I learnt a valuable lesson during the hunt for this title: if you’re looking for suggestions of books to read, contacting national writers’ associations may not always be the wisest option. No sooner had Cherno Omar Barry, general secretary of the Writers’ Association of The Gambia, kindly sent my request out to the organisation’s members than my inbox was flooded with emails from writers advising me to read their books. One person even asked if I was in The Gambia at the time of writing as, if so, he would hand deliver me a manuscript to make sure I got it safely.
Excellent though I’m sure many of the suggestions were, the fact that they were being recommended by the authors themselves meant that I had no reliable way of choosing between them. In my experience, it’s rare that you find an author who doesn’t think you should read his or her book, and the enthusiasm with which writers advocate their creations is often no indicator of the quality of the work.
However, in amongst the flood of messages, there was one apparently impartial suggestion. It was from Joy, who recommended Folk Tales and Fables from The Gambia by Dembo Fanta Bojang and Sukai Mbye Bojang. I googled the book and, finding it was also championed by the African Books Collective – whose publications I have enjoyed consistently throughout this project – I decided to give volume one a go.
Written in response to a realisation that traditional fireside storytelling is dying out in The Gambia, the work brings together stories told by the authors’ grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as tales from friends and neighbours, in a lively anthology. Magic and myth jostle with creative explanations of rituals and natural phenomena to create a fascinating world, in which hares and hyenas can be brothers-in-law, cats go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and severed heads boss heroes about from the branches of trees.
There are some mind-bending events and images along the way. From the marvellous depiction of a herd of violin-playing goats descending on the field of the helpless landowner in ‘The obstinate farmer of Njaiyen’ to the drowned boys who are transformed into a pumpkin and served up by their unwitting mother in ‘The Hassan half brothers’, the stories are frequently surprising. Indeed, many of them are shocking in the cruel and unusual violence they portray – in ‘Lolly the Witch’, for example, we hear about how a cunning boy outwits a cannibal enchantress, who takes delight in tricking and devouring her daughters’ suitors, with a pile of human faeces and a bag of eyes. Similarly, the stories don’t hold back from outrageous, physical humour, with farting playing a pivotal role in several tales – Waahou is even knocked dead by another character’s legendary flatulence in ‘The three men of Tangana’.
The tales are so diverse, ranging from naturalistic human stories through to outlandish, magical fables, that it’s hard to generalise about them. However, if I had to pick a recurring theme it would be the idea that it is impossible to transcend your nature for ever. We see this in the first story, ‘Burr Njai takes another wife’, in which the donkey queen, having transformed herself into a woman to marry a human king, is at last forced to change back and rejoin the herd. The idea also drives the plot in ‘Samba Becomes Friends with Gaindeh Njiai’, in which a lion and a man realise it is impossible to maintain a childhood friendship, and ‘The Cow, Hyena, Lion and Hare Share a Home’, in which an attempt at a peaceful, cross-species community fails.
Interestingly for a work inspired by traditional local storytelling, this book is perhaps the most international and modern I’ve read to date in terms of the way it was put together. As Bojang and Bojang explain in their introduction, the final version was shaped by comments from fellow Creative Writing and New Media Google group members and readers on the peer-review writers’ site Authonomy.
For all the feedback, however, there are still one or two editorial choices that jar. The decision to include stock photographs of some of the animals mentioned in the stories is a strange one. In addition, although Bojang and Bojang have clearly made an effort to make the narratives read well, there are some abrupt endings, changes of direction and omissions that leave the reader foundering. The blunt, pragmatic language of the stories, while often adding to the humour, also sometimes misses the mark. Waahou’s fatal pondering as to whether Fusall has ‘any bad odour left in his anal system’, for example, raises a laugh for the wrong reasons.
All in all, though, this is an entertaining and illuminating collection. It is sad to think that many of these stories, which surely would be even richer in the hands of a skilled narrator around the fireside one Gambian night, are now rarely told.
Folk Tales and Fables from The Gambia (volume 1) by Dembo Fanta Bojang and Sukai Mbye Bojang (Educational Services, Gambia, 2011)