Preserving Guyanese storytelling tradition: The Balgobin tales

Two weeks ago we paid a brief visit to the Guyanese storytelling tradition. We mentioned the great value of the Secondary Schools Category in the National Drama Festival (NDF) with its potential for unearthing invaluable examples of Guyanese folk tales and preserving the local art of storytelling. We mentioned two recent examples of the rare gems performed in this festival and highlighted two factors: the dangerously low profile currently assumed by two types of tales – those of African and those of East Indian background – and the need for further dedicated research in both.

Local oral literature depends on continued oral transmission across generations and over geographical distances for its survival.  Within this, performance is a very vital factor – if people do not continue to perform oral literature, it will fade. Additionally, if it is not researched and drawn out of the hidden corners of memory and villages it will disappear.

That is why the Secondary Schools Category in the NDF is so important, because it provides an outlet for these folk performances and help to drive research in order to find material to perform.  That was the case with the two examples mentioned – Sheep Miner: Night Time Gaff With Nana (sheep minder) adapted by Renita Dindyal and performed by Aliyah George, and Cinderani by Marva Langevine performed by Malina Sukhu.

With reference to the research, we focused a Guyanese folk tale, One Kill Polly, collected by students from the University of Guyana. A story such as that one shares the fate of the once popular Anansi stories, drifting away on the endangered list. Today we put the spotlight on another example of these traditions, becoming more rare and threatened as the years progress.

Who has ever heard of Balgobin? Too often, whenever this question is asked it has to be followed by an explanation about this once popular folk character – or folk hero, because people have never heard of him. Here, performance is a key factor and it is not known if anyone still performs the very funny Balgobin stories to entertain.  Researchers have had to diligently seek out and ask after these tales in order to eke them out of informants in the field since they are not readily forthcoming, and this kind of continued reticence over many years has curtailed circulation of this category of the Guyanese storytelling tradition and store of oral literature.

There is virtually no documentation. Petamber Persaud has published The Balgobin Saga (Hansib, 2008) in which he gives his views about these tales and their origins. He also retells a number of the stories, but these are adaptations rather than verbatim reproductions. There remains the need for much work.

The Balgobin stories are as rare as those about Brer Anansi that might still be in circulation.  Anansi is the best known culture hero in folk tales around the Caribbean and he is a part of the African heritage.  Balgobin belongs to the East Indian, and in Persaud’s opinion he is the Guyanese East Indian’s response to Anansi. He plays the role of the Indian folk hero, battling on their behalf as a mythical champion. But that speculation does not hold since the parallels are not the same despite a number of similarities between the two folk characters.

But who, then, is Balgobin? Admittedly, we do not really know. We know very little about him outside of what we can reconstruct from the stories, and information about his origins is sparse and undocumented. What is clear is that he is a folk creation of the East Indian imagination.

From the context of the stories, he is a boy in primary school. His actual age is uncertain. He seems ageless in terms of the scope and capacity of his mind and thinking. He has wisdom and maturity.  A very great irony is that he has the reputation of being the school dunce. No one, not his peers, not his teachers, credits him with any academic ability and he is sometimes the butt of jokes from his classmates. Yet he is superior to them all in wit, worldly knowledge, street sense, intelligence and common sense. He outwits and out-thinks his teachers and government school inspectors.  While many jokes are about how slow Balgobin is in school work, they are mostly celebrations of his triumph over everyone he encounters, including his elders and his ‘betters’.

The stories and jokes also reveal his poverty, his humble home environment, as well as the setting of his world and existence.

Balgobin belongs to a colonial setting in British Guiana after the time when school education became compulsory for Indentured Indians and their descendants. He lives on a sugar estate community in the rural countryside. The stories about him are short and humorous, and are often told as jokes for laughter and entertainment. However, they are significant post-colonial narratives.

They are so because they are critical of the formal colonial education and ridicule the school system. Like Anansi, the small humble hero defeats those who are mightier than he is with his wit, common sense and practical knowledge. He is a trickster, but a champion of his peasant social class.

Take, his battles with the school inspectors, for instance.  The inspector visits the school and comes to examine the class – to see whether they are well taught, how intelligent they are. He throws out questions: He asks: “How old am I?” The children are stumped while the inspector crows over their inability to answer. But Balgobin gets up and says “42, sir”. It is the inspector’s turn to be stumped. He is indeed 42 years old. He cries: “How did you know?” Balgobin explains: “Well, sir, my oldest brother is 21, and he’s half mad. You got to be 42 to expect us to know how old you are.” (Source of story – Petamber Persaud)

Balgobin tales are told in the Creole language. My reproductions here are Standard English paraphrases. This has been the case in all that were collected from informants in the field. This one was told by a young peasant farmer at Cotton Tree Village in Berbice during research by students of Oral Literature at University of Guyana in 2012. It is one of many that demonstrate Balgobin’s inability to master academic tasks in class, always lagging behind his classmates when work is set.  However, it celebrates his quick thinking – the way he can outwit his teachers and turn the moment to his advantage.

The teacher tells the class to draw a picture of an aeroplane at the airport.  Everybody gets to work, except Balgobin. He has never been to the airport and is at a loss as to what to draw. He doesn’t know how to draw a plane, so his paper is blank. The teacher walks around inspecting work and praising the other children’s work, and then moves towards Balgobin. He suddenly realizes he must have something to show her, so he grabs the pencil and only has enough time to put one hasty scratch across the paper before she gets to him. She looks at it and says, “But Balgobin, all the other children have beautiful drawings of planes. What is this?” Balgobin replies, “You come too late, Teacha, de plane done take off an gone.” (Cotton Tree, 2012)

The folk hero’s quick wit is often called upon to get him out of trouble, and here is another story in which he is the wayward pupil, but gets one over his teacher. The teacher gives homework.  She tells the class to write a composition about ‘My Favourite Pet.’ In marking the work, she discovers that Balgobin’s composition is an exact copy of one already written before by his brother. She calls Balgobin and tells him: “Look, Balgobin, you write about a pet dog.  But this sounds like the same composition about a dog that your brother wrote.” Balgobin says: “Me an me brother live a de same house Teacha, Two a we a write bout de same dog.” (Source – Petamber Persaud)

The strong post-colonial reflection in these tales comes over in the way the colonial education system is ridiculed as somewhat dysfunctional. The kind of academic brilliance cultivated among the pupils does not equip them for the real world. It has little practical value. Additionally, it is another testimony of Balgobin’s triumph over all, as well as the superior wisdom he possesses. The inspector visits the class and announces that he will test them on arithmetic. He asks the first pupil: “If there are 45 sheep in a pen, and 10 get away through a hole in the fence, how many are left?” The pupil answers: “35, sir,” She is praised profusely for her brilliance. He turns to the second pupil: “If there are 30 sheep in a pen and 5 get away through a hole in the fence, how many are left?”  The answer comes “25, sir.” The pupil is praised highly for being correct. He then turns to Balgobin. “20 sheep in a pen and one gets away through a hole in the fence, how many would be left?” Balgobin answers, “None, sir.” The inspector is patient; “Okay, Balgobin, think carefully.  20 sheep in a pen and one ran away through a hole in the fence, how many do you have left?”  Balgobin repeats, “None, sir”. The inspector retorts, “Balgobin, wha wrong with yu? Look how the other children get it right, wha really wrong with yu?” Balgobin replies, “Sir, them know ‘rithmetic, but me know sheep.” (George Walcott, UG)

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