It was either Bra Spider cunning the hell out of people and other members of the animal kingdom or Mammy Water using invaluable wealth to lure a young man or woman into her spell. Or even African idioms, riddles and parables that provided explanation for what in our everyday life and world might well pass for scientific phenomena that warrant research.
Looking back on those moments, the feeling is even more profound. Apart from the laughter, songs and frequent doses of African mythology (which many of us grew up believing and are struggling to ‘un-believe’ in adulthood), every piece came with its own value.
Wetin make Bra Spider in waist small? One tale provides an interesting explanation for the Spider’s irregularly slim waist. The insect was notorious for his greed and rotten belleh.
Because he never wanted to miss a feast or get-together, he would put a string around his waist and ask his friends to beckon by pulling the string so he could quickly make his way to the venue. On a fateful day, three feasts started at the same time and all of the greedy man’s friends started pulling the string from different directions, resulting in an injury that left behind an everlasting scar. Greed! So, whether it was about greed and selfishness or jealousy and tyranny, there was always something to learn.
If you grew up in a rural setting, or even in urban areas and cities with epileptic electricity supply and without TV, sessions of folklore and dance were a good way of spending your weekend nights. The moonlight provided an ambience that even electricity couldn’t match. Na lie a lie? You would have a couple of hours of exchanging Bra Spider, Cunny Rabbit, Mammy Water and Rosho tales, or some other debul that is crushing on the village beauty. If you were not playing touch in the moonlight or hide and seek (where some curious young minds sometimes engaged in mischievous body exploration), you would spend time with your peers telling and listening to stories. In today’s world, you would call this ‘quality time’.
We would not be wrong to describe this piece as plain nostalgia. But hey! There is nothing wrong in catching a feeling of nostalgia about the excitements of the past. But at this point, I rein in my nostalgia and get down to the substance of this write-up.
With the emergence and development of technology—satellite television, the internet, social media and the accompanying mobile devices and electronic gaming platforms, folklore lost its relevance and influence on our social fabric. For we did not fully appreciate the importance of such performances in processes of socialisation; and the practice of traditions and formation of cultures; we all thought the advent of new tools and devices was helping us make progress. The decline and loss of appetite looked like a break from the backwardness of Bra Spider and Mammy Water tales.
The death of Bra Spider and Mammy Water, and their replacement with Spiderman and Princess Elsa and the Cinderella of old, was the death of a very powerful tradition that offered young and tender minds a platform to connect with the older generation. On another level, it was a vital form of entertainment, education and engagement among agemates. Topics ranged from history and heritage to politics and mythology. When an older person was not telling the stories, young people would take the stage in turns and show how much they had learnt from their grannies and grandpas. They told their own stories and versions of history (of course as handed down to them) without the influence of today’s Spiderman and Princess Elsa.
What we did not see at the time was the platform these sessions offered adolescents and young adults to have a go at public speaking, civilised engagement and an exercise of agency. Everyone would sit there quietly, listen, enjoy the delivery and sing along when required. As long as it was your turn, you would be protected and the floor all yours. Well, there would always be an occasional rebel who cast spanners into the works. The ‘big boys of the group’ would handle that. Goodnight to that rebel!
Obviously, performing and delivering African folklore is not the same as reviewing a Hollywood movie, recounting an episode or event. You need to have the skills—to add the peppeh en maggi where necessary; the sense of humour to make others laugh their guts out; or mastery of the art of delivering horror that scared the hell out of your peers. Everyone who was involved was engaged.
Like the rebels I mentioned, there would also be occasional dropouts who surrendered to gentle sleep. But the platform kept everyone engaged and by the time your parents start looking for you and shouting out as if you were several miles away, you all—storyteller, performer or listener—would walk away with a good lesson, a good laugh or songs that would remain on your lips till the next literary session. And there was always room for repetition by popular demand. This was an underappreciated value.
I hardly watch Nollywood films. Well frankly, I am not a movie freak. I have, however, found myself in what I now see as an unfair critique, (and in fact, criticism) of Nollywood or Nollywood-style movies. Nolly-sceptics would put forward a dozen reasons for their dislike of a film industry that is second only to India’s Bollywood by size. But the stories in Nollywood, or even in the Sierra Leonean filmmaking community (which I have heard some people call Sollywood) are rooted in African folklore. They tell stories of magic, juju, wealth, jealousy, power, romance, polygamy, horror, and everything else that resonates among Africans. Growing up, these were the kind of stories we enjoyed, and they are now making their way onto the big screen. You could argue about the quality of the production. You could contest the originality of the storyline. You could moan the lack of suspense, thrill and flair. Fair enough. But the stories themselves—of a Prince going against his parents’ will to marry a wretchedly poor girl he loves or Aki and Paw Paw doing Bra Spider-style mischief—can be traced to the roots of African folklore and storytelling. With all its shortcomings, I would still argue that this reflects our literary roots and folklore and translating that into films is just one way of saving and exporting these literary forms. We can safely describe it as part of the modernisation of African folklore. We just have to take it as it is and recognise the fact that it is different from Hollywood. We would never be able to fully see it this way if our imagination of African cinema is anchored in Hollywood.
So Bra Spider is dead! Mammy Water only exists in the memories of the older folks. Enter Spiderman, Batman and Princess Elsa. But there is a lesson—with serious implications on the way we socialise, produce and perform literary art forms and culture.
Story go, story cam