Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Book Review: Greedy Spider

The author of Greedy Spider, Bakeh N. Wleh Nagbe, mailed me a copy of his children's picture book.

I am delighted at the opportunity to introduce readers to Greedy Spider, a folktale from Liberia, West Africa. The review is posted at allfolktales.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Open thread for folktale submission

Every now and then, I've had people write to ask how they can contribute stories. It would be wonderful to have as many people contribute new stories or their versions of popular tales. I am thinking (as time and other engagements allow) of how to make this easy and seamless. But in the meantime, I'm offering these options:
  1. Send me an email to omowunmi [at] allfolktales.com and I will post your story on the website. And I will send you a confirmation email.
  2. Post your story as a comment to this blog post. I will monitor this thread and copy stories to the main website. You may also send at email to notify me, and that way, I can send you back a confirmation email once I copy your story to the main website.

I believe any community effort should be guarded with guidelines, so here goes:

  • No spam. Obviously, any spam comments will be deleted.
  • Subject is African Folktales. I think we all understand that.
  • Optional: Include information about the story (for example, where's it's from, where you heard it from, and whatever else you fancy)

Please note that guidelines may be revised depending on the direction the wind blows. Thanks for your participation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ancient writing in West Africa

Today, I came across the subject of the Olmecs. The Olmecs were a people who lived in South Central Mexico from the 1400BC to 400BC. Apparently, there are some who believe that a large population of the Olmecs were of African origin, specifically, of West African origin. I did google searches and visited several pages but did not read anything that led credence to that claim. What piqued my interest however was reference to some ancient Olmec script that was similar to an ancient Mende script.

What writing could the Mende, a West African people, have had in 400BC?

I do not mean to be condescending towards the idea of ancient African West African writing. As a child, I hoped that some ancient artifacts will be discovered and our history would be uncovered, but I have now come to accept that we did not write, we did not build monuments (none so ancient) that have withstood our climate. Every now and then, I feel a fleeting sense of regret that my people, my ancestors did not develop some form of writing. But are my feelings misplaced?

I found a reference to a book by Saki Mafundikwa, a Zimbabwean graphics artist, "Afrikan Alphabets: The story of writing in Afrika". I was skeptical, afterall, there was writing in Egypt. The Egyptian writing that could not migrate across the Sahara. Even though I recall reading a book long ago (title I cannot recall) that claimed that Yorubas migrated from Egypt, I will maintain the assumption that writing did not migrate with them. But I digress...

Sample pages from "Afrikan Alphabets: The story of writing in Afrika" provide a clue as to what I may find in the book.

The commonly held belief is that most graphic symbols in Afrikan societies are merely decorative. In fact, in Afrikan culture, symbols fill an important communication role. There are stories to be found in the rock art of the San people in southern Afrika; the carvings on the calabashes of the Kikuyu of Kenya. There is information stored in tally sticks like the Ishango Bone from The Congo, the knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko, and the scarification found in many Afrikan societies. The meaning attributed to these symbols and artifacts qualifies as proto-writing, or forerunners of writing. Most of these symbol systems are several thousand years old, suggesting that Afrika has a much older tradition of writing than some have recognized.

I am one of those who believe that graphic symbols on calabashes, wooden statues, rocks are decorative. Knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko? Is that the iroko tree? Well, I'm ready to be educated, or re-educated about the history of writing in West Africa.

Once I read the book, I'll be back to share my thoughts and new learnings.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A precious cow from Tales by Moonlight

I set a goal to publish at least one book review per month and yet, February ended without any review. I intend to make it up. The good news is that the book is already picked, "Tales by Moonlight" by Nigerian Television Authority, so my review will follow shortly.

In the meantime, here is one of the stories from the book about a man, his three sons and a precious cow. I was very amused by the story when I first read it. The idea that a man disowned his children because of a cow seemed ridiculous. Until I started thinking of the cow as less of a cow but more of an asset.

The story is of Fulani origin. The Fulani are traditionally a normadic, cattle-rearing group that inhabited parts of West Africa. The cow must have been symbolic of the wealth of a Fulani man. It was all the property he had. The cow dictated the man's lifestyle - the cow's needs determined where the man resided at any point in time. Everything was done to satisfy the cow. So it should come as no big stretch of the imagination what would happen if a man fell prey to a manipulative and vindictive cow. I imagine that this story may have been used to illustrate why an alternative lifestyle was preferable to the pastoralist one. One where man farmed, made crafts and was more in control of his destiny.

The images used within the story text came from illustrations in the book.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Destructive truth tests and true lies

Long before lie detector tests were invented in the Western world, Africa had a similar but deadlier test. Let's call it a destructive truth test (DTT). Destructive, because if the test subject tested negative for truth, the test subject would be destroyed. No recourse, no appeal. The result of lying during a DTT was instant death.

For an example of how this ancient science, DTT worked, read the story of the three brothers and the pot of porridge.

I wonder why the characters in the various stories did not 'fess up at the last minute, opting for shame rather than death. Perhaps they doubted the authenticity of the tests. It turns out that Ijapa the tortoise and his wife,Yanrinbo were skilled at fooling the test. In the book, True Lies by George Shannon and John O'Brien, Ijapa and Yanribo were accused of stealing their neighbor's yams. They were summoned by the Chief who administered a herbal drink DTT. "My hands have not picked a single yam", Ijapa said, swearing to die if he was lying. Yanribo also swore that she had never set her foot near her neighbor's storehouse. Neither one fell down and died and they were therefore exonorated from the crime. The truth was that Ijapa carried Yanribo on his back to the store house and Yanribo's hands picked the yams. They had told true lies.

Monday, February 02, 2009

One review per month. At least.

A Reviews section has been added to the site. I've started off with two reviews:

Since I'm so busy - my perennial excuse for not updating this site - I won't be surprised if you wonder if I will keep up the reviews. So I'm setting a goal and I'm doing it publicly.

I will do at least ONE review per month

A modest goal. Almost too simple. So I must not disappoint. Right? In fact, I feel it's a goal I can exceed except I remember that I planned to begin the reviews last November... Still, an easy to meet goal. I only hope I will not run out of material to review too quickly.

Girl in drum, gourd seeds, do these ring a bell?

Do you recall a folktale about a greedy boy, his sister and gourd seeds? Or one about a monster who traps a girl in a drum? A reader, Mary, is looking for some folktale volumes she had read as a kid. Here's her note and my response.

Mary said: I learned to read from a series of collected fables African fables,
Aesop's fables, etc. They were old rebound volumes in 1978. they were short
children's stories and had black/white wood cutting illustrations. I would love
to find out if these texts are still available. As far as the stories: I remember one about a girl whose parents died and her greedy brother took all the family goods and left only the hut. She found a gourd seed in the hut, planted it, and made a living selling gourds. The brother came back and was enraged that she "stole" from him and took the gourds, even cutting off her hand when she tried to protect them. I can't remember how it ends. I also remember a story about monster who traps a girl with a beautiful voice in his drum and makes her sing whenever he beats the drum. A prince found out about the girl and helped her escape, putting bees in the drum. When the monster beat the drum and it didn't sing, he opened it to beat the girl but instead the enraged bees flew out and stung the monster to death. Ringing any bells?

I said: Do you recall the title of any these books? I'm not familiar with the stories you mentioned. However, the one about the girl trapped in a drum does ring a bell. But it's a different version of the story. I recall a story where Ijapa (Tortoise) traps a boy with a beautiful singing voice in a drum. I can't remember how the boy came to be trapped in the first place or the rest of the story but I'm sure Ijapa suffered for his deceit as usual. I'm sorry I'm unable to help but I really appreciate you sharing these tidbits. Who knows, perhaps another reader recognizes these stories.

If these stories do ring a bell for you, please share your memories. Thanks.