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Bukar Usman's Literary Voyage in Biu Folktales

By Ben Tomoloju

Commenting on African Literature, the renowned critic, Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones states as follows:

"In looking at the African authors work we may be able to recognize its Africanness; we must be able to see its universality. Fortunately, the two things often go together. A work, which succeeds in realizing its environment to the full, often achieves this universality. The happy paradox is that to be truly universal, one must be truly local."

    This statement provides a holistic critical yardstick with which the four books authored by Bukar Usman, that is, The Bride Without Scars and Other Stories, The Stick of Fortune, Girls in Search of Husbands and Other Stories and The Hyena and the Squirrel, could be evaluated. In form and content, they generally reflect those innate qualities of African fiction, which resonate vibrantly in the lore and mores of their environment while maintaining a global appeal. They are works of robust and unfettered imagination drawing from the boundless repertoire of the traditional storyteller. Some antecedents of Bukar Usman's writings could be found in Ulli Beier's Origin East Africa and such works of Amos Tutuola as The Palm wine Drunkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

    Specifically, Bukar Usman's works are of the short-story tradition derived from the folk-tales of Biu area in the North-east geo-political zone of Nigeria. These stories are said to be derived from oral antecedent to avoid any wrong impression that they are mere translations. Reading each story, one recognizes the dynamics of authorial creative imagination deployed purposefully to celebrate his Africanness. Furthermore, while using the English language as his "creative medium"-to borrow from Oladele Taiwo - he does so conscious that he is presenting a Nigerian experience of the Biu tradition. The stories are constructed upon the communal ethos of the Biu people, their moral perception and social realities on the basis of use-value. They are not stories told to merely entertain, but to direct the community to morally beneficial standards.  

    In reviewing these works, one does not intend to re-tell the stories, but to capture their plot essence and highlight the thematic thrust of each of them. We shall, there after examine the literary qualities, especially as they have to do with characterization, thought, language, their didactic nature and entertainment values.

    The first book, Bride Without Scars and Other Stories is divided into two sections, the one telling stories involving human beings and the other about animals. The title-story, Bride Without Scars is about a self-conceited bride who desired only a man who had not a single scar on his body. With this vain standard, she rejected all suitors and ended up in marital union with changeling serpents disguised as immaculately handsome men. At the end, she gives birth to a monster child, was deformed in the process and rescued by communal intervention. It is a story of the triumph of modesty over vanity.

    Next is "The King and His Marabout", a tale about an attempt at a swap of fortune gone sour between the king's barren wife and the pregnant wife of the Marabout. It ends on a redemptive note with the barren queen blessed in miraculous circumstances with her own son and heir to her husband's throne. This is followed by "The Old Woman and the Girl." A young girl had a couple of encounters with an old woman, during which she distinguished herself among her selfish colleagues as selfless and kind-hearted. The reward was that the benevolent girl became a queen, while her selfish mates remained consigned to the lower rungs of the social ladder.

    The fourth story in this book is titled, "Engaged to Be Married Before Her Birth." It is about the rite of betrothal. A girl was pledged in marriage before her birth to the son of a man who did her mother a good turn. At birth she looked like a donkey. Yet the groom stood by the covenant and married the donkey-like girl. The rest is a fascinating transformation of the donkey-girl, through the instrumentality, of an old woman, to a charming beauty in marital bloom. Ending the first section of Bride Without Scars is a story titled "Destined to be Queen." A young girl was maltreated by her stepmother, to the advantage of the latter's children. But, as fate would have it, the poor orphan-girl was responsible for saving a prince from an affliction caused by her jealous stepsister. This further endeared the prince to her and she became the queen when he eventually succeeded his father on the throne.

    "The Cat and the Unfaithful Rat" opens the second section comprising stories from the animals' world. It is about a rat, which betrayed the trust of his friend, the cat and ended up being devoured by the cat. In the next story, "A Tale of Long and Short Beaks", two birds, Cilakowa and Kodokodo were friends. Cilakowa had long beak that made her ugly. She desired a short beak to look attractive. Hence she exchanged her long beak with Kodokodo's short beak. Cilakowa escaped to another town, found a husband, but was later fished out by Kodokodo who recovered her short beak. In this moral take against false value, Cilakowa returned to her state of ugliness and was driven away by her husband.

    From this, the reader moves to a story titled "Stealing Monkeys", involving a smart squirrel and the hyena. The squirrel had a way of stealing monkeys from a river to make peppery soup. The hyena enjoyed the delicacy provided by his friend and pleaded successfully to be initiated into the monkey-stealing business. But greed and foolhardiness soon turned the hyena into a spoiler and he suffered bitterly for it.

    "The Spider and the Chief" is next, a story of a thieving spider, which reminds us of the Ghanaian folktale character, Ananse, the principal dramatis personae in Efua Sutherland's The Marriage of Anansewa. The Biu folktale is however unique in its own right, showing how the lazy spider ate up all his cowpeas and ended up stealing from the chief's farm. When the chief discovered that his farm was being depleted, he set a trap. The spider was caught. The spider tricked the monkey save him from the trap. The latter obliged but got caught by the trap in place of the spider. At the end, it was the monkey who lost his life while the tricky spider escaped learning never to steal again.

   The last story in The Bride Without Scars is titled "the Hyena and the Hare." It is about the hyena and the hare which agreed to dig a hole and keep their babies. While the hyena had the duty of providing food, the hare was assigned to feed the babies. But the hare concentrated on feeding only her babies, leaving the hyena's cubs under-nourished and emaciated. Later, the hyena discovered its friend's dishonesty and attempted to kill the hare. But the hare being very tricky, escaped with her babies, leaving the hyena forlorn in his foolish anger.

    The second Book, Stick of Fortune, contains eight stories, all about human beings. The title-story is about a boy who inherited only a stick from his dead parents. However, by pragmatic bargaining the stick became the source of his fortune. This is followed by the "The Forbidden Fruit", a story of a king whose magical fruits were stolen, against all expectations, by his youngest daughter and favourite child. The young princess was snatched by the sacred river in an oath-swearing session. But redemption came her way and later translated to an incestuous union with her own brother. This, like some others in Bukar Usman's books, is a story with an intricate plot, progressing delicately in twists of sadness and joy.

    It is followed by "Talking Rivers", wherein a poor orphan-girl, Sindiwa survived a plot by her stepmother to get her to perish in the fearsome Bagaja River. Instead of perishing, Sindiwa was blessed by the river.

    Stung by envy, the stepmother sent her own daughter, Sawa, to the Bagaja River. In Sawa's case, it is tribulations all the way. She reaped evil for plotting evil against her stepsister. The next story, "War of the Witchdoctors;" shows the moral victory of an adept witchdoctor over the villainous scheming of his charlatan colleagues. This could be interpreted as an extended metaphor on the political machinations of self- seeking members of even our society today.

    "A Shadow in the Cloud", the fifth story in A Stick of Fortune, is about two siblings Moda, a female and Hyelni, a male. Upon the death of their parents, it is the inner strength of the sister and brother respectively that were espoused for their ultimate fulfillment in life. Moda, the moderate and solicitous became a check on Hyelni's daring spirit, even as it was the latter that liberated both from poverty to prosperity.

    Next on the line is "The Inheritors", a story about the virtues of talent-development, hard work and contentment. This particular story appears quite contemporary. It is about three children and their respective mothers who inherited scanty properties from their late father's estate. In a story filled with spite, jealousy and retribution, it is Mamza the hardest working and contented of the three children that became the role model and savior of the family.      

    "The Tree of Fortune", the seventh story is about a wretched boy abandoned by his mother at the battlefront who escaped being killed by blood-spilling soldiers of Kucaku. In an ironic twist and with the support of the mysterious Bwaila tree, the abandoned boy became the king of Kucaku and ruled over the soldiers and people who once caused him to be separated from his mother and sister.

    "The Bride's Order" is the last story in Bukar Usman's Stick of Fortune. It is about a wayward, ungrateful son, Thama, who paid all his inheritance of twenty cows as dowry-to marry the Queen of Beauty. The beautiful bride became his nemesis and nearly caused the death of Thama's beggarly, blind mother. Yet it was this same mother who, in miraculous circumstances, recovered for Thama his lost inheritance and led to the disgrace of the Queen of Beauty and her own mother.

    The third volume of short stories by Bukar Usman is Girls in Search of Husbands and Other Stories. The title-story involves six girls in search of eligible bachelors, preferably the King of Farmers whose real name was unknown to anyone. At the end, it was the ugly and dowdy girl, Hirku, who was despised by the rest who passed the test in a morality tale on the transcendentalism of beauty and won the heart of the King of Farmers by revealing his name, Diskandaridi: Exploring the riddle motif, this story expands on the idea that humility is the hallmark of genius. It is followed by "The Hyena and the Squirrel", another, story of a game of cunning in which, again the hyena suffered the ugly consequences of covetousness and rude aggressiveness.

    In "A Tale of Two Betrayals", Malmasure was betrayed by his half-brothers when they learnt that he had been proclaimed the heir-apparent to their father's throne. Their plot to assassinate him was foiled by Malmasure's friend, Modimi.

    In appreciation, when Malmasure became king, he promised to give his princess to one of Modimi's twin sons. This led to another round of betrayal as one of Modimi's sons killed his twin brother, all in a bid to win the princess as bride. Something particularly interesting in "A Tale of Two Betrayals" is that another version of it exists in the repertoire of Yoruba folktales, complete with the singing bones of the murdered boy. This implies that there are windows of cultural inter-connectedness among our various cultures and that these windows could serve as morally unifying force in our plural society.

    Next is "The Monkey and the Fish," a story in which the tilapia became friendly with the monkey. Other fishes disapproved of the relationship and, with some ploy caused a severance. This forced the monkey to remain upland, never trusting the tilapia again and the latter living eternally in water with the shame of betraying this best friend. On a deep reckoning, this story has a few lessons to teach human beings on the dangers of intolerance, suspicion and separatism.

    The fourth book is also the first in the series of "Hyena Stories." It features "The Hyena and the Squirrel" and, is packaged in the form of Children's Literature, beautifully illustrated and carefully edited for the use of the educational sector. Basically, this book points at the versatility of the author whose works are being reviewed. It also compliments the role of the elder who uses folktales in traditional societies to impart beneficent ideas to the younger ones. In short, Bukar Usman is doing through the written word what our forefathers were doing through the spoken word.

    The books under review project the high culture in literature of the writer and his heritage. They are copiously didactic, and such moral lessons are given a place at the end of each story. But, particularly fascinating are the characters whose interplay lends us an insight into the complexity of human nature. The squirrel, the spider and the hare in the animal stories are metaphorical pointers to mischievous or cunning in human beings. The hyena is pronounced bullish and foolishly aggressive. The humble among the human characteristics are elevated to enviable heights while the proud and self-conceited are debased and disgraced. The life of the evil-minded ends tragically while the benevolent is rewarded with happiness.

    There is a point to note, also about the character of the old women in these books. Bukar Usman is redeeming consistent in demystifying existing notions that old women, like Shakespeare's weird sisters, are insidious hags or witches. This notion has been quite distasteful in sexist analysis of literature. As such, with the old women in Biu folktale standing out as instruments of propriety and defenders of the weak, it certainly is a sound piece of thought to celebrate in African literature. Critics are, in fact, advised to take a closer look at this feature for further extrapolations on thoughts and the redemptive dynamics of the creative imagination. One would also like to draw attention to the application of songs in some of the stories under review. Songs are an inseparable feature of African folk-tale and further utilized by Bukar Usman in enhancing the beauty and lucidity of the stories.

    On the whole, even with a few editorial ellipses, which I believe will be rectified in subsequent reprints, these books are well packaged and are an asset of high utility value in terms of education and recreation. One would only wish that, in due course, indigenous language versions were produced out of these books. This will help in the retention of the originality of the patrimony and the revitalization of our indigenous culture. In this review, I have deliberately avoided a comparative exercise based on western models or parameters, such as the morality plays of the medieval period. The reason is that we must stop doing injustice to modern African culture by suggesting under pedantic pretences that its values are best appreciated using western paradigms. In this sense, it must be accepted that a society like Biu must have evolved at an early phase of history as an autochthonous community of sorts, self-defining, self-determining and with its own world-view, the archetypal credit of which must not be placed elsewhere.

    Her oral and written literatures, exemplified by Bukar Usman's folk-tales are specifically Biu in spirit. This we must admit and project vigorously even as it is admitted into the larger pool of universal values as Nigeria's contribution to world civilization.



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