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  • Gbaya Riddles in Changing Times
  • Philip A. Noss

While the ridde constitutes a game that challenges the intellectual adroitness of the riddler's peers, it is a metaphor that confronts the apparently impossible with what is. If Harold Scheub is correct in affirming in his book The Poem in the Story (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2002) that the riddle is “a model for all oral art,” then the dynamics of riddle change are significant for the entire gamut of literary art. This paper presents the Gbaya riddle of Cameroon and the Central African Republic in its historical context with mutation, replacement, and creation of new riddles. By remembering and retaining from the past, borrowing from the present, and creating anew in the midst of constant change, the Gbaya riddle maintains its life of entertainment and instruction. The vicissitudes of change are made friendly through the metaphor of the riddle.

Riddles are associated with the games of children at play in the schoolyard or in the village square.1 In academia, riddles are accorded the status of a minor literary genre. Ithe spirit of the riddler, however, Harold Scheub challenges the readers of his latest book, The Poem in the Story,with the apparently extravagant claim "The riddle establishes a model for all oral art" (124). If this claim is true, then the evidence of changing metaphors and their dynamics in riddles is highly significant for understanding and appreciating the entire gamut of oral literary art.

Sumgba is the Gbaya term for riddle, but while this is its denotation, its connotations are those of challenge and confrontation, sometimes playful but not always.2 A riddling session is launched with a high-pitched cry of "Sumgba!" followed by the shouted exclamation "Girimm!" This response is pronounced loudly in a low tone, for it represents the sound of the great drums of a chief announcing news of weighty import to the community, or it depicts the sound of enemy troops clashing in battle. The riddle competition may be among friends, but the challenge constitutes a summons to combat, and the opponents' response signifies that the battle is joined!

The challenger launches the attack with a riddle, "The pregnant woman doesn't leap over a gully!" to which the well-known answer is given, "The tortoise."3 A second [End Page 34] or a third attack may not be as easily met: "I went to visit my in-laws; no one greeted me, only the dead greeted me." Cultural norms dictate that one has many responsibilities toward the family of one's fiancée or one's wife that must be fulfilled personally. Visits to one's in-laws are therefore important social events, and one should expect to be welcomed with words of greeting. On this visit, however, the riddler was not received by the greetings of the living but of the dead.4

If a correct answer is given, the challenger may meekly acknowledge "Yes" or he/she may exclaim, "You found it!" If, on the other hand, the answers offered are unacceptable, the challenger formally declines each with the archaic negative "Singkom!"If the opponents are unable to provide the correct answer, they may seek to placate the attacker by surrendering villages and towns and even cities. The challenger will reject each locality that is offered on the grounds that his or her own family members live in this one, in-laws live in that one, he or she has visited this one or lived in that one. This contest continues until at last the voracious appetite of the attacker is satisfied and he shouts his acceptance of his opponents' surrender: "I take this village and that town and that city, I execute all their inhabitants—it is dry leaves!" The correct answer to the riddle is dry leaves. When one walks in green leaves, they do not make noise; when one walks in dry leaves, they make a loud rustling or crackling sound.

The Gbaya description of the riddle is to say that it is something one "calls" for which there is a response. That is, there is an implied question of identification in the "call" to which...


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