John B. Akanvariyuei Agandin (2015)
The Adventures of Asuom. Folktales from Northern Ghana.
Accra: Afram Publications Ltd., 88 pages, soft-cover (Price in Europe: 15.83 €, E-book price: 3.65 €; Price in Ghana: GHC 5.00, price in Sandema: GHC 6.00)
Book review by Franz Kröger.
Booklets in English on Bulsa cultural topics or history are quite popular among the educated Bulsa. The members of the younger generation who are somewhat alienated from their traditional culture are trying to round off their knowledge about such topics from booklets written in English. If you ask, for example, students about the history of Atuga, the founder of one part of the Bulsa, you are often told a version as it is presented in St. John Parson’s publication Legends of Northern Ghana (1960). That said, John Agandin’s booklet, if it is distributed in a sufficiently large number among schools and libraries, may achieve a high degree of recognition.
The author neither collected his stories in different parts of the country nor did he apply the
popular method of asking pupils to tell old stories as narrated in their home villages. He
simply translated Buli stories told to him by his mother, a native of Wiaga-Farinsa, living as
a wife in Sandema-Balansa. This method has the advantage of all the fables coming from the
same cultural environment and not having been distorted by being retold again and again in
English by educated people. Agandin’s first readers were pupils at a Sandema school for
whom he had translated some fables featuring Asuom (Mr. Hare) as the trickster protagonist.
Accordingly, the diction of the collection is simple, clear and understandable, even for
readers who have received only minimal English instruction. But his collection could also be
of interest to erudite people. Some of the readers will be reminded of the full moon nights
that are reserved in parts of Bulsaland for storytelling and singing songs. Adults who
unfortunately cannot look back on such experiences because, for example, they grew up
outside Bulsaland or attended a boarding school from early childhood on, could close a gap
in their knowledge of Bulsa narrative culture.
Finally, the collection is also worth reading for non-Bulsa, e.g. anthropologists, Africa experts, missionaries and tourists, especially if they want to acquire more than just a very superficial picture of African peoples and cultures. For a purely scientific analysis, e.g. by researchers of African oral literature, it would certainly have been desirable if the collected stories had been printed in Buli, too. Agandin himself admits that the English version does not fully reflect the "spirit and flavour of words and expressions in the original Buli” (p. V).
The collection consists of only stories with Asuom as the protagonist. He is a trickster figure found in many folk tales around the world. (In southern Ghana such stories are told about Ananse, the spider.) Although the author repeatedly refers to Asuom as "mischievous", he is not simply a malicious criminal. His intelligence and his inventiveness allow him to master any situation, and he easily wins the sympathy of the reader.
Because of this, some readers may even identify with the trickster. After all, he is one of the
weakest bush animals, endowed by the Creator with no offensive weapons but nevertheless
highly acknowledged by all other animals. Although Asuom mostly tricks all of the others
and returns home to his wife Aseeka with ample food, in a few stories he is surpassed by
some wiser characters (e.g. Akoluk or Abiak).
Agandin’s booklet contains 24 masterfully drawn, full-page black and white illustrations that may help pupils of English to understand the contents completely. The drawing of the kalaasing-bird, for example, is so lifelike that its botanical name could be determined from the image. However, the environment of the depicted animals is not always completely faithful to the realities of Bulsa culture. Cattle, for example, are drawn as Zebus with a hump (p. 6, 30 and 69) and not as small Nama cattle, as is typical in the Bulsa area. Giraffes (p. 6 and 65) do not live in Northern Ghana. In the illustration on p. 40, Asuom is eating wie (winged termites), a typical Bulsa dish, while sitting on the slanting straw cover of a gabled roof. This kind of roof is still quite rare in Bulsaland. (When they were introduced in the modern form, they were usually zinc.) Bulsa would rather eat snacks (such as wie) on a flat roof (gbong).
Regardless of whether one is Bulsa and non-Bulsa, highly-educated or less-educated, Agandin’s booklet is recommended to all who are interested in African oral literature, and we hope that it will have a wide circulation in Ghana and elsewhere.