Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Bringing African folktales to Life

Maimouna is trying to get audiences interested in folktales again
Folktales and the art of traditional storytelling are in danger of being lost and Nairobi-based performer Maïmouna Jallow is on a mission to reverse the trend.

But on her journey to revive the art she has also discovered the relevance of performing contemporary stories.

There is something mystical about Zanzibar’s Stone Town. It is a place where past and present collide, and where a mosaic of sights and smells from across the Indian Ocean weave themselves together down narrow alleyways.

It is perhaps fitting then, that my exploration of traditional East African folktales began here, leading me on an unexpected journey into storytelling and adapting contemporary novels.

In 2015, feeling nostalgic for the tales of Anansi the Spider that I had grown up with in West Africa, I travelled to the historic centre of Zanzibar in search of folktales.

Stone Town’s narrow streets and old buildings proved the perfect setting to rediscover old folktales
On arrival, I went straight to the Old Fort, an imposing 17th Century structure built by the Omanis to defend the island from the Portuguese. There, with the help of the painter Hamza Aussie, I met a group of women who owned curio shops that lined the grassy courtyard.

I asked them if they would share the folktales of their youth with me, and within a couple of hours, I had recorded a dozen stories, or rather, fragments of stories.
Around us, children pressed inwards, eager to hear their tales. But even in those magical hours, I started to feel like I was grasping at clouds. The women had to dig deep into the recess of their minds as they tried to piece together scattered bits of ancient tales.

Like an old discarded puzzle, some pieces seemed to be lost forever.

Maimouna heard traditional stories from women in Zanzibar
The children around us, whilst enchanted by their tales, would save their coins to play computer games in the gaming rooms that had sprouted alongside shops that sold henna and incense.

It seemed that even in this small town, famed for its quaint antiquity, folktales were dying. I needed to understand why.

Yes, television was to blame, and so was the breakdown of the extended family, but how had we so easily lost such a fundamental kernel of our existence?

Later that week, I had the good fortune of meeting Haji Gora Haji, the Island’s poet laureate, a living fountain of wondrous tales.

As I listened to him recount a story about the infamous Hare duping Tortoise into buying a piece of land that turned out to be a beach, which Tortoise only found out about when the tide came in, I wondered whether part of the problem is that so many of these stories are far removed from our realities today.
Would our urbanised kids understand Haji’s story?

Heck, even I needed Hamza to give me the annotated version. As he explained it, there was a time when many people on the island were being conned into buying land without title deeds, so this was a warning to people to be wary of unscrupulous salesmen.

Indeed, folktales have always been a vital way to transmit important information, as well as moral lessons, and as such, they are often rooted in specific places and contexts.

And as much as the purist in me wanted to believe that folktales are not only timeless but also universal, I started to think that perhaps one way to preserve folktales was to re-imagine them so that they would resonate with children and adults today.

Back in Nairobi, I launched an online contest, inviting African writers to re-write traditional folktales but with a contemporary twist.

We got a mixed bag of entries, some which addressed war and exile, others that questioned our modern mores. I too began writing stories that merged the old with the new, for example, drawing parallels between slavery and the indiscriminate killing of young black men in America.

I began performing these stories, at times using video footage of real events to ground them in reality, but preserving the structure and style of traditional folktales. The result was as hybrid as me, and whilst I worried about veering off track, I knew that are so many of us who inhabit multiple worlds.

The success of this experiment spurred me to push the boundaries even further and to use oral storytelling to bring African literature to new audiences by adapting novels for performance. I have author Lola Shoneyin thank for this.

The first time I read her acclaimed novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, the women in the story possessed me. They were hilarious. And they jostled for space in my mind, speaking loudly, and demanding to be seen.

My initial reaction was to think, “someone needs to turn this into a movie”. But soon, I realised that I wanted to tell this story.

One-woman show
It was about patriarchy, sexual abuse, polygamy, poverty, education, love, friendship and so many issues that I wanted to talk about, and I felt that performance storytelling could be a gateway to have open discussions on the serious questions raised by the novel.

So I set about adapting the book into a 50-minute one-woman show.
Then, I dug into my bookshelves and pulled out other novels that I thought would translate beautifully into performed stories. I worked with five other women, an eclectic mix of poets, actors and writers, and together we started to bring African novels to life.

These were not plays. Each novel was adapted and retold by just one teller. We used traditional elements of African oral storytelling like call and response and each time, the teller would build a relationship with the audience and create a different form of magic.

The response was tremendous. Audiences told us that we had brought books to life. Some said they did not read and were grateful to still be able to enjoy the terrific literature coming out of Africa.
Many subsequently bought the novels so that they could enjoy the full details that had to be left out in the adaptations.

As an African literature major, it dawned on me that my journey had come full circle: folktales had led me back to contemporary novels and opened the door to storytelling. So perhaps I have not veered off track after all.

The late Professor Kofi Awoonor used to say: “We weave new ropes where the old ones left off.” And like Stone Town itself, I have simply found a way to fuse past and present.

Many kegs of ‘Palm Wine’

By: Chandan Gowda

The power of the Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola’s (in pic) The Palm-Drinkard, the first African novel to find international literary readership, after its publication in 1952, can be immediately felt. Written in English, and rooted in the Yoruba folk story tradition, the slim novel became a sensation soon after it appeared in England and is now acknowledged as a foundational novel in modern African literature.

Sample the initial paragraphs from The Palm-Drinkard:

“I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age.

“My father got eight children and I was the eldest among them, all of the rest were hard workers, but I myself was an expert palm wine drunkard… I was drinking palm-wine from morning till night and from night till morning. By hat tie I could not drink ordinary water at all except palm-wine.

“But when my father noticed that I could not do any work more than to drink, he engaged an expert palm-wine tapster for me; he had no other work more than to tap palm-wine every day.

“So my father gave me a palm-tree farm which was nine miles square and it contained 560,000 palm trees, and this palm-wine tapster was tapping one hundred an d fifty kegs of palm-wine ever morning, but before 2 o’clock pm., I would have drunk all of it; after that he would go and tap another 75 kegs in the evening which I would be drinking till morning.”

The happy state of affairs wasn’t to continue for long. The palm-wine tapster fell down from the palm tree and died. Not finding any one who could tap palm-wine “to my requirement,” and remembering that “old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in one place somewhere in this world,” the novel’s hero sets out to find out “where my palm-wine tapster who had died was.”

What follows is an intoxicatingly rich adventure, where humans, strange creatures, and spirits come and go with perfect ease. The rapid, yet unhurried, turns of event, all told in a hypnotic oral story-telling style which freely and masterfully bends English to serve its purposes, is nourishment itself.

Tutuola’s short autobiographical note, which appears as an Afterword to The Palm-Drinkard, tells us he had a tough childhood. His father sent him to work as a servant in an acquaintance’s house in Lagos, a town sixty kilometres from their native village of Abeokuta, in return for a school education. The young Tutuola did exceptionally well at school, but his master’s wife’s cruelty, which constantly loaded him with household chores, proved hard to endure. He went back to his father’s village and joined school there. After a year, his father’s sudden death didn’t let him continue his studies: “Now there was none of my family who volunteered to assist me to further my studies.” His formal education ended at the sixth grade, Tutuola worked odd jobs on the farm and elsewhere from then onward. Not having completed his formal education, Tutuola has noted, meant being able to work with a freer narrative imagination.

TS Eliot, the poet, acquired the manuscript for publication with Faber and Faber. The influential part played by Irish poet, Dylan Thomas’ high praise for the novel, is also well known. His review in the Observer entitled, “Blithe Spirits,” begins thus: “This is the brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching story, or a series of stories, written in young English by a West African about the journey of an expert and devoted palm wine drinker,…” An excerpt from Thomas’ review, in fact, forms the epigraph in the Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka’s affectionate introduction to the latest edition of The Palm Drinkard. Soyinka speculates that being Irish, who had “not completely severed their umblical cords from the earth of magic, fantasy, trolls, gnomes and goblins,” might explain the poet’s enthusiasm for the novel.

The debates on the novel’s reception have been charged. Was the West seeking exotica in it? Would aspiring modern African writers be expected to dish out similarly strange narrative forms? The questions would have been especially urgent in the time of decolonization, when .writers in English from formerly colonized countries wrestled with the kind of English to write for giving authentic expression to their cultural experiences.

Sixty five years later, with the advantage of abundant caution about avoiding stereotypy, the many pleasures of The Palm-Drinkard can be enjoyed more freely. The inventiveness of new words and styles of phrase are liberating: as Soyinka points out, the word “drinkard” does away with the negative morality that sticks to the word “drunkard.”

Drawing attention to the continued appeal of The Palm-Drinkard, Soyinka says “Who can conceive of the sea drying up? As long as there is a drop of wine left to tap from the West African palm tree, Amos Tutuola lives on.”

(The author teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

Friday, 7 July 2017

Meet the 20 years old writer from Rivers State, Miss Walker Miriam Ihuoma.

As insiders in Nigerian literature and beyond, we have been able to see what Miss Walker Mirianm Ihuoma has to offer. She hails from Ikwerre in Rivers State, and currently a student in the University. She's a Christian, and she enjoys reading, writing and listening to Christian songs.

We were privileged to interview her to know more about her new book (OVERTHROWN) that will come out very soon. Overthrown is definitely one of the most culturally diverse and interesting book we might be seeing soon. It centres around kingdoms torn by their quest for supremacy, and there were a lot of twists of events in it.

Below is our interview with Miss Walker Miriam Ihuoma:

LITEMAG: We were able to see some parts of your upcoming book, Overthrown, and I must say it’s interesting. Please tell us what inspired you to write Overthrown.

MISS WALKER: What inspired me was the desire to preserve culture and history.  Unlike in the western world and other places where they have many books about their history dating back to BC, such are not really common here and especially in my place. I don't want a future where the people don't know what their history was like. I personally feel bad when I don't know much about my culture and often wish there were more books on it; perhaps an Ikwerre language dictionary! Because I believe history and culture are important, I was inspired to write something on it, so that even in years to come, people will be able to have an idea of the past.

LITEMAG: What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

MISS WALKER: The most difficult thing is trying to imagine how the opposite sex thinks and would behave in a particular situation. I'm not a guy and guys probably think and see things differently from the way girls think and see things. So I try as much as possible to imagine that I am a guy in that particular part so that I can write better. 

LITEMAG: How do you select the names of your characters?

MISS WALKER: First of all,  it depends on the tribe of the character. If this character is Yoruba for example, I will give that character a Yoruba name. Secondly, it depends on the role the character is playing. If the character is a strong warrior, I will give him a name like Dike. Thirdly, I prefer using names that are not too common and I just seem to like. Such names could be names that was used mostly in the past. And in situations where I can't get a name that satisfies all these categories I just mentioned, I simply make them up myself.  

LITEMAG: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

MISS WALKER: I try to be original. It's left to the reader to appreciate or not to. I don't just write for my readers, I  write for recollection. So that, years later when I read that work, I can see how far I have come in writing and how much I have changed and improved. 

LITEMAG: When are we expecting Overthrown?

MISS WALKER: By God's grace, before this year ends.  

LITEMAG: What plans do you have after publishing Overthrown?
MISS WALKER: I want it to go global just like Chimamanda Adichie's books! I have always had such dreams ever since I went to a book store and saw great books published by Nigerian writers. Then I was like, "So Nigerians can write like this? " I don't just want it to sell in Nigeria,  I also want it to go outside the borders of Nigeria so that people out there would have a better knowledge of our culture and Africa, as a whole. 

LITEMAG: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

MISS WALKER: I would tell my younger writing self to never give up and keep on dreaming big. Before I used to think that publishing a book was something 'others' did; it seemed like an almost unattainable dream. I would tell my younger self that publishing a book is indeed possible if I  work hard towards it. I would also tell my younger self to research a lot and learn a lot about my culture and environment so that my written work would be reliable and educative.  And of course, I would tell my younger self to keep on practicing so that I would be a better writer. 

This was how the interview went, and we will keep you posted on her book, Overthrown, coming soon!