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Return of folk tales from Greek people of long ago

There is a master of the written word who follows no rules and takes no prisoners. He wears his skin as only a South Sudanese would and there is a fire in his eyes that even age cannot vicariate it smothering ember.

I first met Taban Lo Liyong on the shelves of Kabarak High School library and soon I was rummaging through the aisles of shelves for anything with his name on it. When I found them, I hid the works in sections reserved for science books so I could go back and read them between classes.

I didn’t understand him mostly, but I felt he knew things that others did not and had no fear of saying them. He was a movement of indecipherable knowledge held so highly that he had seen East Africa and declared us a dessert of men who could sit and think, and once in a while, write.

Maybe that was when my wayward rhyme or two really found a voice. Or where I discovered I had learned words but not what to say.

Someone once told me that I write like a stammerer sometimes, while another told me they couldn’t publish me because my grammar was off. But I learned writing from this genius who has written a book without a fool-stop.

I learned the Professor had a Twitter account last December when he landed in Nairobi to launch his latest book, After Troy, at the United Kenyan Club. I saw him pop up on my Twitter timeline and I had to go and meet the legend, finally.

Of course, he knows nothing about me. I was a big fan of his work and maybe I used his name as my first password, the only other password author is Peter Abrahams.

So, I went there wearing my heart on my sleeve. I found my way late into the room in the University of Nairobi main campus where a few old university lecturers, South Sudanese students, and a bunch of his faculty buddies led by Prof Odochi and Dr Henry Chakava.

Barack Muluka was the MC impressing bravely with his delivery, wit, and neatly cut gentleman’s suit. But you could feel the tremor in his voice knowing each one of his words was being weighed carefully by the Lo Liyong’s brain, whose only hint was an unflinching furrowed brow and intense foreboding.

Mr Muluka did well, even sung Vaida but the Professor was more inclined to the two lovely ladies who had done a dramatization of the opening of the book. If you know the writings of the Professor, then you should know that the virility of his pen is ever sharper in this new book.

Taban explained why he so liked the dramatized opening. His writing is oral. He told his stories with his eyes cast on African evenings with goats being sent to the Karl, as the homestead closes in and the shepherds come to eat and the master folks teller narrates the story of a Greek war.

Yes, a story about Greece and their ancient King god who changed into a bird and had sex with a girl, giving rise to a beautiful daughter who later eloped from her Greek King husband forcing their entire civilization to wipe out another, Troy.

Why? Now like I said, I did not always follow the Professor, not because he uses complicated language, I blame that on my limited knowledge, but because he asked the most unsettling questions. From his works I sought and learned I knew so little about the ideas we hold so dear, which most of us take for granted. Where did they come from, who formed them, and why were they fashioned?

I learned about the myth of life when he introduced me to the epics of the Greeks especially Orpheus for which I am eternally grateful. In fact, the only thing I am left to do now that I have met Taban is to watch Anais Mitchel’s rendition of Orpheus in Hadestown and of course meet Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah.

But not to worry, After Troy is not a complicated book, the Professor writes like a Sufi master, and everyone will leave with something, literal or metaphoric. Taban says like all his books this one is also simple, the English is simple.

He said he learned from journalism that we should use secondary school English. Not Prof Wanjohi’s complicated stuff, and philosophy. He said let us teach fellow Africans in simple ways. And true to his word, he has given us one of the simplest ways to tackle complex questions men have asked themselves since the beginning of time.

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From this vantage point and looking at women and men who lived in the timeline of the Greek stories, he said that many Greeks swear that the wars took place but many are not so sure.

Like a good storyteller who tells you he is about to weave a tale from thin air, from a long long time ago; and still, captivate you with the reality of this unreality. Prof Taban said the Greek stories like all epics not written but created orally keep the memory of real events intertwined in fictional tales of the folks.

He said a blind storyteller called Homer told stories that were later written down in two books called epics. Books of records and events called Iliad of the fight between the Greeks and Trojans and Odyssey.

The octogenarian Professor has come full circle with this tale. We can finally see in his words the young Lo Lyong amusing himself reading Okot p’Bitek’s copies of Homer’s the Iliad and Odyssey translated by Alexander Pope, decades and decades ago. Then, Homer who had crafted this fascinating world must have been his hero, just like he was mine.

Who would have thought the young Lyong would grow up to weave from this epic myth, his own myth. He would weave from this ancient yarn a new tale for Africans, a feat attained by the few great playwrights who have held the long tradition of weaving Greek tragedy from this classical origin. He revisits this great Greek myth of traveling through time and space and messing up what you think about a lot of things.

The Professor travels through time and speaks to many present issues. His book launch in December coincidentally just followed Kenya’s tense elections and he was aware of it.  The incumbent had grudgingly handed over power to his bitter rival, and deputy who he accused of stealing the election while he was in charge. In Africa a continent whose leadership has little respect for the will of a majority of its people, such tense power tussles can easily go south.

Taban always hot on the truth tongue says in the new book that African morality is still Solomonic, dominated by the morality of an eye for eye ethics. And so his warnings rung loud of the possibility of the personal strife of the hero being turned into a communal fight. Just like Menelaus taking all of Greece to war to reclaim his deviant wife Helen who has eloped with the Trojan Prince Paris, a personal fight over a man’s wife degenerates into a worthless war for ten years.

And so he warned ominously about heroes. “We had heroes but if we praise them too much it can cause problems in nation of many tribes no wonder we go to take them (Greek stories) from very far otherwise someone can go and take up spears,” he said.

But even if the story is borrowed from far away land, the Professor skillfully manages to bring it home.

“If the Greece want to read they are welcome but it is for you,” he said.

Forget ownership of stories, the good Professor does not muddle in the language debate of whether Ngugi wa Thiongo’s vernacular or Chinua Achebe’s English will keep the African culture. This is a man who draws a namesake from Bill Shakespeare’s Caliban of the Tempest who has been taught language by Prospero only to use it to curse his master and move the world out of joint. 

Instead, he does not think it is the language that will kill our culture but rather that we have been fascinated by the way other people tell their stories and our place in them.

“You may fall in love with other people’s stories. Chinese movies are fascinating our children than our own stories. The way a story is told rather than the story itself,” he said.

Not only has he extended Homer’s work and the owners be damned, Africanized it into a folktale, and dedicated it to our greatest tragedy of war and bloodshed as instruments of justice, justified by meddling gods he announces that he has done it through the eyes of the women. His story will be told from the perspective of women who see us bungling and chuckling inside them.

He would tell the true reality behind the glorious stories of war fought by men who leave their wives at home and go to fight for ten or even 20 years.

What are the ladies doing at home, he asks, left to open temptation by the young people who do not want to go to war. Daughters were sacrificed so that ships can sail and vengeful mothers drowned the destroyer of Troy in his bathtub.

But if you follow the epic from the material from which it was derived, the Illiad and Oddesys you might miss the story. Taban says this book is not about Troy or Penelope. It is about human behavior. Books teach human beings of now how they should think.

In this new book, Greek mythology is wrestled into what Prof Taban calls a reality shift looking back 4000 years ago at the same challenges that faced humans during that distant past.

The book is unburdening of a brilliant mind that has searched through meanings and the superficiality of life. The man who saw the barrenness of our collective thinking and said it as such. Who sees that we are all children pretending to be good at this game yet deferring to the fictitious authority of morphing gods and changing traditions?

Our morality is crafted not by gods, but by prescient religious poets who lay on their backs in a chilly desert night sky observing the cosmos, seeing what the dwellers in the valley snoring after a heavy vegetable meal do not see.

I have learned from the master that we are capable of a moral compass, a self-judgment chip implanted at birth culturally. A self-hell of guilt decreed by a sentry inside us who cannot be replaced by buying godly favours points to haven or even fear the suffering in another world where we will have no physiological bodies capable of feelings.

The fear of anarchy is overrated, I buy Jean Jacques Rousseau alternative because this one does not make much sense to a man who sees the world through Schopenhauer’s lenses.

After the book launch, I bought the book from Ahmed of Nuria Bookshop, the official distributor. And waited in line to meet with the great man. What would I say to him? Here was my Homer in frail flesh and blood in a half-empty auditorium. I hadn’t read the book, so I had nothing to say about it. It would be pretentious to try and talk about his older books, to show I had gobbled most of them up, would I wish to test such wit of the great writer who would see right through my vanity.

I edged closer and still hadn’t made up my mind on what to say. Will I even have a minute? The social media unpaid workers were busy capturing data for their companies flashing cell phone cameras at the professor, with the professor.

I got to the table, he was bent over signing. Please sign to my son, I told him while spelling Manyala’s name out. And I could tell he had a knowledge of my people from the name. I added quickly, but rather embarrassingly that his works had meant a lot to me growing up. And maybe he did not hear me from the din of excited chit-chat and clucking of cameras.

How old? he asked. And my answer came as he inaudibly mouthed his jagged signature across my signed copy of After Troy.

‘Now let him cut his teeth at reading’. I hope this book sends Manyala, like me, through the rabbit hole of Africa’s great writers’ perceived reality.

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