Sasabonsam

“The Evil Forest” is a short story in a collection the “Marriage of Wisdom and other stories from Liberia” by Wilton Sankawulo. Originally published by Heinemann Educational Books in 1974 and reprinted in 1981, thedenk_sm.gif copy that I found in Broad Street, the main street of the capital, Monrovia, had been republished by the Catholic Educational Secretariat, Archdiocese of Monrovia, in 1994 and again in 2005 on behalf of the Ministry of Education. The dates loosely reflect the changing fortunes of the country: the optimism of the mid-1970s, the start of the fall into hell, the false dawn, and (determinedly) the return to peace. My copy is simply printed with a green card cover. There were no bookshops in Monrovia at the time of my last visit (Jan-April 2007). There are two pavement book markets on Broad Street: one outside the Ministry of Education, and another on the intersection with Johnson Street. They sell mainly recycled American high school and undergraduate text books, plus assorted novels and Shakespeare plays, most presumably looted during the wars.

Sankawulo writes stories in English based on traditional folklore. Much folklore – whether African or elsewhere – tends to portray forests as being either forbidding, scary, dangerous or enchanted places. Oral traditions have been important sources for writers through the ages. Harold Scheub´s A Dictionary of African Mythology: The Mythmaker as Storyteller (OUP, 2000) is an excellent compilation.

The Forest of A Thousand Demons in Yoruba” by Daniel Olorunfẹmi Fagunwa written in 1938 (and later translated into English by Wole Soyinka) is an early modern example, drawing on traditional religion, folklore and the supernatural. Fagunwa was a big influence on Amos Tutuola, whose early novels include “The Palm-Wine Drunkard” (1946) and “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1954), in which forests are “a place of ghosts and spirits”. More latterly, in Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” (1991), the setting is both an African city – the world of the living – and a spirit world, in particular the forest, a world again full of the supernatural.

There is a parallel European literary trend: running from, for example, the “Divine Comedy” which starts with Dante lost in a dark wood and assailed by strange beasts, to the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter stories.

But forests are also seen as enchanted places: from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, to the Hundred Acre Wood in the Winne-the-Pooh stories, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”.

Sasabonsam is one of my favourites, an Akan evil spirit who assumes the appearance of a forest monster; see West African Traditional Religion, Kofi Asare Opuku (PEP International, 1978).

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