Generally, Nigerians love to inculcate Western traditions and ideas, and so most of us are familiar with the tradition of Western bedtime stories. A few privileged Nigerian kids are lucky enough to grow up listening to the likes of Jack and The Beanstalk or Cinderella just before going to sleep. But what many may not know is that the act of telling stories before bed doesn’t solely belong to the Western world.
Bedtime stories have been a part of Nigerian culture far beyond the time of fairytale princesses. Every tribe and culture in Nigeria, right from time, have always had their term for it in their indigenous languages. However, these bedtime stories were generally known to all and sundry as “Tales by Moonlight”.
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Bedtime Stories in Nigeria: Tales by Moonlight in the Igbo Tradition
Ages ago, in the time of our forefathers, when the moon was at its highest and just before everyone went to bed, they had a time of leisure which they called “Egwu Onwa”. While the young men wrestled and the maidens danced, little children would sit around bonfires with an elder in their midst. The older man or woman would then tell the kids different folktales by the fire, after which they would go to sleep. In Igbo land, they called those bedtime stories “Akuko Ifo”.
In those days, with the absence of Western education, those tales contributed significantly to the intellectual and societal mindset of the children. It was through those stories that children learned bits and pieces of their traditions. The stories also exposed them to the various facets of human nature.
In those days, the stories were told in a manner that captured the attention of children. They often featured animals like the tortoise, who in every story was known for his cunning, the elephant who loved to eat, and the brave lion who was a constant tyrant. Apart from the interesting characters, what made the stories so delightful were the songs found within them. The songs added a musical lilt to the whole experience. Additionally, they were imbibed as nursery rhymes since they were the songs the children grew up with.
The tradition didn’t belong just to the Igbos. The Yorubas called theirs “Awon Alo Ile” which they told during the time of Ere Osupa (moonlight play). Additionally, the Hausas called their folktales “Tatsuniya”.
The Endangered State of Bedtime Stories in Nigeria
Sometime between the early to mid-90s, the existence of Nigerian folktales as bedtime stories was still predominant. It may not have been by a big bonfire, but it was told by candlelight, lanterns, or even fluorescent bulbs at night. Its mission was still the same; it told stories of the customs of each culture, and it hammered on good moral values while entertaining the kids.
However, in the early 2000s, the dispersal of these stories began to decline. I can only speculate a few reasons for this. It could be that, at that time, our economy truly started to fall, and parents were overworked while trying to keep up with the family’s standard of living. Hence, they can’t get home tired and begin to tell stories. It could be that the stories were lost or forgotten by many since they were technically never written down from the beginning.
Another speculation, one that I believe, was the gravitation to all things Western. Why listen to the story of a bride made of palm oil when you can listen to sleeping beauty instead? Our stories became too local and boring, therefore, they were forgotten.
However, at some point, in the midst of this threatening extinction, there was a shift. NTA, The National Television Association, in the late 90s and early 2000, came to the rescue with a popular TV show which, funnily enough, was called ”Tales by Moonlight”.
The series portrayed the times of old; children gathered together at night to listen to stories. The show aired every Sunday evening, and in its way, it was a substitute for what we had been long missing.
Fortunately for me, I was able to catch repeat episodes of the series a few years after it had stopped airing. Though the stories were told in English for mass understanding, it still did its job. I was also fortunate as my parents did the storytelling at times, but not everyone may have been as fortunate as I had been.
The loss of our folktales, believe it or not, had detrimental impacts on our various cultures. Those tales were not only entertaining, but it was through them that children learned the ancient proverbs and traditions related to their cultures. It was one effective way to get children interested in their tribe and language.
With the disappearance of our authentic stories, Nigerian children and teens experienced a mass disinterest in their culture.
The Turn of a New Tide
Recently, our relationship with our authentic stories have changed. Of late, there has been a new wave of awareness towards them. I do not know which factor to attribute this change to. It could be that Nigerians have realized that their culture may not be passed down to the next generation if the endangerment continues. It could also be the use of certain proverbs in Afrobeat songs, which has become an international sensation of late.
But somehow, the youths and kids have become more interested in their own authentic tales. Suddenly, our cultural stories are no longer local or boring but cool. They are now inspirations for songs and art, and you may even find a little of it sprinkled in new Nollywood movies like the opening of the 2020 film; “Nneka the pretty serpent.”
Our folktales are now on par with the western fairytales. Nigerian bedtime stories aren’t just forgettable English comprehension passages for primary school students anymore. They are now actual books published for the sole reason of reading them to children at night. In bookstores, you can find something like “Stories of Our Land” by Ndidi Chiazor right next to “Princess and the Frog” in the kiddie’s section.
There are websites, YouTube channels, and TikTok dedicated to the revival of our own bedtime stories. Interestingly enough, there’s a whole course series on Udemy titled; “Awon Alo Ile,” which teaches the Yoruba bedtime stories and their myths. Quite frankly, I believe these developments are a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, some parents may still not have the time to tell bedtime stories to their children at all.
But the children can find these stories all on their own. Parents could also help by providing the books for them. Perhaps, in the journey of this refamiliarization, we could go back to the times of old again, but for now, we can only hope and do our best.
According to a study featured in The Guardian, “Bedtime stories help children’s cognitive development”. With that in mind, it would be lovely if you would take the time to read to your kids before bed. It would be even lovelier to read your cultural folktales, preferably in your language.
Think of it as killing two birds with one stone, developing your child’s brain while telling them a thing or two about their culture. But if you prefer Western stories, then go right ahead. At the end of the day, it’s all for the good and happiness of the children.
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Edited by Oluwanifemi Akintomide.
Akorah Chioma Diana is a recent graduate from the University of Lagos. A creative and content writer, her love for writing began in her Junior Secondary School when she became interested in reading.
A 2021/2022 KANAC Creative writing winner, excerpts of her work can be found in the KANAC Anthology, Pride Magazine Nigeria, and Tush Media Magazine.
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