New African

March 2010 edition

Under The Neem Tree By CAMERON DUODU

The joy of storytelling


It’s taken me more than a week. But I still can’t find it.

 “It” is the opening formula for telling stories in villages like mine in Ghana.Any Akan reader who can remember it, please send it to New African at Coldbath Square, London.

I just can’t remember what it is. And the more I try to remember it, the more disconcerted I become, because if I should forget anything at all from my childhood, it shouldn’t be that! Worse – as is usual in most cases of memory lapse –the harder I try to remember the forgotten material, the farther away it retreats into those recesses of the mind over which we have absolutely no control! Woe is me [for now] but save your mockery, for I am quite sure that I shall crack it before the end of this piece. (What could be more annoying than that? The information, like Shakespeare’s “necessary end,” will come “when it will come!” But definitely not when I, the owner of the organ that contains my ‘cache’ of of memories, summon it. If it can only be retrieved at a time IT chooses, then do I own my brain or does my brain own me?

Imagine your computer did that to you! In fact,  computers used to do that a lot, didn’t they? Remember those  times when  you had to reboot and go to ‘DOS’ and type ‘Dir’ to look for files that you couldn’t load? Haha – computer programmes have evolved for the better, whilst the information in the biggest computer of all – supposedly our brain — cannot be retrieved at will! Two hours after we wanted the info, there it comes. What do we want it for, now? We chafe at the tricks that are played against us by our own faculty of memory.

But we shouldn’t ‘fret’, according to the poet, Matthew Arnold, who reminds us, in his poem, EMEDOCLES ON ETNA, that:

.No, we are strangers here

The world is from of old;

In vain our pent wills fret

And would the world subdue

Limits we did not set,

Condition all we do;

Born into life we are

And life must be our mould.

Anyway, I suggest to the reader to be extra vigilant, because I am more than likely to  remember the words I am striving to recall, long  before the end of this piece, and I promise that if I do, I shall wrap them around an “enigmatic” sentence or two, which should fox anyone not used to solving riddles in the texts of  writers up to mischief — like yours truly at this moment!

What annoys me about this particular lapse of memory is that if I should forget anything at all, it shouldn’t be this. For I used the term almost on a daily basis during my childhood’ Storytelling was central to our existence: we got up every morning, washed our faces, chewed a special, bitter-tasting stick called tweapea (to clean our teeth) and then set off for our farm – a walk of three miles or so. And three miles back!

On the farm, we worked hard for a bit, and then stopped to have a meal – breakfast and lunch combined. This used to be exceptionally tasty, because, of course, when one is very tired and also pretty hungry, everything tastes absolutely delicious. The real fact of the matter,  however. was that whatever went into the meal was totally fresh. We would boil apem (slim plantains) either by themselves, or in combination with cocoyam, yam or sweet potatoes. The ingredients for the stew that went with this were also plucked straight from the plants and jumbled into the cooking pot – I am talking about green,  succulent, thick-layered cocoyam leaves (nkontommire); eggplants as big as small apples, and okros bigger than a man’s thumb. They would be fried in palm oil with wriggling crabs and shrimps picked from underneath stones in the stream that lay across the path to the farm.

If we had been lucky, the stew would be even richer: for there would also be fresh akrantie (grass-cutter) or antelope meat, or meat from some other animals caught by traps laid by our father. The only thing brought from home would be a box of matches to light a fire of dead wood and shrubs. (One’s mother would have readily at hand,  salt and koobi (salted fish) hidden somewhere in the bush, with which to season the fresh stuff. So when we sat down to eat, the food was almost literally straight from heaven in both senses of the word: human hands had not touched anything we consumed (to contaminate it with chemicals). And we got the unearthly taste of original green organic food. And it made up for the long walks that we needed to endure before we could reach our f\arms.

Sometimes I wondered, as a child, why we didn’t stay on the farms! Some people I knew did stay on their farms, in huts that they thatched with palm leaves and grass. But such people were not much respected by those of us who lived in “towns” (though my own “town”, when I was growing up, couldn’t have had a population that was more than 2,000 stgrong, or so.

After lunch, we would laze about a bit, during which time I used to steal away and perch myself on top of a little hillock, collect rocks and hurl them down the little valley at the bottom of the hillock. The noise of the rocks hitting tree-trunks gave me enormous pleasure: GBENG!…. GBENG! was the sound they emitted, as they ricocheted hard against trees that were in their way. The sound echoed down the valley quite loudly and I sometimes wondered what people in nearby farms who heard it echo around them, would have made of it. It didn’t sound like the cackling of baboons (KRA…. KOOOM!) nor the incessant BOOM! … BOOM! of woodpecker birds. What would they have said if they had realised that some loony little boy was the latest ecstatic recruit to the celestial choir that the forest managed to press into service to transmit that  amazing cacophony of  sounds  that reigned in the bush  from morning till late evening?

At around 3-4 pm, we began the slow walk back home, carrying on our heads, supported by folded rags called kahyire, enormous loads of foodstuffs, firewood or meat (if the traps had been particularly generous to us). As soon as we reached home and took the loads off our heads, preparation of the evening meal began. After we had whacked that – and whilst traces of the fragrance of what we had eaten still remained on our fingers – the most enjoyable part of an enjoyable day began.

It happened as soon as it got dark. We had been drilled into believing that it was taboo to tell stories in the daytime – you could invoke special words to neutralise the taboo, but since no one ever remembered the words, storytelling was almost entirely reserved for night time. (The taboo itself  was a funny one and illustrated the sense of humour with which our elders sometimes governed us: they said that if you told stories in the day time, you would grow ‘sharp horns’ on your legs called adwonkuben. Had we possessed enough intelligence, we might have worked  out for ourselves that in order to grow anything like horns on one’s legs, one would have had to be extremely lazy, sitting in one place for a long time. For any activity that demanded the use of the legs – such as walking to the farm to do some work – would pry off any adwonkuben that grew on our legs! But because we lacked analytical skills, we swallowed the improbable threat and didn’t normally tell stories in the daytime. Which was precisely the end our elders desired to achieve, namely, to prevent us from idling about in the daytime! Rather than say to us directly, “Don’t hang about telling stories in the daytime, when you have work to do in the home or the farm”, they said, “It is a taboo  — which can bring serious punishment —  to tell stories in the daytime!” Clever fellers, those elders, huh?

 Because we would have been anticipating the story-telling session all day, we prepared for the night-time quite seriously. We would all gather around our open-hearth fire, [mukia] in a semi-circle. And when we were sure everyone was present, one of the older children would belt out the formulaic words that were to usher in a two or three-hour session of sheer bliss.

And I must needs forget those familiar opening words of all wpords! I can easily remember what came at the end of each story.  It went like this: as the story ended, the storyteller would say: “M’anansesem a metooe yi, se eye de o, se ennye de o, ebi nko na ebi mmra.” This takes a bit of translating. The storyteller says: “This my story which I have told to you, whether it is sweet [nice], or whether it’s not sweet, [only you my audience can say. As for me] let some of it [the wisdom or lessons that form the pith of the story] go forth [to you, my immediate audience as well as wherever you happen to go in the world] and pray, do let some of it also come back [to me your storyteller] some time”.

That sentence gives the essence of what storytelling, to us, was all about. You heard the story, digested it, and if you were capable of doing so,  tried to contribute a story of your own. In other words, “let some of it come back” was an invitation to emulate the one who had just finished telling a story and if possible, better him or her with one’s own marvellous story.

It wasn’t easy to take up this challenge, of course, but that didn’t mean people didn’t try to do so.. One might have a good story. But how to arrange it into segments so that the suspense increased in intensity with the telling,  as one went along; how to get the crowd animated enough to laugh (best of all); be frightened (good dramatic acting achieved that); or be filled with pathos. Or achieve supreme story-telling prowess by affecting one’s audience with  combination of all these emotions. It was not easy. And the judges were harsh (although they could only indicate their judgement  by their reaction, not through plainly-stated words, which would be considered uncouth.)

Some storytellers enhanced their performance by singing nice songs in the middle of their stories (woe unto you if your voice wasn’t up to scratch and you attempted to do this!). Others acted out what they were saying; they would crouch (say, if they were speaking about a hunter who was trying to stalk an animal he wanted to bag in the bush, without alerting it to his presence). The best storytellers would unleash heavy blows to indicate fighting; they would pretend to cry when the pathos in the story demanded it. And they would use changes of  voice to impersonate animals, ghosts and demons.

Now, if one attempted to use any of these finely-honed dramatic tools and failed, one would be laughed at, or irreverent whispering might ensue. In such circumstances, a storyteller  might discover that he had become “sleepy” by force and take French leave of the gathering. But if one succeeded in rendering a great performance, the encomiums poured on one could be sweeter than honey. Peer approval, we discovered, was a highly-motivating factor in life.

The best thing was for someone to appreciate one’s story so much that he or she would take up points in the story to re-enact them, building  a personal construct into it, or re-weaving the threads of the original to form a new, ingenious thread. Another sign of appreciation was to inspire someone to indicate that he or she wanted to interrupt the story with a song. Such “sideshows” of songs were called “mmoguo”, which might be translated loosely as “sweet songs that are largely thrown in ‘for nothing’: they might not be strictly relevant to the story immediately at hand, but hey, what do you know? They might just contribute some more enjoyment; or  comic relief par excellence. In any case, could always find something to laugh at when dancing accompanied mmoguo, inasmuch as dancing invariably exposes physical clumsiness or awkwardness on someone’s else’s part, no matter how proficient the dancer thought he or she was.

So we performed these stories with glee, and went to bed to relive some of them in vivid dreams. The stories were so vital to our existence that we pestered our grandparents to tell us new stories, so that we would have something new to contribute at our own sessions with our peers. We even visited homes of acquaintances not that closely related to us, just in case the elders there could somehow enrich our repertoire of stories. Anything for a good yarn, you might say.

Yet here I was, unable to remember how to start a story-telling session! It felt just like watching University Challenge or Mastermind on television and realising that one’s brain, which one fondly thought was crammed with knowledge and  facts, had quite suddenly been emptied of both. Brain-dead! (As an aside, I must and of  tell you this story (mmoguo sweetens the main story, remember?). Well, I was watching Mastermind on BBC  TV at 8pm on Friday 5 February 2010, when John Humphrys, that fierce British question-master, asked a contender: “Janet Jagan, who died in 2009, served as president of which African country between 1997 and 1999?” The contender answered: “Ghana”, and Humphrys quickly corrected her: “Guyana”.

I jumped up and down on excitement!

Gotcha!” I shouted at the screen and Humphrys. For Mastermind had asked a question that was based on wrong facts! Guyana is not an African country. It is a South American country. Except in international cricket, when it becomes a member of the “West Indies”.

It is such minor triumphs of memory that make one’s own occasional lapses bearable. However, recalling that triumph, monumentally satisfying though it was, did not help me in my quest to recall how one started a storytelling session in Akanland.

In case you are an Akan reader, I don’t mean “Yennse se yennse sa o!” That, indeed, is the way some Akans begin their storytelling. It means: “Did they not say this?…. Did they not say that?” And the audience, playing on words nd resorting to  a beautiful Spoonerism, replies “Yese sa soa wo!” (“We gather it and put it on your head to carry!”)

No, the one I mean is quite different.

I am sure I shall remember it. But if I don’t and any of my readers remembers it, please kindly send me a note, at: Neem Tree Memory Test, New African, 7 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 4LQ, England. I shall crown whoever remembers it as the “Aesop of Africa”.

And I shall demand that he or she tells us a story, for you cannot just say, “Abrabraa!” And then when we respond with: “Yong!”, you simply  walk away. Without telling us the Mother of all good yarns!