In Burkina, I am helping with an initiative to create resources for kindergartens. Currently, few early childhood learning opportunities exist. As Americans, we likely grew up with picture books, hidden pictures, puzzles, and mazes. These tools introduce the concept of written word, expand critical thinking, and develop fine-motor skills. Burkinabe village children are essentially without such resources and many volunteers and development workers feel this hampers their education throughout the rest of their life.
My main interest is in collecting local stories and traditions, while also adapting stories I grew up with, and translating them into local languages. These will be turned into picture books for children. Volunteers and community leaders will be able to read aloud to children and start their education far sooner than is currently being done.
I went to my friend Essuf and asked him if he had any stories. He first didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to explain that I wanted local stories, histories, and tales to make into children’s books. He then began rattling off tales, many of which were disconnected, riddled with plot holes, and not stories but obscure facts or simple anecdotes. Then he came to a story about himself. This was a real life story, with many of the facts actually falling into place (even though they require a bit of magic and lore). I collected as many details as I could and then constructed the following. This is Essuf’s story of The Stone Fish:
Essuf owned a small roadside shop were he sold drinks and food. Each day he prepared rice and sauce, but never made much money. One evening, Essuf set off to collect leaves for his shop.
As he passed the river, Essuf saw a stick bobbing up and down, as if a fish was wading below.
“This will be an excellent addition to my sauce,” thought Essuf. He positioned himself next to the river, ready to trap the fish in his hand. Essuf darted at the fish and ensnared it. When he pulled his catch from the water, however, he was astonished to see it was a rock. This rock did not look like a normal rock. It looked like a fish!
Snout, mouth, eyes, sloping body, even what appeared to be fins etched into the side. He stared at this rock, looking it over. “What an odd rock,” he thought. Essuf did not want a rock though. He wanted a fish and as he started to throw the rock back into the river, he stopped dead.
A beautiful white woman with long flowing air was standing in the river. She was standing there silent, staring back at him.
“Hello,” he stuttered. “Hello,” he sputtered. “Who was this woman? She must be a spirit,” thought Essuf.
He started to run. He ran home as fast as he could, never looking back.
When he finally arrived home, he discovered he had been clutching onto the rock the whole time. Essuf placed the rock and sack of leaves in his shop and then wearily went off to bed.
The next morning he awoke and washed his face to remove the remains of the dream he had the night before. “Stone fish? White woman? What an odd dream!”
Essuf then began to prepare his rice and sauce for the day. That is when he saw it: the stone fish.
“How could it be? Was it not a dream?” He stared at the stone fish and thought it looked different dry and out of the water. He took a glass of water and poured it over the fish.
“There, that is better. A fish needs water,” Essuf said aloud to himself.
Essuf then slowly returned to preparing the rice and sauce. When he finished, he gave the food a taste. He was very pleased with his sauce today.
His first customer arrived mid-day and demanded food. Essuf portioned out a serving of rice and sauce and gave it to his customer.
“Mmmmmmm! This sauce is excellent! I love the fish! I would like to buy another serving,” replied the customer.
Essuf did not have money to buy fish for his sauce. He never had a customer as for a second serving.
As he ladled out another serving, the stone fish caught his eye. Was this stone fish the reason his sauce tasted so good today? The customer finished his second serving, paid for his meal, then exclaimed, “I will be back tomorrow for more of your fish sauce and I will tell all my friends how great it was.”
That fist customer was not the only customer to express delight upon tasting Essuf’s cuisine. Everyone that day said they would be back tomorrow for more. Essuf sold all of his rice and sauce that day, which was a first.
The next morning, he used his profits to buy more ingredients to make even more rice and sauce.
Before beginning to cook, he took a glass of water and poured it over the stone fish as he had done the day before. “There you go. A fish needs water,” he told his stone fish.
Essuf finished the sauce and it was just as good as the day before. The first three customers arrived; eager to try the excellent sauce a friend had told them about. They each were served and took their first bite.
“Mmmmmmm,” they hummed in unison. The rest of the meal was silent as they ate, enjoying every bite until they had finished.
More and more customers arrived and he actually sold out of food.
“I am sorry. The sauce is all gone. Come back tomorrow,” said Essuf, brimming with pride after a good days work.
The next day he bought more ingredients and began to prepare his sauce. Not before, however, bathing his stone fish. “There you go. A fish needs water,” Essuf told his stone fish.
That day and everyday since, Essuf sold all his rice and sauce and had plenty of money. Essuf never forgot to begin his day by giving thanks to his friend. “There you go. A fish needs water. Thank you.”
Essuf does in fact sell food and drinks from his roadside shop. Everyday, he prepares food and sells it all. On the counter of his shop sits a river rock, that if you stare at it long enough you can start to see a fish. If you come early enough in the morning, before the sun is in full force, the rock sits wet. Essuf is completely sure of the events I described, white woman and all. Collecting his story and the stories of others has been one of the more culturally rewarding experiences of my time here. I hope to grow in my ability to speak local language and further search for community elders who will share with me their tales.