Long before colonialism and formal education in this part of the world, the folktale played double functions: education and entertainment. Usually told by moonlight in the villages, these stories of animals, human beings and spirits in strange locations are replete with valid lessons for the child on the way to coming of age. Today, children no longer see the moon at night, and the tales have gone to the moon.
The fairytale and fable of western societies are protean of the folktale, what the French call le marveilleuxtraditional, in which witches, dragons and orgres are the dramatis personae. Jean de La Fontaine, a French fabulist, admits proudly that he uses the story of animals to instruct men in his works.
Modern prose fiction is an offshoot of the fairytale in western civilisation, appropriating the storytelling format of a beginning, a middle and an ending. Also, it has adopted its resolution and, above all, the didacticism of the ancient tale.
Horace specifies the function of literature as “to teach and delight” (dulce et utile) and “to speak the truth laughing” (Ridentemdicere verum), while Samuel Jonson believes that the end product of writing is to “instruct by pleasing”.
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Amos Tutuola’s hilarious classic, The Palmwine Drinkardand My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which is one of the early works of fiction written by an African in (smattering) English, is seen as expansions of the folktale and Yoruba myth, creating outstanding magical realism.
Achebe’s vision of literature in “Africa and Her Writers” is a repudiation of the 19th and 20th century European literary paradigm canvassing that art must be an end to itself, accountable to nobody but itself. For him, art is, and was always in the service of man. Above all: “Our ancestors created their myths and legends and told their stories for a human purpose (including, no doubt, the excitement of wonder and pure magic delight)….Their artists lived and moved and had their being in society, and created their works for the good of their society.”
Achebe’s early fiction –Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God –have served as cross-cultural novels with continental resonance. The African writer conceives his writing as allegories, which teach moral lessons, derived from right ideals of human conducts, while showcasing the conflict between ethical standards of life and evil conducts.
In the Man of the People, the folktale of the hunter and the vultures (p.140), narrated by Max, is used to illustrate the corrupt lifestyles of the dominant political parties in the post-independence novel: the POP and the PAP. In his famous essay, “The Novelist as a Teacher”, Achebe avers that the writer should not be excused from the task of reeducation and regeneration; he should function as a historian, rescuing its past as a critic and analysing its present as a mentor, giving the reader the much-needed confidence in his cultural heritage, undermined by his association with Europeans.
In the aforementioned essay, Achebe mentions a little boy in his wife’s class who was ashamed of writing about the harmattan, fearing that his schoolmates would make him a subject of ridicule.
Thus, Achebe declaims: “It is my business as a writer to teach that boy that there is nothing disgraceful about the African weather, that the palm tree is a fit subject for poetry. Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse… to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.”
Similarly, the writings of Cyprian Ekwensi pay witness to localisation of narratives to give the African experience a cultural mileage, from African Night’s Entertainment to Masquerade Time. As a schoolboy, Ekwensi wasn’t taught African literature –there was none to be taught, anyway. So his generation grew up learning about winter, spring and apples difficult to relate to. Thanks to the tales he heard at home, they served as a foundation to embellish fictional threads.
Aside Achebe teaching the African reader history, his major novels also incorporate folktales to draw contemporary analogies. In ThingsFall Apart, for instance, Achebe uses the tale of the tortoise and the birds to draw attention to Okonkwo as Mr. All of You, greedy of everything Umuofia and falling from grace to grass as the tortoise does in the story. Of course, the kind of literature we read and the films we watch affect our general outlook in life.
Teaching the African child in the 21st Century
The cultural nationalism, which swept across Africa with the dawn of political independence, has, sadly, hit the rocks in the 21st century as globalisation makes inroads.
In the 20th century, there were attempts by Igbo scholars and writers to collect Igbo folktales, leading to the publication of Tales of Land and Death: Igbo Folktales by Uche Okeke, A Calabash of Wisdom by Romanus Egudu, The Way We Lived by Rems Umeasiegbu, and How the Leopard Got Its Claws(1972) by Chinua Achebe and John Iroganachi. Today, the prints have disappeared along with the tales.
Achebe’s three other children book include Chike and the River (1966), The Flute (1977) and The Drum (1977). Apart from Chike and the River, the rest are recreations of folktales featuring animal characters.
The imperative of publishing African folktales in their original forms for posterity has become a new talking point in the culture sector. Though folktales are best passed orally, it is a dying art, because the atmosphere which created the easy passage no longer exists.
The 21st Nigerian kid is suffering from bartered complexes at home and in school. He doesn’t learn and speak vernacular at home as his schoolteacher and parents have made it seem like a taboo. It is the age of cable television where Tom and Jerry rules, produced in English language and telling the story of western cultures. In a bid to make the world a global village, the village of the African child is being obliterated. What a pity!
Like Achebe, Bukar Usman isn’t afraid to teach his audience about the harmattan. Hisfolkloric interventions in the 21st century has been phenomenal.
In just a decade, he has published more than two dozen collection of folktales in Hausa and English language for students.
With the push for modern environment in Africa, moon-lit setting and after-evening-meal formations have become a thing of the past. The television, radio, film, computer games, and, now, social media have taken over.
Thus, cultural values, which are embedded in these tales are no longer transmitted to future generations. Collectors of folktales, like Usman, hold the future of this important culture. Usman understands the implications of allowing children to imbibe misleading social values from peers and TV programmes.
His greatest achievement as a folklorist is perhaps the publication of the 652-page compendium of Hausa language folktale, Taskar Tatsuniyoyi. He has also collected and reprinted four others in English language: The Stick of Fortune, The Bride without Scars and Other Stories, Girls in Search of Husbands and Other Stories, and The Hyena and the Squirrel.
Though these stories are drawn from his sociological home base of Biu, northeast Nigeria, they share affinities with other groups in and outside Nigeria.
He has also edited four books of pan-Nigerian folk narratives: A Treasure of Nigerian Folk Narratives, A Selection of Nigerian Folktales: Themes and Settings,People, Animals, Sprits and Objects: 1000 Folk Stories of Nigeria, and Gods of Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria.
In the title story in The Bride without Scars, a pretty girl allows her beauty to get into her head and turns down suitors at will, but she ends up marrying a snake-turned human without scar, leading to disastrous consequences.
The lessons here are: pride goes before a fall; do not judge a person by his looks but by his character. In another story “The Cat and the Unfaithful Rat”, the rat learns the hard way how not to be a clever thief, especially to your best friend, and being a troublemaker, by ending up in the bowel of an angry cat.
The African child learns here that unfaithfulness and dishonesty lead to destruction sooner or later.
Usman’s submission on the need to explore the folktale in book and other forms is germane: “As miners dig into the ground in search of precious mineral resources, so it could be argued that similar effort needs to be made in digging into folktales to find the hidden treasures. The field in unlimited.”
Needless to say, if the first duty of a parent is that of a teacher, teaching the child how to eat, talk and good manners, who, then, is responsible for the child committing incest out there? Perhaps his parents and society have failed to teach him well.
The storyteller should be given the enabling environment do the missing teaching. It is time to make the folktale a vital component of the school curriculum in Nigeria.