Reviewer: Prof Solomon Obotetukudo
In the beginning of Ibibiolands, the worlds were made by words, and the people lived and thrived in words. By their words in proverbs, riddles, axioms, puns, nsibidis, songs, dances, praise songs, cries, funeral dirges, eulogies, panegyrics, war songs, and other words derivatives, the peoples made senses of their worlds.
Words are humans. Words are us. We live with and in words.
Ini Ite Ubong brings the old world of the oralitures of the EFIK-EKID-ORON- IBIBIO-ANNANG peoples to the present-day experience in ten illustrated stories, that embody the didactic and the instructional elements in all oral narratives and folktales.
I have opted to call the fusion of oral historical and cultural stories of non-literate societies oralitures, as against oraliterature, because their stories were not written; but spoken orally. Hence orality + culture = oralitures. I am stating a claim, but also stoking literati to rise up with their guns and bayonets to aim at me!
Oral traditions make the people of Ibibiolands. Ini Ite Ubong transliterates many of these culturally oral narratives into a book form, in Ekon Nke–Our Stories. Published in 2015 and second printed in 2021, which demonstrates the currency and high demand for the work.
The book is not only a compilation of Ibibio heartlands’ cultures, histories, and oral-spoken traditions, but a factual display of the power of language as a glue and clue to the ways humans used to share meanings and experiences, without the rancours of ethnicity, boundarizing, and politicking of revenue allocations and derivations.
A common thread that runs through to a keen reader is the philosophy of language as a leveller and equalizer. In the book, Ini Ite Ubong reflects lamentably, “I strongly believe the boundaries between ethnic groups are artificial monuments they have robbed us of the joy of living without ethnic-based boundaries….Our tales have a lot of similarities rather than differences.” (2015, p. xxiii)
The thrust of her 10 carefully crafted stories is the celebration of the core values that make Ibibio culture, traditions, and civilizations didactic, knowledge-creating, instructional, ontological (the ways Ibibios are- the nature of our being and living in the world), as well as epideictic (that is, entertaining).
So, for the Ibibios, all stories serve to create, enhance, and entrench their peoples’ ways of knowing ways of living, and ways of entertaining.
Thus, storytelling in Ibibiolands is not an exact science; but a human science and art of living—an art. It is nonmechanical but relational, interactional, and holistic.
As an illustration, Ini Ubong opens the story entry of “Uyai and her Ugly Husband” with a preface, “Ekon Nke-e” and immediately followed with the typical response, “Nke ekon Abasi,” from the audience. This pattern of narrator-audience participation is prevalent in Ini Ubong’s book, and it indicates the interactional and relational elements in traditional Ibibio storytelling methods.
Also, the call-response approach invites interpretation and knowledge-affirming proclivities of the narrator and the listeners. The narrator does not only ‘tell’ the meanings of the stories, but the audience members provide or affirm their own meanings from their stock knowledge of cultural scripts.
To an extent, it is arguable that these are not stock responses to stock proverbs from the culture’s banks.
Be that as it may, the narrator-audience-specific responses validate shared knowledge in the culture. It would be the responsibility of the narrators to espouse the correctness of otherwise; on the validity or otherwise; and the reliability or otherwise of the audience’s responses.
Ini Ite Ubong is doing to Ibibio oral narratives what Milman Perry and Albert Lord did to Serbia Croatian oral poetry. A cautionary note is appropriate here: poetry is not prose; and not the same as native proverbs prefaced in call-and-response schemes.
That said, it is worthy that Ini Ite Ubong is not converting poetry to written mode, as did these European writers.
Ini Ite Ubong is writing verbatim Ibibiolands’ oral stories, Ibibio oral traditions, and cultural mores, and she is transliterating specific forms of oralitures into writing.
Ini Ite Ubong is transporting oral narratives that were pre-eminently spoken. Her transliteration is phenomenal, epochal, as well as theory-building, in the semblances of the oral-formulaic composition of Milman Perry and Albert Lord. Yet, she differs from these earlier writers in that Ini Ubong is not merely transcribing, neither is she converting poetry to written texts; instead, she is doing a word-for-word transliterating of oral narratives to written format.
As I noted earlier, poetry and prose narratives are distinct in styles and structures, with each exhibiting peculiar rhetorical elements aimed at different audiences, in the aggregates.
As a writer of oral stories, she is constrained by culture, and traditions, but more so by the forced inklings to impose writing standards on spoken worlds and spoken words. The two are not the same.
Modern-day readers may confuse the written as the same as the spoken. But these are two distinct modes in human expressive discourses.
Ini Ite Ubong may be the forerunner of the death of Ibibio oralitures; or a writer throwing more petrol onto a flaming inferno on the dying art of speaking communications and oral performances in traditionally oral cultures, with the age of telecommunications and the internet diffusion.
But orality is primordial, and not primitive; ancestral but not modernistic; adaptive and not extinctual; and permanent in spite of all the changes.
Oralitures remain fluid, hereditary, and dynamic in nature and style. Writing oralitures makes them permanent, and may just be a repeat performance of every written performer, with only the actors and performers changing their garbs.
It remains to be seen in future compilations if Ini Ite Ubong would be kind enough to react that the audience responses were wrong or false interpretations. For now, in this collection, it appears the audience members know the appropriate breakdown of the content of the proverbs.
Ini Ubong’s effort is laudable and highly recommendable for the purposes of retaining Ibibio cultures and civilizations, and for retrieving a presumably lost art form. But can Ini guarantee authenticity in the translation that would come after her transliteration? Would the cut-and-paste mania of the internet generation affect the authorial reliability, and validity of her transfers from orality to literature? How is Ini Ite Ubong ensuring the art form is what it once was in the ancient worlds of the Ibibios?