Monday, November 3, 2008

African Folktales

Writer's Note: Barack Obama is an African-American, perhaps almost purely so, with an African father and an American mother and himself having been educated in important American schools. It is often said that the story of Americans is the story of immigrants, but the African past, and African culture, is less familiar to many than that of other populations who have arrived on these shores...It was easy in New York to hear African music, or to eat African food, or see African film; and in Louisiana, the African heritage is known in architecture, food, and music, in the evolution of a unique people, the Creoles...Here is something written several years ago, on African folktales...

African Folktales
Selected and Retold by
Roger D. Abrahams
Pantheon Books, New York
December 2000 (publication date)
352 pages

(c) DG

Roger D. Abrahams’ African Folktales is a book that is not only wise it is entertaining. The stories it collects are mostly brief, concise, intelligent, and funny; and they are sometimes shocking in the complexity and violence they sometimes present, a complexity and violence that seem true to the depths of the human psyche and the workings of the real world. Many of these stories are fanciful, stories in which animals talk and influence the worlds of men and women; they are allegories of experience. It is important to note that while one can better understand cultures by looking at the stories they tell, at their oral and written literature, as well as by looking at their social organization, politics, science and technology, and history, the gaining of sociological understanding is not the primary reason for reading these stories. Although many of these ninety-five tales were originally gathered by missionaries, anthropologists, and ethnographers, these stories are not merely evidence, not merely relics of old or dying cultures; they are a literature and literatures are alive and relevant beyond the circumstances of their birth.

Here are creation stories, stories about birth and death, love affairs and families, honor and corruption, selfishness and community. Many of them are from the Bini, Dahomey, Ewe and Dahomey people of West Africa, but there are as well stories from other regions, language groups, and peoples, including that of the Akamba, Bondi, Fipa, Fjort, Hausa, Igbo, Kaguru, Liberia, Swahili, and Wayao, among others.

In “The Password,” a man steals from thieves by mastering their secret codes through the ability to read and write. In “The Three Tests,” a man does favors for others who need them and later when he’s in need they help him—he feeds them and they help him to master the tests given him by a powerful man. In “A Man Among Men,” a prideful man meets a bigger, stronger man who threatens him—until that man himself meets a formidable foe, with the conclusion that the latter two wrestle and rest and wrestle again, still trying to defeat each other. The sound of their wrestling is what we hear as thunder. The moral is that someone somewhere is our equal or stronger than we are and it’s dangerous and wasteful to be preoccupied with such matters. A selfish jackal exploits a community resource—a pond of rainwater—in “Saving the Rain” and outwits the other animals when they seek to punish him. Is there are moral here? Such a story allows for the fact that apparent good does not always win out in the end. In “Never Ask Me about My Family,” a poor boy falls for a beautiful girl he wants to marry but she says she’ll marry if he promises never to ask about her family. After their children are born, he does ask, and a great tumult occurs with old spirits coming to plague them—and the small family is buried under stone, destroyed by these old spirits. This may be one of saying, Respect the other’s privacy and Let the past alone.

Such stories are suitable for both adults and children, and are similar to European fairy tales in which Hansel and Gretel face the threatening unknown, the Arabian Nights in which adventure, love, and gold provide character tests and life lessons for the protagonists and entertainment and intellectual stimulation for the readers, and Bocaccio’s Decameron, in which the gravity of life and death issues give way to the bawdy considerations of pleasure and sex. These African Folktales belong not merely to Africa but to the world.