The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about Enkoye Totit, bedtime story her mother and aunts told her when she was little.
“So, Enkoye Totit is this little monkey character who keeps getting in trouble. It’s a bedtime story that parents tell their kids. It’s like, there’s not really one specific story I can think of about Enkoye Totit, but she’s a character that you can insert in any story. Totit means, like, little monkey. It’s like a diminutive of “tota,” which means monkey. That’s what parents call their kids. Like, it’s a nickname for kids when they’re being silly or misbehaving but not actually doing something that bad. Like if you keep annoying your mom, she’ll call you Tota.”
The fact that “monkey” is both a word referring to the animal and an term of affection for young children in Amharic is interesting, because it allows these stories to become self-insert stories for the children they are told to. Because Enkoye Totit is a stock character and not one from a specific story, it allows parents to plug this character, as an extension of their own children, into many different plots that will be vehicles for lessons they want to teach their kids. This is also reinforced by the characteristics of a monkey–small, mischievous, intelligent, inquisitive–most of which are also applicable to children. At the same time, because there are actual monkeys in Ethiopia, this fact might be less obvious to Ethiopian children, since the stories are based on a monkey that they could actually encounter, but because both my cousin and I were raised in the United States where monkeys do not live in nature, the metaphorical nature of these stories becomes more apparent.