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What is the purpose of story-telling?

I was very pleased to receive, on a recent occasion [that accidentally happened to be my birthday!] a document sent to me by email, that told me (in so many words) that someone had been so inspired, or impressed, with my use of such devices as folk tal...

I was very pleased to receive, on a recent occasion [that accidentally happened to be my birthday!] a document sent to me by email, that told me (in so many words) that someone had been so inspired, or impressed, with my use of such devices as folk tales, in my columns that he had subjected the columns to serious study, in an M.Phil. thesis, at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He conveyed to me, the happy news that he “had passed with a mark of 75%!”

To imagine that someone had become an M-Phil as a result of studying my writing when I never went to university myself! If I don’t admit that it made me feel very good, I shall be a liar!

The M.Phil. scholar is called Nate Glover-Meki, and his thesis is entitled: “JOURNALISM, LITERATURE and CURRENTS OF THOUGHT IN MODERN GHANA – A CRITICAL STUDY OF CAMERON DUODU’S COLUMNS”.

I am, (I say again) quite chuffed by this. If any publisher — or institution (such as the Ghana School of Communications at the University of Ghana, Legon) — is interested in publishing it so that it can be made available to a wider student audience, they can contact me. I shall be glad to put them in touch with the author.”

I use story-telling (mostly about Gold Coast days) in my columns, not always consciously, but often vaguely, in order that the young people of today will be inspired to help make Ghana regain its affection

in the hearts of its people.

Now, I have been labouring under the belief that, as the Twi proverb says, “It’s the good thing that sells itself” (Ade pa n‘eton neho.) In other words, one does not dissect something that is inherently self-elucidating; it does not need to be explained any further.

However, I got a letter the other day that clearly demonstrates that the letter writer has not understood the purpose of why I do this.

This is sad for a writer to admit, but I have been at this writing game for so long that I have come to realise that it isn’t always the writer’s fault if he’s misunderstood.

Some people are just — ahem! — thick!

For instance, one letter writer complained that I “bore” him with the stories I tell about my school days.

Now, I don’t mind the fact that he doesn’t like my stories, for there is no way that one can please everyone who reads what one writes.

But I do need to explain the idea behind the story-telling so that in case others entertain the same idea, they might be put right.

You see, whenever I tell a story dealing with the past, I intend to use it to take my readers back, in their own minds, to their own school days. What my teachers did or did not do are meant to trigger stories of the “Me too!” type.

I can’t help it because, in effect, that practice comes out of my natural culture: in a Ghanaian village, you cannot sit under, say, a neem tree and tell stories without inspiring — or even provoking — others to tell their own stories. That is the whole purpose of people gathering under the tree in the first place, or if the story-telling occurs at home, gathering around the open hearth in the family yard at night.

As soon as one storyteller finishes his/her narration, someone else comes in with a story that might be as interesting, or (so the new story-teller hopes) more interesting, than the one just told. It is a competition for bragging rights, no less. “Ei, as for so-and-so, his stories are awesome!” is not a reputation that everyone can build for himself/herself. Yes, in all reality, such story-telling sessions constitute an undeclared contest.

“Interruptions-by-song” are particularly welcomed. These songs known as mmoguo, make story-telling more interesting than would otherwise be the case, and also help the story-teller to obtain whispered corrections from members of the audience, in case a faulty memory is making him tell parts of the story wrong.

A Nigerian contemporary, Reuben Abati, has developed this idea of story-telling beautifully in an article in the Nigerian Guardian:

“One of the most basic rules of writing and journalism [Abati wrote] is that human beings like to read about other human beings — their lives, successes, failures, pains and pleasures, doubts and anxieties, affairs, and occasions as they read about others, people see their reflections in a hall of mirrors; they relive their own anxieties, and hopefully, they are entertained, or shocked beyond belief, or taught a lesson or two about life, society, being and nothingness.”

My friend, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, also once used this “mirror-to-society” metaphor to explain why he often used satire to communicate his ideas.

My school mates are fond of saying to me: “But how come you still remember these things? I swear, if I hadn’t read what you wrote, I would never have remembered that funny incident, ever!” Others take great delight in contradicting my recollections.

School days are simply incomparable in terms of stimulation and enjoyment: you enjoy leaving home and going out to meet loads of strangers, some of whom become ‘enemies’, but others among whom become new and, occasionally, life-long friends.

(Incidentally, talking of school days, what happened to the story our media once carried, telling of the little girl who sadly died, after being caned by her teacher? It is so typical of the Ghanaian media that I can’t remember reading what happened after the teacher was arrested and taken to court.

This lack of interest in following up their own stories really demeans our media, I think.)

The report of the girl’s death conducted me into the “hall of mirrors” inside my head, where some bitter encounters with the cane were waiting to be ‘screened’.

One of the sources of the culture of caning in the Gold Coast of my early years, I regret to say, was the Presbyterian Teacher’s Training College at Akropong, Akwapim.

Although it was a very good institution (the teachers there included the famous composer and musicologist, Ephraim Amu, who refused to wear European clothes to preach in church and was censured as a result — a very daring as well as a talented man– as well as that wonderful teller of stories, C A Akrofi,


Akropong was nevertheless notorious for inculcating the idea of caning and harsh punishment into the teachers it trained. The teachers who created its traditions were Swiss/German Calvinists, most of whose “hair-shirt” aspirations bore no relationship whatsoever to the Ghanaian’s freewheeling ethos.

(By the way, if you follow the link I have given above, you will find that the biography of Akrofi does not mention his most enjoyable book, a collection of delightful stories entitled Mmodenbo Bu Mmusu Abasa So.)

Most of the pupils who were at the receiving end of the policy of caning now hold the view that caning can be stupid and sometimes, quite sadistic.

I personally knew a girl who was clearly dyslexic but was continually caned by my grossly ignorant Class Three teacher (who, of course, was trained at Akropong!)

Caning her was an exercise in futility.

Indeed, if any teacher caned a pupil in England today for being unable to produce good work because she suffered from dyslexia — an illness that can be easily diagnosed and cured with skill — not only would that teacher be considered woefully “uneducated”, but he would probably be sent to jail.

Sir Jackie Stewart, three-times World Motor Racing Champion, is dyslexic. But see what he achieved.

I realise, of course, that dyslexia may not have been discovered in those days, but what about the common sense of the teacher? He whipped her, but her work never improved, yet he whipped her the more.

Bloody stupid, if you ask me. And a shame on Akropong as an institution, for not teaching child psychology to the teachers it was training.

One other device I like to use in my writing is the Akan proverb, which I try to explain to enable anyone reading to understand it. Such proverbs strike a special chord with readers who do understand the original language because it gives them extra insight into my meaning.

Source: Ghana Web


April 2024