Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Proverb source: When a knowledgeable old person dies

I wrote a post last year titled, When an elder dies, a whole library is lost. A reader wrote to ask me for the source, in the original words. I sent him to the TEDtalk video in the same post. But he insisted it was African and sent me an academic paper with the following quote:

"When a knowledgeable old person dies, a whole library disappears" -An old African proverb

Some more googling found a source that refers to it as an Ethiopian saying.

If any reader is familiar with the Ethiopian (or other source) of the saying, please share.  Thanks.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Archeological finds in Ile-Ife

If I had been born elsewhere, I might have considered becoming an archeologist. But I was born in Nigeria and concluded at an early age that Nigeria had nothing to offer archeologically.  The ancient inhabitants of the land had left nothing that could be discovered, not even their bones could survive the  humid rain forest climate. Whatever artifacts that were of any cultural or historical significance were in plain sight and yet, had not been decoded (such as the Oranmiyan staff). So instead, I read up on ancient Egypt and fantasized about discovering a new mummy and accompanying treasures, and maybe cracking the curse of Tutankamen.

Then I discovered the Ife heads. Well, I did not discover them – they were discovered in 1938 - but I just learned of their existence (or more precisely, of their significance).  After watching documentaries on youtube I decided to order a book. British museum in 2010, I decided to order a book which would allow me to peek closer at the images. Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria features a collection put together by the Museum of African Art and this collection was on display at the British Museum in 2010. Professor Akin Ige and his wife were visiting my family, so I thought I would show off my new acquisition as it was delivered. “See what I got,” I said to Mrs. Ige. She looked and said, “Oh, we were there, at the opening of the exhibit.”

It turned out that Prof. Ige was there to deliver a lecture. He is a professor of geology and is the Director of the Natural History Museum at Ile-Ife, so it should come as no surprise that he would deliver a lecture at the opening of an exhibit of historical artifacts discovered in Ife. It was the subject of his lecture that shocked me. The ancient production of glass at Ile-Ife! “Glass? Really? Wouldn’t that be ironic?” I asked doubtfully (thinking of the stories, mockingly narrated and readily accepted, of chiefs and obas who sold out their land and people for glass beads).
He went on to tell me a lot about the archeological work he has done and I will narrate my conversation with Prof. Ige in another post.  For now, here are some highlights:
  • Ancient glass furnaces have been discovered and glass bead manufacture is estimated to have existed up until 1200, though the beads continued to be traded afterwards. The glass beads were at one time thought to have been imports, but no other glass anywhere in the world has the same properties. Recent discoveries have led to the conclusions that were locally manufactured.
  • There was an ancient ceramic tile industry around 1200 when Oluwo, the only female Ooni (king) of Ile-Ife established an environmental code that required construction of potsherd pavements. 
  • The iron industry was not all iron. Steel was also produced.
  • There’s a huge collection of figurines depicting people in different walks of life in Esie, a town about 150km northwest of Ile-Ife. They weren’t hidden or buried, simply worshipped or revered by the local people. These figurines, about a thousand of them and reputed to be the largest collection of figurines discovered in sub-saharan Africa, formed the basis of the first National Museum in Nigeria in 1945.
After the initial surprise and awe comes a feeling of incongruency.  If these skills existed a thousand years ago, what happened to them and to the people who had them? Did the skills not evolve, grow, expand?  Why did glass making disappear? Who made the Esie figurines and why would those who came to live there afterwards believe they were of supernatural origin?  I suspect part of the answer lies in a culture of secrecy that may have existed in a super-specialized guilds with knowledge strictly constrained within the bounds of each group. But that’s too simple and unsatisfying…there had to be more.

Perhaps, continued archeological research, which is still in its infancy in West Africa will yield more answers.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

When an elder dies, a library is burned

The words of Elizabeth Lindsey on TEDTalks, "When an elder dies, a library is burned", is so much truer for cultures that relied on oral histories.

I think of all the burned libraries in African history and wonder if it matters. Why is it even important to preserve the past. What does it have to do with the future? And I do not have an answer. But I have a very strong gut feeling that it is important, I just can't put in in words. Yet.

According to Elizabeth Lindsey's bio, she'll be setting out on a 186 day global expedition to chronicle teachings critical to navigating the complexity of our times. That will be interesting to follow, and perhaps, will help me better clarify why we need to preserve our past.

See her TED Talk below:

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Book Review: Greedy Spider

The author of Greedy Spider, Bakeh N. Wleh Nagbe, mailed me a copy of his children's picture book.

I am delighted at the opportunity to introduce readers to Greedy Spider, a folktale from Liberia, West Africa. The review is posted at allfolktales.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Open thread for folktale submission

Every now and then, I've had people write to ask how they can contribute stories. It would be wonderful to have as many people contribute new stories or their versions of popular tales. I am thinking (as time and other engagements allow) of how to make this easy and seamless. But in the meantime, I'm offering these options:
  1. Send me an email to omowunmi [at] allfolktales.com and I will post your story on the website. And I will send you a confirmation email.
  2. Post your story as a comment to this blog post. I will monitor this thread and copy stories to the main website. You may also send at email to notify me, and that way, I can send you back a confirmation email once I copy your story to the main website.

I believe any community effort should be guarded with guidelines, so here goes:

  • No spam. Obviously, any spam comments will be deleted.
  • Subject is African Folktales. I think we all understand that.
  • Optional: Include information about the story (for example, where's it's from, where you heard it from, and whatever else you fancy)

Please note that guidelines may be revised depending on the direction the wind blows. Thanks for your participation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ancient writing in West Africa

Today, I came across the subject of the Olmecs. The Olmecs were a people who lived in South Central Mexico from the 1400BC to 400BC. Apparently, there are some who believe that a large population of the Olmecs were of African origin, specifically, of West African origin. I did google searches and visited several pages but did not read anything that led credence to that claim. What piqued my interest however was reference to some ancient Olmec script that was similar to an ancient Mende script.

What writing could the Mende, a West African people, have had in 400BC?

I do not mean to be condescending towards the idea of ancient African West African writing. As a child, I hoped that some ancient artifacts will be discovered and our history would be uncovered, but I have now come to accept that we did not write, we did not build monuments (none so ancient) that have withstood our climate. Every now and then, I feel a fleeting sense of regret that my people, my ancestors did not develop some form of writing. But are my feelings misplaced?

I found a reference to a book by Saki Mafundikwa, a Zimbabwean graphics artist, "Afrikan Alphabets: The story of writing in Afrika". I was skeptical, afterall, there was writing in Egypt. The Egyptian writing that could not migrate across the Sahara. Even though I recall reading a book long ago (title I cannot recall) that claimed that Yorubas migrated from Egypt, I will maintain the assumption that writing did not migrate with them. But I digress...

Sample pages from "Afrikan Alphabets: The story of writing in Afrika" provide a clue as to what I may find in the book.

The commonly held belief is that most graphic symbols in Afrikan societies are merely decorative. In fact, in Afrikan culture, symbols fill an important communication role. There are stories to be found in the rock art of the San people in southern Afrika; the carvings on the calabashes of the Kikuyu of Kenya. There is information stored in tally sticks like the Ishango Bone from The Congo, the knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko, and the scarification found in many Afrikan societies. The meaning attributed to these symbols and artifacts qualifies as proto-writing, or forerunners of writing. Most of these symbol systems are several thousand years old, suggesting that Afrika has a much older tradition of writing than some have recognized.

I am one of those who believe that graphic symbols on calabashes, wooden statues, rocks are decorative. Knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko? Is that the iroko tree? Well, I'm ready to be educated, or re-educated about the history of writing in West Africa.

Once I read the book, I'll be back to share my thoughts and new learnings.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A precious cow from Tales by Moonlight

I set a goal to publish at least one book review per month and yet, February ended without any review. I intend to make it up. The good news is that the book is already picked, "Tales by Moonlight" by Nigerian Television Authority, so my review will follow shortly.

In the meantime, here is one of the stories from the book about a man, his three sons and a precious cow. I was very amused by the story when I first read it. The idea that a man disowned his children because of a cow seemed ridiculous. Until I started thinking of the cow as less of a cow but more of an asset.

The story is of Fulani origin. The Fulani are traditionally a normadic, cattle-rearing group that inhabited parts of West Africa. The cow must have been symbolic of the wealth of a Fulani man. It was all the property he had. The cow dictated the man's lifestyle - the cow's needs determined where the man resided at any point in time. Everything was done to satisfy the cow. So it should come as no big stretch of the imagination what would happen if a man fell prey to a manipulative and vindictive cow. I imagine that this story may have been used to illustrate why an alternative lifestyle was preferable to the pastoralist one. One where man farmed, made crafts and was more in control of his destiny.

The images used within the story text came from illustrations in the book.