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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 584-596

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Selection and Validation of Oral Materials for Children's Literature
Artistic Resources in Chinua Achebe's Fiction for Children

Ernest Nneji Emenyonu

I enjoy writing for children, it's very important for me. It's a challenge which I like to take on now and again because it requires a different kind of mind from me when I'm doing it—I have to get into the mind of a child totally, and I find that very rewarding. I think everybody should do that not necessarily through writing a story, but we should return to childhood again and again. And when you write for children it's not just a matter of putting yourself in the shoes of a child—I think you have to be a child for the duration.

—Chinua Achebe

Folktales are rich and authentic sources of raw African values in traditional African societies. In past times, they were used for purposes of acculturation and were, therefore, necessarily didactic and morality-laden. Children generally grew up under the tutelage of their mothers, who at chosen times during the formative years, told them folktales in which enshrined community values were explicitly extolled. Such occasions served as pastimes, and to sustain the interest and curiosity of the children, the raconteur must make the story real and entertaining and the experience worthwhile. She would embellish the tales, sing interesting songs or refrains, mimic voices of animals, birds and ghosts, perform acts, improvise lavishly, add humor, induce audience participation, and vary her narrative devices and methods constantly for maximum effects.

Some of the values espoused were direct, blunt and uncoated, the narrator often using a particular story to reinforce a moral issue of the moment. Some stories advocated instant justice through revenge or retaliation for an evil act, or the deployment of a deus ex machina who kills off miscreants and hardened criminals. Good must invariably prevail over evil, and right over wrong. Wit and cunning (the sharp use of common sense) must excel over brute force and abusive might. Hard work must yield good results and be rewarded. Honesty always paid off. Falsehood and fraud were anti-social behaviors and must never escape severe punishments. Corruption in any form or manner was strictly frowned upon and the "soul that sinned" died instantly, to serve as a deterrent to others. [End Page 584]

In the Igbo culture, a popular folktale—"Ebeleako"—allowed the death of a grandmother at the hands of her grandson because she had earlier quite unnaturally, viciously schemed and plotted the death of the grandson. In another popular folktale, the tortoise out-tricked the elephant and got his eyes plucked, to teach a necessary, harsh lesson against stupid gullibility and sheepish credulity. In yet another folktale, a wicked stepmother perished in flames as due punishment for her heartless wickedness and cruelty to a helpless little orphan. The message was always clear: "the wages of sin are death." In contrast, an individual who lived a life of loyalty to his parents and elders and showed constant and unshakable dedication to the community was rewarded with honors and titles. Extreme individualism or non-conformity was taboo. Community was paramount. So clear were the intended prescriptive morals that, at the end of each story, the children had little difficulty responding to the raconteur's question, "What lesson, children, do we learn from this story?"

Today, the telling of folktales in the traditional mode and format has all but disappeared in the face of rapid urbanization and modernization. The television, radio, movies, filmstrips, videos, etc. have become popular entertainment organs in the home. It is becoming rare even in remote villages to find the traditional moon-lit settings or the around-the-fire, after-the-evening-meal formations where folktales were told by fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, elder brothers or elder sisters, and through which esteemed cultural values were transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to the other. Indeed, where folktales are told at all, they...


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