Traditional Tefle. The ancient, skilled art of storytelling is a favorite pastime with many Ghanaian families. It's a system by which their long history is passed down orally. But today technology is moving like a fast eraser across this country's cultural blackboard.
THE village of Tefle is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Ghana's capital, Accra. As in hundreds of other villages, here can be found the old Africa. Unpaved streets and mud and clay huts bake silently in the sub-Saharan sun. Easygoing inhabitants engage in daily activities that have remained unchanged for generations. Strong-boned women dressed in gay, patterned cloth sell vegetables at roadside kiosks - red piles of tomatoes and chili peppers, yams, garden eggs, and groundnuts (peanuts) wrapped in newsprint.
Old women and young girls pound fufu (cassava and plantain) in courtyards and stir chili-flavored stews. Chickens roam at will, and babies crawl on the hard-baked earth. Men work, idle, or hunt small game.
Traditional ways of life are preserved in places like Tefle, but someday this typical village scene may be extinct.
Like other African nations, Ghana lingers on the threshold of a technological world that allows no one to remain long on the outside. Dr. Peter Sarpong, author of ``Ghana in Retrospect,'' says, ``The wind of social change blowing over Africa has swept all social institutions and patterns of ideas with the obliterating effect of a duster on a blackboard.''
For many years, Ghana's elders have been gravely concerned with the increasing alienation of youth from tradition, as well as the loss of Ghana's cultural heritage and loss of respect for traditional values and ideals.
Recently, Ghanaian sociologists, historians, and anthropologists have joined the elders in recognizing the importance of preserving Ghana's cultural heritage. Under close examination is the ancient art of storytelling.
STORYTELLING is a favorite pastime in most Ghanaian families and communities. More than simple amusement, it is a highly developed art form that provides a traditional way of disseminating information about society. For centuries, proud forebears have handed down history, customs, beliefs, and a code of social and moral conduct to their progeny through storytelling.
Elders impart this knowledge through stories that may be historical, religious, factual, or allegorical. They teach Ghanaian values like godliness, respect, honor, hospitality, gratitude, tribal pride, and morality.
Some stories teach etiquette - such as how to greet others, how to give and accept gifts, and how and when to request and receive favors. Tribal and clan history are revealed in stories that often combine fact and myth.
``In my village,'' says Becky Amegby, a shopkeeper in Accra, ``storytelling is still an honored pastime in the family and community. It is how the children learn about their heritage. A favored time for stories is during a full moon, because our village has no electricity.''
The scenario is much the same in all the small villages. On this typical evening in Tefle, a brilliant moon pours streams of silver light over the tin-roofed houses.
In one of the compounds, a log fire highlights the anticipatory glances of children gathered in a squirmy group. Elders, draped in traditional robes, maintain a whispered dignity until the appointed hour when storytelling begins.
Soon an elder calls everyone together. Giggling girls and scampering children cap nervous energy and sit cross-legged near the warm flames. Mothers swaddle infants. Men stop gossiping. All find their places in the semicircle, completing an ancient scene.
In several respects, storytelling resembles theater. Usually an elder man or woman is the ``director'' of the evening's performance.
When everyone is seated, he introduces the chief storyteller, who moves to a place between the group and the fire, creating a silhouette effect that is useful for acting out parts of the story in the dark.
Although the majority of storytelling is dominated by elders, everyone is expected to share a story sometime during the evening. Good storytellers are respected in the community - especially those who are eloquent, articulate, and accomplished at dramatization. Fables are by far the most popular.
TONIGHT the first story engages a favorite recurring character, Kwaku Ananse, whose escapades and activities teach moral lessons.
``Kwaku Ananse lived with his large family in their village house,'' begins the storyteller, a bearded elder with a wizened face and bright, intelligent eyes.
He tells a tale of greed and deception. It ends when Kwaku is discovered and so humiliated that he turns into a spider and scuttles away to where he cannot be seen.
The story of Kwaku Ananse is a typical fable meant to teach a lesson about selfishness. Other stories might take up pride, greed, or self-centeredness.
Sometimes the stories are acted out by the narrator. Sometimes they take the form of dances. Others involve drumming and singing. Still others include audience participation: Part of the story is a song to which the audience joins in singing a refrain.
Some myths relate to creation or tell about heroes who have championed mankind or given them important benefits. Other stories tell about the origin of death, the gift of fire, the organization of societies, institutions, and customs.
Many of the popular tales feature God as a character. In most, He is the hero, a just judge who condemns villains and rewards those who do good deeds.
There is one well-known myth about an old woman with a pestle. It says that God was once very near to the earth, but each time the old woman pounded her fufu the pestle hit Him. God protested several times, but when He realized it was to no avail, He decided to withdraw into the skies.
It is easy to imagine the wide-eyed looks of the children as such tales are dramatized, the amber glow of the night fire accentuating the movements of the narrator. It is no wonder that storytelling is so popular among villagers. BUT in the cities, this form of entertainment has largely disappeared.
``Here in Accra,'' states Becky Amegby regretfully, ``there are too many other things to do - especially for young people. There are restaurants, movie houses, and nightclubs for them. They are not interested in traditional ways.
``To them storytelling is something for the old and ignorant. They prefer reading magazines and newspapers to acquire information about the modern world.''
But eventually even in the village, storytelling will likely be replaced by television sets and log fires with electric light bulbs. This familiar method of teaching and entertaining will probably go the way of bullock plowing. A vital portion of Ghana's customs and heritage may be lost.
At this time, however, the myriad stories that have developed over the years are being documented and preserved through the efforts of historians and other concerned parties.