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Favorite African Folktales

July 16, 2003

Once Upon a Time in Africa


Long before children heard Mother Goose rhymes or "Jack and the Beanstalk," stories were told in Africa about wise lions, wily snakes and how the world began. Storytellers passed along these tales orally, embodying ideas about ethics, human nature and the cultures from which they came. Unlike collections of European fairy tales, myths and legends, which are familiar worldwide, compilations of African folk tales have only recently received mainstream attention outside Africa.

"Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales" (W. W. Norton), published last year, could be among the first such anthologies to cross over from anthropology and academe and receive attention for its literary merit and cultural worth, said Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of African and African-American Studies department at Harvard. He is also the co-editor of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.

The time is right and the book is right, Mr. Gates said. Mr. Mandela has lent his imprimatur. And things African — literature, music, art, food — are peaking in popularity and interest in the United States, reflecting social changes, Mr. Gates said. President Bush's trip to Africa this summer is evidence of that allure, he said, and of the sharpened acknowledgment of the intense connection between Africa and the Americas that began hundreds of years ago with slavery. "I'm hoping that the Mandela book will popularize the folk tales, like the Brothers Grimm," Mr. Gates said. "Interest in Africa is at an all-time high. All these folk traditions are oral. There are several anthologies of African folk tales, but they haven't crossed over and become part of the culture in the same way that everyone knows Mother Goose."

He continued: "We listened to these stories from our grandparents without knowing their origins. Publications like this can make those bridges concrete."

Robert Farris Thompson, a professor of the history of art at Yale, contends that although a spark has been "waiting to be lit" better to popularize folk tale collections, Americans are already aware of the contributions of Africa's "verbal literature" through literary characters, hip-hop and everyday speech.

"Every American knows the parallel heritage of the great African oral literary tradition," said Mr. Thompson, author of "Flash of the Spirit" (Vintage, 1984), about the influence of African culture in the Americas. "Every other child has heard of 'Tar Baby' and Br'er Rabbit."

The 32 stories in Mr. Mandela's "Folktales" come from countries as varied as Morocco, Zambia, Kenya and South Africa, although scholars caution that it is impossible to pinpoint their exact origins from centuries ago. Some are new stories told in the old way; others are interpretations of old stories. In their oral form, tales from the San and Khoi peoples, considered the original hunter-gatherers of Southern Africa, predate anything in European literature.

All were selected by Mr. Mandela with the help of experts and are intended to reflect the range of African stories. They are also examples of the charm and the wit, the talking moons and dancing trees found in such fables. The stories tell why the world is ordered the way it is: why cats sleep in the house, how animals won their distinctive features, the pitfalls of childish disobedience. Each story is accompanied by notes explaining its country of origin and the language from which it is translated. The languages are many, including Karanga, Xhosa, Swahili.

Africa's many languages and cultures, its colonial history, its poverty and an oral tradition that lasted until the 19th century are among the reasons these stories took so long to reach the United States, said Kasiya Makaka Phiri, an Arkansas-based storyteller and a former professor of oral literature at the University of Malawi in southeast Africa. Mr. Phiri, who has taught Swahili and African literature at Dartmouth, tells stories at book fairs and in libraries.

His contribution to the anthology was the original story "The Mother Who Turned to Dust," based on some of the old tales he heard from his mother and grandmother as he grew up in the country then known as Southern Rhodesia and now known as Zimbabwe. It begins, "Once upon a time, the sun had a daughter," and goes on to talk about the relationship between mothers and their children and the need to nurture the earth.

The stories are meant to be improvised and embellished, reflecting the point in history when they are told and the consciousness of the storyteller, said Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton who teaches at its University Center for Human Values. Mr. Appiah, who grew up in Ghana, is the editor with Mr. Gates of the Africana encyclopedia.

"I like to think of the written version as another performance," he said. "I don't know if the oral tradition is dying — the stories are still being told — but it's changing. Many people of my generation and younger probably don't have the great stock of stories in their head that my father did." He marks this schism as generally between people born before and after 1960, when many African countries became independent.

Now, as cultures mingle more, Mr. Appiah predicted that African folk tales will find audiences beyond their native home. He said it was notable that Mr. Mandela chose tales from across the continent, not just from South Africa, inviting many levels of cultural exchange.

The book has sold about 5,000 copies in South Africa, a lot for a children's book, said Louise Steyn, the children's book editor at Tafelberg, which published it there. Robert Weil, the executive editor at Norton, would not say how many copies had been printed or sold in the United States, but he said the book was doing very well.

Since apartheid, South Africa has been encouraging literacy and promoting African culture, said Elinor Sisulu, a children's book author and the daughter-in-law of Walter Sisulu, who died in May and who had joined Mr. Mandela as a leader in the fight against white minority rule.

"When I was growing up, the imaginary world was the world of the Europeans," Ms. Sisulu said. "Our population is mainly rural. They hear traditional African stories, but the stories they read are mostly European or American."

Twenty years ago, when the Africanist Roger D. Abrahams compiled the anthology "African Folktales: Traditional Stories of the Black World" (Pantheon), a question was how folk tales would evolve into new forms like music and novels. In a review in The New York Times, Jason Berry said that such folk tale anthologies have "a modest market among scholars who follow each new finding in their field" and that the trick was to find a broader audience.

Now that the market seems to be expanding and folk tales are becoming part of American culture, some have reframed that question to ask if the folk tales need to evolve at all.

"In the next few years I am certain we'll see an explosion in oral tradition fused with modern tales," said the South African novelist Achmat Dangor, who helped Mr. Mandela select stories for the anthology. The author of the well-received novel "Kafka's Curse," Mr. Dangor is also the former chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, which receives some royalties from the sale of "Folktales."

"If you consider where Latin American literature is, it also had its source in the oral tradition, in that magic realism," Mr. Dangor said. "I'm very optimistic that we'll find a continuum between the oral tradition and the conventional written form."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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