African tales

Africa would just not be the same without the age-old tradition of storytelling.  Unfortunately for me, I never had the experience of sitting under the stars beside a fire in the evening, listening spellbound to folklores narrated by village elders.  By the time I was growing up, I could only glean some of the tales and riddles from my parents, a few from my aunts and even fewer from my grandmothers, who would have had the experience of sitting around a fire in a remote village somewhere with only the flames providing most of the light.  The closest I ever came to experiencing something similar was when we had electricity power cuts and we used candles for light.  Once in a while our parents would then tell us a story or two.

Strictly speaking, a folktale is an old story passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.  Fortunate for me, as I have always loved reading a good story, I chanced upon some folktales in my primary school library that would have my undivided attention for hours on end.  In the foundation grades of primary school, our teachers would also encourage us kids to stand up at the front of the class and narrate stories that we had heard from home.  Before long our class had only two favourite storytellers that the rest of us children used to love listening to.  Every time a teacher would ask for a volunteer to narrate a story, the siblings Aggie and Joram would immediately raise their hands or the rest of the class would shout out their names.  Those two must have spent a lot of time with their grandparents as they had an endless store of tales that captivated us for four years in primary school.

Many of the folktales feature animals, with the hero in most stories being Hare, who was often portrayed as not only the fast animal that he is, but also as a quick witted fellow.  Clever Hare would inevitably end up outsmarting slow Tortoise or greedy Hyena and even dupe all the animals in the jungle into handing over their riches over to him.  At times he would also outsmart humans by using cunning means to marry the king’s daughter or accomplish some great exploit, not by using his own strength but by using his brains.  A few stories ended with a twist in which Hare had to pay for his misdeeds and I always felt a sense of triumph on behalf of the other poor animals in the jungle.  Lion was another favourite who accomplished great physical feats, but in most tales even he was outsmarted by Hare.  Most folktales often carried a moral lesson on the importance of sharing, being truthful or drove home the message that naughtiness or misdeeds do not go unpunished. Yet others had lessons which would not go unquestioned in today’s global village, such as ‘boys should never eat directly from the cooking pot’ or ‘soft porridge is food for girls only.’

One popular tale during my childhood, whose lesson was on the importance of obeying one’s parents goes roughly like this:

Once upon a time, there was a woman who could not have children.  So she went to consult a witchdoctor who told her to mould a baby out of clay.  With the fetish he gave her, the baby was sure to come alive.  The witchdoctor cautioned the barren woman never to bathe the baby or let her get wet as she was sure to melt since she would be made out of clay.  The woman did as she was told and the next day she had a healthy baby of her own.  As the child grew, the mother made sure not to let any water touch the child and she warned the child to never wonder off too far from home lest she got caught up in the rain.  As time went by and the clay child grew some more, she soon forgot her mother’s rules and went off one day to play with her friends in a village far from home.  Before long storm clouds filled the sky and the clay child         remembered her mother’s warning.  She started to run back home as raindrops began to fall but it was too late.  First her nose and ears melted and dropped off and as she continued running, one limb after another fell off from her body until her torso melted into a lump of wet clay. 

Moral of the story – do not wonder too far from home and always obey your parents! 

Mwanja Ng’anjo

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