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Usman’s revolutionary compendium of Nigerian folktales hits bookstand

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The folktale, though a useful tool of character formation, moral transformation, cultural authenticity, communal harmony, and educational entertainment, is endangered today. In spite of the beneficial nature of Nigeria’s oral narratives and creative spin-offs noted above, little is being done by governments, communities, schools and parents to preserve and promote our rich oral heritage of folk narratives… Inter-generational transmission of these tales via nightly storytelling sessions is a rarity these days.”

Those were some of the factors that motivated writer, historian, folklore expert, and president, Nigerian Society of Folklore (NFS), Dr. Bukar Usman, to vigorously apply himself to the onerous task of researching and documenting Nigeria’s oral narratives.

Indeed, his effort is genre defining in its vast reach and accomplishments. In what he aptly terms Treasury of Nigerian Tales (TNT), Usman has set for himelf, the task of transcending limited scope of orality that African folktales have been consigned to, especially when transmitted to the printed medium for wider accessibility and reach.

His effort is not exactly a pioneering one, as European missionaries and other ethnologists started such documentations during the colonial era. But Usman’s editorial work is a lot more comprehensive in outlook, as he takes into account, the entirety of Nigeria as his focus, whereas the Europeans concentrated on smaller communities. Also, Usman purposely sets out to make this important documentation and maps out strategic plans that encompassed deploying fellow researchers, experts, and folklore enthusiasts to accomplish his aim.

In furtherance of this, he has edited four tomes of TNT, one of which is A Selection of Nigerian Tales: Themes and Settings (Klamidas Communications Ltd, Abuja; 2018), the second in the series. This second series has a whooping 700 folktales from diverse communities in the country. It is divided in two parts. Part A is entitled ‘Nigeria’s Heritage of Folk Narrative’ and Part B is ‘A Selection of Nigerian Folktales’ that has additional 18 sections that detail the various sub-sections the tales collected are categorised.

His aim in this series is to avert the imminent threat to Nigeria’s rich but neglected folk narratives as a result of modern lifestyles, increasing urbanity, and mother tongues that are fast disappearing for European ones. The traditional moonlight tale sessions whereby folk narratives thrived in times past are now things of the past. Whereas America and much of Europe have seized on television and cinema to recreate through animation their folk narratives, Africa is yet to master the animation craft to the extent of deploying it to enrich Africa’s folk culture. The result is that African children are fed on a diet of foreign folk narratives in the form of cartoons that boast of characters that are similar to those in African folk narratives. Bridging this yawning gap is one of Usman’s burning desires. Documenting these tales in book form is one such necessary step he has taken to preserve the dying but significant art of folk narratives.

In pursuance of the preservative motive for his work, Usman asserts, “for many generations of Nigerians, the moonlight folktales they had relished as children became the bedrock of their social, psychological and ethical development… Across Nigeria and in different families, folktale narration was a regular nightly experience. Unfortunately, the practice is dying out in the villages and almost non-existent in the cities. Even if we must lose the tale-telling sessions to the exigencies of urban life, it is the goal of this anthology to capture in print, for the future and present generations, a translation of various folktales collected from different parts of Nigeria. This editor and his team of resource persons embarked upon the project because of their passionate awareness of the importance of folk narratives in personal and societal development.”

Usman also sets out the ‘Defining Traits and Significance’ of folk tales, and the need to take them seriously for the true appreciation of their ageless values for the health of society. These traits include, their ‘promotion of a sense of community’ in creating a bond among members of a family and the community in which the tales emanate, ‘Imparting Positive Common Values’ through the tales’ commendation of honourable values and condemnation of harmful ones, ‘Teaching Ethical and Practical Lessons’ that ultimately uphold societal good and ‘Entertaining the Audience’ through their dramatic and comic re-enactments.

One significant discovery of Usman and his team is the unifying factor thread that runs through some of the tales taken from otherwise diverse and far-flung parts of Nigeria. While the country has diverse cultures that are often promoted to divide its largely uninformed population, Usman discovers that some of the tales contain unifying elements that are rarely exploited for the good of the people.

According to him, “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.”

Each of the 18 sub-sections that contains the 700 folktales, starting from ‘Boomerang Tales’ to ‘Miscellaneous Tales,’ has an opening ‘Snapshot’ that gives helpful indication of the nature of stories in the section the reader is about to encounter.

No doubt, Usman’s A Selection of Nigerian Tales: Themes and Settings and the other three collections should be in every home, school, and office for easy and quick reach and reference. It is, therefore, a must-read. Children particularly should be made to have these anthologies as their companions, for, as Usman argues, “A lot of parents and guardians, overwhelmed by the challenges and pressures of today’s urbanised world, have little or no time to be with their children, let alone tell them stories. Young people, too, have their own distractions and alternative forms of entertainment!”


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