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The woman who refused to smile

When my mother finished telling us the story of The Stranger And The Lion, she obeyed the custom that usually followed story-telling sessions, and threw a challenge to those who had listened to her to – tell their own stories!

The challenge was a good-natured, traditional way of "daring" or inciting her listeners to “better” her story. We all waited expectantly for the challenge to be taken up.

Now, these challenges often brought out extremely good stories, which, in their turn, inspired members of the audience to tell even better stories.

That's why story-telling sessions were only allowed to take place at night. Otherwise, no-one would ever leave a story-telling session and go to do something else for which he or she was responsible -- no matter how important it was!

To enforce the rule that stories should not be told in the day-time and thereby waste the day, there was an ancient and well-feared taboo that warned that “If you tell stories in the day-time, you'll suffer from a disease called adwonkub?n [a type of nasty “polio”-induced disease that disfigured the legs of a person].

Meanwhile, my mother couched her challenge in the form of this "coded", traditional formula:

Mananses3m a metoo3 yi,

S3 3y3 d3 o,

S3 3nny3 d3 o,

Ebi nk),

Na ebi mmera!

[This, my story, which I have narrated,

Whether it is sweet [i.e. pleasing to you],

Or it is not sweet [i.e. it does not please you],

Let something go forth from it,

And let something also come back, out of it! (to us). ]

This formula encouraged everyone to contribute to story-telling. In that way, it got rid of shyness, or the fear of speaking in public, amongst members of our community.

Certainly, if one dared not speak in public (because one did not want to "make a fool of oneself") how could one defend oneself against, say, an accusation before the chief? Or how could one eonvey an importamt message accurately to important people (in an ermergency) if there was no-one else to send but oneself?

Thus, not only did telling stories in a group illustrate that even though not all persons are talented in equal measure, everyone had something to contribute. nut it also gave our spciety a chance to prove that people are multi-faceted: one person might have a great sense of humour; another might know how to sing very well and take delighnt in interrupting the storry-teller with "mmoguo" (songs that were beautiful but not necessarily related to the story being told).

Of course, a story-telling session would almost always serve as the stage for a super-star, who would stand out because he or she could both sing wonderfully, tell her tale with a very good sense of humour plus sheer eloquence. Such a star could conclusively demonstrate all these qualities together in his.her act and weave everything into a piece of unforgettable drama.

Thus, it was recognised that even if someone's story might not be that earth-shattering, it should be welcomed because it would by all means add “something” to the entertainment, knowledge, or sheer enjoyment that members of the audience would experience from the story-telling sessdion..

Well, as soon as my mother threw the challenge for a new story to "come forth", my “younger mother,” (a cousin of my mother's who was younger than her) called Maame Afia Kyeraa took it up!

(Now, I sorry but I must explain that she should actually be classified as my “aunt”, (she being my mother's mother's sister's daughter). But in Akan communities, the concept of “aunt” is only applied to the sister of one's father, not to one's mother's sister or female "cousin"!

You see, one's mother's family was an “extended family”. In that group, there were no “cousins” and “aunts”! Every female member of the group regarded the children of a member of the group as her own children. So one's mother's sister was always called one's “younger mother” (not one's "Aunt"). Indeed, it was not done to address her, or look upon her, in any other way.

This custom meant that if one's natural mother unfortunately passed away when one was a child, one would be brought up by one's mother's “sisters”; (what in European terms would be regarded as her "sisters" and “cousins”) without their showing any difference between the way they treated one and the way they treated their own natural children.

Therefore, Akan “orphans” who lose their mothers very early on in life, can grow up totally unaware that they had suffered such a major loss in their childhood. In fact, in Asante, family ties are so sacred that it used to be a capital offence for anyone to trace someone else's ancestry without the authority of the chief's court -- usually granted only during the exceptional matter of ascertaining inheritance rights!

I'd known, as a growing child, that Maame Afia Kyeraa was my mother – in all but name. So, I was thrilled when I noticed that it was she who was to follow my natural mother's on yo the "sTage" and tell a story. It meant I would always have a mother who could tell stories – haha!

Maame Kyeraa began by intoning this formula: “Abra braa!”

This indicated that she was “knocking at the door", ready to tell a story. (By the way: I think the term, “Abra braa!”, was probably coined as a result of a play on the word “bra” (which means to “come”.)

Now one of the most amazing things about our languages is that although they were not written down, they contained metaphors, rhymes, alliteration and other ways of "playing on words", which anyone with a good knowledge of literature would recognise as "literary devices" evolved to make botn ordinary speech and stories more interesting.

But how can you use "literary" devices when you are "illiterate"? That's one of the amazing gifts that Nature bestowed on those of us born in Africa. Our "oral literature" is as good, if not better, than some of the "written literature" found elsewhere. Maybe a "mental" exercise produces better results than a "written" one? I don't know; but the fact is inescapable "illiterate" Africans use word-play" a greast deal.

Of course, a more mundane explanation mist that oral literature preceded the arrival of writing by hundreds of years, throughout the world. Scholars must have begun to label techniques used in speech, oratory and story-telling, only after writing had ovetaken the living word as a means of communication

But back to my Mother Afia Kyeraa: what she had said was in effect this: “I propose to come forward with something new, that can get someone else to also come later with something newer still! And what do you all say to that?”

The correct response to “Abra braa” was “YONG!” ( the “o” in this latter word is pronounced as in “hope”).

We all shouted ”YONG!” in unison after being invited to do so by the would-be story-teller.

And Maame Kyeraa took centre-stage. She began:

There was once a woman who lived with her husband in a village. After man and wife had been married for a year, everyone in the village expected the woman to conceive and bear a child. But this did not happen. However, no-one minded, as such a lateness in the conception of a child after marriage was not uncommon or unknown.

But another year passed. And still, there was no sign of the woman being with child.

After three years had passed with nothing happening, the woman became convinced that she had been born “infertile.”


Columnist: Cameron Duodu


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