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African Folktales

African Folktales

by Roger Abrahams


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The deep forest and broad savannah, the campsites, kraals, and villages—from this immense area south of the Sahara Desert the distinguished American folklorist Roger D. Abrahams has selected ninety-five tales that suggest both the diversity and the interconnectedness of the people who live there. The storytellers weave imaginative myths of creation and tales of epic deeds, chilling ghost stories, and ribald tales of mischief and magic in the animal and human realms. Abrahams renders these stories in a narrative voice that reverberates with the rhythms of tribal song and dance and the emotional language of universal concerns.

With black-and-white drawings throughout
Part of the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780394721170
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/12/1983
Series: Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library Series , #5
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 283,742
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

ROGER D. ABRAHAMS is the Hum Rosen Professor (Emeritus) of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of many books, monographs, and articles on African American, Creole, Caribbean, and American culture. A past president of the American Folklore Society, he lives in Philadelphia.

Read an Excerpt

The Password
Good! There were six thieves. They were the chiefs of all thieves. Their name was Adjotogan. Good. There was a mountain full of gold. No one knew that gold was inside it. Only these six thieves knew. They slept there. Good. Whatever they stole, they put inside this mountain. The mountain was their house.
There was a father who had eight sons. He called them one day and asked each of them what he wanted to become. “I am an old man. Tell me what you want to be.”
The first son said he wanted to become a mason.
The second said, “I want to become a carpenter.”
The third said he wanted to become a farmer.
The fourth said, “I want to become a great thief.”
The fifth said, “I want to become a trader,”
The sixth said, “I want to become a liar.”
The seventh said, “I am going to the forest to cut down wood, and I will sell it in the market.”
The eighth said, “I will also get wood and sell it.”
The elder of the two youngest sons was called Jean, the younger, Joseph. They began to go to the forest for firewood, and they sold the firewood for a franc a bundle. When Jean sold a bundle of wood, he spent the money he got for it. Joseph saved his earnings. This went on.
Once, Joseph, the richer of the two went to the forest, and climbed up a tree. Some distance from there was a mountain. He could see clearly from where he was for the mountain was only two kilometers away. It was all swept and clean. Now, Joseph was curious, and he watched to see what would come out of the mountain. He no longer looked for firewood, but remained hidden in the branches of the tree and watched. He remained there all day.
This was towards two o’clock. If the thieves went out at five in the morning, they came back at two o’clock in the afternoon. At two o’clock, then, they arrived. The thieves did not know that there was someone up the tree spying on them. Now, the thieves have a charm with which to open to open the mountain. To open the mountain, they put the charm on the ground. It was a pea, which was hammered into the mountain with the foot. Then they would say, “Open.” The mountain opened.
Now, Joseph was there near the mountain and he could look right inside. When the door opened, he saw gold, animals, everything. He said, “Oh, do such things exist!”
Now, the thieves stayed inside the mountain. They ate, and then they put away what they had brought with them—the things stolen that day.
Then, when the thieves went out they said to the mountain, “We are coming back in two days, or three days. They always fixed the day for their return. To close the mountain, they took out the pea and put it in at the side of the mountain for safekeeping. They went away.
And Joseph also went away. He went back home. Now, Joseph no longer wanted to bother with gathering wood. Joseph had a little education—he knew how to write—and on the third day he went and posted himself in the same place in order to write down what the thieves said to open the mountain. Again the thieves came back at two o’clock. They pounded in the pea, and said, “Open,” and the mountain opened. Now, Joseph wrote all this down on a paper. After having eaten, the thieves went out again toward dusk. They told the mountain that they would be away three days. Good. Now, they told the mountain to close.
When the thieves were eight kilometers distant, Joseph climbed down from the tree. He approached the mountain and took up the charm that he had seen hidden at the side of the mountain. He did just as the thieves had done. He commanded the mountain, he said, “Open.” The mountain opened.
Then Joseph entered. He began to gather up the gold so that he might carry it away with him. He worked from morning till night. The next day also he labored from morning till night. He no longer looked for firewood. Now, during the day, he slept.
He went to put eighty sacks in the bank vault. He asked the king for land to build a great compound. The king gave him the land. They called one hundred workmen together for him. After three days, he again returned to the mountain, and again he gathered up money.
Now, all the people were very astonished to see Joseph become so rich. They said, “A man who sells only firewood cannot become so rich.” The workers began to build. They raised a house of several stories, one story higher than the king’s house. Now, all the people admired this house.
On the third day, he returned to the mountain again. He did once more as he had done before. He gathered up all the money he could carry away. Good. Now he was very, very rich. He went to marry a girl.
His brother Jean was very, very poor. He came to see him one day. Joseph greeted him and gave him a good place. He told his wife to prepare a good meal for him. The two are together. He gave him money—a whole sackful.
Jean refused it. He said, “I do not want money. I ask only to know what you did to become so rich. We both gathered firewood, and you got rich. Show me the way to do it.” Jean took a knife and said, “If you do not tell me, I will kill you.”
Joseph said, “If I tell you now, you won’t know how to act. You’ll only be killed yourself.”
Jean said to him, “Why do you say I will die?”
Joseph said, “If you go, you will die. You cannot read. You won’t know how to manage.”
Jean said, “Good. Tell me just the same.”
Joseph showed him the road. Jean went to the place and climbed up a tree. The thieves arrived. They said the words. They commanded the mountain, they said, “Open.” The mountain opened.
Jean heard this. Now, towards five o’clock, the thieves again went out. Jean did not want to return home and come in the morning. He went at once to the mountain and commanded it to open. He entered and gathered up all he could carry away. He piled up the sacks. Now, he wanted to come out, but he forgot the right words. Instead of saying, “Open,” he said, “Close.” Instead of asking the mountain to open, he kept telling it to close. Now, the mountain was shut tight. He was there inside. He was there till the thieves came.
The thieves commanded the mountain to open. The mountain did not want to open, for it was tightly closed.
One of the thieves said, “Surely, we have a man inside.”
They opened the mountain and saw the man seated on the sacks. They came inside. They asked him, “Where do you come from?”
“I am the brother of Joseph, who has been gathering money here. That is why he is so rich. It is he who showed me the way here.”
One thief asked him, “Is it the young one who lives in the house of several stories, near the king’s house?”
Jean said, “Yes.”
The thieves now killed Jean. They dismembered him, limb from limb, and nailed him to the wall of the mountain. Now they were out again.
The next day his brother Joseph came, for he had not seen Jean for three days. He came with his notebook and a sack. He put his brother’s flesh inside the sack, and put with it some money that he took.
At the house, he had all the leather workers of the village come. He said, “Who is the one that knows how to sew best? If I killed a goat and I cut it into several pieces, who could resew it?” There was a young leather worker there who said he could. So there and then they killed a goat and cut it into several pieces. Then the leather worker resewed it.
Joseph had this leather worker come at night. He showed him Jean’s dead body and asked him to sew it together so that he could bury it. The leather worker did his, and that night they buried Jean.
The next day, when the thieves came back, they did not find Jean’s body flesh there. They said, “Joseph has courage. He came to get his brother’s body, which we cut up. It must be Jean’s burial that was held yesterday. We heard the noise.”
Now, they began to plot how to kill Joseph. The next day, an important thief came to town to see the leather worker. He asked the leather workers of the village, “Who among you knows how to sew well?”
There was one leather worker there who said, “I know how to sew well.” He said, “The other night at Joseph’s house I sewed up a dead body.”
“Whose dead body?”
“Jean’s dead body.” The thief new then that it was Joseph who had taken his brother’s body.
The thief went back to the mountain. Toward noon he gathered a hundred men. Good. One thief went to see Joseph and said he had one hundred sacks of salt. He would bring these about midnight. The thief went to find a hundred empty sacks.
At night, towards eight o’clock, Joseph went for a walk, leaving his wife behind. The thief then came to Joseph’s house, for he had promised to bring one hundred sacks of salt. He entered with one hundred men and one hundred empty sacks, and Joseph’s wife looked on through the windows but did nothing.
The chief of these thieves told each man to get into a sack, so that it seemed to be full of salt. Then he closed each sack and put it against a wall. When he had finished putting the men in the sacks, all the sacks were full, each with a man in it. The chief said, “At midnight, I shall whistle. You are to come out of the sacks and we will all rob the man.”
As his wife had seen this, she sent her boy to look for his master. When her husband arrived, she told him that these were not sacks of salt, but that there were men in them.
Joseph and his wife prepared a charm with water; if but a drop of this water touched your head, you would die. During the night, before midnight, they prepared the potion, and at the hour for eating, they asked the two chief thieves to come up to eat with them. Joseph and his wife sat down on the same stool, and on the opposite side of the room, the two thieves sat also on one stool. Before they climbed the stairs, Joseph had given a revolver to his wife, and he had a loaded one, too. He had said to his wife, “Madam, when we start eating, if I put my foot on yours, it will be the signal to shoot the two thieves.”
When the two brigands had climbed up, they said to Joseph, “We will not eat with you. We have left our sacks of salt below and someone might steal them.” Joseph told them that there were no thieves there and offered them the chair he had placed for them.  He put his foot on the foot of his wife, and they shot the two thieves.
There were those in the sacks who said to the others, “Who is that shooting up there?”
And the others said, “Joseph is killing his pigeons.”
After having killed the two thieves, Joseph came down accompanied by his two boys, and he brought with him the potion. As he came to each sack, he told the man in it, who believed that this was his master and not Joseph, “Here is some medicine, so that you will not be too tired.” He gave it to the first, and the sack, which had stood upright, fell to the ground. The second, the same thing, and the same until he had finished ninety-nine sacks. The last man escaped.
Now, Joseph had put in nails at the top of his walls in order that people could not climb over them, and so the one hundredth thief was stuck on one of these nails. He said, “Why have you killed my comrades?” Joseph went to sleep, leaving the bodies where they fell.
The next day he went to see the king of the country and the king sent men to see the dead bodies of the thieves. So the king of that country gave the order to make a road all the way to the mountain. And all the gold there belonged to Joseph.

Table of Contents

Preface xiii
Introduction 1
Part I. Tales of Wonder from the Great Ocean of Story 31
Introduction 33
Demane and Demazana 35
The Password 37
The Three Tests 42
Monkey Steals of Drum 56
A Man Who Could Transform Himself 57
Tale of an Old Woman 59
The King’s Daughter Who Lost her Hair 64
Profitable Amends 69
The Man and the Muskrat 71
The Hare’s Hoe 74
Why the Hare Runs Away 75
The Tortoise and the Falcon 78
Rubiya 83
The Flying Lion 86
A-Man-Among-Men 89
A Competition of Lies
Part II. Stories to Discuss and Even Argue About 107
Introduction 109
The Contest of Riddles 111
Leopard, Goat, and Yam 112
An Eye for an Eye? 113
Wondrous Powers: Mirror, Sandals, and a Medicine Bag 114
The Devil Comes Between Them 115
The Quality of Friendship 116
The Four Champions 118
Who Should He Kill? 119
Killing Virtue 120
A Spirited Contending 122
Love Caused it All 123
Killed for a Horse 127
Three Wives 129
The Five Helpers 130
Many Miracles 131
Their Eyes Came Out 133
He Starved his Own 134
The Smart Man and the Fool 136
Fembar’s Curiosity 138
A Father’s Advice 139
Is it Right that He Should Bite Me? 140
Take Me Carefully, Carefully 141
Tiger Slights the Tortoise 142
The Nature of the Beast 144
The Disobedient Sisters 145
Rich Man, Poor Man 147
Finders Keepers 149
The Leopard Woman 150
Part III. Tales of Trickster and Other Ridiculous Creatures: Tales to Entertain 153
Introduction 155
Why Monkeys Live in Trees 158
All the Little Animals 159
Why the Dog Always Chases Other Animals 165
The Story of Hlakanyana 166
Cursing the Birds 176
Saving the Rain 178
Stuffing the Hyena 180
Cutting the Elephant’s Hips 182
The Clever Wakasanke 183
The Tricksters’ Encounter 185
How Squirrel Robbed Rabbit of his Tail 187
Victims of Vanity 188
Death by Burning 189
The Ant’s Burden 190
Their Soft Crowns Discovered 192
The Pig’s Nose and the Baboon’s Rear 193
One Trick Deserves Another 193
The Pleasure of his Company 197
The Dog Eats All the Ants 198
No Longer Fear the Cock’s Comb 200
How Honey Guide Came to Have Power Over Honey 201
The Trapper Trapped 203
Medicine Came to Him 203
Friends for a Time 204
The Great Overland Trek 206
The Shundi and the Cock 209
Spider Outwits the Rich Woman 212
Softly, Over the Head of the Great 216
Treachery Repaid 219
The Great Dikithi 220
The Work Done by Itself 225
Two Friends from their Childhood 227
Talking Drums Discovered 228
Part IV. Tales in Praise of Great Doings 231
Introduction 233
Cassire’s Lute 235
The Mwindo Epic 240
Part V. Making a Way Through Life 295
Introduction 297
Salt, Sauce, and Spice, Onion Leaves, Pepper, and Drippings 299
The Old Woman with Sores 301
How it Pays Sometimes to be Small 303
The Cloth of Pembe Mirui 304
The Wooing Battle 306
The Orphan with the Cloak of Skins 309
Tungululi and the Masters 311
Chameleon into Needle 315
Mother Comes Back 316
The Three Sisters 320
The Messenger Bird 324
The Child in the Reeds 326
A Woman’s Quest 333
Never Ask Me About my Family 336
A Man Marries a Lioness 338
Bibliography 343
Permissions Acknowledgments 347
Index of Tales 351

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