Anybody who has lived in sub-Saharan Africa will know of the strong African
tradition of oral story-telling. In cultures that have only comparatively recently committed their literature to writing, the oral tradition is central, with stories being
passed on by - typically - grandmothers and grandfathers to their grandchildren, and in
this way preserved down the generations. In this way a body of oral literature has
developed that, although vivid and charming, has not had a great deal of exposure
outside Africa. This is a great pity, as these stories are fine examples of that threatened
genre: the living folk-tale. We have, by and large, lost such folk-tales in western
countries: in Africa these stories are still told, even if the tradition is steadily weakening
in the face of the printed word and the moving image.
Suzi Lewis-Barned was introduced to these stories by her parents, who had lived in
East Africa. Her father, who became proficient in Swahili, passed on to her a collection
of stories in that language that had been put together in 1930. These stories have now
been translated into English and retold in The Clever Rat. This collection is particularly
interesting in that it contains stories of two quite different traditions: those from coastal
regions where Arab cultural influence has been strong, and those emanating from a more
specifically African source. The Arabian stories, which are more fully explored in Tales
of Abunuwas are about people, and have the ring of the One Thousand and One Nights
about them, and indeed many of the actual stories are to be encountered there. They are
all about trickery and cleverness and wealth: the stuff of folk-tales all over the world.
In The Clever Rat we are, for the most part, on more characteristically African soil.
One of the interesting features of sub-Saharan African traditional tales is that they are
morality tales. If one wants to understand what lies at the heart of what might loosely be
described as African communitarian values, then tales like these are a useful starting
point. The emphasis is very much on the sharing of resources and on co-operation in the
face of shortage or natural disaster. Selfishness is put down and people who think they
are cleverer than those who have gone before them discover just how mistaken they are.
If these lessons are conveyed through the medium of stories about animals - about hares
and jackals and lions - then they all the more memorable and powerful for that.
Reading this charming collection, with its lavish illustrations, one is struck by the
thought: are our own children, here in twenty-first century Britain, getting anything like
this in their very early years? Are they being taught, as African children traditionally
have been, to respect their elders and to share with others? Or is our educational system,
compounded by our baneful television, giving them a very different message? And if,
later on, we complain about feral children running wild in the streets, whose fault is that?
The parents' for not teaching them what is contained in collections such as this?
Society's for undermining the authority of teachers and for allowing the deterioration
and destruction of moral values? We all will have theories about this, but it is a salutary
experience to visit a well-ordered school in Africa and see at first hand the thirst for
education and the respect with which teachers are treated.
These two books provide an excellent, lively, and well-told introduction to the world
of African folklore. They will make useful gifts for those who have a love of Africa and
wish to pass on to their children or grandchildren a feeling for what makes traditional
African values so precious. Suzi Lewis-Barned and her publishers are to be
congratulated for making these lovely stories more generally available.