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Oral narrative is one genre of folklore that has constantly generated arguments on the basis of its inconsistencies whenever it is performed by the same performer or different performers at different moments. The causes of oral narrative variation have been attributed to diverse reasons by folklore scholars.  Some of the suggested causes are loss of memory on the part of the performers, narrative incompetence, audiences’ desire for a multiplicity of themes (to which the performers yield) and the fluidity of folklore itself to accommodate issues that arise in life (in which case it is considered an essence of the genre). The core purpose of oral narrative variation, however, has been omitted by most of the scholars, which is the performer’s intention to please his audience, his desire to present to them something that is beautiful; in other words, his wish to perform a narrative that has got aesthetic value. To achieve this purpose, the narrator intentionally makes effort not to bore his audience with monotony, but constantly embellishes his narrative with varieties that dazzle his audiences and makes them want to hear the same story over and over again. This is to say that the inconsistencies in his narrative at diverse moments of performance are actually not an indication of incompetence. On the contrary, it is an art that is craftily wielded by a master performer to please his audience and make the moment they spend listening to him worthwhile. This research, therefore, is an attempt to reveal how the oral performer wields variation as a tool to reveal an art that can ‘seize the gaze’ of his audience (Akwanya).  To show how this works, this research would do a comparative analysis of variants of three narratives collected from Okposi in Ebonyi state, Awka in Anambra state and Ohafia in Abia state. It would reveal the internal patterns of variation in the narratives based on their events, scenes of action, characters, actions and utterances of the characters.



1.1.           Background of the Study

Oral narrative is one form of oral performance that is hardly overlooked whenever folklore is discussed.  Its place as a form of entertainment and, sometimes, as a vehicle for passing on the history of a people and producing answers to mysteries make it people’s favourite.  George W. Boswell and Russell Reaves (1962:116) have rightly noted that “all the world loves a story. That is why it could be seriously argued that the folktale broadly conceived is the most universal and common of the forms of folk literature and the most influential of all art fiction.” However, it is one generic form of folklore that is constantly producing different versions of itself whenever it is performed before an audience. The versions may look alike, but to a practised ear, some patterns of variation can be identified.  Patterns of variation mean those points of inconsistencies in the story that make it vary each time it is retold by the same or different narrators, to the same or different audiences.

What can  actually make different variants of one story to sound alike, or deceive a non-practised ear with its inconsistency is its ability to retain the nucleus of the story each time it is retold, no matter how much it varies from the previous account.  The nucleus is the subject matter, or the salient issue around which the story revolves.  It could be an act of valour or heroism performed by a character, the wisdom or mischief of a character, the cause or reason for the existence of some mystery, or the origin or history of some occurrence, phenomena or species.  A change of the nucleus announces a different tale or narrative.  In other words, if the subject matter changes, for instance, from heroism to the cause of some mystery, it means the story has ceased to be the same. But even though the subject matter remains consistent, variation does occur in the language and structure of the narrative.  In view of this observation, Chukwuma Azuonye observes that:

… there is no single correct version of any tale and thus no memorization of texts in any kind of fixed form. The variations often affect content, sometimes quite drastically. The events which make up a story might be varied, and so too might be the scenes of actions, the characters involved and their doings and utterances. (The Oral Performance in Africa 55)

From Azuonye’s findings, the points of variation could be,

a.      The events

b.      The scenes of action

c.      The characters

d.      The doings (actions of the characters) and

e.      The utterances (words of the characters).

In his study of three versions of Nne Mgbafor, an Ohafia heroic tale, narrated by one performer, Kaluu Igirigiri, Azuonye notices that there are a number of significant variations in some of the details. For instance, in the first variant, the battle is set at a place called Igbe Mmaku (an Igbo territory), while in the second variant, it is set at a place called Nnong (in Ibibio land). Igbe Mmaku is reintroduced in the third version not as an enemy territory, but as a friendly Igbo territory where the heroine is able to stop and secure escorts for her perilous adventures into Nnong, Ibibio land.

The researcher notices similar variation in his study of the three versions of how Aka, the green snake, became a totem in his community, Okposi Okwu. The narrators were two, Mama Grace and Ogbo Okorie. Mama Grace narrated one version the first day and on the second day when the researcher revisited and asked her for the same story, she told another version. In the first version, the totem was said to have led the first family that migrated to the place they finally settled.  They followed it for several days until the snake stopped at where the community is located today. As a mark of honour, the snake was considered a totem and revered by every member of the community. In a second version, the same narrator, Mama Grace, narrated how Aka helped the community to fight a war against neighbouring communities. While the warriors ran to hide from their enemies, the snake would be busy erasing their footprints with its belly; hence, the community never had many casualties during the war. At the end of the war, the community began to revere and regard it as a totem. The third version, narrated by Ogbo Okorie, has it that when the first family of the community settled at the present location, they suddenly discovered that whenever a child was born, Aka would be found around it.  And if it was sent away, it would re-appear the following day around the baby. Seeing that the snake was harmless to the baby, and that the baby was always at rest and quiet each time Aka was with it, the parents decided to let it be. Afterwards, Aka appeared to the father of the baby and told him that it (Aka) was the guarding spirit of the child. This caused the community to begin to regard it as a totem.

Now note these points: in the first version, Aka told the head of the family that it was the family’s guiding spirit sent by the ancestors to lead them to where they would settle. In the second version, it told the chief warrior, that it was a companion of warriors sent by the ancestors to assist them in war. And in the third version, Aka told the head of the family that it was the guarding spirit of his children. The inconsistencies are quite glaring, yet the variants have got the same subject matter.

1.2.           Statement of the Problem

The problem that bothers the researcher now is how to account for these significant changes in location of key events, utterances, characters and even actions of stories that look alike and seem to carry the same subject matter; how to account for the diverse variants of the same story:

i.        Are we to regard them as errors and inconsistencies of the kind to which oral performers all over the world are well-known to be prone?

ii.     Are we to admit them as evidence of purposive change leading toward greater refinement and authenticity?

iii.   Are we to regard them as display of creative genius in the effort to out-perform or out-shine an opponent, rival or fellow performer? Or

iv.   Are we to consider them efforts to create the beautiful, something that has aesthetic value, by way of constantly exciting the audience with variety, instead of boring them with monotony? 

After giving it thoughts, the researcher decided to go with the last option, which is option iv. One point is very clear: the intention of the narrators is not to present authenticity, hence the inconsistencies. To present authenticity is to present facts. And facts have a way of ruining creativity and boring the audience. Secondly, the audience is already aware that the story the performer narrates is older than him and the audience, and of course timeless; hence the usual introduction, “Once upon a time,” or “When the sky was the land of the squirrel,” or, as it is with the Yoruba people, “My story spins and spins and falls on the head of (for instance) the child who was hated by his step mother.”  Since the audience does not demand facts or authenticity from the performer, they surely must be interested in the beautiful, which is why they would listen to the same story over and over again.

1.3.           Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this research is not to do an aesthetic evaluation of the narratives collected for this research, but to establish through a comparative analysis of the narratives that the purpose of the variation in folklore is to create aesthetic value for each narrative at moments of performance. The researcher, therefore, studies the reason for varying a story at different moments of performance, by hinging his points on performers’ effort to create the beautiful, something that has aesthetic value, by way of constantly exciting the audience with variety, instead of boring them with monotony, as against the reasons stated in options i to iii in the statement of the problem above.

1.4.           Scope and Limitations

This research dwells extensively on the art of oral narrative performance, an interesting collection of oral narratives collected from Okposi in Ebonyi State, Awka in Anambra State and Ohafia in Abia, all of which are in South-Eastern region of Nigeria, West Africa; and a thorough comparative study of the diverse variants of a narrative from each area.  The collections include both documented and non-documented narratives. Sources of materials that are used to carry out the research also include internet materials, as well as hard copy texts.

1.5.           Significance of the Study

Considering that my area of research is oral literature, the import of this work lies in its attempt to a broader intellectual for the understanding of the process and techniques of oral narrative, what accounts for a good oral narrative, the yardstick for measuring the performance of a narrator in traditional African setting and what actually keeps the audience spellbound during oral narrative performances. It would also help broaden the minds of other researchers who would want to understand oral narrative structures in the south-east of Nigeria, as the narratives here used for research are picked from three states of the region.

1.6.           Research Methodology

Considering that this project is by research work, instead of by course work, the researcher has adopted Qualitative Research Method. The particular aspect of qualitative research method used is Narrative Inquiry.  In other words, the research was carried out with mostly materials gathered from the field via the researcher’s face to face interview with oral performers in Okposi, Awka and Ohafia, who recounted the narratives that are used in this research work. The researcher, therefore,

(a) participated in the setting,

(b) observed directly,

(c) carried out in-depth interviews,  and

(d) analyzed materials collected.

The performers are duly acknowledged in this research. One of the variants of the narratives here used is taken from an already documented source,

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