The Village Witch Doctor

by Amos Tutuola

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Themes of "The Village Witch Doctor"

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As in many folktales, this story revolves around the themes of cleverness and deceit. Osanyin, the witch doctor, cleverly deceives three generations of men out of their inherited fortune. In the end, however, the grandson of the man whom Osanyin originally deceived is able to successfully use his cleverness in order to deceive Osanyin into returning the family fortune.

Throughout the story, the reader is reminded of the many deceptions, small and large, which the village witch doctor visits upon Aro and his descendants. When Aro first comes to Osanyin to report that his buried family fortune has been stolen, the witch doctor "pretended to be surprised and innocent" of the matter. In assuring Aro that he will ask his gods who has stolen the money, Osanyin "caressed Aro as he deceived him." When, without actually consulting his gods, Osanyin reports to Aro that they have told him his own dead father has stolen his inheritance, the witch doctor "deceitfully" feigns surprise at this solution to the mystery. Finally, Aro "believed the faulty explanation" Osanyin offers him.

Osanyin's deceptions take the form not only of outright lies, but also of the false face he puts on for those he is deceiving. The narration of the story frequently points out to the reader the ways in which the witch doctor pretends to have only his friend's interests in mind, all the while scheming to continue the deception from which he has profited. As the story opens, and Aro explains to Osanyin that he wishes to bury his fortune to keep it safe from thieves, Osanyin's response is one of cheerfully agreeing to help his friend; however, the reader, in retrospect, may detect that this cheerful demeanor on the part of the witch doctor is forced, as he is already scheming to steal his friend's money. When Aro asks him to help bury the money, and explains why, the witch doctor's response is described in the following manner: "'Oh, yes,' Osanyin replied cheerfully, 'I see your point. Let us carry the money to the bush and bury it there before daybreak!'" His enthusiasm, as indicated by the exclamation point which ends the sentence, indicates the forced nature of his professed interest in protecting his friends' money from theft. And when, several months later, Aro goes to Osanyin to report the theft, the witch doctor goes so far as to pretend he doesn't even understand what Aro has told him: "The witch doctor pretended to be surprised and innocent by saying, 'Has your money been stolen, or is it you cannot remember what you wanted to tell me?'"

When Aro returns to his father's grave to curse whoever had stolen the money, the witch doctor, in order to maintain his deception, is put in a position of having to "reluctantly" reinforce a curse which is in fact aimed at Osanyin himself: "Then his friend reluctantly said, 'Let your curse come to pass on whoever has stolen your money.'" Ultimately, then, Osanyin is undone by the powers of his own deception. His unease with endorsing Aro's curse is described when "the witch doctor worriedly returned to his house as if it had been revealed to Aro that Osanyin was the person who stole the money." Thus, the witch doctor's layering of deception causes him to bring justice down upon his own head, as the curse is realized by the end of the story.

Osanyin's greed and deception are made ironic by his status as a respected witch doctor, "well known throughout the village and also all other surrounding villages." The hypocrisy practiced by the...

(This entire section contains 1644 words.)

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witch doctor is emphasized by the ways in which he specifically uses his profession as a means of deceiving others. The fact that Aro and each of his descendants go to Osanyin for advice facilitates Osanyin's schemes. Furthermore, the ways in which Osanyin utilizes his sacred profession to further his profane ends is made apparent by the fact that he buries the stolen fortune "in front of his gods which were in the shrine." He further abuses his position by repeatedly claiming to consult his gods in order to help the victims of his theft, and then not consulting the gods at all but only further deceiving them in order to protect his own wealth.

In the end, it is Ajaiyi's cleverness and deceit of Osanyin which wins him back the money that is rightfully his. Osanyin hides himself with a machete in one of the sacks on his father's grave which Osanyin believes to hold a ram. When Osanyin steals what he believes are three sacks of rams and brings them back to his shrine to butcher them for food, Ajaiyi jumps out of the third sack, surprising the clever and deceitful witch doctor. Ajaiyi's cleverness and deceit further facilitate his success as he pretends that he thinks Osanyin is in fact his dead father who has supposedly stolen his inheritance from him. By this means, Ajaiyi succeeds in terrifying the witch doctor into returning the fortune. The fortune thus goes to the man who is cleverest in his deceit.

This story also centers on themes of poverty and wealth. The entire story is focused on the theft, and ultimate retrieval, of a family fortune. The fate of these characters, and each new generation of the family, is inextricably linked to the status of their financial situation. Aro, in the opening of the story, is "from a rich family." When his father dies, Aro "inherited a large sum of money, farms, and other valuable property." Fearing that someone may steal his fortune from his home, Aro buries it out in the bush under a tree, believing that "his inherited wealth was safe."

The witch doctor's greed for wealth motivates him to steal the family fortune of a man who is his friend, who trusts him and seeks him out for advice. The lust for money in the witch doctor is thus strong enough to motivate him to betray a trusted friend over a period of several generations.

Wealth is also clearly important to Aro and his descendants. When Aro learns that his buried fortune has been stolen, he "held his head in both hands and burst into tears." As a result of the theft, "Aro started to live in poverty." This poverty, as inherited by Aro's descendants, determines all of the significant events of their lives and even causes their deaths. Having to work hard on his farm as a result of the theft of his inheritance, Aro eventually becomes "so poor and weary that he could not go and work on the farm any more." When Aro's son, Jaye, wishes to marry, he cannot provide the needed money to afford the marriage. This "inherited poverty," as passed on from father to son in a patrilineal society, threatens the pride and status of Aro's descendants, as well as their material conditions. As Aro explains to Jaye: "According to our tradition, it is a father's duty to make a marriage for his son. But as you know I am in great poverty. My poverty is so great that I have not had even a half-kobo for the past four years. So, my dear Ajaiyi, it is a great pity that I have no money with which to pay the dowry for you. I am sorry, indeed." As a result, Jaye must pawn his labor in order to raise the money. When, after Jaye marries, Aro dies, Jaye's poverty again causes him to pawn his labor in order to pay for the funeral. And, as with the marriage, Jaye is obligated to do so as a matter of tradition and pride, thereby avoiding the shame of his community: "Ajaiyi had no money to spend on the funeral ceremony for his father. Of course, as it was a great shame if he failed to perform the funeral ceremony, Ajaiyi was forced to go and pawn himself to another pawnbroker, who gave him the money which he spent on his father's funeral expenses." Because almost all of his time is committed to working for other people, he has little time to work on his own farm, and "his inherited poverty became even more severe."

The theme of desire for money is expressed in the witch doctor's phrase, "Money man!," which he uses to assure Ajaiyi that he will be able to recover the family fortune. Osanyin tells Ajaiyi, "'Yes, it is sure you will be a rich man. . .And when a person has money, the people call him 'Money man!'" The ecstasy attendant upon wealth is expressed by the way in which "the witch doctor and Ajaiyi shouted together, laughing, 'Money man!'" Ajaiyi's wife also uses this phrase, particularly in pointing out to Ajaiyi the status attendant upon those with money, and the comparative shame of poverty; in urging him to carry out the witch doctor's plan for ending their poverty, she declares, "'Can't you see, when you go here, you see 'Money man!' You go there, you see 'Money man!'"

The primary concern of the story with financial status is summed up through the happy conclusion, in which Ajaiyi and his wife recover "four thousand naira" from the witch doctor, upon which they "were free from their poverty and other burdens, as soon as Ajaiyi refunded the money to the three pawnbrokers." In the world of this story, financial status is the most important factor in the life of a family, and determines the fate of each individual in that family.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, with a specialization in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

Africa & The West Indies

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Amos Tutuola's new volume contributes eighteen more stories to his already large number, all based on traditional Yoruba folktales. His themes are much like those in his previous books: greed, thievery, betrayal, fraud, et cetera. However, the milieu is in some cases more modern. The major plot device is that of the trickster tricked. The title story is typical though more elaborate than most. The witch doctor keeps tricking his victim in different ways until finally the tables are turned. The characters in the tales include many familiar figures: the tortoise, the jungle drummer, the beetle lady, and people with regular Yoruba names.

Tutuola's manner of telling his stories is, as one would expect, closer to that of his later books than to that of his first and most famous work, The Palm-Wine Drinkard. There is more of the writer and less of the talker. Almost gone are such rich expressions as "He said whisperly" and "We took our fear back." Still, one occasionally encounters such fresh phrasing as "The priest lived lonely in the heart of the forest." It is gratifying to see Tutuola at age seventy still busy enriching African literature with his illuminating interpretations.

Source: Richard Bauerle, "Africa & The West Indies," (reviews) in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 539.

Precise Approximations and Trickster Tales

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Although The Palm Wine Drinkard was Amos Tutuola's first published novel, he had written The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts earlier, in 1948, and sent the exercise-book manuscript to Faber and Faber where it stayed until 1982, when Three Continents Press issued a limited scholars's edition with a facsimile of Tutuola's handwriting. In 1983, while attending the International Writers' Workshop at Iowa, Tutuola was asked to prepare the present edition. In his foreword, Bernth Lindfors writes:

He went through the typescript of the original version carefully, correcting obvious errors and restructuring several episodes. I was asked to lend a hand in the revision and to supervise computerized typesetting of the final text.

Lindfors' phrasing is a little unfortunate in that it may give the impression to some readers, not in possession of the earlier text, that some scholarly tinkering has been going on. We are reassured that "what is being presented here is basically the same old Wild Hunter in more modern dress", but all this does sound a little jaunty at a time when African writers and critics are increasingly wary of the role of western scholars and publishers in handling their work. "This transformation" [sic], Lindfors concludes, "achieved by means of the latest technological miracles, is very much in keeping with the spirit of the story."

Is it? It is only in a very superficial sense that Tutuola deals in "miracles". His cosmology is one that undermines the western notion of the "miracle" a bizarre deviance from the stable, solid world of western rationalism and literary naturalism.

The Wild Hunter, like The Palm Wine Drinkard, challenges this whole cultural scenario and draws on vernacular Yoruba writing. In The Palm Wine Drinkard Tutuola carried the challenge into the very structure of his prose by using a non-standard kind of English which, though sometimes taken as a quaint index of semi-literacy, was in fact, as Chinua Achebe has pointed out, a conscious choice. The Wild Hunter is in standard English but with tellingly non-standard deployment of the "bureaucratese" of his civil service years. Thus if you want to get into heaven you need the official letter from, of all places, the office of the Devil, who

would forward the letter to the record office in heaven without delay. . . .The Devil suggested that the person should use two envelopes. He or she should write his or her name and address on the back of one of the two envelopes, and the correct postage stamps should be affixed to it.

Like a good mission-school précis writer he cites exact dates and numbers, but not in quite the clerical spirit. He uses them for ironically precise approximations. A stream is "about seventeen feet wide", in heaven "the yard was about four thousand miles square". The colonial clerk's precision is mocked by being seen, from the clerk's point of view, in its true pointlessness. This is Nigeria. This is the Bush. In a naturalistic story, setting limits the options of the characters. In the Bush anything at all can happen. Tutuola can always produce any situation he wants whatever, at any point. What compels his reader's interest is neither the "naivety" of the writing, nor the bizarre ghosts he concocts, but his sheer intensity and worry about his hero's spiritual quest.

The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories is a collection of fables, also in standard English, [. . .] much slighter than The Wild Hunter and more readily [. . .] comfortable western view of African quaintness; as also, more worryingly, to the sentiment that the Zulu poet, Mazisi Kunene, put into the mouth of Shaka: that conquered nations end up with a literature of children's fables about animals. Not all Tutuola's fables are about animals. They deal with tricksters, devious juju-men, often with an explicit moral about the wages of disobedience. The story of Tortoise's degeneration from a promising, handsome young man to an armed robber who sells his own town to an enemy and then foments civil war there will remind Nigerians of the betrayal in high places of the promise that independence seemed once to hold, and the subsequent descent into civil war and poverty.

Source: John Haynes, "Precise Approximations and Trickster Tales," in Times Literary Supplement, May 18-24, 1990, p. 534.


Critical Overview