Henry Akubuiro and Simeon Mpamugoh
In Yoruba language, it is heralded with chants of Aloo, Aloo, otu n’gba kan…(Once upon a time). In Igbo language, it is atakpi war, (chants thrice), onwe re otu ngbe… (Tales war: once upon a time); while, in Hausa, it is known as Tatsuniya. They all point to the same thing: folktales, which are usually told by elders to the young when the size of the moon is Ganymede.
The size of the moon is big at that point such that drop of a pin on a dry sandy soil can easily be seen. It is called “tales by moonlight”, otherwise egwu onwa in Igbo language, because it is a period before the advent and popularity of television and radio when families would gather around a crackling and spitting hearth in a hamlet and grandpa, grandma, uncle or auntie would delight and captivate the gathering with stories passed on them from their forebears.
All children love stories. Current scholarships in oral literature have underlined the fundamental role folktales play as the earliest school of the child in many African communities. Many of the stories are told both for its riveting entertainment worth and for its educational and moral values, which further enrich the child’s appreciation of the culture and the history of his community and those of others.
Once upon a time, African continent hosted the largest reservoir of varieties of unique traditions and rich literature. This brings to mind a nostalgic memory of the bygonedays’ stories told by elders, for it wascustomary that good stories had to come from grannies or grandpas. Riddles, metaphors and oral narrative entertained and informed us of many unknown fairytales, like how a community-named rivers, mountains and other landmarks, and why they performed certain practices normally left to nature, like rainmaking.
Although these stories had more about the message than facts, they tried to give reasons for things in life that the community could not really explain. It could be something serious, like what happens when people die, or something less serious like how a leopard got his spots or how tortoise defeated an elephant in athletic competition.
Scholars of literary studies have revealed that folklore were drawn from collective wisdom of the forefathers, who, vividly, expressed their structures of meaning, feeling, thought, and expression, and thus served as very important social structure. They were used to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values, as well as collective memory, and played a crucial part in keeping cultures alive. Young ones were taught manners, customs and were imbued with the attitudes and values basic to their culture.
This was through animal stories, in which virtues and vices were attributed to particular species. Consequently, one was then left with no choice but to associate with that character with admirable attributes. The stories went a long way, including proving the significance of rational thinking application rather than use of strength.
For instance, the tale about elephant and hare demonstrated that “brain is superior to brawn.” People then grew up as responsible men and women, and all round members of the society. Other characters usually associated with folktales included Monkey and Owl. For instance, it is on record that Rwandan culture and oral literature, such as folktales and everyday language, use such as idioms to teach good virtues. However, with the diminishing practice of all these amongcontemporary generation, a considerable decline in the transmission of culture from one generation to another is being experienced.
Scholars are of the view that it is seriously threatened by rapid rate of urbanisation, large-scale migration, industrialisation, environmental change and influence of Internet age. Globalisation and rapid socio-economic change also exert complex pressures on our rich cultural heritage. It is on record that these pressures have often eroded expressive diversity and transformed our practices through assimilation to more dominant ways of life.
Elders die, and livelihoods are disrupted at early age, leaving no vehicles for the transmission of unique and indigenous cultural knowledge leading to continuity of oral and written African literature. An example is in the book by the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, entitled Children of Gebelawi, which he admitted was based on oral folktales which he used to listen to when he was young, from a “professional story teller who learnt them in cafés or from their fathers.” Other great authors, like Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Amah, Ama Ata Aidoo and Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, among others, contributed widely to promoting this distinctive African literature through bold, creative infusion of rhetorical, lexical, and metaphoric features from their respective native languages.
Today, in Nigeria, majoring in the sciences is treasured in universities than in arts, and the trend continues to rise across Africa. We no longer tell stories to our children and, instead, stuff them with laptops, ipads and smartphones. Unlike the curiosity to hear more of our past, the generation’s attention is fully wrapped up into the devices.
Though suffering, nonetheless, our rich African literature is far from demise. It continues its existence in a transformed and still recognisable state: the books, archives and from a few remaining scholars who can take the mantle. Even, if it might be almost indelibly altered, literature scholars believe we have to carry on the flame.
Jimi Solanke is renowned folk singer, storyteller, playwright and a teacher,famed for the series such as “Storyland”, one of the folk storytelling traditions he promoted during his career on the screen. He was sounded upbeat, “Oral literacy and attitude will never die, because it is the mainstay in Yorubaland. It is told through different angles to the kids, and a lot of people are still involved in oral actions and they pass histories, stories, information and oral interactions through folktales.”
Not too long ago, the students of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) hosted a programme to mark his 76th birthday, and there were oral performances to celebrate the event. He said, “It is based on that I maintain that folktales will never die. If students in Yoruba land are still presenting and packaging performances orally, it means that folktales are still in our culture. I personally love telling stories. All I need is to tell the stories as they are in Yoruba land; where it passes morals to the children, transmit it in English language and continue with the oral interpretation with the children.”
On the effects of digital technology on oral literature, Solanke, who said that folklores contained moral values,which had contributed in grooming a generation of children, lamented that digital technology was making everyone to be lazy, “It is affecting our children in schools. Some of them can’t talk, or discuss freely and properly. It can be seen more with the children of the elite and the rich who deploy it to their best. The laziness and lack of feeling about our oral culture again is more pronounced within the elite. But, going to other communities, you’ll still find people chanting. In Igbo and Bini lands, the oral sensations are still there.”
“In some situations, some of us are being made to mind some of these Elewis who perform these functions. And because of my cultural orientation, I would not want anything to be lost. I’ve been telling story in our centre, and very honourably so. So, no matter what, there will continue to be the promotion of folktales. Because of our interest in the perception of oral literature, we will make sure that oral culture is continued,” said the protagonist of the movie, Sango and KongiHarvest.
Professor Alloy Ejiogu is a professor of Management Education, University of Lagos. His academic career cuts across various disciplines, particularly English and literary studies. The don, a one-time drama student of Professor Wole Soyinka, shared his experience as a little boy brought up in Igbo land, “I had a wonderful experience of listening to my grandmother, and my own mother told stories at night after our meal. We sat, not necessarily by fireside as some would want to make it; it could be just by corridor, veranda or kitchen. The event could happen anywhere within the compound. It could be outside where other children will gather and listen to tales by old men.
“In my age, the dramatis personae were mostly about the tortoise and his wife. The tortoise in Igbo is called Mbe and his wife is Ale,and they would tell us all sorts of stories, and we believed that those stories actually did happen. I remember some of the tales we would hear, and we’d almost get so frightened that sleeping that night would be very difficult. When we heard tales that had to do with the demon with seven heads and fourteen eyes in order to discourage us from doing one thing or the order; it is like warning a child that, if you tell lies, the demon would visit you at night.
The author of 23 books further said, “Folktales had a lot to do with shaping of morals of the people, especially our ethics; talking about respect, honesty; not being greedy, covetous and jealous of other people’s wealth. There are many tales that would help children to abhor such misconducts, but the problem we have today is the present generation of fathers and mothers: do they know any folktale to tell their children? Even, if they know, when do they have the time to seat with their children?
“Today, we have fathers who leave their homes by 4 am for work, and don’t come back until about 9.30 pm. The next thing is to manage to have meal, and go to bed, sometimes, not even having time to have showers before going to bed. So, we have a society that is fast losing in its oral tradition. And, without oral tradition, we’ll find it difficult to get the children themselves inculcated in ethical values of honesty, and being each other’s brothers’ keeper. Those values were imbedded in the type of stories we were told.
“It is alarming that today’s parents don’t even allow their children to speak their native tongues; whether Yoruba, Igbo, may be Hausa. Hausa is different; the Yoruba is much better than Igbo. Igbo language is almost getting to the bottomline of existence. And when parents don’t allow their children to speak their language, what tales are they going to tell them? Tales told in the native language are more meaningful than when they are transliterated to English, French or any other language, because they don’t carry the same weight and impact,” he stated.
Foremost promoter of the Nigerian folklore tradition and Chairman, Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS), Dr. Bukar Usman, who has written more than 30 books in Hausa and English Language, in a 2013lecture“Folklore and History: The Twin Rivers of World Heritage” presentedat the International Conference on Folklore, National Integration and Development,at Bayero University, Kano, observed that folktales and myths served as a means of handing down traditions and customs from one generation to the next on the continent of Africa and beyond.
He noted that, just as the oral tradition was dying against the advent of other forms of communication, the invention of printing press, fortunately, facilitated their production in a written form, their preservation and circulation on a wider scale. He stated, “In Africa, more than among other so-called primitive tribes, many a tale illustrates a proverb relating to the proper everyday behaviour. Not only that, the stories are as varied as there are literary categorisations: you have the comic, the tragic and the tragi-comic; then there are the horror or terror stories. And the characters are imbued with diverse qualities: some exhibit wisdom, cleverness, bravery, strength and nobility whereas others are of cruelty, foolishness, selfishness, cunning, and sluggishness.
As miners dig into the ground in search of precious mineral resources,Dr. Usman hopes similar effort needs to be made in digging into folktales to find the hidden treasure, by encouraging the younger generation to appreciate, through the story telling workshop, the educative and artistic qualities of folktales of every culture.
Between 2005 that Usman started devoting his time to creative writing and folklore revival and now, what he has achieved in the field has been staggering, including the publication of the 652-page compendium of Hausa folktales. He captures in his memoir how his fascination for publishing folktales started,“I recalled the tales by moonlight narrated mainly by my mother and the introductory literature books in Hausa we had read in class. I called to mind books like Dare Dubu Da Daya (One Thousand and One Nights) and several others written by Abubakar Imam. I then resolved to go into the field and chose my Babur/Bura community as my principal research ground” (My Literary Journey: 8)
Apart from collecting and publishing folktales in Hausa language, Usman has replicated the same in English language –of course, a book ought to travel beyond the author’s home base. Sourcing from his Biu locality in Borno State, he has published The Bride without Scars and Other Stories, The Stick of Fortune, Girls in Search of Husbands and Other Stories, The Hyena and the Squirrel, among others;and, through the Bukar Usman Foundation, making these and other books available, through free donations to schools and institutions across the country and beyond the shores of Nigeria.
Recently, the Foundation announced that it hadcollected hundreds of folktales from all over Nigeria, which would be publish before the year runs out or early next year. This is another bold step towards disseminating the Nigerian cultural heritage both within the country and round the world to enrich the repertoire of global oral tradition. Added to the recent resolution by the Nigerian Folklore Society to appropriate new technologies in disseminating folktales, it promises to be a new dawn for the dying art.
If this vital oral tradition must outlive the Solanke, Usman and Ejiogu generations, we must keep digging into our pasts for the newness in them. In the wily tortoise, the cunning hyena, the arrogant lion, the strutting maiden and the many-headed monster, we have many lessons to learn, many to lead the young ones away from crooked ways and misleading paths.