By Ogova Ondego
Published March 27, 2012
It is rare for one to come across a book that appeals to every reader: young and old; ancient and modern; literate and barely literate. But such a book–coming in print, audio and audiovisual formats–shall be launched in Kampala, Uganda, on April 28, 2012.
Co-edited by Dominica Dipio of Uganda’s Makerere University and Stuart Sillars of Norway’s University of Bergen and published by ComMattersKenya of Nairobi, the 276-page Traditional Wisdom: Folktales from Uganda is praised by critics as a ‘definitive collection of Ugandan folktales from diverse cultures’, a ‘gem for enthusiasts of cultural studies, scholars of orature and folklore, and lovers of stories’ and as a ‘tome that takes the reader galloping through a millennium of folk-telling on a written chariot of dramatic script’.
This book is the result of research carried out on the folklores of the people of Uganda that stated in 2007. The main objective of the project, writes lead researcher and co-editor Dipio, an associate professor of literature, ‘was to document and disseminate the richly imaginative cultural forms of Ugandan people, using a multi-media approach’. Dr Dipio adds that ‘the specific focus on folktales was occasioned by its ability to embed the values of a people like no other genre of folklore can. Furthermore, stories have the universal quality of border-crossing and uniting people of diverse backgrounds as they focus on what is essentially human’.
Dr Dipio, who has written and co-edited several publications in her wide ranging research areas of literature, film, media, religion and cultural studies, says the researchers and their assistants collected more than 100 tales from various ethnic groups in Uganda in the local languages in order to publish a bi-lingual collection.
‘This, however, was dropped for the practical reasons of the voluminous size of such a publication, and for the fact that readers may be interested in only one or two languages at most. This decision comes with a cost: the loss ofÂ ‘flavour’Â in the translated stories. The editors have, however, tried not to ‘drain’ the tales of their oral features in course of translation,’ writes Dipio in her preface to to Traditional Wisdom: Folktales from Uganda.She aptly notes that ‘There are expressions in the local languages that do not have equivalents in the English translation’.
The book is divided into five sections complete with an endorsement and index of narrators and narratives. The narratives, too, are arranged in five sections based on the various themes the folktales address. They include Tales of Friendship and Treachery,Tales of Origin, Tales of Family Relationships,Tales of Social and Political Relationships, and Tales of Monsters and Ogres.
The themes in the stories could ring a bell on contemporary issues. There are stories touching on themes such as treachery, greed, betrayal and the price one pays for each of these almost universal vice.
Some stories explain how and why things are the way they are today. For instance, the origin of beer, water masses, forests, and mountains is explained.
The importance of patience, wisdom, diligence, discipline, and hard work is also stressed in some stories.
The tension between the younger and the older generations in the management of public affairs is addressed just as the vanity of outward appearance that is only skin-deep is exposed for what it is.
Each story is summarised with an appealing realistic illustration drawn by Richard Kato that the designer, George Kangara Karanja, has used well on the pages and the cover of the book.
Austin Bukenya, a well known scholar of folklore, describes the book as ‘the latest fruit from Makerere’s long and passionate engagement with oral art.’
Although Traditional Wisdom: Folktales from Uganda focuses on the folktale, Bukenya writes in his endorsement of the book that ‘the collection gives us valuable insights into other forms of orature, since there is always an Â‘interfluenceÂ’ among its various genres. The proverb blossoms into narrative, just as easily as it sums up the story, and the whole performance is animated with song and drama’.
While observing that ‘the constraints of print may obscure some of the liveliness of these tales’, Bukenya notes that the decision of the editors to ‘work directly from performed narrative still reflects an impressive level of vivacity in the text’. To him, Traditional Wisdom: Folktales from Uganda ‘is an irresistibly enjoyable read’. He commends editors Dipio and Sillars for emphasising what he refers to as ‘the wisdom aspects of the folktale: the philosophy, the psychology, the moral, social and spiritual values of the narratives’.
The ‘global’ outlook of this work, Bukenya writes, is reflected not only in its national coverage of the folktale, as contrasted with the mono-ethnic presentations common in East Africa, but also in the cooperative collection and editorial collaboration of Ugandan and Norwegian scholars from Makerere and Bergen universities.
Aaron Mushengyezi, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature at Makerere University, says this book replaces the old griots ‘who chronicled both the official and popular stories of their times so that traditional wisdom is passed on. Where the script takes away from the oral nature of these tales, the audio and visual formats return the oral quality that is lost in translation from local languages to English’. He concludes that ‘This collection of traditional wisdom is a delightful must-read for a wide range of audiences, for good stories appeal to all’.
Also praising the book is Tom Odhiambo, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi. Dr Odhiambo, who teaches oral literature, says that the stories in Traditional Wisdom: Folktales from Uganda ‘pay homage to the fact that our humanity thrives in the telling of stories; stories that keep us together, keep us busy, teach us about who we are, what we can become, and how to relate better to the environment around us. These stories, full of animals, should be a reminder to many of us and to posterity about how close humans have lived with animals; about the relationship between culture and nature. These stories tell us about how our cultures have been formed in an interplay between us and the environment around us, thus affirming our belonging to the world beyond home or house, the world of animals and plants. This collection is also testimony to the resilience of African people’s wisdom, their creativity and philosophy. But these tales are also a challenge or an invitation to the reader to create his or her own stories that reflect the changing social, cultural, environmental, political, economic or spiritual circumstances’.
James Ogoola, the Principal Judge of Uganda, describes Traditional Wisdom: Folktales from Uganda as a book for every reader: young and old; ancient and modern; literate and barely literate that ushers the reader into ‘the very heart and soul of a thousand years of an African people’.
Saying ‘folktales of Africa were at once simple to grasp, but equally subtle Â– pregnant with complex layer upon layer of underlying mystery and meaning, hidden underneath the seemingly simple surface’, Ogoola further states that the ‘simplicity of the stories is only skin deep. Underneath lies deep complexity. The format of animal animation tells a revealing tale of human conduct, a people’s philosophy and psychology, as well as their ethics and metaphysics’.
Ogoola, who wrote the foreword of the book, argues that ‘African folktales are steeped in a pyramid of ancient wisdom whose tips tell only tale nuggets of the mystical treasures lying buried in the voluptuous secret vaults hidden down below’.
Like the invaluable reference material that it is, Traditional Wisdom: Folktales from Uganda is not only arranged according to themes but also has an index of narrators and narratives to enable the reader to find what they are looking for quickly.
Inquiries about this book can be sent to ComMattersKenya (firstname.lastname@example.org, cell 254 733 703374 or 254 722 486531). Orders for the book may also be sent through the same avenue.