|Bukusu Folktales (Kenya Literature Bureau, 1986, 134 p.)|
There is a new interest in our oral literature which the student has to take into account. The creative writer in Africa is today continuing the tradition of writing poetry and telling stories which he has inherited from his community. Creative writers draw their materials from well known local history (stories of origin, myths, legends, stories of migration) and other forms of narrative. A literal count of proverbs, riddles, and other sayings in modern novels reveals an elaborate use of oral literature. Names like Sela, Nasio, Mwambu, Gikuyu, Mumbi, Simbi Nyaima, Gor Mahia, Ramogi, Masaba, Mubukusu, have been introduced into our written literature. They are names of our foreancestors, and we cannot afford to ignore them.
The effort by Fred Makila to tell the story of his people, the Bukusu of the foothills of Mount Elgon in commendable. Mr. Makila is today a representative voice from Bungoma District on matters of oral history, and oral literature. He is the author of The Outline of Bukusu History, a book which makes exemplary use of oral materials to construct a people's history. Unlike the dry titter which is published by academic historians the book is imbued with patriotism, and pride in the cultural values which the colonialists wanted to denigrate. The literary touch which Fred Makila brings to his historical accounts is a great delight to the reader of his books. In this book, Bukusu Folktales, the author has adopted the materials which he published in a special issue of Pan African Journal, for the student of literature.
The book by Mr. Makila demonstrates elements of narrative. It also gives us African styles and aesthetics in which literature is an artistic re-interpretation of life's experience. The tales show us that to understand African literature, we have to take into account the narrative techniques, the plot of the narrative, the characters, and characterisation. Oral narratives are full of drama. We remember a story well because of the way it has been told (nay performed) before us by the narrator. The narrator has to repeat well-known formulae at the beginning and at the end of the narrative. Members of the audience know where in the story they have to come in and either make a comment, or also repeat well-known formulae. The duration of narrator cannot be accurately measured because despite the fact that the narrative contains well-known and accepted characters, songs, and story lines, the individual narrator will introduce new elements into the story. As for characterisation, oral literature depends on stock characters. There are fewer deviations in the narrative traditions than in the song traditions. Social outcasts like babini (night runners), babefwi (thieves), nasikoko (women who marry different men all the time), and lazybones, are known by stock names. But the stress is on the individual and how he perceives himself as a collective entity.
Mr. Makila is aware of the educational role oral literature plays in our societies. In this respect his book is very useful for the new 8 - 4 - 4 curriculum which stresses vocational training, or learning for life. He shows the social context of story telling. He reminds me of my youth in my village, at Chesamisi when we slept in granny's house. We waited until it was dark, and when she had made her bed, we challenged her to tell us stories: Grandmother, tell us that one of Linani nende engeye. The story of Linani nende engeye (The Ogre and Its Tail) was popular among us children. It talked about the man who went to the land of Ogres, waited until the ogres were asleep and cut the tail of the chief ogre. This story fascinated us because it said that to get the man who had cut its tail, the ogre had to turn itself into a beautiful bride. It went around interviewing children and telling them that any child who told it about the story of a man who had cut an ogre's tail would be given a big award. The award was in the form the beautiful bride accepting the children's father. The ogre succeeded in turning itself into a bride and marrying the man who cut its tail. The story ends with the ogre taking the man to a tall tree and telling him that it was going to be revenged for the loss of its tail. This story taught us not to be telling the secrets of the family to strangers. You see, then my grandmother was a teacher. She told us stories and, in the process, gave us a lot of education. Mr. Makila in this book shows the relationship between parents and children. He shows that children have a lot to learn from their parents. Children should not take sides when their parents quarrel. They should remain neutral. If you are against your father because your mother hates your father, then you make it very difficult to learn from your father.
The first narrative in this book, The Boy Who Ate the Elephants' Rumps shows us what we can learn from oral narratives. Because of the cleverness and wisdom of his father, the son of the estranged woman is able to outwit the elephants. This is just one of the narratives in Mr. Makila's book, which shows that in the African community, elders are the source of wisdom. You learn all the things in the books. But you will remain only clever until you have learnt the wisdom of the elders. In this story the mother and her son thought that all was well as long as you have enough to eat. But when you have eaten someone else' thing, you realise that you have to pay for it, and this puts you in a dilemma. Mr. Makila's volume shows us that there are many types of narratives. There are myths, legends, and epics. In this book we are concerned with the folktale as one example of narrative. Among the folktales we have animal stories, stories about people, and stories about extraordinary creatures called ogres. In The Boy Who Ate the Elephant's Rumps, we see some human qualities among the animal characters. There is festivity, and there is dance among the animals. The elephants have to deposit their rumps with the boy because the rumps might interfere with their dancing. We encounter all sorts of animals who act as characters in the narratives.
Mr. Makila has given us an interesting balance between narratives which have animal characters and others which have human characters. Perhaps the most interesting character in Bukusu narratives is Mwambu. He is handsome and brave. Some people believe that he is the Moses of the Bukusu people because he helped them to move from the land of Ogres (Egypt), to cross the great river into the land of people. Children in Bukusuland are still named after this great hero. His wife is actually his own sister. She is called Sela (and sometimes Nasio). When the ogres had eaten all the people in the land, only the two, Sela and Mwambu, remained. There was always a battle between Mwambu and the ogres. In fact the stories in which Mwambu and his sister-wife are main characters could be described as heroic-stories with a romantic dash in them. The typical story in this book is simply called; Mwambu and Sella. It starts with a natural calamity in the land. Then follows the demand by Mbilimbili Nyanja, the dragon, or if you will, the ogre. Mbilimbili Nyanja says I can only release the rain if I am given the reputedly beautiful daughter of your kind to consume.
This of course is a very cruel challenge to the people of this land. Sella is the beautiful daughter of the king. The king reluctantly gives her away as a sacrifice for rain. But it is here that the romantic motif is introduced into the story by the narrator. Mwambu is introduced into the story as the handsome young man who will do anything to rescue his lover. Here the Bukusu story reminds us of a story with a similar motif in Grace Ogot's book of short stories, Land Without Thunder. Grace Ogot's short story is called, The Rain Game. Mwambu makes mortal attempts on the life of the dragon. But he has to resort to his magic sword to vanguish the monster This story of chivalry and varlour is not unique to the Bukusu of Mount Elgon. It is also there in the Maasai tales collected by Naomi Kipury and A.C. Hollis.
What I want to emphasise here is that it is not enough for the student of literature to content himself with reading oral narratives in books. You have to know that what you read on paper is tame. But what you hear from the mouth of the traditional story teller is live and can send you wild with imagination. There is some magical potency in the spoken word as presented by active narrators. Many travel long distances to go and listen to them. When you listen to the narrative from the mouth of the story teller, you imagine his face changing, his hands moving dexterously, and you hear his voice changing as he imitates different characters. A tale which has been written down is like an eagle without wings, it is like a horse without legs, it is like a warrior's sword whose sharp edges are rusty and blunt. The rhythm and the rhyme which you hear from the narrator's voice are murdered through writing. But Mr. Makila's book here is like a map for the beginner who is preparing to go to the field. You have to study these tales very carefully before you go to the field to collect your own, and to listen to narrators of your choice.
DR. CHRIS WANJALA
Department of Literature
University of Nairobi
P.O. Box 30197 Nairobi.