These 123 tales reflect the rich oral tradition of West African folklore. Playful and sly, they teem with talking animals and shape-shifting tricksters, with pacts and promises made and broken, and with impossible deeds done through chicanery and magic. These tales deal with themes common throughout West Africa and the world. Indeed, American readers will recognize such characters as Brer Rabbit and the "tar baby," which had their roots in the folklore of this region. Because there is no overlay of Western values, however, some of the morals may surprise the unsuspecting readermurder and polygamy, cannibalism and cunning, witchcraft and revenge spin matter-of-factly throughout the stories.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
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About the Author
Jack Berry was born in Leeds, England, on December 13, 1918. He obtained his BA in Classics at the University of Leeds in 1939 and his PhD in Comparative Linguistics at the University of London in 1952. Berry taught at the University of London from 1946 to 1963 when he came to the United States. Berry accepted an appointment at Northwestern University in 1964 as professor of African Languages and Linguistics. He held this position until his death on December 4, 1980. At Northwestern Berry served as the director of the Program of Oriental and African Languages. In 1970 and 1971 he held visiting professorships at the University of Ghana and the University of the West Indies.
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WEST AFRICAN FOLKTALES
By RICHARD SPEARS, JACK BERRY
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 1991 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
Once upon a time the Spider, Anaanu, made a huge yam farm, together with his wife Kornorley and his son Kwakute. When the time for harvesting was drawing near, Anaanu called his family together, and when they had all assembled, he told them that he believed he was about to die. He told them that his wish was to be laid in a coffin, after his death, and for the coffin to be left in the middle of their beloved farm. The lid of the coffin was not to be nailed down. And inside the coffin, to accompany him to the land of the dead, his family were to put a grinding-bowl and ladle and all the other cooking utensils.
Three days later, Anaanu died. His family had already found a coffin and all the cooking utensils. His instructions were followed faithfully, as is proper when an elderly person, and particularly the head of a family, departs from this world. The coffin was taken to the farm unsealed and left in the middle of the place, right there among the yams.
In the middle of the night, Anaanu got up, came out of the coffin, uprooted some yams, and cooked and ate them. Then he retired to a well-fed rest inside his coffin.
In the morning, when his family came to the farm, they noticed that some of the yams had been uprooted, but they said nothing.
That night, Anaanu did just the same, and the following morning his family again noticed that more yams had disappeared. But again they went away in silence.
This went on day after day and night after night, with Anaanu stuffing himself, and his family getting more and more worried about the way the yams were disappearing.
When the yams were almost all gone, Kwakute said he couldn't let things go on this way any longer. He had thought up a plan by which they might be able to do something about the thefts. The family made a scarecrow, a man's figure, of sticky, gluey rubber and left the figure on the farm.
At night, when Anaanu came out of his coffin as usual to eat the yams, he saw this human figure standing among the yams. He was annoyed and shouted, "Who are you?" The figure didn't answer. Anaanu wasn't going to leave it at that. "If you do not answer me," he said, "I'll slap you with my right hand."
The figure didn't say a word, so Anaanu slapped it with his right hand, and the hand got stuck in the glue. Now he said, "If you don't let go of my right hand, I'll slap you with my left." The figure didn't move. So Anaanu slapped it with his left hand, and that got stuck, too. And now, more furious than ever, "Unless you let go of my hands immediately, I'll kick you with my right foot." The figure didn't move. So Anaanu kicked it with his right foot, and that became stuck even harder than his right hand. With furious exclamations, Anaanu kicked with his left foot, and that got stuck, too.
Finally he threatened loudly, "Unless you release me at once, I shall push you down with my stomach."
The figure didn't move. So Anaanu drew his belly back and swung it forward with great force. But now he was completely stuck to the glue, spread-eagled on the scarecrow.
In the morning, when Kwakute, Kornorley, and the rest of the family came to the farm to uproot some yams, there was the thief stuck to the scarecrow. "We have got him, at last!" they shouted and rushed forward to take down the thief and start beating him. But when they got near, who could it be but their own father and husband, the dead Anaanu!
They slowly pulled him loose from the scarecrow. But Anaanu was so ashamed of himself that he could not stand around. As soon as his feet touched the ground he ran away home, and even there he didn't stop until he had hidden his face in the eaves of the roof, where the darkness is.
That is why the spider always stays in the eaves of the roof.
The Wise Fool
A poor peasant woman bore many sons. All except one lived normal, useful lives and did well. Naturally their mother loved them. One of them was born a fool, and he was neglected and left to shift for himself as best he could. All day long he worked on a large patch of sandy soil, not far from the village. Everybody laughed at him all the time.
One day the mother went to her garden and there found a baby with very long hair lying on its back under a big tree. It was crying and kicking. It looked hungry and neglected. The woman fed and nursed it, and soon it fell asleep. She worked all day on the farm and no one came for the baby. When night began to fall, the woman took the child home with her. Again the next day nobody came for the baby, so she cut its long hair.
Soon afterward, a troupe of fairy people came to the village to claim the baby. When they found that its hair had been cut, they demanded that it be put back. This, of course, was impossible. They demanded that if the woman could not make the baby's hair grow again, she was to be taken away and killed. The chief and the elders did everything in their power to appease the fairies. They offered gifts—gold ornaments, land, slaves—everything to no avail. The fairies were adamant. The woman must die!
Further discussion seemed useless, and the meeting was just about to break up when the fool walked up and demanded to be heard. "Listen to me," he said. "The fairies say my mother should die. It is a fair punishment for her crime. But the fairies walked across my land as they came to the village. I demand that they rub out their footprints before they are allowed to take mother away." It seemed a foolish, meaningless demand, and everyone said, "How simple!" The fairies agreed.
At sundown the fairies were still working on the sandy plot. Two days went by. And a week. And another. Because just as one set of footprints were got rid of, another set appeared. By the end of the second week, in fact, the fairies had covered the entire plot with footprints. At last they gave up and let the woman live.
That is why even today, children who do not do well are not cast out, but treated fairly. Wisdom hides in many places.
Why We Tell Stories About Spicier
In the olden days stories were told about God, not about Anaanu, the Spider. One day, Anaanu felt a very strong desire to have stories told about him. So he went to God and said, "Dear God, I want to have your stories told about me."
And God said, "My dear Anaanu, to have stories told about you is a very heavy responsibility. If you want it, I will let you have it, but first you must prove to me that you are fit to have it. I want you to bring me three things: first, a swarm of bees; second, a live python; third, a live leopard, the King of the Forest himself. If you can bring me these three things, I will allow the stories that are told about me to be told about you instead."
Anaanu went away and sat down and thought. For three whole days he sat and thought. Then he got up, smiling, and took a huge calabash with a lid. He put some honey in this calabash, set it on his head, and he walked into the forest. He came to a place where a swarm of bees was hovering around some branches. Then he took the calabash off his head, opened the lid, and started saying loudly to himself while looking into the calabash, "They can fill it; they can't fill it; they can fill it; they can't fill it."
The bees heard him and asked, "Anaanu, what are you talking about?"
And Anaanu said, "Oh, it would be nothing if it were not for that foolish friend of mine. We had an argument. I said that, despite the honey in the calabash, there is still enough space for the makers of the honey to go into the calabash. But he said you are too many, that you cannot go inside the space that is left. I say you can fill it; he says you can't."
Then the leader of the bees said, "Ho! That is easily proved. We can go inside." So he flew into the calabash. And all the bees flew in after him. As soon as they were all inside, Anaanu clapped the lid onto the calabash, very tightly, and took the calabash to God. He said, "I have brought you the first thing, the swarm of bees." And God looked inside the calabash and said, "Well done, Anaanu, but where are the python and the leopard?"
Anaanu went away into the forest and cut a long stick from a branch of a tree. He scraped all the bark off this stick so that it became a long white pole. Then he went deeper into the forest, carrying the pole and shouting to himself, "It is longer than he; it is not longer than he; it is longer than he; it is not longer than he."
Now the python, who was very proud of his length, for which he was feared throughout the forest, was lying down curled up and resting. When he saw Anaanu, he said, "What are you talking about, Anaanu?"
And Anaanu said, "Oh, it is nothing but an argument that I had with a very ignorant and foolish friend of mine. Do you know that when I told him that you are longer than this stick, from the black mark to the other end, he refused to believe me, and said the stick is longer than you? I say you are longer; he says you are not."
The python growled and said, 'What! There is nobody in this world longer than I. As for that stick, bah! I shall soon show you who is longer."
So saying, Python stretched himself beside the stick, putting his head on the black mark. Anaanu said, 'To be sure I get the correct length by which you exceed the stick, let me tie you closely to the stick so you won't wiggle and seem shorter." So Anaanu tied Python firmly to the stick. But as soon as Anaanu had finished doing so, he lifted the stick onto his shoulder and said, "Now, my friend, we will go on a little journey." Then he took the python to God and said, "I have brought you the second thing, the python."
And God looked at the long pole with its burden and said, "Well done, Anaanu, but you still have to bring me Leopard, the King of the Forest himself."
Anaanu went away and dug a deep pit in the forest, on Leopard's path, and covered the pit with sticks and leaves. Leopard, who was going hunting for his food, soon came along the trail and fell into the pit. He was trapped and couldn't get out. Anaanu soon appeared, as if by chance, and said, "Eh, is this King Leopard himself) Well, well, well! But if I am kind enough to bring my family to help me get you out of this pit, you will reward us by eating us all."
But Leopard replied, "How can you talk like that, Anaanu? How could I do such a thing after you have saved my life? I promise that, if you get me out of this pit, no leopard will ever eat a spider again."
And Anaanu said, "All right, I believe you. I will call my family to help get you out of this pit." So Anaanu brought his family and also a heavy stick and a lot of rope. He threw the stick into the pit and jumped in after it. And he told Leopard, "Since you are so heavy, we will have to hoist you out with this stick and some ropes." So Leopard took hold of the stick between his four paws. Anaanu tied first his two front paws to the stick and then his two hind paws, all very firmly. Then his family hoisted them both out of the pit. But as soon as they came out, Anaanu jumped off and grabbed the tail end of the pole. He told Leopard, "Now we will go and visit someone you know." So saying, he dragged the stick with its load to God and said, "I have brought you Leopard, the King of the Forest himself." And God looked at Anaanu and said, "You have done very well, Anaanu. You have achieved the impossible. You deserve to have stories told about you. So from today I decree that the stories that were once told about me shall be told about you."
And that is why stories are told about Anaanu, the spider.
How Tortoise Won by Losing
Tortoise and his wife had no food to eat. Tortoise therefore decided that he would approach his father-in-law and beg for food. He did so, and his father-in-law was very happy to offer Tortoise yams, corn, and vegetables. He took Tortoise to his farm and showed him all around it and let Tortoise take what he wanted.
Within a few days, Tortoise and his wife had finished the food given to them, and they became very hungry again. They wanted more food, but Tortoise was ashamed to go back to his father-in-law to ask for more. He decided to help himself. Tortoise left his house at midnight and went straight to his father-in-law's farm. There he took yams, corn, vegetables, and other things, packed them in a big basket, and tried to lift the load onto his head, but the load was too heavy, and he could not lift it. He kept on trying and trying until morning, when his father-in-law saw him and seized him.
The father-in-law then tied Tortoise to a tree by the side of the road where everybody would see him. When people saw Tortoise disgraced thus, they asked his father-in-law what he had done. He told them that Tortoise had stolen his crops. Then they praised him for being able to catch such a sly thief as Tortoise. But the same people who had praised him in the morning were returning from their farms in the evening and found Tortoise still tied to the same tree, and they went to the father-in-law and asked, £Ts Tortoise not your son-in-law? Why should you tie a man with ropes to a tree from morning till evening, even if that man is a thief) Do you want to kill him? Surely you have shown yourself to be more evil than the thief."
So in this way Tortoise's wrongdoing was shifted to his father-in-law.
This is an example of how someone can make himself unpopular by placing his rights before his human feelings.
The Power of the Temper
Once upon a time there lived a woman who had no child. This woman was very rich, but she was barren, and she had always wanted to have a child.
One day the woman went to the seashore. She saw something lying on the sands as if it had been washed up from the sea. She took this thing home with her.
When she got to her room, the thing started talking. It asked her what she wanted most in life. The woman said she most wanted to have a child. Then the thing told her that her wish would be granted.
Soon afterward the woman had a child. She named the baby Dede, which means "satisfaction" or "salvation."
The woman loved her baby very much. She was so fond of the child that, as it grew up, she could never bring herself to correct it no matter what it did wrong.
But one day Dede did something that was very, very bad. Then her mother scolded her harshly. Dede became angry, cried, and threatened to return to where she had come from. Her mother begged her over and over again not to go. But still Dede cried and said she was going.
Then suddenly a mermaid appeared. And Dede went to her. The mermaid took Dede on her back, and they both went back into the sea.
Soon afterward the woman began losing her money, and she became very poor. Because of her temper, she lost both her baby and her fortune.
The Contest Between Fire and Rain
A very, very beautiful young girl was being wooed by all the men in the neighborhood. Although she was of age, she would not agree to marry any of them. Two of the principal suitors of the young girl were Fire and Rain. The young girl could not decide which of the two renowned young men she should marry. Then she said that she would marry whoever succeeded in beating the other in a contest.
A date was named for the contest, and Fire and Rain gathered together all their friends, relatives, and admirers in order to show how powerful they were. Rain boasted that he was going to win the contest. Fire boasted that he was going to win instead.
On the day of the contest Fire set out to burn all the bushes and all the rooftops. He started to burn all the trees and grass, robbing the birds of their nests, driving all the animals from their burrows, and destroying their paths in the forests. He started to burn the farmer's crops and to lay waste to the whole area of the contest. Everybody thought that Fire would win the contest.
They all sang: "Look at Fire! The bright one! The very tall one!"
Suddenly dark clouds gathered in the sky, and they grew, and they gathered until they formed a thick mass. Then torrents of rain began to fall. The contest had started in earnest.
Then the spectators again sang: "Look at Fire! The bright one! The very tall one! Look at Rain! The black one! The falling one! Which will you choose?"
And the beautiful young girl answered, "Instead of choosing Fire or Rain now, I will wait for the end of the contest."
Fire grew higher and brighter. The showers of rain grew bigger and bigger, and Rain fell and put out all Fire's life and energy. Of course, when Rain started to fall in great torrents, all the spectators fled for their lives. They ran away and hid until Rain was over. When Rain stopped they found that the beautiful young girl was nowhere to be seen. Rain had carried away his bride in thunderous torrents of water.
As the people returned to their homes, they sang: "Here is Fire, the bright one, the very tall one. Here is Rain, the black one, the falling one. Rain conquers Fire, and the contest is over."
Excerpted from WEST AFRICAN FOLKTALES by RICHARD SPEARS. Copyright © 1991 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface Spoken Art in West Africa Jack Berry.................... vii
Introduction Richard Spears.................... 1
West African Folktales.................... 9
Guide to Pronunciation.................... 227
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