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Uzor Maxim Uzoatu  

Oral Craftsmanship

(In Ahmadou Kourouma and Nduka Otiono)

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, literary journalist and writer, is the author of God of Poetry


Reading Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote in 2005 provoked in me the kind of profound reactions I had while engaging Nduka Otiono’s collection of short stories The Night Hides with a Knife back in 1995. It occurred to me that we have not had much of inter-generational critique of African writing. Most of the books published locally in Africa do not get around much to form part of the discourse alongside books published by the big multinational publishing houses. The 2004 paperback edition of Kourouma’s novel that I read was published by Random House under its esteemed Vintage imprint while Otiono’s book which won the coveted Association of Nigerian Authors/Spectrum Prize was issued by the Ibadan, Nigeria-based New Horn & Critical Forum. Both books insist on situating oral lore in the heart of the human story, promoting a kind of communal sharing that stands the African idiom as a carnival offering.

Born in 1927 in Cote d’Ivoire, Kourouma is the celebrated author of four novels and has won outstanding literary prizes such as the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Inter and the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens. His novel The Suns of Independence won him much critical acclaim. He had to endure a spell in jail before going into exile in Togo and Cameroun. He eventually returned to his country in 1993, dying there in 2003. Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is a riveting tale told by the sora, that is, a storyteller named Bingo who plays the king’s fool. Bingo spends a handful of nights, to wit, six vigils, to narrate the life and times of Koyaga, president-dictator of the Republique du Golfe. Koyaga’s totem is the falcon and having been orphaned at the age of seven he grows to adulthood as a hunter of mythical beasts who can change his being into any animal or bird. Bingo tells the story of Koyaga as he fights in the French colonial army in Vietnam and Algeria only to return home to plot a coup that gives him ultimate power for 30 years. Eventually the western powers ask for democratization, and it is this process that provides the canvas for Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote.

On his part, Otiono was born in 1964 in Kano, Nigeria, and The Night Hides with a Knife is his first book. He has since followed up with two poetry volumes Voices in the Rainbow and Love in the Time of Nightmares. He has been co-editor of two controversial anthologies We-Men and Camouflage. He served as the General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors before taking up the distinguished FIA Chia Fellowship for his Ph.D studies in Canada. The Night Hides with a Knife contains ten stories, namely: “A Will to Survive”, the title story, “Crossfire”, “Jubilant Flames”, “Wings of Rebellion (Song of Liberation)”, “Escapade”, “Fatal Birth”, “Just Above a Drunk”, “Just Before the Desert Storm”, and “One Day in the Life of an Applicant”. It is however the story “Wings of Rebellion” that best exemplifies Otiono’s injection of the oral into the scribal, and it mostly provides the reference for this intercourse with Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote.

Professor Dan Izevbaye’s foreword to The Night Hides with a Knife needs to be quoted at length to underscore the ends to which the oral is put in the literary enterprise. He writes: “Storytelling is probably the most accessible and most popular of African traditional as well as modern literary forms. In its most basic form, the traditional oral tale is driven by an idealistic vision and a strong moral impulse, which enables the teller to refine and assimilate different historical and social experiences into a pattern of enduring and repeatable incidents. Writing can and does often reduce the tale into its bare pattern; the vigour of the traditional tale tends to be lost in print, for it is the oral medium that stimulates the dramatic energy of traditional storytelling. Although traditional storytelling will always survive in forms like the anecdote and the yarn, the true storytelling form of our age is the non-oral short story. This new form reflects a dual cultural inheritance, the African and the European, and these are often present as elements of the fantastic and the realistic, respectively. The realistic short story is largely the product of a new kind of society with its urban base and its European imports: the printing press is the main instrument of its communication; its offices and factories are the key to its economic life and its employment opportunities; the bar and the brothel are the places of entertainment and escape from the psychological pressures of city life. Otiono is aware of these dynamics of social change.”1

While Otiono situates his subjects within the local and the particular, Kourouma undertakes a no-holds-barred sweep of post-colonial African history. Bingo who narrates Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote has his sidekick in Tiecoura, an apprentice and a responder who always accompanies the sora. The communal immediacy of the story is established by Bingo from the very beginning: “Here we are gathered in the great gardens of your palace. Everything is ready, each in his place. I will tell the tale of purification, the story of your life, life as a master hunter and dictator. In the Malinke tongue, the tale is called a donsomana. It is an epic told by a sora with his koroduwa – an apprentice in the purificatory stage, the cathartic stage. Tiecoura is a koroduwa and, like all of his kind, he plays the fool, the idiot, the loon. He can do as he wishes, Everything is permitted him, and nothing he does goes unpardoned.”2

Tiecoura lives up to the billing by hurling these insults as introduction: “President Koyaga, General, Dictator, here we will sing and dance your donsomana over the feast of six vigil. We will tell the truth, about your dictatorship, your parents, and your collaborators. The whole truth about your dirty tricks, your bullshit, your lies, your many crimes and assassinations...” (Kourouma pp. 2-3)

Call it traditional call-and-response or intense dialogue, Bingo promptly interrupts Tiecoura thus: “Cease from insulting this gentleman, a man of great honour as is Koyaga, the father of our nation for if you do not ruin and damnation will hunt you down and destroy you. Hold your tongue!” (Kourouma p.3)

Otiono’s story “Wings of Rebellion” intervolves Nduka Otiono himself and his “poetic” friends in a beer bout seasoned with music and short story. The story begins appropriately with maverick musician singing his women-bashing “Woman na Mattress” in the call-and-response mode. The barman has to switch off the music for the story to take wings. The gathered writers who share the story bear the names “Soyinka, the dictionary himself”, “Dambudzo”, “Eliot” (Otiono p.53) The story takes place “Once upon a Sunday in July... In suite 1013 of Ariya Hotel in Iduu” where the protagonist “Our man, Akaaga son of Uzi, son of Anibuofu, was sprawled on the bed like a woman in labour. But his prostitute was still agile.” (Otiono p.54) Akaaga finds it well nigh impossible to settle the bill of the prostitute Sandra and ends up confronting his recently wedded wife Nkem in the selfsame brothel. What would have been a straight story of marital infidelity is turned into a craftsman’s splendorous offering through the use of the many idioms of traditional lore. The author holds our attention through the deft deposition of pauses, proverbs and piquant poetry:

“Spill me into your pots
Mix me into your cauldrons
Turn me into your servant
Than let me remain under the spell...”

“Obida, who dares your potency?
Ngene, who dares your potency?
Atachi who says you’re asleep?
Are you all not the scourge of evil spells?” (Otiono p.62)

For Kourouma, the “Vigils” are interspersed with proverbs such as: “When the partridge takes flight, its fledgling does not linger on the ground”, “Where a man is destined to die, there he goes early”, “When the vital nerve is severed, the chicken kills the wildcat”, “Only he who has never wielded power believes it is unpleasant,” “It is he whose impotence you cured who steals your wife,” “He who lives long will see the dove dance,” “Condolences do not bring the dead to life but they sustain the faith of those who live on...” etc The very act of telling the story is explained progressively: “from time to time in any tale, one must pause to take a breath, we will pause here.” (Kourouma p.15). In Otiono’s story the tale is broken this way: “Ah, let it break! What do you know about the technology of musical accompaniments in storytelling? My friend, sit down and listen to the modern griot. Our tale has reached a precipice...” The teller is therefore not disembodied from his tale. This way, the story is lived life narrated with all resources available to the storyteller.

What is otherwise referred to as magical realism is actually part of the everyday realities of the storyteller. The subject earns his gravitas from the very fact that everything is possible in the tale. The life of Kourouma’s Koyaga bears testimony to this: “Koyaga was born on a Saturday. The gestation period for a child is nine months; Koyaga’s mother carried her child for twelve full months. A woman suffers the pains of labour for two days at most; Koyaga’s mother suffered in labour for a full week. Human children are not born with the strength of a panther cub; Nadjouma’s child was born as heavy as a lion cub.” (Kourouma p.16)

Colonialism and the church add grist to the storyteller’s mill. Kourouma goes back in history: “The French, the English and the Portuguese, the leaders in colonizing the savage, had not set their hearts on every acre of land in black Africa. The experts in colonization had simply locked down the African coast. The viciousness of the cannibals had dissuaded them from venturing into the heart of the continent. In the heart of the continent there were still unclaimed lands. This fact, this discovery, made Pope Paul II weep. It was to change his destiny, the fortunes of his people and the future of Central Africa. Yes, there were opportunities in Africa still, opportunities for him. An opportunity for Christianity! An opportunity for his kingdom! An opportunity for the savage cannibals of the great equatorial forest!” (Kourouma pp.260-1) The pull of Christianity equally finds expression in Otiono as Akaaga’s impotent struggle bears Christian undertones thus: “Akaaga couldn’t withstand it. A venial sin is enough to send one to Purgatory. A mortal one condemns him to Hell. Ask Catholics. Within this fractured moment that I’m talking, Akaaga pooled his entire strength advance and launch a thunderbolt-of-a-slap on Nkem’s right cheek. The floor quaked!” (Otiono p.67)

Phallic dictatorship holds sway in African patriarchy. From the little bullies such as Akaaga in the dingy brothels we graduate to the emperors of kingdoms such as Koyaga who survive coup plots and assassination attempts only to announce to the world: “I will soon be democratically elected, I will have all the power of old.” (Kourouma p.438) Things change and remain the same, just as the timelessness of the story itself.

Kourouma and Otiono have given to their stories an eternal quality that is not bound by time and space, and the following words from the Canadian novelist Jack Hodgins in his 1977 novel The Invention of the World are a fitting finale to their joint enterprise: “Trust me or not, believe what you want, by now the story exists without us in air. I am not its creator, nor is any one man: I did not invent it, only gathered its shreds and fragments together from the half-aware conversations of the people around me, from the tales and hints and gossip and whispered threats and elaborate curses that float in the air like dust.”3

1. Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (London: Vintage, 2004)
2. Nduka Otiono, The Night Hides with a Knife (Ibadan: New Horn & Critical Forum, 1995)
3. Jack Hodgins, The Invention of the World (Toronto: Macmillan, 1977)


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