African Folk Tales (Andrew Lang)

Week 8: African Traditions - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

Ba-Ronga Tales (Bantu - southern Africa)

The first story you will read was collected by Henri-Alexandre Junod in his work among the Ba-Ronga (Thonga, Tsonga) people of Mozambique in southern Africa. You can read an online essay about Junod's work as an anthropologist and as a photographer.

Ronga is one of the many languages spoken in Mozambique today; there are perhaps half a million Ronga speakers in southern Africa. Ronga is closely related to Tsonga, which is more widely spoken and is one of the national languages of South Africa.

The speakers of this language are descendants of Bantu-speaking peoples who migrated from northern Africa and who settled in the south, probably during the 10th-15th centuries. There were Bantu speakers living in southern Africa when white Europeans first arrived there in the 16th century. The designation "Bantu" is primarily a linguistic description; it does not refer to a fixed set of particular cultural practices. The word "Bantu" is itself a Zulu term meaning "people".

In 20th-century South Africa, the word "Bantu" has been used to refer to native African peoples in general, specifically with regard to the laws of apartheid. As such, it was a highly derogatory term. For example, it was the "Bantu Education Act" in 1953 that condemned the native African children to an educational system whose only goal was to train them for manual labor. The term "Bantu" is now being replaced by the term "black" in South African English usage, and the word "Bantu" is being used instead in its linguistic sense, referring to Bantu-language speakers.

Swahili Tales (Bantu - eastern Africa)

Several of the stories you will be reading are stories collected from Swahili-speaking peoples. Swahili is one of the best known of the Bantu languages. Today it is the primary language of Tanzania and Swahili is also spoken in other east African countries such as Kenya and Uganda, where it is one of the national languages. Altogether there are approximately 50 million speakers of Swahili in Africa today.

The word Swahili is related to the Arabic word for "coast," and was first used by Arab Muslims who came into contact with people living on the east coast of Africa. The earliest surviving documents written in Swahili date to the early 18th-century, and are written in Arabic script. During the 19th century, many people from the eastern coastal regions migrated inland, bringing the Swahili language with them. You may have learned a few Swahili words and phrases from the Disney film, The Lion King, such as the phrase "hakuna matata" ("no problems"). The name of the communications officer on the original Star Trek series, Lt. Uhura, comes from the Swahili word for freedom, "uhuru."

Because of the extensive interaction between Arabic-speaking and Swahili-speaking peoples, there are many Arabic folktales that are told by Swahili speakers. Through this Arabic contact, stories from the Panchatantra tradition and from the Aesopic fable tradition were retold and adapted by Swahili speakers.

Berber Tales (northern Africa)

The Berber-speaking peoples inhabit the countries of north Africa, with the largest Berber population being in Algeria. There are approximately 20 million speakers of Berber languages spread throughout north Africa today.

The Berber peoples have been living in north Africa since ancient times, and there are Berber inscriptions surviving from the Roman occupation of north Africa in the first and second centuries B.C.E. (written in "Old Libyan" script). One of the most famous Berbers of the ancient world was Saint Augustine, who was born in Algeria in 354 C.E.

The word "Berber" itself is a form of the ancient Greek word "barbarian", which is a term the Greeks used for anyone who did not speak Greek (barbarians are the people who go "bar-bar" when they talk, like the way we use the sound "blah-blah" to indicate meaningless speech). The word "Barbary Coast" was a term that was formerly used to refer to the north African coast where the Berber peoples lived.

The term that the Berbers use to refer to themselves is "Amazigh".

Many of the Berber-speaking peoples have converted to Islam and now identify themselves as "Arabic" culturally, although they continue to speak Berber dialects, such as Kabyle and Tamazight. As in the case of east African folklore, the folklore traditions of northern Africa have been deeply influenced by Islamic cultural traditions.

About Andrew Lang

Exactly because Andrew Lang's works are in the public domain and commonly available on the Internet, he is an important resource for this class; the units on The Arabian Nights, Japanese Tales, African Tales, Estonian Tales, and Danish tales all come from Lang's books.

Andrew Lang was born in 1844, in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign (Victoria had become queen in 1837). When Andrew Lang died in 1912, he had outlived Queen Victoria by only a decade (Victoria died in 1901). Andrew Lang's life is thus almost perfectly "Victorian."

He was a professor of anthropology at Oxford, one of the notorious "armchair anthropologists" of the late 19th century (the most famous example being Sir James Frazer, best known for his book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion). As the British Empire expanded its reach around the world, these British armchair anthropologists worked hard to popularize the folk literature and traditions of "primitive" peoples around the world. They did not do field work themselves, but they read the reports of far-flung anthropologists and they compiled, compared, and published voluminously.

You can see the range of Lang's interests in a bibliography of his publications. In addition to books on myth, religion and folklore, he published popular adaptations of many classics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Morte d'Arthur, in addition to the Arabian Nights.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM