Writing about African dilemma tales in my last post reminded me of another form of African oral literature that I’m a fan of: verbal dueling. It’s an improvised performance, whereby two opponents try to best each other by their wit and quick thinking. It’s a practice that continues in African-American culture, known as the dozens, or freestyle, or a rapper’s boast.
I was also reminded that I used to teach the original African version back in the mid- to late 1970s, when I freelanced in Virginia’s Poets-in-the Schools (PITS) program (back in the day, I considered myself a prose poet, and my first book, The Vanishings, is a collection of those early efforts).
In the PITS program, I would visit a school for a week or two and offer writing workshops for selected classes of students. And when that residency was over, I’d head off to another school in another district. I was always the stranger (I liked to think of myself as the Lone Ranger of Poetry), and I had to prove myself anew with my first arrival in the first classroom of the latest school (which might be either an elementary, middle or high school).
Out of necessity I had to come up with a sure-fire opening assignment if I wasn’t going to founder for the rest of the residency, and a little experimentation finally led me to give African verbal dueling a try. I started by reading to the students a section from Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali.
This is a grand epic of the founding of the Malian Empire in the 13th century by Sundiata Keita, an empire that at its height extended through most of West Africa (roughly equivalent to the continental United States).
Since the 13th century this epic has been memorized and then told and transmitted by generations of griots, a traditional class of storytellers who are considered to be “walking libraries.” One such griot, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté, recited the epic to D.T. Niane, who wrote it down and published Kouyaté’s version in 1965.
The section I read to the students came from a tense moment, filled with magic, before the great battle of Krina, where Sundiata defeated a king who was oppressing the Malian people:
Soumaoro advanced as far as Krina, near the village of Dayala on the Niger River and decided to assert his rights before joining battle. Soumaoro knew that Sundiata also was a sorcerer, so, instead of sending an embassy, he committed his words to one of his owls. The night bird came and perched on the roof of Sundiata’s tent and spoke. The son of Sologon in his turn sent his owl to Soumaoro. Here is the dialogue of the sorcerer kings.
“Stop, young man. Henceforth I am the king of Mali. If you want peace, return to where you came from,” said Soumaoro.
“I am coming back, Soumaoro, to recapture my kingdom. If you want peace you will make amends to my allies and return to Sosso where you are the king.”
“I am the king of Mali by force of arms. My rights have been established by conquest.”
“Then I will take Mali from you by force of arms and chase you from my kingdom.”
“Know, then, that I am the wild yam of the rock; nothing can make me leave Mali.’
Know, also that I have in my camp seven master smiths who will shatter the rocks. Then, yam, I will eat you.”
“I am the poisonous mushroom that makes the fearless vomit.”
“As for me, I am the ravenous cock, the poison does not matter to me.”
“Behave yourself, little boy, or you will burn your foot, for I am the red-hot cinder.”
“But me, I am the rain that extinguishes the cinder; I am the boisterous torrent that will carry you off.”
“I am the mighty silk-cotton tree that looks from on high on the tops of other trees.”
“And I, I am the strangling creeper that climbs to the top of the forest giant.”
“Enough of this argument. You shall not have Mali.”
(from Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali)
As I observed to my students, Soumaoro, unable to best Sundiata verbally, breaks off the challenge, and this is a presage of his defeat by arms on the battlefield the following day. Words matter.
Plus, love those owls.
The second example came from a novel by the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
If you haven’t read this novel but the title sounds a little familiar, it may be because it was borrowed for the title of an album by Brian Eno and David Byrne that marked an early crossover of electronic, ambient and sampled world music (Tutuola has always been very cool; one of his earliest literary admirers was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas).
Tutuola, who published his work from the 1950s through to the 1980s, was a kind of crossover artist himself, who fit fantastical African folktales into novels of exploration and journey. He also combined the poetry of his rough-and-ready English with hints of the phrasing of his first language, Yoruba.
In Tutuola’s novel, a young man manages to escape a raiding party on his village by hiding in a clump of bushes. What he doesn’t know is that these bushes mark an entrance to the Bush of Ghosts, where the dead live. He is soon lost in this otherwise invisible realm, and along the way of his twenty-year journey to return home, he develops spiritual powers, which he absolutely needs when confronted by a greedy ghost magician:
Having left this village to a distance of a mile this ghost magician came to me on the way, he asked me to let both of us share the gifts, but when I refused he changed into a poisonous snake, he wanted to bite me to death, so I myself used my magical power and changed to a long stick at the same moment and started to beat him repeatedly. When he felt much pain and near to die, then he changed from a snake to a great fire and burnt this stick to ashes, after that he started to burn me, too. Without hesitation I myself changed to rain, so I quenched him at once. Again he controlled the place that I stood to become a deep well in which I found myself unexpectedly, and without any ado he controlled this rain to be raining into the well while I was inside. Within a second the well was full with water. But when he wanted to close the door of the well so that I might not be able to come out again or to die inside it, I myself changed to a big fish to swim out. But at the same moment he saw the fish he himself changed to a crocodile, he jumped into the well and came to swallow me, but before he could I changed to a bird and also changed the gifts to a single palm fruit, I held it with my beak and then flew out of the well straight to the 18th town of ghosts. Without any ado he changed himself to a hawk to kill me as his prey.
But when I believed that no doubt he would catch me very soon, then I changed again, to the air, and blew within a second to a distance which a person could not travel on foot for thirty years. But when I changed to my former form at the end of this distance, to my surprise, there I met him already, he had reached there before me and was waiting for me for a long time.
(from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts)
Once I read these two selections to the students, I then asked them to pair up and write their own verbal dueling. As I came to expect, this request was never greeted with groans or protests. Instead, the kids grabbed pencils, paper and partners and had at it. Once they got started, I’d walk around the classroom and read aloud from brief examples of what some of the students were writing, and this seemed to further inspire the rest. After about twenty minutes, it was hard to get them to stop, and when I announced that they could now read theirs out loud to the rest of the class, hands waved wildly to be the first picked.
I’m the mightiest wave in the ocean
But I’m the strongest pier on the beach and I’ll break you up
So? I’m the heaviest ship and I’ll run into you
I’m a coral reef and you’ll run into me and wreck
But I’m a great diver and I will survive
I’m a shark and I’ll get you anyway
I’m a dolphin and I can protect myself from you
Well, I’m the undertow and I’ll carry you to land
I’m a shell and I want to go to the shore
Well, I’m a dune buggy and I’ll crush you to pieces
So, I’m a nail and I’ll blow your tire out
But now I’m the mightiest wave in the ocean and I’ll carry you out to sea
I’m a seagull and I’ll fly away
So, I’m a huge butterfly net and I’ll trap you
(Linda Barbour and Kim Slayton, Manchester High School, Virginia, 1979)
I am the highest balloon in the air
I am an arrow and I will puncture you
So? I am a metal wall that you will run into and then you will be bent
I am a hot fire that will melt you
I am sand that will be dumped on top of you
I am the ocean and I will wash you away
I am the sun and I will evaporate you
So? I will be time and I will burn you out
So I will be a clock and turn you back
I will be your burned out battery
I will be a charger to recharge you
I will be the electricity that shorts your circuits
So I will be the circuit breaker that trips you back on
I will be the storm that cuts you off completely
So I will be the place after the storm
(Ann Wampler and Melissa Robertson, Manchester High School, Virginia, 1979)
It took me a while to fully figure out why this first writing assignment turned out to be so successful. The first reason, I think, is that the Sundiata and Tutuola examples are so exciting that they banish any lingering doubts the students might have that poetry or writing is a boring exercise. Then when I asked them to write their own versions, they all had the cover of a partner, and the welcoming ease of a readymade structure, and so didn’t balk about writing in class, or reading their work aloud. A verbal battle, after all, might have to be written down first, but it’s best when performed. Also, they had the opportunity to let out a little aggression, accompanied by the safety (and frustration!) of knowing that no matter what kind of a fix they might put their partner in, escape was always inevitable. And they learned a little about the power, and limits, of the imagination, as well as the insinuating pleasures of metaphor.
I had another agenda, too. There I was, a transplanted New Yorker teaching in a Virginia Poets-in-the-Schools program in the late 1970s, and I was quite aware of racial politics. Most of the kids chosen in advance for my various classes were white, though there was always a handful of black students chosen as well. I had a pretty good feeling that none of the kids, black or white, had ever heard of or been taught that there was any such thing as African literature. Time to set the record straight, give the black kids something to brag about, and give the white kids something to think about. And, I realized, why stop there? In future classes I’d be reading to them not only contemporary American poetry, but also Asian proverbs, African praise poems, poetry from Cuba and Turkey, whatever I suspected they weren’t getting in their regular classes.
I’d nearly forgotten about those long ago years, and all that itinerant teaching I did. It was a training ground that gave me a love of teaching that has stayed with me ever since, a love that has also nurtured my writing—perhaps something I’ll write about in a future post.Tagged with: Amos Tutuola • D.T. Niane • My Life in the Bush of the Ghosts • Poets-in-the-Schools • Sundiata
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