It is rare to find any contemporary Nigerian whose commitment to the survival of Nigerian folklore could rival that of Dr.Bukar Usman. In over a decade, he has published dozens of books in that regard, most of which are donated to individuals and institutions.
Between 2013 and 2016, the Bukar Usman Foundation embarked on a new research, Pan-Nigerian Folktale Narrative Research Project. One of the aims was to collect and preserve, in writing, the folktales of various Nigerian ethnic groups, as the age-old tradition of transmitting and preserving such tales from generation to generation through oral narration is fast disappearing.
Another aim was to publish, without prejudice to possible indigenous language publications, the outcome of this research, in order to make it available to a wider audience.
Besides, the Bukar Usman Foundation sought to develop some aspects of the research findings into entertaining and informative story books targeted at the youths with the aim of enhancing their appreciation of folk narratives as a worthwhile cultural heritage.
The project also aimed at promoting, across the country, an awareness of the shared cultural values the nation’s folktales represent and to, thereby, promote cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect.
Other aims were to employ the moral probity espoused by the tales as a tool for moral regeneration of the larger society, as well as to utililise the outcome of the research in any other way that will enhance the realisation of the aforementioned objectives.
This research, which was carried out in fifteen designated centres nationwide, yielded 3,000 tales from communities across the country. This research was overseen by Bukar Usman himself.
“Overseeing this research project in pan-Nigerian tales collections has been a pleasurable experience for me. There are lots of tales from several communities awaiting to be harvested. The over 3,000 tales collected can thus be said to be only a tip of the iceberg,” says Bukar Usman.
Reading these collections, one won’t know the enormous work done by the researchers/translators to make the tales understandable in English, for most of themwere collected in the original native languages of the communities. Thus, “The foundation faced lots of difficulties in the translation and preservation of most of the languages, not having orthographies,” admits Usman.
Out of these research, the Bukar Usman Foundation recently published four collections of folktales under the Treasury of Nigerian Tales (TNT) series. The first two are:A Treasury of Nigerian Tales andA Selection of Nigerian Folktales: Themes and Settings. The others are:People, Animals andSpirits and Objects: 1000 Folk Storiesof Nigeria, and Gods and Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria.
In these collections abound morals, which are helpful in the task of moulding the character of the child. “Whether animals, human beings or ghosts are used in the tales, the aim is to teach primarily the young ones and also adults that anti-social acts attract unpleasant repercussions,” he explains.
The first school for the African child, before the advent of western and Islamic education, was through folktales told under the moonlight by elders. The gamut of stories in these new publications range from those emphasising on benevolence, cleverness, cooperation, generosity, modesty, trustworthiness, love, pity, bravery to kindness.
They also teem with tales showing repercussions for laziness, wickedness, disobedience, stubbornness, maltreatment, envy, stealing, telling lies, foolishness, cheating, gossiping, backbiting, bullying, misery, hatred, adultery, arrogance, trickery, misappropriation, etcetera.
To retain the originality of some of the tales and to encourage writing in Nigerian languages, the Bukar Usman Foundation has come up with two different compilations –Ogorun-unItanlati Ile Yoruba (One Hundred Yoruba Folktales) and NchikotaAkuko-ifoNdi Igbo (A Collection of Igbo Folktales). Before now, the Bukar Usman Foundation had published extensively in Hausa language, in keeping with the folklore tradition conceived by our forebears.
For Bukar Usman, digging into folktales to find the hidden treasures is as engaging as digging into the ground by miners in search of precious mineral resources. The field is unlimited, which is why the foundation hopes that other interest groups would join in this endeavour.
The challenge to all of usby the prolific septuagenarian is ensuring that these oral tradition breaks communication and geographicalbarriers by being processed into drama, movies, animations and cartoons for education and entertainment purposes.
The sample tales published bellow are culled from Usman’s A Selection of Nigerian Folktales: Themes and Settings(Klamidas: 2018).
The Tortoise and the Dancing Coconut Tree
A long time ago, Tortoise was living among human beings. It was very lazy. Tortoise didn’t like to work. People would tell it that it should go and work, but Tortoise never wanted to work. One day, Tortoise was looking for what to steal and it saw a coconut tree. The coconut tree was afraid of the Tortoise, because it knew Tortoise was going to steal it. Tortoise wanted to pluck the coconut and the coconut dissuaded Tortoise not to pluck it, promising to help Tortoise to get what to eat. The coconut tree asked Tortoise to take it and place it by the road many people used on their way to the market.
Tortoise took the coconut tree there and hid itself in the bush. The coconut danced and the people who were going to market saw it and became afraid. They dropped their goods and ran away. Tortoise carriedtheir food and went away. The coconut kept dancing everyday and the people went to report to their chief, the Kabiesi, about the coconut that was always dancing on the market road. Their Kabiesi said that what they were telling him could not be true; and that since he was born, he had neither seen nor heard of a dancing coconut tree, let alone having one in his own domain. Another market day, theKabiesi ordered all his guards to escort him, and he followed the people as they went to the market.
The coconut danced and the Kabiesiand his guards ran away in fear. They even abandoned the chief’s royal umbrella. After they had gone, Tortoise moved mukemuke and carried their food. The people and their Kabiesi went to their shrine where they had a very powerful spirit called Osi. They carried the calabash of Osi and kept it on the market road. Tortoise and the coconut got to the market road and the coconut danced again. As the people saw the coconut, they ran away as usual.
Tortoise came out of its hiding and carried their food and also saw the calabash and wanted to carry it. Its limb got stuck to the calabash and Tortoise could not remove his limbs again. Tortoise was there, but the coconut ran away. The people came back and saw Tortoise and knew Tortoise was the one stealing their food. They took it to their Kabiesi, and Tortoise was thrown into a boiling pot. The people thanked their Osi for helping them to catch the thief. This story clearly shows that those who steal would be caught some day.
Why Monkeys live on trees
A very long time ago, Monkey used to live on land. He was restless and never allowed Tortoise to enjoy one single moment of peace. Tortoise kept thinking of ways of keeping Monkey off his back. So, one day, he went and prepared a sacrifice with Lion’s meat and plenty of bananas with palm oil and kept it by the roadside.
In no time at all, Monkey found the sacrifice and wasted no time in eating the food up. A few moments later, Lion arrived and saw remnants of a lion’s flesh. When he asked Tortoise about the whole thing, the cunning animal told him that it was Monkey that had just made a meal of a Lion’s flesh. This angered Lion. So, he planned secretly to take revenge on Monkey. From then on, he started bringing banana gifts to Monkey who was pregnant. Whenever Monkey had a baby, Monkey would eat it up until Monkey could not take it any longer.
He went to Tortoise to ask for advice, as to how to free himself from the molestation of the Lion. Tortoise advised him to go to the top of the tallest tree and live there. Monkey gladly took his things and climbed up a tree as fast as he could. When Lion showed up later and asked of Monkey’s whereabouts, Tortoise told him that the poor fellow had grown tired of life and run away to another town. From that day on, Monkey has been living up in the trees, and Tortoise got back his peace of mind.