ModernGhana logo
05.04.2020 Feature Article

The Woman Who Refused To Smile

The Woman Who Refused To Smile
Listen to article

When my mother finished telling us the story of The Stranger And The Lion, she obeyed the custom that usually followed story-telling sessions, and threw a challenge to those who had listened to her to – tell stories of their own!Read More: Laughter Then And Now

The challenge was a good-natured, traditional way of inciting her listeners to “better” her story. We all waited expectantly for the challenge to be taken up.

Now these challenges often brought out extremely good stories, which, in their turn, inspired members of the audience to tell even better stories.

That's why story-telling sessions were only allowed to take place at night. Otherwise, no-one would ever leave a story-telling session and go to do something else for which he or she was responsible. To enforce the rule that stories should not be told in the day-time, there was an ancient and well-feared taboo that war4ned that “If you tell stories in the day-time, you'll suffer from a disease called adwonkubƐn [a type of nasty “polio” disease that disfigured the legs of a person].

Meanwhile, my mother couched her challenge in this traditional formula:

ManansesƐm a metooƐyi,

SƐ ƐyƐ dƐ o,

SƐ ƐnnyƐ dƐ o,

Ebi nkϽ,

Na ebi mmera!

[This, my story, which I have narrated,

Whether it is sweet [i.e. pleasing to you],

Or it is not sweet [i.e. it does not please you],

Let something go forth from it,

And let something also come back, out of it! (to us). ]

This formula encouraged everyone to contribute to story-telling. In that way, it got rid of shyness, or the fear of speaking in public. Certainly, if one dared not speak in public, how could one defend oneself against, say, an accusation before the chief? Thus, not only did telling stories in a group illustrate that even though not all persons are talented in equal measure, everyone had something to contribute.

One person might have a great sense of humour; another might know how to sing very well; and there would almost always be a super-star, who stood out because he or she had all these qualities and could incorporate them in a piece of wonderful drama. Thus, it was recognised that even if someone's story might not be that interesting, it could add “something” to the knowledge, or enjoyment, of members of the audience.

Well, as soon as my mother threw the challenge, my “younger mother,” (a cousin of my mother's who was younger than her) called Maame Afia Kyeraa took it up!

(Now, I must explain that she should actually be classified as my “aunt”, (she being my mother's mother's sister's daughter). But in Akan communities, the concept of “aunt” is only applied to the sister of one's father, and not to one's mother's sister or female "cousin"!

One's mother's family was an “extended family”. In that group, there were no “cousins” and “aunts”! Every female member of the group regarded the children of a member of the group as her own children. So one's mother's sister was always one's “younger mother” (not one's "Aunt"). Indeed, it was not done to address her, or look upon her, in any other way.

This meant that if one's natural mother unfortunately passed away when one was a child, one would be brought up by one's mother's “sisters” what (in European terms) would be regarded as her £sisters" and “cousins”, without their showing any difference between the way they treated one, and the way they treated their own natural children. Therefore, Akan “orphans” who lose their mothers very early on in life, can grow up totally unaware that they had suffered such a major loss in their childhood.

As a growing child, therefore, I knew that Maame Afia Kyeraa was my mother – in all but name. Well, I was thrilled when I noticed that it was she who was to follow my natural mother's footsteps and tell a story. It meant I would always have a mother who could tell stories – haha!

Maame Kyeraa began by intoning this formula: “Abra braa!”

This meant she was “knocking at the door" to indicate that she was ready to tell a story. (By the way: I think the term, “Abra braa!”, was probably coined as a result of a play on the word “bra” (which means to “come”.) One of the most amazing things about our languages is that although they were not written down, they contained metaphors, rhymes, alliteration and other ways of "playing on words", which anyone with a good knowledge of literature would recognise as "literary devices" evolved to maske speech and stories morre interesting.

Now, how can you use literary devices when you are "illiterate"? That's one of the amazing gifts that Nature bestowed on those of us born in Africa. Our "oral literature" is as good, if not better, than some of the "written literature" found elsewhere. Maybe a "mental" exercise produces better results than a "written" one? I don't know; but the fact is inescapable "illiterate" Africans use word-play" a greast deal.

In other words, she had said: “I propose to come forward with something new, that can get someone else to also come with something new! And what do you all say to that?”)

The correct response to “Abra braa” was “YONG!” ( the “o” in this latter word is pronounced as in “hope”).

We all shouted ”YONG!” after being invited to do so by the would-be story-teller.

So Maame Kyeraa took centre-stage. She began:

There was once a woman who lived with her husband in a village. After man and wife had been married for a year, everyone in the village expected the woman to conceive and bear a child. But this did not happen. However, no-one minded, for such a lateness in the conception of a child after marriage was not unknown.

But another year passed. And still, there was no sign of the woman having conceived.

After three years had passed with nothing happening, the woman became convinced that she had been born “infertile.”