it or not; and we are affected by it, as human beings, whether we tend to be or not (48).
In Africa, the elders are repositories of knowledge, and we unconsciously or consciously grovel at their feet to feel the patina of wisdom. This knowledge, however, isn’t all they have got. In the ancient times, they deployed art and created fables, folktales, legends and myths as a way of maintaining social equilibrium, recreating history and letting the unborn tap from their latent resources. To this, Achebe affirms: “…art is, and was always, in the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and legends and told their stories for a human purpose…” (29).
Bukar Usman and the restoration of Tatsuniya
Bukar Usman has been sedulous in researching intensively on his native Babur/Bura folkloric tradition over the years, collecting over 1,000 folktales. Surprisingly, his fascination with the folktale stemmed from just a piece of advice from his longtime publisher, Duve Nakolisa, who, after reading the manuscript of Hatching Hope (Usman’s autobiography meant for publication), urged him to delve into writing folktales from his area. Aside the English stories, he has fifteen others in Hausa. The choice of Hausa rather than his Babur/Bura language is meant to reach more audience in northern Nigeria and neighbouring countries that speak the same language than concentrate on limited Biu audience in his native Borno State. Likewise, the English translations are meant to reach a universal audience with the Tatsuniya because of the international status of English language.
Usman doesn’t just publish the tales in their original forms –he retains the meat of the stories while modifying the narratives, improvising characters or subplots where necessary. His closeness to the source texts makes it easier for a logical appropriation of the idioms of the people, or, according to Joseph Eke, “assume… certain familiarity of cultural phenomena, e.g. names, places, peoples, events, some of which may be obviously stated in the immediate or alluding text” (112). But this creative latitude doesn’t approximate to a total fabulist. Writing in his book, Folklore and History: The Twin Rivers of World Heritage, Usman explains why modification is imperative in the folkloric enterprise:
Modification usually takes place when there is need to amplify or modernise the folktale and build a bigger story out of it without losing the essence of the original tale…. It is in the process of modification that the short story writer, deriving his material from folklore, has a great deal of creative latitude. Indeed, modifying an oral tale from its oral source and retelling it in writing in another language is as a creative as any short story writing effort can be.
Modification is not mere translation. It is translation enhanced by additional information and the re-ordering of key elements of the original tale. Modification is an exercise in creative writing. Many stories in my … short story anthologies published in English … were modified versions of oral tales. But the readers of these stories would easily see the modified versions written in English … are more elaborate than their comparatively shorter and simpler oral versions, especially in terms of plot and characterization. As for literary devices, modified and written forms of oral tales are stylistically very similar to the modern short story; in fact, they are modern short stories with traditional roots (45-6).
In Usman’s bucolic society, the old people, who are the repositories of oral tradition, are gradually joining their ancestors. The attraction of the city has made it impossible to completely transfer the vast reservoir of knowledge to their children, who may not be readily available. Without a written account, if such knowledge is not transferred before their deaths, it means the obliteration of vital, mobile data base.
Usman is further motivated in perpetuating the folkloric tradition of the Biu people by presenting the folktales for the enjoyment of all, thus promoting cross-cultural understanding. He is also interested in reviving the age-long practice of telling children instructive tales by preserving in writing their fast disappearing tales. Similarly, the folklorist aims to encourage the younger generations to appreciate, through the story writing workshop, the educative and artistic qualities of the folktales of every culture, as well as inculcating in the students, through theory and practice, the art of short story writing.
Usman’s stories, besides, are intended to contribute, through the morals drawn from the tales, to the moral of upbringing of children, as well as the moral regeneration of the larger society. With his stories rooted in African traditions as well as others from other African traditions, Biu folktales, by extension, African, with illustrations, derived from familiar environments, could complement and ultimately supplant the ubiquitous foreign tales the typical African child may not easily relate with.
Lets not forget: his paramount interest is not romanticising bygone African world with all its “imperfections”; rather, he aims to teach the young African their traditions and inculcate positive values that would stand them in good stead later in life. His interest is in tandem with Gye-Wado’s affirmation that the “future human resources and leadership of any society is inextricably linked to the manner and ways in which its children are nurtured and developed” (52).
Idioms and pedagogic abundance in Bukar Usman’s The Stick of Fortune and Girls in Search of Husbands & Other Stories
In Bukar Usman, the folktale gets a makeover. Hence, pedagogy will constitute the corpora in this subsection. For those who experienced it as kids, a good folktale achieves the same thrill as a modern biopic. Impressively, verbal abundance of the Babur/Bura is such a constant throughout the texts that it strikes a heuristic cord with the audience. These oral rhetorics enrich the young reader learning the ropes of his bastardised culture. The character delineation varies from stock to flat, and morals are distilled with emphasis at the end of each tale. Also, he offers the reader outside his region ethnological perspectives into the whys and wherefores of human finite existence and the consequences of good and negative actions. Some of these are similar to what obtains elsewhere like the tortoisy mode of southern tales.
Ernest Emenyonu affirms in the editorial of African Literature Today, Vol. 31, that nowhere else was the “story” more socially revered as culturally significant and purposeful than in the traditional African society where it was used for the dual functions of acculturation and entertainment, adding:
From time immemorial, Africans designed the “story” as a vehicle for cultural transmission and continuity. The story (tale/folktale) was the source of “raw” (authentic) African values and the elders structured its form and sharpened its message such that it became a coherent and reliable vehicle for childhood upbringing, social transformation, and the conveyance of esteemed norms, and virtues transmitted from generation to generation. No other culture ever used “the story” in quite this pointed and methodical manner in its preliterate era for serious didactic and yet lighthearted entertainment purposes (2).
The conflicts in the many of Bukar Usman’s stories are mainly man versus man, man versus spirit or a combination of both. Supernatural happenings go to validate the influence of the gods on the lives of mortal man. The tendencies for evil and good come in equal measure, but the happy endings demonstrate the triumph of good over bad and reward for every action on earth. In these unique stories, songs abound. These include songs of lamentation, songs of praise, songs of appeal and songs of resignation. Where speeches are perceived to be infective in achieving a desired result, songs are improvised to achieve an immediate effect.
The journey motif is a significant part of the folkloric tradition. There is not yet a paradise on earth. Hence, the quest to seek for fortunes and better environments are overpowering for the ambitious. Trials and tribulations are often associated with these journeys, but perseverance matters. This is why honours secured on winding tracks littered with detritus, lonely and scary forests and constantly ebbing and flowing rivers are treasured. The triumph of the poor in these adventures reinforces the need to rewrite hard luck stories ourselves.
In the title story “The Stick of Fortune” in the book, The Stick of Fortune, we see the first deployment of the journey motif and songs. In this story, a little boy from a poor family has grown up to be a young man, and his parents now want him to get married. In his request on how he can get married, his father replies with a proverb: “The moon does not wait for everybody who needs light to finish their chores before it disappears from the sky” (p.6). On page 10, we have another proverb: “Didn’t our elders say that only the tongue can say which wild nut is sweeter than the other?”
He subsequently advises him to seek his own fortune outside his (dis) comfort zone, bidding him goodbye with a thin, long stick as a token of goodwill. The boy, however, isn’t pedantic about it. In this journey without destination, he encounters hunters, a woman, farmers, a group of masons and a blacksmith, who all make use of his precious stick but do him a different kind of favour each to help his cause, until a new vista is opened with the meeting of a clan head. Among others, we learn that parent’s gift should be cherished more for the spirit behind it than for its face value. The young reader is also though that there comes a time when you can make it on your own once coming of age.
Trust nobody, even your own children, echoes in “The Forbidden Fruit”. In the second story in The Stick of Fortune, mystery is at play. A king with the spirit of wanderlust returns from one of his many royal visits with assorted gifts, including some fruits from the local tree, dinya, capable of making him disappear at will. Having hidden the fruits under his bed, he leaves the instruction that nobody should go near the bed. Seven days after, the dinya fruits have disappeared. To establish the truth, he takes all his family members to a sacred river to swear an oath. Unexpectedly, the princess is taken by the river, proving her guilt, and deposited down stream in a wild forest where she is found by an old woman fetching firewood. Her stay with the woman, however, refines and transforms her, setting her on the path of glory. Like in the previous story, song plays an important role when realisation dawns on her: My father has become my in-law!/My mother has become my in-law!/ My brothers and sisters have all become my in-laws! And what do you say of my mother’s son/ He has become my husband!… (36).
Journey motif is also explored in “Talking Rivers”. Sindiwa, on the way to Bagaja River to wash the wet beddings on the instructions of Sawa’s mother, her stepmother, encounters many rivers capable of sweeping her away. To pass by, she resorts to songs:
River, river, hear my song
Do not sweep me away
And I’ll tell of your beauty
When I return from this journey!… (43)
Instead of meeting her waterloo in Bagaja River, Sindiwa comes across dismembered parts of animals lying as chunks of meat. Strangely, they ask her for favours, which she gratifies them. A big snake also comes to the hut depositing three big and three small eggs. “Don’t break any of the eggs until you reach the outskirts of your town,” instructs the hind leg as she sets to return to her wicked mother-in-law. She does as instructed, and everything she desires in life emerges from the eggs. She rides triumphantly home on a horse, to the surprise of her step-mother, who sends her own daughter to Bagaja River to try her own luck, but her disobedience to the instructions of the custodians of blessings leads to an unexpected anticlimax. Morally, the story warns against laying of a trap for an innocent person because it can boomerang. It sends home the message of self-discipline, too.
Song also features prominently in “War of Witch-doctors”. The story also contains incantations. The local guitar called gulum is resorted to by an old witch-doctor to save the king’s daughter, Thama, whom the Apko River has ferociously taken away. It is a turning point in the life of a maligned old witch-doctor as he emerged victorious when others fail to turn the dice. He, thus, becomes prosperous once again following the reward by the king.
The Bubur/Bura tales gives us hope that, when faced against forces beyond our control, the nadir moment exacts uncommon drive from man. We learn that heroism is not only the lot of warriors. Little boys and girls, too, are capable of achieving legendary status as the boy, Hyelni, overwhelms a dreaded spirit terrorising the town in the story “A Shadow in the Cloud”, earning riches and a princess in the wake. Yes, sometimes you can hide your light under a bushel.
When you respect the elders, there is always a reward: this runs through the texts. The young man, Mamza, earns a reward for helping an old woman to find her way out of a forest, not knowing she is a good spirit and a purveyor of blessings. In return, he gets a catholic of gifts and an elixir for a drug resistant sickness. The mystery of the speaking bwaila tree and its boundless gratifications kindle the interest of a nonstarter to brace up for the challenge of life.
The second story book, Girls in Search of Husbands and Other Stories, contains eight interesting stories drawn from the Babur/Bura oral tradition. Like the former, conflicts are mainly man versus man and man versus spirit. Some of the stories are basically animal tales such as “The Hyena and the Squirrel”, “The Monkey and the Fish” and “Squirrel and the Bison”. In these stories, the tricky nature of animals and the social dynamics of the animal world teach humans intrinsic lessons. In these stories, fabulation either tugs at our heartstrings or string it with delight.
The exegesis of human foibles navigates the plot of the first story “Girls in Search of Husbands”. Six girls –Kupaya, Kubuli, Kwanza, Kwadiya, Kwarbal and Hirku – leave their remote village to search for young women who will marry them. Just like a rejected stone, the most ugly among them, Hirku, turns out to be the bride to the King of Farmers, Diskandaridi, thanks to her virtue in scrubbing the back of a woman others ignored on the way. The story emphasises on innate qualities, no matter your physical disadvantages.
The Saharan Kingdom forms the locus of the plot in “A Tale of Two Betrayals” in which seven princes from three wives are desirous of inheriting the throne in the event of their father’s death. Malmasure, the first of the king, becomes a victim of conspiracy by his other brothers, who attempts to hang him, save for the intervention of a hunter. In the same story, we see the bone of one of the hunter’s dead sons singing to a village herbalist, who chanced upon it in the forest, and later to the king and his father. This story verges on being the brother’s keeper and eschewing envy and bitterness for our betters.
In “The Spirit Child”, young readers are taught that not being satisfied with one’s state could drive one into danger, needless to say, all that glitters isn’t gold. Mystery is also explored in “The Three Snake Hunters” and “Dan Agwai and the Monster”, stories that teach the lessons of being wary of making unrealistic promises and electing to school in discretion.
Conclusion: Oral literature and contemporary society
With all the attractions and distractions of social media, such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, etcetera, today’s children and youths are further adrift from under-the-moonlight habitués. However, it isn’t yet a death knell on orature. In many rural communities in Nigeria, oral literature still exists. In part, the limited number of printed materials for oral literature means it is still in limited verbal circulation across the country. Life is communal in the rural societies, with many people sharing the same idiosyncrasies, norms and values. Besides, the subsistent nature of agricultural and commercial pursuits implies that time could still be spared for oral engagements.
The cosmopolitan nature of the cities, on the other hand, has made it harder for the existence of oral literature. As urbanisation spreads across the country and rural-urban migration increases, this age-long tradition will continue to pulverise in status and public reckoning. As it seems, the book remains the last bastion of this forgotten tradition. Bukar Usman has risen up to the occasion.