Once Upon a Time in Africa – Stories of Wisdom and Joy (2004) By Joseph G Healey – A Review

This is a unique and intriguing book that remarkably captures the essence of African society in response to and in cooperation with Christianity, other religions, and foreign society. But this is not an academic book laden with complex and boring theories. Rather, the book contains close to 100 short stories that convey experiences of east Africans with christian missionaries from the west. Each story is unique and can convey an African parable, an abridged African story, an encounter with a group of Africans, missionary work in African schools, African response to death and dying, the extent to which Africans compete with each other relative to other world societies, the importance of Africans sharing and running together, how Africans perceive Christianity and foreign behavior, etc. Many of the stories are humorous, but the value message does not become lost. A Maasai moran wonders how great Jesus was. Relating to the Maasai aspect of recognizing greatness and manhood, the moran questions whether Jesus ever killed a lion and how many wives he had.

In a running competition, a nun wonders why the schoolgirls keep crossing the finishing line together. They tell her that they do not want to leave anyone behind, they want to finish together. Many of these stories convey African society as highly cooperative, not heavily dwelling on a person outpointing and crushing the other and taking the spotlight. Africans traditionally do not want to be separated from each other, and will work hard to stay together even when threatened by differences in religious belief. They are far less materialistic than many other societies of the world, they can achieve joy and happiness in the face of poverty and misfortune; they are generally not imbued with that western spirit of materialism, monopoly, and selfishness.

Africans believe in re-incarnation, believing that the spirit of a good person always returns to earth through a newborn, dead ancestors are guardian angels. African societies are shown to have their accounts of creation. African proverbs are numerous and tell a lot about Africans. In the book, Africans are portrayed in their homes, the gardens, in church, in prayer, in hunting, at work, etc. This is indeed a book about African joy and wisdom concisely illustrated with short significant stories, tales, proverbs, encounters and happenings.

Father Joseph Healey, who is originally from the United States and has operated in east Africa for several decades, managed to compile a gem of a book that one never gets tired of reading. Healey’s extensive practical familiarlization with many African languages and ways of life made him the ideal candidate to compile this heart-warming and objective volume. More than any other text, the book illustrates joy and wisdom in the day-to-day basic lives of Africans and their response to a new world that gets smaller and smaller and becomes more connected. The contents also illustrate how people from other parts of the world practically respond to and perceive African life. The stories in this book are short, but their messages are very powerful. Lessons on Africa are conveyed through aspects of adventure, ministering, religion, folklore, prayer, stories, African culture, poetry, spirituality, and tales.

The Politics Of Animal Stories – Chinua Achebe

In the work ‘What Has Literature Got To Do With It’ Achebe brings up a very pertinent question relating literature to creation. He asks whether ‘people create stories’ or ‘stories create people’ or rather ‘stories create people create stories’. To the question whether stories would come first or people would come first is connected the myth of the creation, to which is connected the remarkable Fulani’s story.’ It is a creation story about whether man came into being first or the story came first. The story goes that in the beginning there was a ‘huge drop of milk. Then the milk created stone, the stone created fire; the fire created water; the water created air’. Then man was moulded by Doondari out of five elements. But man had pride. Then Doondari created blindness and blindness defeated man. The story is about creation, defeat of man through hubris and redemption of man. These stories are not just restricted to creation, but have been imbibed in the history of man, social organizations, political systems, moral attitudes, religious beliefs and even prejudices.

The Igbo political system, prevails on the absence of kings. The word ‘king’ is represented more by different words. In the Igobo town of Ogidi kingship gradually went out of use, because the king had to settle a lot of debts, owned by every man and woman in the kingdom. In fact one who became a king held the people in utter contempt when he organized a ritual called ‘Kola-nut’ where he cracked the nut between his teeth and made the people eat the cola-nut coated with the king’s saliva. He was dethroned and the people became a republican. It was decided the the king should guarantee the solvency of the people. These mythical stories of kingship dwindled with the emergence of the British community when kingship merged with the British political legacy and gained new connotations.

Achebe mentions two animal stories the emergence of the British community when kingship merged with the British political legacy and gained new connotations.

Achebe mentions two animal stories which are short but complex enough to warrant them as literature. Once there was a meeting of animals, at a public square, when a fowl was spotted by his neighbours going in the opposite direction. The fowl explains that he had not gone to the meeting because of some personal matter. The fowl generously said that even though not present in body he would be present in spirit. It was decided at the meeting that a particular animal, namely the fowl would henceforth be regularly sacrificed for the Gods. And so the fowl had given its assent to be a sacrificial victim forever.

The second animal story was about a snake riding a horse. The snake could not ride very skillfully. A toad came by to show the snake horsemanship. The toad rode very skillfully, and came back and returned the horse to the snake. The snake smilingly said that it was better having than not having. He had the horse in possession. So he rode away with the horse in the same way as before.

These two stories have curious implications. The fowl story is a tale of warning to democratic citizens who do not take active participation in the democratic process. The second story has significations of class divisions. The snake is an aristocrat in a class society while a toad is a commoner with expertise whose personal effort does not matter because he does not have the necessary possessions. The snake possesses merit by birth or wealth and hence enjoys privileges whether he possesses skill or not.

The connection of these stories with literature is implicit. Literature offers scope for social transition and change. Literature can cause change in society. The king enforcing his subjects to eat the saliva covered nut is obviously an invitation to rebellion. The snake story is also a story of class division and privilege, but his seeds of revolution in it. The skilled have not may be incited to rise to rebellion by observing the undue privilege of the unskilled rich. The implication is the dissolution of an incompetent oligarchy. In fact the snake figure has been chosen because of its unattractiveness for ultimately it would become the target of revolution.

Literature is connected with social, economic and educational growth. Literature is related with the creation of human societies. Because Nigeria wants to grow as an independent nation, it needs the creative energy of national stories to support and sustain the growth of the nation.

In fact even if we look back to classical literature, it is seen that the portrayal of Achilles or Ulysses is indirectly connected to the growth of Greece as a nation. So also is the portraiture of Beowulf connected to the social, historical and national development of the Anglo Saxon society. There is a relationship between the Anglo Saxons sitting around the fire on the hearth rebelling against the cold and charting their own growth and psychoanalysis storytelling. Both have a psychological implication in them. When one tells a story to the psychoanalyst he actually tells a story. The connection between literature and psychoanalysis as Achebe puts it as ‘Literature can have an important and profound positive effect as well, functioning as a kind of bountiful, nourishing matrix for a healthy, developing psyche.’ Literature thus helps to counter psyche in real life helping in a discovery of the self that tables to cope with life. Literature through the symbol of the animal story connects itself with political uprisings, sociological and historical growths as well as psychoanalytic analysis of the self which helps in confronting reality and finding one’s own self.

The Attractive Power of "Simple" Stories: The Complexity of Everyone’s Life and Relationships

I believe that each one of us who has read Raymond Carver’s short stories (Raymond Carver: Where I’m Calling From, Vintage Books, 1989; Raymond Carver: Call if You Need Me, Vintage Books, 2001) has probably noticed how true and reality-based they are. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are based solely on Carver’s autobiographical elements, but rather on his acute observation talent. The fact that they “talk” to us means, though, that as much as they tell a story of a specific person or a specific couple they are universal in the characters and the situations that they describe.

This fact, coupled with Carver’s conscience and attractive writing style, make his stories among the masterpieces of American fiction. Carver’s stories circle much around the issues of intimacy and relationships; of couples and their struggles; of breakdowns and breakthroughs. As such, they depict, in front of our eyes, true, daily-life episodes, common – to one degree or another – to all of us.

As such, Carver’s stories seem, on the surface, to be “simple”; common-day experiences; experiences each one of us might have gone through. But the definition of “simple” is misleading, since complex relationships – albeit common to many of us – are never simple. And even though we might all have gone through experiences of love, and intimacy, and divorce, and joblessness and drunkenness – themes depicted again and again in Carver’s stories – none of us has felt that these were “simple” occurrences, ones which we could have gone through and leave behind us, as if nothing has happened, as if that’s the way life is, as if there was no reason to expect otherwise.

We feel attracted to Carver’s stories since they remind us – each one of us – of at least some similar episodes and situations that have occurred in our own life. His stories, therefore, mirror back to us some of the experiences we ourselves have had. At times they clarify to us whatever it is that we ourselves have gone through, or, as well, make us better understand that whatever we have gone through – in our relationships, with our partners, with our inner state-of-mind – is “normal”; is “common”, is standard (even if for us, personally, it is not standard). But all these only make Carver’s stories even more impressive, even more “universal” in nature. And we cannot but be amazed about his sharp eyes and elegant observations of the human nature – of our human nature.

Such “simple” stories bring to our awareness the complex issues of our own life and relationships. They touch us, in one way or another, and motivate us to reflect about our own situations, past and/or present friendships/relationships, achievements and failures alike.

As such, they not only give us the pleasure of reading, but also, like it or not, force us to look inside, retrospectively, “compare” our life circumstances with those of the characters we read about, and contemplate, while reading and/or afterwards, themes of our own life.

The attractive power of Raymond Carver’s stories, therefore, is their ability to involve us in other people’s life stories while, at the same time, make us reflect on our own