English folk tales usually start with ‘Once upon a time…’ In Igbo the introduction to our folk tales with it goes beyond an opening phrase to a call and response, sing song chant between the story teller and the audience. It goes like this
Story teller: O nwelu akuko m ga akolu unu
Audience: Kolu anyi
Anyi ga ege nti, nulu ife I na-ekwu
Ma o di mma, Ma o di njo
E E E
Story teller: O nwelu ofu mbosi
Audience: Ofu mbosi wee luo
Which translates to the following:
Story teller: There’s a tale I will tell you
Audience: Tell us
We will listen, hear what you are saying
Whether it is good, whether it is bad
Eh Eh Eh
Story teller: There was one day
Audience: One day came to be
Did I hear someone say ‘all this before the actual story starts?...Yep, all this before the story starts. I am not sure why or how it came to be so; what I do know is the sense of anticipation it built in me as a child waiting for the story to transport me to a distant times and lands where animals spoke and good always triumphed over evil.
Who knows, perhaps it was a way to get the full attention of the wiggling children before starting. You see, traditionally we pass down information through oral tradition so it may have been necessary to ensure that every one was listening. Those kids back then who became our ancestors had to store all that information accurately in their heads…no smart phones to record and replay the story at will or Google to cross check who said what to whom. Again, most of the stories had lessons embedded in them, serving as a tool of instruction to for the children. In addition, many of our proverbs have their roots in these folktales; therefore it also served to acquaint the next generation with the background to our proverbs ensuring appropriate usage.
Although many folk tales have been translated into English, certain depths of meaning are lost in translation. Besides English there are many other languages in various parts of the world where Igbos are found… I am not sure if our folktales have been translated in Finnish, French, Italian, and German, to mention a few. Just think of the wealth of history, knowledge and wisdom embedded in our stories that will be lost if we cannot pass them on to our children in our language.
Now before a child can run he must first crawl, if a child does not know the difference between the sound of the word Egbe(kite) and Egbe(gun) how can he appreciate the line in a folk tale or play song that says egbe gbagulu egbe?
My people, as we continue to contribute towards the preservation of the good in our culture by producing Igbo learning resources for children, especially those growing up outside Igbo land bikonu ka anyi gaa n’ru na-asu Igbo!
Meanwhile, once you see “O nwelu akuko m ga akolu unu…” be sure a story is round the corner!
Dalu nu o
Ka o ra m n’ofu.