Three years ago, I interviewed writer David A. Naff, about his series of tales called Stories From West Africa, Book One (printed in Nigeria) and Stories I Heard in West Africa (printed in the United States). These stories are oral tales about African life, taught in a way to convey a moral lesson, illustrate cause and effect, and share cultural traditions. Mr. Naff gathered most of these tales over a period of 35 years as a missionary in Liberia.
The goal, he said, in writing and illustrating the tales, was to convey relevant Scriptures from the Bible. What developed from his work is much more than that. He became a storyteller, vividly reliving the events to capture all of the elements on the pages of his works. Here is a portion of or conversation:
RH What did you do on a day-to-day basis as a missionary in Liberia, and how did you hear these stories that you write about in your books?
DN I worked at a radio transmitting station, which was located in Liberia. That means we took programs from radio stations and boosted the signal to reach a wider audience. We used to broadcast close to the ocean and supplies were limited. If I wanted something, I would radio my request and then at a later date, the item would arrive. Sometimes the radio waves would reach Spain and Portugal. Back then, we used vacuum tubes, now they use shortwave FM, solid state, I think. We had local church support and American support to stay on the air in 9 different dialects. Culture was important, elder Liberians used stories to teach the upcoming generation and they would share them with us. We knew that was a way people could gain trust from us. We would share stories. Just that simple. Since the official language of Liberia is English, we didn’t have a communication problem. We were even transmitting all the programs in English and in native languages and reaching all of the residents of an area. During those days, we would bring in locals to share the cultural stories on air to create broadcasts from the transmitter stations.
RH So you weren’t what everybody thinks of when they hear the word “missionary”—you were an engineer of sorts? Did you relate these stories to traditional missionary stories, and if so, how?
DN Yes and no. Many of the cultural stories took on spiritual significance. Water spirits indicated the occult, and when someone referred to baptism, one had to be careful: the cultural understanding of baptism was a right of passage, offering a person a new name and spirit, not at all like the Christian understanding of baptism. There was also reference to the devil, again, not as a Christian understands the term, but as a devil bush or little demons waiting in the bushes to mess someone’s life up, a superstitious sort of being. The people relied on a practice of juju or spiritual intervention using witch doctors to create desired circumstances. Well, we understood that. Many practices taught that the body had special powers, for example, the tongue had power to speak death about someone and it would occur.
RH What is one example of a story, and how is it similar and/or different to a tale we may have heard growing up?
DN A story that was often repeated has some similarity to our Cinderella and is traditionally told at Christmastime under an almond tree. “Wash Girl” is sent to the city to receive an education. Her true mother has occult powers and the other comparisons include: rat equals a horse, other rats are soldiers, a pineapple is a dress and her slipper transforms her back into a beauty. All of the pieces fit together in a natural rhythm. Because these events were passed along from generation to generation, there was already a beat, like a chant, using rhythmic beautiful sounds. This practice infiltrated all areas of their lives, including song and story. I wanted to capture the broadcasts in written form but I didn’t know I could illustrate or do any serious writing. My wife, Mary, teaches English and edits professionally and she helped me get an idea of how I should capture the essence of the stories in both word and illustration. Each story is hand drawn and colored by me.
RH I noticed that these tales do not have nice, neat endings. One might say they are not appropriate for children because they don’t end happily ever after. What are your thoughts about these stories compared to tales which end the traditional American way?
DN Many stories, particularly oral ones, never had happy endings. That was not the reason to pass them along to the next generation. Children were told stories as a way to learn life lessons. They are representative of lessons that African children learned from the cradle, without the worry of how they might end, except to teach them about consequences. We like to tie things up in neat packages, but life isn’t like that. I believe these stories relate more realistically to life as we all know it to be: not happily ever after.
RH Do you have any idea how many more stories you would like to put into this format? In addition, what do you want people to take away from reading these works?
DN I still have many I want to illustrate, I think it will take years to finish. Someone would tell me another version of the same story, and I would add it to my collection. So I have no idea how many versions I actually have. I would like people to read the stories in a relaxed manner, the more you are familiar with the plot the better it is for children and adults to hear them. I guess that ultimately I want the stories to lead into a discussion about the Scriptures and keep people interested in other versions of familiar stories.
(As of October 1, 2009, Mr. Naff is still hard at work illustrating and writing more stories for additional books. Contact him through his publisher via a link on The Master Design website: http://www.masterdesign.org/naff.html.)
Stories I Heard in West Africa may be purchased from The Master Design at http://www.masterdesign.org/naff.html.
Stories From West Africa (Book One) may be found in limited quantities from the publisher: Joint Project for Sunday School Materials, PMB 2127, Jos, Nigeria.