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How Tom and Jerry robs African children indigenous education, socialisation from folk narratives

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Dr. Bukar Usman (left), with the two visiting Chinese doctoral students, Ms Wang Yubo, and Mr. Chen Jialei… in Abuja

MR. Chen Jialei and Ms Wang Yubo are both Chinese PhD students from Zhenjiang Normal University (ZJNU), Jinhua, China, who came to Nigeria to undertake research. The topic of research for Mr. Jialei is “Philosophical Thought and the Contemporary Development of Nigeria” while that of Ms Yubo is “The Inheritance and Development of Nigerian Folklore.” They were based at the Gusau Institute (GI), Kaduna, where they carried out the research mainly at the Aliyu Muhammed Research Library (AMRL) of the institute. Dr. Bukar Usman was one of their research subjects. Below is an excerpt of Usman’s response:

We came from the Institute of African Studies of Zhenjiang Normal University. Our paper is focused on traditional culture such as folklore, festivals, intangible cultural heritage and some traditional education. Mrs. Marlene Maritz of the Gusau Institute told us that you have deep study of folklore and history in Nigeria. So, we have some questions to put to you and to learn from you. From the network, we see that you are a famous folklorist in Nigeria. We have read your book on folklore and history, Folklore and History (Usman, 2013). There are some folktale books you wrote in Hausa, but we don’t understand Hausa. Where can we get your books to buy?
Well, you see, it is true I started writing or taking interest in folklore or folktales around 2006. I am presently the president of Nigerian Folklore Society (NFS). I got elected to this post about four years ago. I am still its current president. It is because of my interest and books I wrote that the society elected me to be the president. Normally, it is for two years, but since that time, I am still the president of the folklore society.

The Nigerian Folklore Society was established since 1980. But for some time it went down. I was appointed chairman of a committee for the revival of the society. So, after my appointment, we worked for about one year. We revived and are still reviving the society. After one year, they elected me president. So, that is the way it is now.

In terms of tales, it is mainly of Nigeria. But I had been to Ceylon or Sri Lanka and to America and bought a lot of literature, even to Jamaica where I saw a lot of tales by people from Africa. You will see in their literature a character Anansi (spider in English and Gizo in Hausa), which is a popular Akan folktale character in Ghana, but you will see the same character in Jamaica and Caribbean folk stories. It is slaves who took the tales there. Also in North Carolina and South Carolina, U.S., we have tales even written in Pidgin English by people who were mainly slaves from Africa and took some of the tales there.

But in our case, when I started writing tales I realised that the culture or tradition of storytelling which I experienced when I was a child is no longer the case because of modernity and modernization. You find nowadays most of our children are watching foreign films and cultures. They are forgetting our own. They know more of the outside. They don’t know our own. Our old people who used to tell these tales are dying. But when I started to collect tales, first I wrote about 14 books in Hausa. Then, I put all the 14 together making 15 in Hausa. Then I wrote some in English. They are also available. But now I have collected over 3,000 tales from all over Nigeria, and they would be published maybe by the end of this year or next year. Any of the books which are available now I will give you so that they may help you in your research.

How did you collect the folktales and how did you choose which one to write?
Ok, I sent people to the countryside. I gave them guidelines. Some were professors in the university. They sent their students to collect some of these tales. Some were my staff. I commissioned them to go and organise the tales’ collection. They got people to do so. Some submitted about 50 while some submitted 100 tales; they wrote them down whether in Hausa or in another language like Fulfulde which is Fulani or Tera, then they translated them into English. So, any of the stories which we felt should be produced we made them into a book. But the 3,000 which we collected will be published in two volumes because of the quantity, almost over 1,000 pages per volume. They will be published early next year.

Old people have very good brains. They will remember. If you go and sit with your grandmother you will be surprised. I heard there was a time that, it is not always that strong people will win, even a tortoise will out run you. The stories are varied to teach children not to be foolish, not to steal, not to disobey people, but to be kind, to be brave. All these stories are there before formal schools started. It is our mothers who are the first school. Our grandmothers would be telling stories and people would learn.

These folk stories, do the different parts of Hausa land have different folk stories or the stories are the same?
It is not necessarily the same, but you can find some, which are the same in different languages, but the meanings are the same. They may be talking about tortoise, about hyena, about something else but the messages they deliver are almost the same. Among the Hausa, you will find that if they talk about hyena they know that it is strong but foolish; if they talk about tortoise they know that it is small but tricky. You have fox, as cunning as a fox. You always know that one. Elephant is very strong, but a small ant can enter the nose of an elephant and it will behave anyhow. Smallness in size doesn’t mean you are not wise; wisdom can defeat strength. There are occasions when you need to be strong, but there are occasions also that strength alone cannot get what you want. All these are contained in the tales. Tales from my area in Borno, Biu…

Yes, Biu I know the place
In Biu you can have a story that may be the same like in Hausa or in Fulani or in Igbo or in Yoruba. All these tales, when we publish them we will compare them and see really how come this one is talking about the same thing. Maybe about the middle of next year, you will see 3,000 tales from Nigeria; some from South-south, some from Southwest, some from Southeast, some from Northeast, some from North central zone and some from Northwest so that you can compare and see where they are similar.

How do you see the role of folk stories in traditional education?
That is the one we know to be the first school of a child before Western education came. We had no light, but we had moonlight. When our parents came back from the farm in the evening, there was nothing else but storytelling. That was the time for lessons for children. Our grandmothers would sit outside and tell us this story and that story. The following day, it was repeated again and again, so everyone of us looked forward to the evening, because it was time for lessons. But these days, I will go to work by 7 o’clock and will not come back till 9pm. By that time, children have already slept. So, three of my children are outside. This one (Zara), she is busy watching Tom and Jerry and other cartoons. I have no time to tell her folk stories. That is why I am producing these books so that she can read. If I cannot tell her, she should be able to read. That is why we are producing these books so that people who cannot have the time to talk to their children, the children will read the tales in books.

Our challenge now is to see that some of these tales we collected are utilized to produce cartoons and animations instead of tales of foreign countries. We hope the animators and cartoonists will use them to produce for people and for our children who, when they say hyena, they know, not like reindeer or something else, which they never see. But if they talk of a rat or monkey or something they are familiar with. We want to see films being produced using these tales. But we don’t have the technology in Nigeria now. But they are trying to do it. People are acquiring the knowledge. About two days ago Japanese and French Embassies in Abuja mounted a joint exhibition of films, which were made from local stories.

How can folklore be put into modern education system nowadays?
That is what we are trying to do. If the books are available, they can be used. People are using some of the books which we produced in English and in Hausa. Future Leaders International School in Kaduna among others is using them. They like them. They even wrote to say that they needed more of the books for their education. If book is not available, you don’t know. But our problem is to get the orthography, like your own is Mandarin, so that everybody can read. Nigeria has more than 250 languages; so how to get tales written in those languages for people to read is our problem. The only thing we can do is maybe to write in English for everybody. Hausa is also widely read. But if you want to translate it in a smaller language, you must have the orthography and it is not available now, and even if it is available, you cannot get it onto a computer.

Compared with your tradition of folklore of Nigeria and the modern literature such as from the United States, which one do young people prefer more in novels?
One cannot say because for people like us, we read literature of foreign countries, for example, the works of Jane Austen and Samuel Coleridge. Local literature was not available. So, for you to compare whether the children like this or the other, you must make it available, and that is what we are trying to do. When you publish these stories, the books will be available. Now, I have published one in Ajami. Ajami is Hausa written in Arabic. If you read, it is like you are reading Hausa, but it is in Arabic. People like it. Ajami was there before the colonial people came to Nigeria. You write in Hausa, but you are writing in Arabic, and when you are reading it, you are reading Hausa. So that is what people are looking for now.

The tales we had, one NGO, Irene Sahel from Germany, published them in Ajami for teaching people in Niger Republic. They made copies of the books available to us; they said look these stories we got from you; this is what we turned them into. We also published more copies. When we distributed them to schools in Abuja, they welcomed them. We also have books seven Gwaidayara (Usman 2009) and eight Dan Agwai Da Kura (Usman 2009), which I wrote in Hausa, and are now on the syllabus of schools in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. I will show you the books, but they are in Hausa. They put them on the syllabus of Junior Secondary Schools (JSS).

We find some folk storybooks. Do you know of some Nigerian epics?
Epic is taking somebody to make a story around him. There may be many, but I don’t know any. But there is a history book I wrote A History of Biu (Usman 2015) in which we have somebody called Yamtara Wala. Some people said they want to write epic on him that I should pay for it. I said no. I have written my book, anybody who wants to write epic on that man let him go and write it. Yamtara Wala was somebody who existed very long time ago in Biu history. He was the first king of Biu around 1535. Today, they are 28 in succession. We regard him as our forefather. He was the first in the dynasty of our kings. So, some people want to write an epic on him. I said yes, I can give you permission to go and write, but I am not the one who is going to pay for it. You can see people like Odudua among the Yoruba, the forefather of Yoruba. Or another Bayajidda in Hausa. Bayajidda came to Daura and killed a snake in a well and became the first person identified with the original seven Hausa kingdoms in Nigeria. So, that one can be an epic, which you can follow; that is Bayajidda or Odudua in Yoruba or Yamtara Wala in Babur/Bura in Borno State.

We know Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups and each group has their own folk stories. How could the folk stories be turned into nation building?
If we exchange, like what we have done now, is to collect tales, not only from the Northwest, from Northeast, Southsouth, Southeast, North central but also from Southwest, these will be put together. So, people will read and know the stories of other people. If they see that this thing which we are teaching, other people too are doing the same, they can then understand one another better. We share the culture, the tradition and everything of the people. That oh, these people use these animals to represent wisdom. These people they use these animals to represent this. But you may find that at the end of it, all of them are trying to convey the same message to the children.

Nigeria has some laws to protect folklore?
I am not sure about the law. But organisations like ours, the Nigerian Folklore Society, are the ones trying to promote the tales. They collect them before they are forgotten. I am not aware of any particular law that said you must do this. I am busy now collecting tales not because I am paid; it is just because of my interest. And the Nigerian Folklore Society is also interested in promoting all forms of folklore, including singing, drama, pure stories and things of that nature; because folklore covers a lot of areas, almost our culture. Sometimes the Nigerian Folklore Society will say, ‘ok, we are organising conference on drama, we are organising conference on poetry, on traditional medicine, traditional dancing and traditional music or any other relevant topic. All these come up. The experts will come and narrate their experiences and shared knowledge.

We have read some books by Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe. His stories have some folklore background. How do you see the relationship between folklore literature and Latin literature in Nigeria?
We are using the Latin literature to write folklore. Among the stories I collected there are some I want to publish in Igbo, and there are some I want to publish in Yoruba. Otherwise, the general trend now is that if you write it in Igbo the readership is very limited; if you write it in Yoruba the readership is also very limited. So, people write it in English so that people can read on a wider scale. I published in Hausa because I want more people to read. I have my language (Babur/Bura), but we are less than half a million. If I write in my language, how many people will read it? So, I write in Hausa even if I collect them from my own area. I translate them into Hausa or English. These days because of computer and internet, it goes far. When you visited my website you saw it.

So somebody can be in India and get it. So it goes all over. The same with Nigeria. If you publish it people will get it. And today because of modernity, internet is not only confined to your own local people; it goes everywhere. For example, I sent something to Mr. Li Chunguang (Bako) of the School of Asian and African Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China, two days ago when our Minister of Information said animation would bring jobs to Nigeria and everything. In acknowledgement in Hausa, Mr. Li said ‘Gaskiya wannan labari na da kyau kwarai da gaske,’ meaning, ‘truly, this news is very good indeed.’ And he has already gotten it. He is in China. You can see he is there now; he read what our minister was talking about animation; it is very good; we should promote it; it will create jobs. So that is how tales of this nature, when you collect you go and tell your people at home. They will appreciate it that, ‘oh this thing which you have we also have.’
I was in China sometime ago. I tried to buy some books, too. I was in Shanghai, in Guangzhou; I was in Iwu or Wuyi.

No, it is Iwu near our school
What scared me and my colleagues was when we saw somebody eating fried scorpion. We, in Nigeria, don’t eat scorpion; we fear it, but it is a delicacy in China. I think we also went to a few other places, but I can’t remember their names. We spent about one to two weeks. Your countryside is very good. The roads are very good. I came to a tollgate. When we paid the toll and the gate was lifted for us to proceed on our journey, a programmed voice said, ‘bye-bye, safe journey.’ I said, “oh after collecting my money you are telling me ‘bye-bye, safe journey!’”

We want to know something about folklore research in Nigeria. Could you describe history of folklore research in Nigeria?
I can only talk of my own. Normally, I give some introductions. So in the introductions to my books you may get an idea of folklore research in Nigeria. But if I want to write about the history of folklore research in Nigeria, I have to start by myself also conducting research. Before me who and who and who were doing this and that. I am not sure I will resolve myself into doing that. My own effort now is to collect, and I tell you that I have collected over 3,000 tales. And we will be treating different aspects of it, and analysing parts of it. We will publish volume one and volume two comprising all the tales we collected in their raw status without retouching much; it is the way we collect them either in Hausa or in English. So, it will be available.


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