How does the use of oral storytelling in "Uncle Ben's Choice" enhance the reader's understanding of African innocence?

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caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The meaning of "African innocence" is important to this question because it determines which sociological elements will receive the most emphasis. For example, when we define what is "African", are we talking about the people themselves, or their culture and possibly their descendants as well? It is worth noting that there are enormous differences across the peoples of Africa, and attempting to ascribe a unified identity to all of them might be considered academically lazy. Likewise, "innocence" could be taken to mean an absence of wrongdoing, or a naive and vulnerable pattern of behavior, thus making a seemingly kind or innocuous description into an insulting one.

However, being generous and working within the terms of story, including those laid down by Ben himself, we can approximate a definition of "African innocence" as a simple, yet enjoyable life in which one has control over themselves and resists temptation and complex relationships.

In short, the story involves Ben's description of his life, which is somewhat spare except for a few possessions and hobbies that he enjoys, but he is not destitute; in fact he could afford to live better than he does, but he chooses not to. This is in part due to advice that he has followed all his life, which he believes guards him and keeps him safe from trickery. For example:

I never showed any of them [women] the road to my house and I never ate food they cooked for fear of love medicine.

This is an interesting combination of practical thinking that any of us can relate to (don't let anyone know where you live) and with a more African-themed mysticism (love medicine i.e. using magic and drugs to control him). Ben relates these precautions not as paranoid delusions but as simple and reasonable steps to maintain his control over his life, and by extension, his innocence. If he did not do these things, and gave in to materialism, hedonism and other sensualities, we can imagine the long-term complexities and unhappiness that this would bring him.

Ben is visited by what he and other believe to be a "Mami-Wota", a spirit in the shape of a woman that uses sex to command obedience, but rewards her lovers with material wealth. This could be interpreted as an embodiment of the encroaching, non-native values that Ben encounters at the trade company and the lure of the material world that he has rejected.

The use of a first-person narrator helps us to understand the forces that pull at Ben and attempt to distract him from his innocence. His vivid descriptions of the Mami-Wota's body, for example, convey the temptation that she offers through the use of imagery. Ben also speaks directly to us, saying things like "I ask you." He is both telling the story and seeking the reader's involvement. There is additional emphasis placed on the "African-ness" of his values when he states that the Mami-Wota went to a white man the same night, and became his lover. It is clear from Ben's account that the white man does not value what the African values, and that this particular man was tricked into hedonism, and a loss of innocence, because he had a poor set of values. 

Thus, by oral storytelling, we understand African innocence better because;

  • Ben is speaking directly to us in a conversational manner and asking us to think about, and form an opinion on, what he has said
  • We can better understand Ben's experience because he is describing it through the use of vivid imagery that inspires an emotional reaction
  • The things that Ben chooses to say, and what he chooses not to say, inform us of what is important and what is common sense in his world, without him having to actually say so.

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