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New tales by moonlight

In real life, the hyena and the squirrel can’t co-exist peacefully; the cat and the rat can’t either. But under the moonlight, when silhouettes lurk behind tall trees and every fledging child is all ears to the storyteller, the sweetest tales are those of strange bed fellows and their wily schemes in an imaginary world where you can easily fetch water with a basket or reach the sky with a broomstick.

Some of these stories make our hairs stand on end. Some make us laugh until we roll over. Some make us feel scornful for the villains working in concert with goblins.  Beside the overt entertainment derived from being patient to the storyteller and his exaggerated gestures, there are morals to take away, which go a long way in guiding the child towards the path of rectitude. Those days are gone, but those stories are still with us, courtesy of the Biu-born folklorist, Bukar Usman.

First published in 2005, Usman has just reissued The Bride without Scars and Other Stories, a collection of ten folktales drawn from the Biu tradition northeast of Nigeria. The second edition comes with a colourful cover and illustrations. There is also story-writing workshop for students.

Structured in two parts, the first part of the book contains five stories involving human beings: “The Bride without Scars”, “The King and His Marabout”, “The Old Woman and the Girl”, “Engaged to be Married Before Her Birth”, and “Destined to be Queen”.

Like the first section, the second section contains five folktales featuring only animal characters: “The Cat and the Unfaithful Rat”, “A Tale of Long and Short Beaks”, “Steaking Monkeys”, “The Spider and the Chief”, and “The Hyena and the Hare”. Put together, these tales make us travel to the days of yore and get immersed in excitement. That is the marvel of folktales.

In the first story “The Bride without Scars”, the beauty of a belle without scars gets into her head, making her to turn down every suitor. Her desire is for a husband without scars like her. There is none around, but she isn’t willing to trade her desire. A snake gets to hear about her arrogance, and, together with his snake friends, turn into handsome men without scars.

The girl is impressed, and chooses one of them as a partner. But on their way to the home of the bridegroom, they change back to snakes and begin to lick her until her skin becomes light and ugly. When help eventually comes her way, she is no more beautiful and, worse still, is delivered of a half-human, half-snake baby boy. The story teaches us that pride goes before a fall and never judge a person by his looks.

While the marabout’s wife and her husband volte-face when it matters most shows how distrustful humans can be even to those they are close to in “The King and His Marabout”, the lesson in “The Old Woman and the Girl” is that sacrifice and good gestures will always be rewarded while treachery earns punishment.

In the later, a young girl’s gesture by being the only one among her friends to share her meagre catch with a beggarly old woman is rewarded after she repeats the gesture a second time: the fish she puts in the pot multiplies. To cap it all, the old woman directs her to a smaller pond where she catches big fish that worm her into the heart of the king, who eventually marries her, becoming his favourite wife. 

The next two stories also feature two major female characters. While “Engaged to be Married Before Birth” tells the story of a mystery girl child (with the body of a donkey) betrothed to the son of a man who came to her rescue at a streamside, in fulfilment of his request, “Destined to be Queen” dwells on an orphan who rises from grass to grace by disguising as an almajiri to save the life of Prince Dawi with the wastes of man-eating worms, echoing the lesson that no one can stop anybody from what he or she is destined to be.

The second section tees off with “The Cat and the Unfaithful Rat”. Here, two strange bellows become good friend, but the rat turns out to be the greedy one, secretly misappropriating their stockpile of food. The rat soon gets his comeuppance and ends up in the belly of the cat. Unfaithfulness, the story tells us, leads to destruction.

Fake life, as exemplified in the attitude of the bird called Cilakowa, in the story “A Tale of Long and Short Beaks”, gets nobody anywhere. As Cilakowa finds out after using deception to get a husband, originality pays. This is similar to the fate that befalls a greedy hyena, whose futile attempt to drown a big monkey earns him a good hiding from the monkey tribe.

The tale of “The Spider and the Chief” is another story of cunning gone awry. Yes, every day is for the thief but one day is for the owner of the house. A thieving spider is caught in a gummy effigy, but swaps his place with an innocent monkey out to help him out of the snare.

In the last story “The Hyena and the Hare”, the later sells a dummy on an angry hyena who feels hard done by the hare, leaving the former and her offspring sulking in the hole. The moral here is that the angry person often miscalculates and makes mistakes while the level-headed can calmly find a way out of trouble.

The book ends with a story-writing workshop for students beginning with a note to the teacher on steps to take. The exercises (on grammar and literature) in the second part of the book are related to each story in The Bride without Scars and Other Stories. The author, Usman, has given us another opportunity to relive the past, and in an exciting way. This book should be on every bookshelf, especially students at all levels.

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