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Exploring Usman’s one thousand folktales out of Nigeria


It is the foreword written by one of Nigeria’s cultural expert and export, and member of Academy of Finland, and Life Friend, Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies (IGRS), University of London, Prof. Tunde Okanlawon, that sums up the compelling nature and extent of Dr. Bukar Usman’s work and the huge debt we all owe him for his diligence in cultural consciousness and exposition. On Usman’s compendium of 1,000 Nigerian folk stories, Okanlawon simply writes, “Dr. Bukar Usman’s is a long collection, which should not be unnecessarily enlongated by a burdensome foreword. One Thousand and One Nights is the title of some Middle Eastern and South Asian stories, published in Arabic in the Islamic Golden Age.

This Nigerian collection of one thousand tales is a match, with sizzling tales of many colours, dreams, and temperaments.”People, Animals, Spirits and Objects: 1000 Folk Stories of Nigeria (Klamidas Communications Ltd, 2018; Abuja) is the third in Usman’s Treasury of Nigerian Tales (TNT 003), which makes up the four expository volumes in the tales that aptly define the richness of the folklore tradition among different Nigerian communities. Usman’s painstaking work does not take those in the field of folklore scholarship by surprise. His work over the years as a diligent researcher in this field has long earned him accolades both for his passion on the subject and as President of Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS) which regularly holds a yearly folklore conference where issues of scholarship concerns are addressed by renowned experts from across the country and beyond. Usman is concerned that the folklore tradition that sustained many Nigerians like him and from which socio-cultural education was gained in ages past is fast fading away because of social changes that have shifted focus from the oral to the written, and now the more disruptive impact of technology and the pervasive influence of social media.

But Usman and some of his colleagues believe that while technology may have disrupted the tranquil order under which oral tradition flourished years ago, and since culture is dynamic, there is need to also serve Africa’s oral tradition, just like Europeans and Asians have done, in modern media and platforms for their ultimate preservation and conservation for generations to come. While other researchers in the field are contented in confining themselves to the bare scholarship of the subject of oral tradition, Usman goes even further by committing his resources to making sure that this aspect of tradition is preserved.

Through his Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation, he commissioned experts across the country to record tales in their communities that have now formed the 4,000 stories collected in the four volumes he has published till date. While Usman is not the first to collect oral tales in Nigeria, his effort is groundbreaking in its range and coverage. While others in the field merely document tales in their localities alone, Usman went farther afield with Nigeria as his playing field and harvested a vast amount of tales in epic proportions.

And as he startling discovered and reveals in his expository study, that although Nigeria may be diverse in so many ways, there is a unifying cultural thread that runs through the tales that reveals more of oneness than difference among Nigeria’s disparate communities.

According to him, therefore, “One of the most unmistakable observations on reading these stories (4,000 of them) is the similarity of the tales across the ethnic groups (of Nigeria). Linguistic differences, apart from their reflection in the naming of the characters and the wording of the songs, do not appear to be significant in terms of the nature and structure of the tales. Although this may sound surprising, especially in our ethnically diverse environment, many tales and episodes are common to many ethnic and linguistic groups. This and other common narrative attributes indicate that Nigeria has a unifying force in its folk narratives, a positive cultural bond Nigerians have failed to adequately acknowledge or celebrate.”

No, thanks to manipulations for political self-aggrandizement usually perpetuated by the political class to pit one ethnic group against the other that has polarized the country along ethnic lines.

Also, Usman does not leave his readers to figure out things for themselves. He provides what can be termed a compass through which his readers can navigate the tales in this edition just like the other volumes in the series. In this respect, he has listed two features of this volume to include ‘social values’ and ‘symbolic characterisation’ that define the work.

On social values, he writes, “…These are fictional or folktales from various communities of the country… This exposition will briefly discuss two complementary topics. The first is the social values associated with folktales while the second is symbolic characterization, a literary device which, in the arena of fictional tales, is socially mediated.

“One of the most enduring qualities of folktales is their social relevance. Folktales convey and stabilize social values such as respect for constituted authority, respect for spiritual ordinances, hard work, good neighbourliness, honesty, patience, courage, moderation, and love for one’s family and kindred. The need to preserve stories that propagate these social values was one of the reasons the Dr. Bukar Usma Foundation conducted the pan-Nigerian tale-collection projects which generated tales of Treasury of Nigerian Tales (TNT) series.”

Usman also discusses the mirroring roles characters play in folktales as “writers and narrators mirror the realities of their environment through the various aspects of their story, namely: theme, setting, plot and characters”, arguing further that “no matter how profound the theme of a narrative, how exotic its setting, and how excellent its language, it cannot succeed in delivering a competent story without a character or group of characters… A story’s characters interest us because we see our society, if not ourselves or those we know, through them. Characters are social mirrors… the typical character we encounter in folktales tend to be flat in the sense of having one kind of personality trait. It should be noted that this apparent lack of complexity is compensated for by the stimulating symbolic nature of many folktale characters.”

In the second and symbolic relevance of folktales’ characters, Usman says, “Although they are not endowed with complex traits, many characters we meet in folktales are significant and entertaining because of their attributes as symbolic characters. A symbolic character is one who reflects or represents an idea or concrete reality, narrowed to folktale character, this symbolic representation is invariably, socially determined, thus ensuring that such character personify culturally-fixed concepts, virtue or vice. The symbolic attributes of the characters are outside the prerogative of the folktale narrator. They are socially determined over generations and involve a ‘social-psychological’ process which is outside the manipulative powers of the narrator.”

In other words, symbolic characters are determined by the culture of a society in which such folktales are set. The narrator has no control over how they behave; if such a narrator attempts to attribute extra value to such characters, his or her audience at once smells a rat and may likely protest such attribution. Imagine a tortoise being portrayed as an honest and selfless character!

“In the tale-bearing environment, this connection is easily established since the concerns expressed in the folktales are usually the concerns of the common folk whose worldview is shaped by the collective consciousness of the community. It is this communal consciousness that had, over time, attributed symbolic meaning to the folktales typical characters.”

Usman then further discusses the classification type he uses in the volume. Although four classification systems are generally in use, namely: Aaerne/Thompson index (AT index), Aaerne/Thomson/Uther index (ATU index), Stith Thomson’s Motif of Folk Literature, and Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, but Usman argues that none of these “has captured in its system all the vital aspects of the folktale”. He has, therefore, devised home-grown eight classification type that fits the tales collected in this anthology. So the 1,000 folktales are classified into eight character-types, namely: human tales, animal, human-animal, human-spirit, human-object, animal-spirit, animal-object, and multiple-character tales.

Usman concludes his compendium on the moral import of folktales as character-molding and social education that various Nigeria have lost since folktales are no longer the pastime and socialization process of society. But he hopes that his folktales’ preservation work will partly remedy this, thus, “Conflicts in folktales, in whatever way they are resolved, happily or unhappily, ultimately teach some morals. These morals, no matter the cultural root of the tale, are usually universal truths.”

Perhaps, the only criticism that may be leveled against the four volumes is that Usman only uses grassland photo/images from the north to illustrate the covers. Since the tales he collected are pan-Nigeria in outlook, he should have used images from other regions in the four volumes. This is more so since images of the characters are not deployed to illustrate tales in the book.

Nevertheless, Usman has served us a rich dish of folktales of national significance, whose real import will last a thousand years and more. The four volumes will not only be researchers’ delight, every home will do well to own copies so parents and children alike will delight themselves in the rich banquet Usman has so served from the generosity of his passion.

In this article:
Bukar UsmanTunde Okanlawon
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