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The State of the Storyteller's Tale

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“..picture an evening scene in a native village. The sun is nearing the western horizon, seeming to fall like a huge ball behind the distant hills, the air is cool, and a solemn stillness prevails. Even the noisy youths and girls are quiet, and the time for tom-toms, crickets, bull-frogs, and the miscellaneous instruments of man and Nature for the production of the most weird and inharmonious of sounds is not yet. In the compound—the courtyard round which are the family dwellings—the women with their picin (children) on their backs are busy with mortar and pestle making foo-foo (native food from maize). Squatting near the mud walls, naked to the waist, their cloth forming but a covering for the loins, are a number of men smoking short clay pipes and expectorating in a most insanitary manner—a perfect picture of idleness. Naked youngsters stand open-mouthed listening to the conservation of their elders, or amuse themselves at hide-and-seek, marbles, or some other native game.
The short twilight of the tropics brings all occupations except taking to an end, and of talking there seems to be no end. Here and there someone or other lies down, covers himself entirely with his cloth, and is lost to the world.
A lantern is brought out, and unconsciously and imperceptibly it becomes the centre of dark forms, relieved now and again by rows of beautiful white teeth as the owners indulge in a hearty laugh. At times conversation lags; someone drones a monotonous tune, others smoke in quiet contemplation, while others again follow the example of the dark human mounds scattered about the compound.
Suddenly, “Comrades, listen to a story”. At once the men, women, and children press round the speaker, an eager crowd, ready to hear or to tell the tales of their folk….”
-William H Barker ( West African Folktales) 1917

Where do stories come from?
I asked this question in the preface to a book, Ajantala and other Yoruba Folktales, which I compiled several years ago. For many African children, night time is indeed story time. Children would gathered at the foot of a storyteller, often an elderly person who would entertain them with tales filled with so much drama and passion that they did always appear real , even to listening adults.
But where did those tales come from? Most had indeed been handed down to the storyteller as a child in the same way that he had just done. Sometimes the story would have been so old that the storyteller, not being able to remember how it originally went, would add embellishment of his own crafting, and sometimes in such a proportion that an entirely different tale is consequently produced. I have myself many times, appropriated such creative license while retelling long lost stories to a children audience.
As in every part of the world, the African folktales would generally derive from the daily experience of a people, their environment, their predominant occupations, their aspirations and of course their moral rules. Indeed as an academic discipline, folklore shares methods, and insights with literature, anthropology, art, music, history, linguistics, philosophy, and mythology.
When I say a people, I must add however that the story belongs more to the teller rather than to the community. Depending therefore on the immediate disposition of the storyteller, stories can end up funny , fascinating, ridiculous or thought-provoking, . The constant purpose of the typical African folktale often remains to teach young children important lessons about wholesome values.
One would find from this African Night Entertainment series, that a folktale may be so commonly retold across the continent, that one is no more sure of the origin. As an example, there is much similarity in the story of the bad boy Ajantala, as told by Yoruba folklorist D.O Fagunwa , and the story of the bad boy Kwaku Baboni which existed in Akan folklore long before the narration of the former . One reason for this may have been that African communities and family units used to be very migratory. Indeed, distinct towns and villages in many parts of Africa did not exist until less than three centuries ago. This reason, as well as other factors such as frequent internecine conflicts and slave-raids may have quite assisted the propagation of the folklore of a particular community. Thus, folktales which originated from a specific transient community could eventually become owned by another community, several thousands of miles away, with a localized characters.
What have I added to the stories in this series ? In many cases I have tried to preserve the style of the penultimate narrator; rather than making the stories mine. The importance of this is that some folk stories are only interesting if told in a particular way ; otherwise they become so limp and like academic translations. In some cases though, it has been necessary to edit a story primarily for clarity and to simplify obscure and archaic phrases and descriptions. Typically because of the prevalent customs at the time many of these stories were originally generated, one would find instances of ritual murder and demonic manifestation casually thrown in by the narrator ; to the possible distress of the typical prudent reader of these times. In all cases however, I have strived to bring in my personal skill as a storyteller and folklorist, into compiling each priceless volume; I have attempted to give each book the entertainment value it deserves ; I have tried to make each book suitable for preservation in public repositories as the current state of the journey in the storyteller’s tale.
Rotimi Ogunjobi
November 2015
- Introduction to the African Night Entertainment Literary Series - researched and edited by Rotimi Ogunjobi