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Deepening education in Igboland through folktales

By Stella Makwe
05 February 2023   |   3:28 am
Folktales are integral part of the African oral society. They usually relate to the various cultural and traditional aspects of a society from which they evolve.

A sculpture of Eri, the son of Gad in Igboland… It is believed that the Igbo people descended from Eri, a divine figure who according to folklore, was sent from heaven to begin civilisation. Eri was the son of Gad and Gad was one of the sons of Jacob from his concubine, as mentioned in the Bible. Eri lived in Egypt as a high priest during the reign of Joseph. When he foresaw the intending slavery of his people, he fled Egypt through the River Nile, crossed River Benue, transversed across River Niger, then settled near the confluence.

Folktales are integral part of the African oral society. They usually relate to the various cultural and traditional aspects of a society from which they evolve.

Folktales perform salient functions of serving as sources of entertainment, enlightenment on cultural orientation and traditions of the people, educating the young of the various aspects of society.

Since folktales portray the values and traditions of a society, where the young and adults alike learn through the events conveyed, the function of this traditional oral genre of folktales can therefore not be over emphasised.

The practice of folktale telling was common in traditional societies in the past, where parents and other members of families told stories to young ones, usually after the evening meal. It is a lively process, which, as put by Samson-Akpan, can be “likened to an integrated classroom. Children, teenagers and adults attend and participate in it.”

Around the world in Igbo culture story telling is usually a social gathering. Generally speaking, the larger the audience the better the narration; and the more involved the audience is, the better the rapport established, and the more graceful the narrator.
In addition stories are told only at night mainly because the Igbo people work throughout the day. Igbo folklore is told because it has been part of culture for a long time. Telling stories has long been a tradition in Igbo land and the people there take pride in continuing this tradition.

Igbo folktales by their nature as well as their definitions are regarded as fictitious, fabulous, mythical, totally removed from real life situation and events. In their appreciation in actual life performance, one discovers that folktales exhibit some elements of truth that somehow translate them into realism and true life situation. This accounts for the reason why real people on their appreciation react to them as if they are real life stories. Folktales are introduced to a traditional Igbo child from infancy. This means that the traditional Igbo child starts appreciating folktales from infancy to adulthood.

A careful observation of the folktale performing sessions shows that neither the performer nor his audience is ready to move out of the scene. None shows sign of getting tired of either telling the story or listening to the story. The folktale narrator is able to hold his audience for hours or even days without the audience getting tired. In performance, the audience participation is assured. The audience sings the chorus, claps hands and even corrects the performer whenever he deviates from the normal routine of the story. That is why one can rightly assert that folktales are communally owned.

No one can exactly say when Igbo folktale originated but one thing is certain, the folktale is as old as the society it belongs to. Folktale stems from man’s desire to communicate his experiences to others, to let others share his views about life, to direct members of the society, to satirise deviant characters in the society and to instill the spirit of love for the community amongst members of the society.

It is interesting to note that the folktale narrator lives in the community with others. He takes materials for his tales from his experiences in the community so the events of Igbo folktales are not strange to his audience. Igbo folktales contain the people culture, world-view, norms, spiritual life, their hopes and aspirations. In short Igbo folktale contains Igbo man’s total way of life. It is the recreation of the folk’s activities in the society.

Igbo Folktales In Traditional Education
Education is a life activity, which entails passing through learning processes and acquiring knowledge and other skills for positive development. Fafunwa observes that: The aim of traditional African education is multilateral and the end objective is to produce an individual who is honest, respectful, skilled, and co-operative and conforms to the social order of the day. Therefore, educational aims and objectives either in the traditional or modern fame, prepare a child to rise, develop and operate according to societal dictates and expectations.

In his work, Samson-Akpan analyses the impact of folktales in Education. The paper observes that folktales and folktale telling sessions imbibe dramatic and educative elements. These educative elements as presented in the paper include the structure and form of folktales, which arouse interest in the children and encourage group participation and mental alertness. The children learn of existing issues in the human and animal world as reflected through folktales.

While writing on the merits of traditional education, Odetola and Ademola say that folklores are the major educational tool used in traditional education. This includes music, proverbs, and oral history. This explains why folklores are said to be the oldest educational and therapeutic tool on earth. They are very effective in imparting knowledge because they engage our imaginations, our hearts and minds at the same time.

Igbo folktales contain educational orientations and events, which are useful for a child’s educational developmental process. Therefore, such issues which direct the mind for good and acceptable societal lifestyles and behavior are contained and demonstrated in the folktales of the Igbo people. Exposing children to these tales should educate them in what the society expects of its members.

Igbo folktales are used by narrators to instruct the young and teach them to respect the dictates of their custom. As a result, a large body of moral instruction, of societal values and norms are preserved for posterity.

According to Nwachukwu, folktales are stories that teach moral lessons, often, with animals as characters. These stories are used to illustrate real life events and day-to-day experiences within Igbo communities.

The character and behaviour of animals in these stories help children to understand basic moral principles such as respect for elders, responsibility for self and others, and other important relationships within the community. During storytelling process, the child is often encouraged to generate his/her own answers to various moral questions posed in the stories. The elders (grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, teachers, and older siblings) generally tell these folktales to children.
Characteristics Of Folktale

Folktales, as fiction, make use of characters in telling the tales. Emenanjo asserts that, “one can say that all the characters in folktales, be they animals, spirits or human beings are stock character. For very often each character represents a motive in the frame work of the tale.”

He cautions that the characters in the folktales should not be judged in terms of realism as people understand them to be in creative work because these characters rarely grow to become ‘rounded’.

Forster adds that the characters are “constructed round a single idea or quality” The characters in folktales are created to illustrate a point and the view of the author. For example, ‘mbe’, the tortoise, represents a very puzzling character. He is both a representative of what is very highly valued and what is selfish, greedy and wicked.

Igbo folktales have two temporal settings; the setting can be either in natural or supernatural world. The events could take place in human world or in the land of the spirits or in the heavens or even in the rivers. Folktale has stereotype formal opening and closing. The opening can be ‘o ruru otu mgbe’ (once upon a time) ‘otu ubochi’ (one day). In the end, the lesson derived from the tale is either announced to the children or they are left to say the lesson by themselves.

Folktales generally have themes and motifs. Onyekaonwu states: “It is because folktales are invariably didactic in purpose; it teaches one moral lesson or the other which is reflected in the tale. The tales contain the people’s code of conduct, world view, customs and way of life”. The stories operate through such themes as ‘evil acts do not pay’, ‘orphans should not be maltreated’, etc. and motif as ‘the wicked step mother motif’, ‘the wicked co-wife motif’, the benevolent spirit motif, etc. Through these numerous themes and motifs, folktales mirror the activities of the societies or the activities of members in the society.

It is a common feature in Igbo folktale to punctuate the story with songs; these songs help to enliven the narrative. Obiechina affirms, “song not only heightens the narrative but also vivifies it. It also ensures audience participation. Song is used to illustrate and emphasize a point in the story telling. Song also helps to ensure the alertness and attention of the audience, as well as providing them with some respite or digression as the story progresses”.

Finally, Igbo folktale is not told without idioms, proverbs and riddles, these help to keep the audience in suspense and at the same time thinking of the meaning or outcome of the tale. For instance, ‘Mbe’, the tortoise, in some tales represents breach of reciprocity of norm which is aka nri kwoo aka ekpe, aka ekpe akwoo aka nri (one good turn deserve the other). Igbo people highly believe in this principle. Acknowledging the importance of folktales in Igbo culture, Basden in Nwadike (2009), notes that “Proverbs, fables and stories enter very largely into the ordinary conversations of the Igbo people, and some acquaintance with them (proverbs) is absolutely necessary in order to take an intelligent interest in any subject of discussion”.

IGBO folktales mirror the activities of Igbo society. It therefore follows that the activities of the society are recreated in the peoples’ folktales. The problems handled in the folktales are the problems of real life society. The joy of the folktale is the joy of the real life society. Igbo folktales and songs are therefore an embodiment of Igbo man’s culture, worldview, and his religious belief, his political and social activities and in short, his total way of life. One can rightly assert that Igbo folktales and songs are therefore an integral part of Igbo man especially those born and nurtured in Igbo traditional way of life.

In addition to the above, these folktales were often introduced to the children at a very tender age and held in a relaxed atmosphere. These folktales have therefore; become part and parcel of their lives even in their adult lives. The events of the folktales educate them, direct their actions, entertain them and also inculcate the spirit of nationalism and patriotism in the children.

Makwe is Chief Curator, Department of Museums, National Museum of Unity, Enugu

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