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Site Last Update: 09 Dec, 2019
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Book Review of Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy 
Complied by Joseph G. Healey.

Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004.
Paperback, 144 pages.
Price: $15.

audio src=file:///root/..%5Cimages%5Caudio.gifListen to the interview with Joseph Healey, the author of the new book Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy

Reviewed by Joseph Kariuki

Oral literature researchers and scholars agree that stories encapsulate values, attitudes, and worldview of the people who create them. They are the reservoirs of all the elements of peoples’ cultural, religious and philosophical beliefs. In the African context, nothing captures this better than the oral culture especially through the art of storytelling that has punctuated the continent’s inhabitants since time immemorial to the present times. Through stories African people’s fears, joys, hopes and aspirations are registered. It is for this reason that the relevance of collecting and documenting stories and other oral literature materials is important as this highlights important watersheds in the history and life in Africa. In Once Upon a Time in Africa Joseph Healey has attempted to do exactly that -- document the oral culture in stories for the benefit of all to read.

This book brings together eighty-six (86) stories that range from myths of creation, folktales, parables, poems, and true stories. Structurally, the book contains an “Overall Introduction,” a brief introduction to each section, the stories themselves, and a listing of stories at the back to facilitate easy referencing.

The main body of stories is divided into eights thematic categories as follows: “In the Beginning” (pp.1-10), “Life” (pp.11-32), “Family” (pp. 33-48), “Community” (pp. 49-60), “Good and Bad Times” (pp. 61-84), “Joy and Celebration” (pp. 85-94), “Cultural Matters” (pp. 95-104), and “Seeds of God in Africa Soil” (pp.109-130). Before each section of the eight categories, there is a one-page introduction that orients the reader’s mind on what kind themes covered in the stories to expect in that particular section. For example, in the fourth section or category of stories entitled “Community”, Healey renders the traditional African concept of community and its contemporary relevance especially as it related to the church where Small Christian Communities epitomize the present African community ideals. These introductions whet the appetite of the reader as (s)he prepares to read the stories.

Another aspect that reinforces the beauty of the presentation of the stories is the inclusion of an African proverb at the beginning of each of these sections that aptly corresponds with the themes presented in the sections. Hence in the second section entitled “Life” for instance, the introducing proverb is “Life is the best gift; the rest is extra” (Swahili proverb from Eastern and Central Africa, p.11) and in the last section entitled “Seeds of God in African Soil”, the corresponding proverb is “God is a great eye who sees everything in the world” (Arabic proverb from Egypt, Eritrea, and Sudan, p.109). The African aesthetic values are further captured by the graphics and artwork in the book that highlights the African physical, cultural and spiritual environment. In the book this is done through nineteen (19) artistic impressions of the various thematic categories.

The greatest strength of Once Upon a Time in Africa is the blending together of different aspects of African situation into a single book volume through stories. From African spirituality—Nothing Materially but Everything Spiritually (p. 48), God Was Truly There with Us…Listening (p. 77), The Person Who Couldn’t Find God (p.112), etc; to modern challenges facing life in Africa like war and AIDS –The Merciful Rwandan Woman (p. 63), Otherwise This War Will Never End (p. 66), We Need to Run Out and Meet Lucia, (pp. 67-68) to interreligious dialogue—The Muslim Prayer Connection (p.117), God is Like a Large Baobab Tree (p.127), etc; to celebration of life as it is presently— Your Mother Wants to Greet You (p. 47), Why I Can Sing (p. 89), etc. In other words, the stories in this book are anecdotes of life as is lived in Africa in its wholeness and an expression of the aspirations of their authors in ameliorating their circumstances. In this regard it is also important to note that they are collected from all the corners of the continent of Africa thus enabling one to claim they represent the ideals and aspirations of all people of Africa.

On a more general level, the rendering of the title of the book -- Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy -- points to the difficulty authors face in selecting titles to their works vis a vis their readers’ feelings. The first impression one gets from the title of the book in picking up the book is like one will be reading stories about the traditional African past -- an aspect only captured in a few stories mostly in the first section, “In the Beginning.” However, this is not the case as the book contains many stories tackling modern problems facing Africa. The prior impression is nonetheless assuaged by the way the stories are structured and the introductions to each section which makes them “stories of wisdom and joy” and this provides the major credit to Joseph Healey in conceiving the lovely book.

In sum, one can safely say that Once Upon a Time in Africa is must reading to any one who appreciates things Africa and interesting and well told stories.

The complier of the stories, Father Joseph G. Healey, M.M. is a Maryknoll priest who has worked in East Africa since 1968. His other books closely covering similar themes include A Fifth Gospel: The Experience of Black Christian Values (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books and London: SCM Press, 1981); Kuishi lnjili -- Living the Gospel (Peramiho: Benedictine Publications, 1982); Kueneza Injili Kwa Methali -- Preaching the Gospel Through Proverbs (Peramiho: Benedictine Publications, 1984); What Language Does God Speak: African Stories About Christmas and Easter (Nairobi: St. Paul Publications, 1989); and Towards An African Narrative Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 5th Printing 2004 and Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 3rd Reprint, 2000). He is also the moderator of the African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories Website:

Joseph Kariuki is the Assistant Moderator of the African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories Website and lives in Nairobi, Kenya. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

To order this book go to the Maryknoll Mall at: