A New Series of African Folktales
A little less than a year ago, I called up a childhood friend, sang her a song and asked her to tell me the folktale that went with the song. She could not remember.
“How could you not remember?” was my indignant response. “You told that story so often, my memory of this song is in your voice!”
After a few minutes of talking, it became quite apparent that she really, truly, could not remember. I was surprised and quite saddened as well.
Let me back up a bit. This whole deal started one day when I did not feel like reading to my children at bedtime. Instead, I told them a story—an anansesem or ananse tale, as we call all folktales in my region of West Africa. From then on, they would beg for a story every night. I often obliged.
Soon, I was repeating stories but I knew there were many more that I had forgotten. For some stories, I would remember how they started or ended but not the details. For many, I remembered the songs but not the stories themselves.
To refresh my memories and get new stories to tell, I began to ask friends. The results were … let’s just say, I did not get much in the way of fresh material.
One of the songs I remembered went like this,
Ton ta ta ali ton ta,
Ali ton ta ta ali ton ta”
This was the song I sung at the beginning of the conversation I had with my friend. As children, she always told the same 2 or 3 tales when it was her turn to tell a story. The one with the Ton ta song was one of them, so I had been quite sure that she would remember the story. As already noted, she did not.
“What stories do you tell your kids then?” I asked her at some point during our conversation.
“I don’t tell them any stories. I just read some stuff to them.”
“The usual stuff, you know, Goodnight Moon, Dr Suess, Harry Potter…“
“If you don’t tell them any of the stories we grew up with, how do you pass on the culture and all that?” I asked, still quite indignant, although a few months earlier I had been doing no different.
“You know I was never good at telling stories when when we were kids. You were the big storyteller, the one who knew the most stories. You only had to hear a story once and then you remembered it always to tell again.”
I acknowledged that, that was true. She continued,
“Maybe you could start writing down what you remember so that those of us who were not into the storytelling like you were, could read them to our kids. The children would also have them available to read when they’re a little older.”
“Maybe, I’ll do that.” I replied, with little enthusiasm.
With that, we moved on to other topics. I put the suggestion on my to-do someday list and moved on. It nagged at me though. I could not shake the sense that something was being lost.
You see, I grew up in the city of Accra, Ghana, just like many of my closest friends. What was different though was that, I spent a significant amount of time during school vacations in the village, visiting my grandparents. After hours of work and play, gathering in the evenings to tell stories was a routine part of life in the village. As a result, I always had a lot of new stories to tell when I went back to the city.
In the city, we had storytelling gatherings as well, but not as often. I remember watching a weekly TV show called “By the Fireside” with other children in my neighbourhood. It featured storytellers and actors performing various folktales. This was usually on Saturday evenings.
Then, on Sunday evenings, a few hours before the Akan Drama came on, we would get together in the home of a neighbour who had a large color TV. We would eat kelewele (spicy cubes of fried ripe plantain) and take turns telling stories. Story time ended when the the TV show started.
The gatherings got smaller and eventually stopped sometime in my teens. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less. I was into romance novels, science fiction and pop music by then. Now, I can’t help but feel some sense of loss. I also wonder if perhaps, mine was the last generation to experience the tradition of regular communal storytelling.
I’m so grateful for the adults and the childhood friends whose storytelling entertained, challenged, taught and inspired me in various ways all these years.
I have now committed to telling the stories that I grew up with, in books and other modern formats, so we would always have them. Hence, the birth of the Fireside Classics - a series of African folktales that will be available first in ebook, audiobook, and then paperback formats.
I have tremendously enjoyed writing the first set of books and I am excited about what is to come. I hope you too would enjoy these old stories and spread the word about the series.