USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘africa’
Legends
Tales /märchen

How the Tortoise Got Its Cracked Shell

Interviewee:

“There is a lot of animal folklore in Nigeria. I used to hear this one story all the time when I was little. It goes like this:

There was once a great drought in all the land. So the animals gathered to try and make a plan. It was decided that the tortoise, due to his charm and manner of speaking, would fly up to heaven with the birds in order to bring food down. As he flew, he told the birds that at such times it is important to change your name. So he told them his name was “all of you.” They got to heaven (and the feast) and God said the food was for “all of you.” The tortoise gorged himself. The birds got mad and left, but the tortoise begged them to tell his wife to put soft things by his house so that he could jump and fall from heaven safely. The birds told his wife the opposite and the tortoise jumped and broke his shell.

I’ve heard that one a million times. There are many Nigerian folktales about the cunning tortoise.”

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This story reminds me of many tales that revolve around how an animal or other natural phenomenon came to be. It is a way of explaining the world around us before science or other explanations came about to replace tales. The cunning tortoise is a recurring character in Nigerian folklore, representing craftiness and outsmarting others, often at his own expense.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Africa Day

Main piece:

Africa Day is the day is meant for people in Africa to celebrate and thank Africa. The holiday takes place in all of Africa.

On this day, they eat traditional staple food called sadza that’s made of corn and looks like rice cake. You eat it with your hands and eat it with gravy, chicken, chicken liver and maguru. They also eat salad called muriwo, which is greens, spinach, and peanut butter.

On Africa Day week, there’s an african dress day called “civvii”. Usually the students have a uniform but this day is an exception when everyone can wear african clothing.

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

Informant found out about Africa Day through living in Zimbabwe. It’s on the calendar so she figured out it was a holiday but it was also taught in school.

The informant said that to her as a foreigner it is a fun day where everyone can really be african. She didn’t think of the liberation as much, but she thinks the day is a part of liberation.

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

It’s on May 25th and happens every year. It’s a holiday. Students still have school but they dress differently to celebrate.

Personal Analysis:

I didn’t know that Africa Day existed before, but I’m not surprised about it. There were many foods I’ve never heard of that they eat. It’s good that the holiday lets foreigners participate and feel like a part of the community even though they are of another nationality. It seems like a very exciting day for the African people, seeing that it’s not just the one day but a week long festivity held in school.


For another version of this proverb, see https://www.africa.com/how-to-celebrate-africa-day/

Folk speech

Ubuntu

Main piece

There’s a saying that she learned in Africa “ ubuntu”. It means humanity and compassion literally, but basically it’s similar to “it’s good to be together”.

There are 2 main tribes Shona and Ndebele (minority) where she’s from. Ubuntu is from this tribal language.

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

It’s a word like hakuna matata. It’s very commonly known. However, most people know it but don’t use it regularly.

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

Her native friends from her school taught her. It’s not used that often and only heard about it in school.

Personal Analysis:

This word seems to be a saying that’s passed down but not in colloquial speech. I can’t think of an English equivalent except unity. It’s definitely a part of the culture in Zimbabwe if everyone knows it.

Magic
Myths

Tokolosh

Main piece:

There is a little tiny elf-fairy called Tokolosh. It’s evil. its part of African witchcraft. In Zimbabwe, witchcraft is voodoo but it’s also Nigerian so it’s an African thing.

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

When informant was in Grade 10 or 11, she heard about Tokolosh after an action conference at a missions school. The christian speaker was talking about african wifchcraft to get rid of, which included Tokolosh.

As a foreigner living in Zimbabwe, she don’t know what the full story is and when she asked others to explain it, she didn’t understand.

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

Typically, it’s a part of African voodoo and witchcraft so the story would be shared with those in Africa who believe or practice voodoo. In this case, it was told in opposition of it through christians trying to bring faith into Africa. It seems like it is passed through word of mouth even to kids because the informant asked friends at school about it. It’s not a part of formal education.

Personal Analysis:

Witchcraft seems to be more integrated into African culture than in America. The tokolosh seems to be taken seriously if christians are working towards getting rid of it.

Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs

Da Nile

When I was pressuring my dad to give me folklore, he told me a proverb completely unrelated to our discussion:

“Denial (da-nile) ain’t just a river in Egypt”

I can’t remember the exact context, but I was being obtuse about something and he was teasing me while also imparting wisdom.

The phrase itself utilizes the way the word “the” is pronounced phonetical like slang.  It is therefore interesting from a class point of view, since the speaker, whether they are educated or not is speaking the way an uneducated person would so there is a sense of playing with class when it is spoken by my dad.  From an African American perspective there may be a small issue of heritage in there since the nile is located in africa.  The reference is vague at best since few African Americans are descendent of Egyptians, but the issue of heritage may still play a role.  The wisdom is still being imparted either way.  This phrase is therefore a good example of how a lesson is being learned through humor

Humor
Legends
Narrative

A Ugandan Tall Tale

Item:

“I was rafting, on the Nile River in Uganda, we spent the whole day rafting, and we set up camp for the night in this little encampment area on the bank. So we’re sitting there, we’re like cracking beers and stuff, just sitting around this campfire, like the classic storytelling setting, and someone’s like ‘aw man, maybe we should tell ghost stories,” and I’m like ‘oh I don’t know if I know any.’ And we just go around and some people tell some scary stuff that’s happened to them or like various ghost stories that they know, and then this Ugandan guy that’s with us, one of the guides is like ‘I know a ghost story.’ And we’re like ‘okay!’ what could this guy be possibly about to tell us, so we strap in. And he tells us he was just chilling in this village in Uganda, just hanging out, when this man approached him and his friends and was like, ‘I’ll bet you I can drink a whole bottle of Konyagi without throwing up.’ And just to fill you in Konyagi is like the world’s shittiest gin. It is, it comes in plastic bags in like individual serving sizes and it comes in bottles, it’s like turpentine. It’s absolute worst. So, this man, he’s a stranger, comes up to my guide and is like ‘I can drink a whole bottle without throwing up.’ And the guide’s like, ‘ok you’re on, I’ll take you up on this bet, if you throw up, you have to pay me, if you don’t throw up, I owe you the bottle.’ And he’s like ‘ok.’ So they go to the store and the buy the bottle and the man drinks the entire bottle of Konyagi and everyone is just stunned that he was able to do it, then he dies. Of alcohol poisoning, he died because he didn’t throw up. So this man bought the alcohol that killed the stranger so he’s like ‘oh my god, I feel so responsible, I have to at least buy this man a coffin.’ So him and his friends get in this truck and they drive to wherever you go to buy coffins in Uganda and they pick one up for this little village outside theirs. So they’re on the way back and they’re on the road driving along when they see this hitchhiker. They pick him up and he’s like ‘hey are you headed to so-and-so’ and they’re like ‘yeah as a matter of fact, we are, you can hop in the bed of the truck, there’s a coffin back there, don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal,” and he’s like “oh ok no problem.” So the hitchhiker gets in the bed of the truck and they’re cruising along on the road and it starts to rain, and the people inside the truck don’t really notice because they’re sitting inside but the guy in the back is like ‘oh man, I don’t want to get rained on,” so he hits inside the coffee, he’s like “I’ll just hang out inside this coffin until it stops raining.” So he gets in and he closes the door and he’s just waiting there. So they’re driving along the rain eventually stops. The people in the truck no nothing about what’s going on in the back. The guy in the coffin still thinks that it’s raining so he’s just sitting there. And they’re driving along and they see another hitchhiker and he’s like ‘hey are you headed to so-and-so’ and they’re like ‘yeah as a matter of fact, we are, you can hop in the bed of the truck, there’s a coffin back there, don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal,” and he’s like “oh ok no problem;” same thing as before and he sits in the bed of the truck too. So they’re cruising along, and the guy inside the coffin realizes it’s stopped raining. And he didn’t know that this other person is in the bed of the truck as well. So he’s like ‘oh it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll just pop out and take a look.” He opens up the coffin and he’s just like rising out of it. Meanwhile, the guy who was sitting in the back of the truck didn’t know that there was a man in this coffin trying to get out of the rain. So what he sees is a man rising out of a coffin that he thinks is like a zombie, and he’s so horrified at the thought of this man rising out of this coffin to see him, that he jumps out of bed of the truck and dies.”

Context:

The informant heard this story while he was in Africa working to spread HIV prevention and awareness. This rafting excursion was taken as a leisure trip amidst all of the work he was doing.

Analysis:

The way the informant told of this whole ordeal was so engrossing that I wonder just how great it would have been to hear the original story from the Ugandan man. That said, this story is not a ghost story, as he said it was. Even though he related it as if it happened to him, the story and its slapstick comedy is too perfectly paced for it to have actually happened. Or could it? That’s the beauty of legend.

 

Customs
Earth cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ramadan in Sudan

Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major.  He is a junior at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.  His family is from Sudan and they are Muslim.  Both he and his twin brother were educated in international schools.  He speaks Arabic and English.

 

Context: I was talking with the informant about traditions and rituals his family has.

 

Item: “Yeah so basically for once a year for one month, all of Sudan is fasting for 30 days.  We fast from sun up to sun down.  You’re not allowed to drink water, no food, can’t have any sexual intercourse.  Some people say you’re supposed to stay away from certain pleasures, but that stuff’s impossible.  So some people are like, you should never curse during Ramadan as that breaks your fast.  I don’t really subscribe to that notion, but some people definitely take it a lot more strict than others.

 

The point of Ramadan is that you be in solidarity with unfortunate people around the world who go through not eating on a daily basis so we get a better idea of their pain and their suffering.  We’re supposed to also develop better appreciation for the stuff we have, so you appreciate the fact that you can come home every day and there’s a meal waiting for you.  In a place like Sudan, you take that really seriously during Ramadan.

 

At the end of Ramadan you have a very large feast, on Eid.  You go and meet up with pretty much your entire family and have a large feast and pretty much eat whatever you want.  We also sacrifice a sheep, so you kill a sheep and then eat it.  And, uh, growing up I watched the killing of the sheep at my grandma’s house and it’s really gruesome by the way.  So they throw it up there and slit it’s throat and there’s a ton of blood and they’re just tearing apart the insides.  I’ve seen so many sheep stomachs just laying outside of homes, it’s ridiculous.  There’s no like recycle process in Africa.  So you eat lamb; there is a Qa’ranic basis for that, but I don’t know what it is.  There’s some story of a guy that sacrifices a sheep instead of his son and it might even be in the Bible but I’m not really sure.

 

Typically, the kids got a lot of money from relatives, which was dope, or got presents, but I usually got a lot of money.  This is a great time, there’s lots of family reunions and a week of from school.  So Ramadan goes back 11 days every year.  The next, like, six to eight years are going to be the toughest for Ramadan since it falls in the summer and is moving earlier.  The days are longer and they’re super hot and it’s really tough.  Anyways, one other thing is you’re kind of obligated to eat at sundown.  It’s considered a sin if you don’t eat immediately, you can’t wait to finish up your video game, you gotta eat right away”.

 

Analysis: The informant, although away from home for the past three years, still continues to embrace the Muslim period of Ramadan and all the sacrifices with it.  Although it is undoubtedly a struggle for them while in the U.S., the importance of religion to their lives outweighs all other concerns.  Especially in Sudan, with the extremely high unemployment and poverty levels, Ramadan is a serious time where exceptions are not accepted.

 

The fast does not extend only to food, like in some other religions (lent in Catholicism).  It also applies to other aspects of the body and spirit.  In this way, it tests self-control to a much greater extent to bring about greater self-awareness and control for the practitioners.

 

With regards to the sacrifice of the sheep, the informant is referring to the story involving Abraham and Ishmael, in which Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son to God.  God spares Ishmael and a sheep is sacrificed instead.  The sacrifice of the sheep seems to occur in many instances in Islamic countries (at graduations and other large and meaningful events).

Contagious
Customs
Holidays
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Yamaya/Yemoja: An African Deity

My informant states that Africans from what is now called Yorubaland brought Yemaya/Yemoja and a host of other deities/energy forces in nature with them, when they were brought to the shores of the Brazil as captives. She is the ocean, the essence of motherhood, and a protector of children. Once in Brazil, the myth was passed through oral tradition because the Portugese slave owners didn’t let them worship their deities openly. Her name slowly evolved into Yemanja over time. What is also interesting is after the Independence of Brazil, people were allowed to worship whatever deities and Gods they wanted. Yet Brazilians ended up enjoying the ritual of asking Yemoja for a blessing on New Years, as the ocean is a big part of Brazilian culture. Even during Brazilian carnivals, there was floats and imageries of Yemoja, as she is now a strong symbol of Brazilian culture.

My informant stated that his  mother first told him about this because it’s tradition to wear white on New Year’s day and go to the beach and put flowers in the ocean to honor her and for her to bless your new year with good luck. Everyone in Brazil now do this as it is part of their New Year’s tradition. Not only do Brazilians do this during New Years, but also when family members pass away.

This is an interesting analyzation of how another culture adopted a different culture’s customs and ritual to fit their needs. The fact that sending flowers to the ocean to celebrate Yemoja brings good luck is another example of asking for protection. What is also interesting is whether one believes in the deity or not, everyone does it during Brazil as it has transformed into a tradition.

Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech

“A woman is a cob of maize for any mouth that has its teeth”

The first time my informant head this metaphor was in the first few months of his residency in Congo.  He had just started his missionary work, his reason for moving from the United States, and when he’d be walking from place to place, he would hear groups of men laughing together and they would often recite this folk metaphor.

My informant explained that the women in Congo were not respected, and this metaphor speaks to that sentiment.  He said the proverb means that a woman has no rights, and that any man can claim a woman, for marriage or sex (mostly), as long as they desire to do so.

In areas of Congo, maize is grown by farmers and is common in their diets.  To eat maize, one must simply make use of their teeth.  As accessible maize is to one’s diet, a woman is just as available to satisfy a male’s desires.  It is upon this comparison that the metaphor is established.

As my informant continued his work in Africa, he tried to quell this popular opinion towards women.  However, while he was able to share the benefits of valuing women and giving them rights, only a few actually put these ideas into practice.  Other than these individuals, this folk metaphor remains popular to the majority of males in the country and women continue to be shown little to no esteem.

Annotation: The African proverb can also be found in Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, Heinemann; Reissue edition, 1991

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