Once Upon a Time in Africa: The History of African Folklore

Imagine sitting around a moonlight fire, surrounded by your brothers and sisters, waiting to hear a new tale from your great grandmother or grandfather. Tales of animals that play important roles, given human qualities; learning lessons, making good and bad decisions. These tales are African folklore and are passed down from generation to generation, a tradition and custom important to all African people. The people of Africa possess rich and complex oral traditions, passing myths, legends, and history in spoken form. From what we know, written accounts of African mythology began to appear in the early 1800’s, and present-day scholars work hard to record the continent’s myths and legends before they are lost to time and cultural change. African mythologies were filled with supernatural beings or deities influencing human lives while others were spirits of ancestors.

Spirits are invisible beings with powers for good or evil. Spirits are nothing like the humans or the gods, having less power. Many spirits are associated with nature; such as mountains, trees, rivers and some African people believe that the spirits live in the sky and control the rain. People that worship spirits try to use magic, like medicine men and witch doctors; these are usually done by rituals. Europeans believe spiritual beings must be separated but African mythology is just the opposite.

Jok, is the concept of the divine; it can be good, evil, one or many. Jok is the unified spirit of all supernatural beings: God and the spirits, the gods, the holy ghost and beings from the otherworld. In Nigeria, the Yoruba people believe that a person has at least three spiritual beings; Emi (meaning “breath”), is a vital force that keeps man alive residing in the heart and lungs and is fed by the wind. Ojiji, a shadow that follows its owner and awaits his return in heaven when he dies. Lastly, Eleda, which must be fed by sacrifices. These spiritual beings flee the body at the time of death and all await his return in heaven.

The painting above is called ,“The Spirits of Brothers and Sisters” by Twins Seven Seven., The name comes from the painter, Twin’s, status as an Abiku child, one who has strong ties to the spirit world. When an Abiku child is born, the spirit world tries to reclaim him, which results in an earthly death in childhood or shortly thereafter. According to the artist story, he experienced death several times and was born as a twin six different times to his mother who lost all 12 of her children. Only when he was born a seventh time, again as a twin, did he survive, though his twin sister sadly did not. In this version, the “brothers and sisters” are his brothers and sisters on this earth, the Nigerian people he knew who depended on him. They are depicted as musicians in a band, along with spirits. The figure in the center is Twins’ self-portrait.

Ancestors are considered forces in the lives of the living and can be called on for guidance and protection. They are popular in the mythologies of the people of East Africa and Southern Africa, with the exception of the Maasai. Ancestral spirits were usually seen as spiritual guardians who protected the community against enemies.

People expected ancestral spirits to always guard the living. ,The Zulu ,of South Africa prayed to the spirit world by calling on the ,Amadlozi, the ancestors of the Zulu. To the Zulu people, these beliefs are more than mythological; they truly believe the closest link to God (uMvelinqangi ) is through their connection with Amadlozi (ancestors). It explains their character and ideas of life, fortunes and misfortune, as well as fertility. Check out the book, Voices of the Ancestors, which talks about the history of early African people, depicting tales and creation stories, explaining the roots of African culture, customs, and ceremonies.

There are many myths on how the world came to be. One myth is by the Fon people of Benin who believe Gu, the oldest son of the creator twins, Mawu (moon) and Lisa (sun), came to Earth as an iron sword and became a blacksmith. His job was to prepare Earth for the people and to teach them how to grow food, make tools and build homes. There are also several myths about how death came into the world. One is that the supreme god really meant for humans to be immortal, but through an unlucky mistake, they received death instead of immortality.

Between the 1500’s and the 1800’s, when Africans were brought to the Americas, they also brought their traditional stories and often shared them with each other. A man who took many of these story ideas was Joel Chandler Harris who wrote Uncle Remus Tales, trickster stories about the exploits of Brer (Brother) Rabbit, who is the main character, Brer (brother) Fox and Brer (brother) Bear. The stories are told in Harris’ version of a Deep South slave dialect. Harris came up with these ideas from stories he heard from slaves on the Turnwold plantation and was praised by professional folklorists for popularizing Black storytelling traditions. However, writer Alice Walker protested, that Harris had stolen her African American folklore heritage and had made it a white man’s publishing commodity. Alice Walker is a celebrated bestselling African American author and poet who won the National Book Award in the 1980s. She has been an activist all her life and her work is popular for it’s conscious treatment of African American culture.

West African Folklore

In West African folklore, a historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician is called a griot. Stories often explain why nature is the way it is with an important moral lesson to learn. West Africans have many tales about a wandering trickster spirit who is associated with change and quarrels. In some stories, he is the messenger between the world and the supreme god. Many West African people refer to the high god as Amma (Amen) or Olorun. At the beginning of time, Amma (a supreme god who lived in the celestial regions) created Earth and instantly joined with it. The stars represent the various bodily parts of Amma, while the constellation of Orion is called “amma bolo boy tolo,” “the seat of Heaven,” or “Amma’s navel.”

Other dieties are also known as Cagn (creator God), Eshu (Trickster/messenger God), Katonda(creator God or father of Gods), and several more. In most African religions, people rarely call on these types of Gods, instead they call on the ancestors who have some kind of functioning power. For example, the Yoruba people of Nigeria, worship a storm god, Shango, who controls thunder and lightning. The trickster diety, Eshu, had power over mighty Gods, including Shango. The folktale explains how the loss of Shango’s wife, Oya, resulted in tragedy for Shango’s people while making him the god of storms.

East African Folklore

In Kenya, storytelling is integrated into everyday life.Traditionally, the adults would gather the children together by moonlight around a village fire and tell stories called Tales by Moonlight or Fireside Tales. Usually, the stories were meant to prepare the young people for life, teaching them a lesson or moral. Stories also explained where the tribe come from and the origins of their laws. They were also famous for trickster stories involving the tortoise and the hare.

North African Folklore

North Africa consists of the Mediterranean coast from Morocco to Egypt and includes the valley of the Nile River as far south as Ethiopia. With strong ties to the Mediterranean and Arab worlds, North Africans had to deal with the influence of Christianity by the A.D. 300s and 700s, much of the area came under the influence of Islam. Since then, the spread of Islam and Christianity has weakened the indigenous religions, myths, and legends of sub-Saharan Africa. However, the traditional beliefs have not disappeared. In some places, they have blended with new religions from other cultures, so that an African Muslim might combine Islam with the traditional practice of ancestor worship.

South African Folklore

South Africa is called the rainbow nation because of its colorful variety of people, cultures and religions. Everyone follows many spiritual traditions and religious faiths. The constitution protects freedom of religion so everyone is free to follow whatever faith they want to. Traditional African religion is usually joined with parts of Christianity and Islam. It is based on oral traditions, meaning the basic values of life are passed from the elders to younger generation. These traditions are not religious principles, but a cultural identity that is passed on through stories, myths and tales. They also have folktales rooted in animals, plant life taking human form, and messages being delivered through extreme weather.

Stories and the lessons they carry are at the heart of the attitudes held and decisions made by African culture shaping this culture out of which it was born. Through the ages of time, some of these tribal myths and superstitions has taken on a life on their own, and often still believed as the truth in many traditional areas. Unfortunately a lot of verbal tribal knowledge is being lost as the older generations pass away, but thanks to books and google, we can now safe keep a lot of stories. There is even an app out now called African Echoes where you can listen to authentic African stories along with other story apps like African Storybook Reader and African Stories and Folktales.

Anansi Goes Fishing

A Tale from West Africa

Foolish Anansi thought he could trick a fisherman into doing his work for him. “Let’s go fishing,” he suggested.

“Very well,” said the fisherman, who was clever and quite wise to Anansi’s tricks. “I’ll make the nets and you can get tired for me.”

“Wait,” said Anansi, “I’ll make the nets and you can get tired for me!” Anansi made nets as his friend pretended to be tired. They caught four fish.

The fisherman said, “Anansi, you take these. I’ll take tomorrow’s catch. It might be bigger.”

Greedily imagining the next day’s catch, Anansi said, “No, you take these and I’ll take tomorrow’s fish.”

But the next day, the nets were rotting away and no fish were caught. The fisherman said, “Anansi, take these rotten nets to market. You can sell them for much money.”

When Anansi shouted, “Rotten nets for sale!” in the marketplace, people beat him with sticks.

“Some partner you are,” Anansi said to the fisherman as he rubbed his bruises. “I took the beatings. At least you could have taken the pain.”

Anansi never tried to trick the fisherman again!

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