The best years of our lives
It took me more than a week to member a single word, can you believe it?
You can say that my brain cells aren’t as good as they once were, and I won’t quarrel with that. But I’d like to remind you that if you don’t use a certain part of your brain, it can go “rusty” on you!
You see, the word I was looking for hadn’t entered my head since I was about five years old. So my brain had decided I didn’t need it! And out it went.
The reason I hadn’t been using that word is that it is in my native tongue, Twi. And since I acquired English and began to earn my living from the use of English, alas, my Twi vocabulary has been gradually but steadily reduced.
The word was used in my childhood to signal one of the most beautiful aspects of the simple village life we led when I was young – namely, story-telling.
“It” was the open sesame for story time. And, as I have intimated, storytelling was central to our existence as children. Normally, you got up every morning, washed your face, chewed a special, bitter-tasting stick called tweapea, to clean your teeth. Then you set off for the family farm.
There, you worked hard for a bit, and then stopped to have a meal – breakfast and lunch combined. This used to be exceptionally tasty, not only because when one is very tired and also pretty hungry, everything tastes absolutely delicious. It was mainly because whatever went into the meal was absolutely fresh.
We would have slim plantain (apem), either boiled by itself, or in combination with coco-yam, yam or sweet potatoes.
The ingredients for the stew with which these were eaten were also plucked straight from the plants in the farm and thrown into the cooking pot – I am talking about the most succulent, thick cocoyam leaves (nkontommire), “garden eggs” or eggplants as big as small apples, okrobigger than a man’s thumb!
These would all be fried with crabs, shrimps and mushrooms. We picked the shrimps straight from underneath stones in a stream.
If we were lucky, there would also be fresh grass-cutter or antelope meat, These were caught by traps laid by my father in the environs of the farm.. The only thing brought from home would be a box of matches to light a fire of dead wood and shrubs.
So when we sat down to eat, the food was almost literally made from heaven. I am being modest here: man’s hand had not touched anything we consumed, to put chemicals into our bodies. Ours was the original green food. And it was super,
We would laze about for a bit after lunch, and then resume work again. At around 3-4 pm, we began the slow walk back home, carrying on our heads, supported by folded rags called kahyire, what our you heads felt were enormous loads of foodstuffs, firewood or meat (if the traps had been particularly kind to us.
On the way back home, we would stop at a stream called Supong and drink the most heavenly water you can think of. (That stream has now been killed by gakamsey.)
As soon as we took the loads off our heads, preparation of the evening fufuo meal began. After we had whacked that – and whilst traces of the fragrance of what we had eaten still lingered on our fingers – the main event of the day would begin.
It happened as soon as it got slightly dark and the owls and other night birds began to call out to their mates to come for action in relation to reproduction. We had been warned 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 them, we thought it safer to relegate storytelling was almost left to night time.
I’ll reveal a social secret to you: the taboo was deliberately funny and shows hat our elders regarded the product of a sense of humour as the most effective way of getting children to accept the discipline without which life would; be impossible in a village of growing children.
The taboo claimed that if you engaged in story-telling in the day time, you would grow sharp ‘horns’ on your legs, which are called adwonkuben. That would make your playmates laugh at you!
Now, had we had more intelligence, we would 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,, probably because one sat still 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 prevent the alleged adwonkuben from growing on our legs!
But because we depended so much on our elders for everything, we simply swallowed everything they said. Argue against a taboo? Out of the window went one’s Christmas and the brand new, absolutelyfragrant-smelling cloth to which one eagerly looked forward.
Yes – the word of our elders was law, in those days. One advantage of this was that we prepared for the night-time story-telling sessions very keenly. We would all gather around our open-hearth fire, in a semi-circle. And when we were sure everyone in our extended family was present, we would start. (If someone was absent, fast runner among us would be sent to fetch him or her. Thus, we managed to keep tabs on everyone of our relatives.
When everyone was present, we would plunge ourselves into a two or three-hour story session, filled with sheer, utter sheer bliss.
And yet, on one particular day, I couldn’t summon into my memory, the opening word of this seance-like experience!
Now, I could easily remember what came at the end of each story. At that eventuality, the storyteller would challenge each of us to produce a better story by saying: “M’anansesɛm a metooɛ yi, sɛ ɛyɛ dɛ o, sɛ sɛ ɛnyɛdɛ o, ebi nkɔna ebi mmera.”
This takes a bit of translating. The storyteller says: “This my story which I have told to you, whether it is sweet [nice, delightful to your ear], or whether it’s not, let some of it [the wisdom or lessons that form its pith] go forth [to you, my immediate audience as well as wherever you happen to go] and do let some of it come back [to praise or criticise me, your storyteller].”
Now, you may think this a “tall” story, but just as I wrote the above explaining the ditty I had given in Twi, I remembered the opening word to a story-telling session that I had been hopelessly sarching my memory for!
It was: Abrabraa!
And the response was YONG! (uttered in chorus by everyone present.) I told you that when you use your brain, it responds to your commands, didn’t I?/
That sentence gives the essence of what storytelling is all about. You hear the story, digest it, and if you can, try to contribute a story of your own. I
n 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 story. It wasn’t easy to take up this invitation, of course. One might have a good story. But how to arrange it so that it became exciting and got to animate the crowd enough for them to laugh (best of all); be frightened (good dramatic acting did that); or be filled with pathos – or be affected by a combination of all these emotions?
It was not easy. Some storytellers sang 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 bag an animal in the bush without alerting it to his stalking); they would unleash heavy blows to indicate fighting; they would pretend to cry when the pathos in the story demanded it.
If one attempted to use any of these dramatic arts and failed, one would be laughed at so mercilessly that one might discover that one had become “sleepy” by force and take one’s leave.
But if one succeeded in rendering a great performance, the encomiums poured on one would be sweeter than honey. Someone might take up points in the story to re-enact them, adding personal constructions and re-weavings to the threads of the original story.
The best thing that could happen to a storyteller was if, in the middle of his story, someone was so inspired that he or she put up a hand and began to sing a song to enliven the performance. These “sideshow” songs were called “mmoguo”, which might be translated loosely as “sweet songs that are largely irrelevant” to the story immediately being told, but “what do you know? They might just ontribute enjoyment, you know?”
We performed these stories, and went to bed and relived some of them in dreams. They were so vital to our existence that we pestered our grandparents to tell us stories, so that we would have something new to contribute at our own sessions. We even visited homes of acquaintances not that closely related to us, just in case. Anything for a good yarn, you might say.
And here I was, unable to remember how to start a story? It felt just like watching University Challenge or Mastermind on television and realising that one’s brain, which one fondly thought was crammed with facts, was quite suddenly empty. Dead!
As an aside, I must tell you this story (mmoguo sweetens the main story, remember?). Well, I was watching Mastermind 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! “Gotcha!” I shouted at the screen. For the question was factually wrong! Guyana is not an African country. It is a South American country. Well – 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, 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, would reply, “Yese sa soa wo!” (“We gather it and put it on your head to carry!”) No, the one I want 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 tells us a story, for you cannot just say, “Abrabraa!” And when we respond with: “Yong!”, you just walk away. Without telling us a damn good story!
By Cameron Duodu