Week 8: African Traditions

Please choose carefully! If you can't decide for yourself, let the Fates decide... Then, when you have made your choice, you can start the Week's Assignments.

The Tales from Africa for this week are taken from a variety of African traditions (Berber, Swahili, and others). They are all found in the Andrew Lang Fairy Book series, and in each case they are translations into English from the African folktales collected by the Europeans who began studying African cultures at the same time that the European countries were busy dividing the African continent up amongst themselves. Unlike the Jamaican folktales which were recorded in a style imitating that of the native storyteller, these African folktales are more like paraphrases which have been polished up to read smoothly in English, but without the distinctive features that they would have been given by the original storytellers. You will probably want to do the African folktales unit if you feel more comfortable reading standard English, as opposed to the very non-standard English dialect in which the Jamaican folktales are recorded. There is a nice variety of types of stories included in this unit, ranging from trickster tales about the jackal and his animal acquaintances, to the elaborate and unforgettable fairy tale about the wonder-working gazelle and his ungrateful master.

Here are some quotes from the stories:

As soon as his mother was out of sight, the baby took out some magic bones, and placed them in a row before him. 'You are my father,' he told one bone, 'and you are my mother. You are the biggest,' he said to the third, 'so you shall be the ogre who wants to eat me; and you,' to another, 'are very little, therefore you shall be me. Now, then, tell me what I am to do.' ...

All this time the gazelle had been standing close to the door, holding the sword in one of its front paws. And as the snake put one of his heads through the hole that he had made so as to get in and out comfortably, it cut it of so clean that the snake really did not feel it. The second blow was not quite so straight, for the snake said to himself, 'Who is that who is trying to scratch me?' and stretched out his third head to see; but no sooner was the neck through the hole than the head went rolling to join the rest. ...

While the monkey was looking out for a nice shady place where he might perch comfortably he noticed a shark watching him from below with greedy eyes. 'Can I do anything for you, my friend?' asked the monkey politely. 'Oh! if you only would thrown me down some of those delicious things, I should be so grateful,' answered the shark. 'After you have lived on fish for fifty years you begin to feel you would like a change. And I am so very, very tired of the taste of salt.'

The Tales from Jamaica is one of my favorite units in the whole course - along with the Bre'r Rabbit stories of Uncle Remus (another of my favorite units!). The Jamaican Anansi stories and the Bre'r Rabbit stories are closely related, and they go back to African folktales, brought with slaves from Africa to the Americas. Over time, these traditional African stories incorporated plots from European stories and from Native American stories in order to create an incredibly rich cycle of tales organized around the adventures of the brutal and comical tricksters Anansi and Bre'r Rabbit, along with their enemies Tiger and Lion and Wolf and Fox. The Jamaican stories you will read here were collected by an anthropologist named Martha Warren Beckwith. She recorded these stories as they were told to her, in a dialect that you may find hard to read at first (there are a few words that I am not sure of myself, but that doesn't have to diminish your enjoyment of the story in any way!). If you want to see entirely new ways of using English to tell a story, you will definitely want to read these Jamaican stories.

Here are some quotes that can give you a sense of what the dialect is like:

Anansi go out an' court two young lady was de king daughter an' mak dem a fool, an' dem ketch him an' tie him, an' de two sister go an' look a bundle a wood fe go an' mak a fire under a copper fe bu'n him wid hot water. An' after when dem gone, he see Tiger was coming. Anansi said, "Lawd! Brar Tiger, I get into trouble heah!" An' said, "Fe wha'?" An' say, "King daughter wan' lib wid dem, come tie me." Tiger say, 'You fool, mak y' loose an' tie me!" Anansi tie Tiger dere now an' Anansi go to a grass-root an' dodge. An' when de misses go t'row down de wood at de fireside, de littlest one say, "Sister! sister! look de little uncle wha' we tie heah, him tu'n a big uncle now!" ...

Cunnie-mo'n-father say, "Look here! I mus' fin' out the name of that yam!" He got some okra an' went to the place where the broad rock is an' mash up the okra an' have the place quite slippery, an' hide himself away in the bush near by. Anansi now coming with a larger yam this time. As he reach to the rock, he make a slide, fa' down, an' the yam smash. He said, "Lawd! all me yam foofoo mash up!" ...

Brer Tiger and Brer Anansi went to river-side. Brer Anansi said, "Brer Tiger, tak out your inside an' wash it out." Brer Tiger did so. "Now, Brer Tiger, dip your head in water wash it good." The moment Brer Tiger put his head in water, Anansi took up the inside and run away with it give to his wife Tacoomah to boil. ...



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