Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/October 1894/West African Folklore
|WEST AFRICAN FOLKLORE.|
UNTIL a few years ago it was popularly believed that the negro nations of West Africa were in the unique position of never having produced anything worth recording. They were supposed to have no history, no traditions, and no folklore, and even their religion was said to be something infinitely lower than was found anywhere else, a worship of sticks, stones, or shells, picked up at haphazard, and deified without rhyme or reason. This groveling religion, which was alleged to be significant of the degraded condition in which the West African negro was believed to be, was called fetichism, a word which, while really a corruption of the Portuguese feitiço, "amulet" or "charm," was supposed to be a negro word; and several treatises were written to show that, as it was impossible to conceive a lower form of religion, fetichism might therefore be assumed to be the beginning of all religion.
All these extraordinary beliefs, which had no foundation whatever in fact, may be traced to the reports made by those persons who, being engaged in the slave trade, resorted to West Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The great majority of these men had but a very transient acquaintance with West Africa, only remaining on the coast sufficiently long to obtain cargoes of slaves; and consequently it was impossible for them to have any real knowledge of the natives with whom they were brought in contact. Then, as they had no knowledge of African languages, they were dependent for their information upon those negroes who had acquired a smattering of some European language, and in most cases they seem to have completely misunderstood what their informants doubtless intended to convey. In other cases the slave-traders no doubt drew upon their imaginations, or exaggerated what they had seen; for if they could show that the negro was a mere brutish animal, they palliated to some eL.tent the iniquity of the slave trade; and so his fancied brutishness was persistently brought to the front—at all events toward the end of the last century, when the traffic in slaves had begun to fall into disrepute.
Dr. Theodor Waitz, the distinguished author of Anthropologie der Naturvölker, was the first to express a doubt as to the authenticity of the supposed facts concerning the social condition and religion of the West African negro—which work my long acquaintance with West Africa has enabled me to continue, and in two volumes I have shown that the religion of the negro, so far from being fetichism, is a pure animism, or worship of spirits, differing in no important particular from that of other people on the same plane of civilization. In this paper I propose to dispel another illusion, and show that the negro, like all other races, has his folklore, or popular tales, which are in no wise inferior to those invented by other people. Of course, the Uncle Remus stories of Mr. Joel Chandler Harris are really American-negro versions of West African folklore tales, but in most cases the tales have been so much changed in order to adapt them to the altered conditions of life and the new locale that they can now scarcely be called examples of West African folklore.
It is among the Yoruba tribes of the Slave Coast that we find the folklore instinct most fully developed, and their tales may be numbered probably by hundreds. The itinerant story-teller, akpalo kpatita ("one who makes a trade of telling fables"), is a wellknown character, who wanders from town to town, reciting tales. He is always well received, and is in great demand for social gatherings. He very frequently carries with him a drum, with the rhythm of which he fills up the pauses in the narrative. He strikes a few taps on the drum, to attract attention, and as soon as an audience is gathered he announces, "My alo is about soand-so," and then commences the recital.
The first and second of the following tales are Yoruba; the third is from the Ewe tribes, who inhabit the western portion of the Slave Coast, and among whom Dahomi is the one best known to Europeans; while the fourth is from the Tshi tribes of the Gold Coast, among whom are the Ashantis and Fantis. In each case the exact English equivalent of the native version has been given, and none of the stories have been in the least "touched up."
My alo is about a woman whose little girl made palm oil.
One day, when she had made palm oil, she took it to the market to sell.
When the little girl counted the cowries she found that there was one short. And she asked the goblin for the cowry that was wanting.
The goblin said that he had no more cowries, and the little girl began crying, "My mother will beat me if I go home with a cowry short."
The goblin walked away, and the little girl walked after him.
"Go away," said the goblin; "turn back, for no one can enter the country in which I live."
"No," said the little girl; "wherever you go, I will follow, until you pay me my cowry."
So the little girl followed, followed a long, long way, till they came to the country where the people stand on their heads in their mortars, and pound yams with their heads.
Then they went on again a long way, till they came to a river of filth. And the goblin sang:
"young palm-oil seller,
You must now turn back."
And the girl sang:
"Save I get my cowry,
I'll not leave your track."
Then the goblin sang again:
"O young palm-oil seller,
Soon will lead this track
To the bloody river,
Then you must turn back."
"I will not turn back;
Save I get my cowry,
I'll not leave your track."
Then they walked on again, a long, long way; and at last they arrived at the land of dead people.
The goblin gave the little girl some palm nuts with which to make palm oil, and said to her, "Eat the palm oil yourself, and give me the ha-ha."
But when the palm oil was made the little girl gave it to the goblin and ate the ha-ha herself. And the goblin said, "Very well."
By and by the goblin gave a banana to the little girl, and said, "Eat this banana, and give me the skin." But the little girl pealed the banana and gave it to the goblin, and ate the skin herself.
Then the goblin said to the little girl: "Go and pick three ados Do not pick the ados which cry, 'Pick me, pick me, pick me'; but pick those that say nothing, and then return to your home. When you are half-way back, break one ado; break another when you are at the house door, and the third when you are inside the house." And the little girl said, "Very well."
She picked the ados as she was told, and returned home.
When she was half-way home she broke one ado, and behold, many slaves and horses appeared and followed her.
When she was at the house door the little girl broke the second ado, and behold, many creatures appeared, sheep and goats and fowls, more than two hundred, and followed her.
Then, when she had entered the house, the little girl broke the last ado, and at once the house was filled to overflowing with cowries, which poured out of the doors and windows.
The iyale asked whence all these things came, and when she had been told she refused to accept them. She said she would send her own child to do the same, and that she could easily get as much..
Then the iyale made palm oil and gave it to her own little girl, and told her to go and sell it in the market.
The little girl went to the market. The goblin came, bought palm oil of her, and paid her with cowries. He gave the proper number of cowries, but the little girl hid one and pretended that he had not given her enough.
"What am I to do?" said the goblin. "I have no more cowries."
"Oh!" said the little girl, "I will follow you to your house, and then you can pay me." And the goblin said, "Very well."
Then the two walked together, and presently the goblin began singing, as he had done the first time. He sang:
"O young palm-oil seller,
You must now turn back."
And the little girl sang,
And the goblin,
And the girl.
Then the goblin said, "Very well, come along." And they walked on till they reached the land of dead people.
The goblin gave the little girl some palm nuts and told her to make palm oil. He said, "When the palm oil is made, eat it yourself, and bring me the ha-ha." And the little girl ate the palm oil and brought the ha-ha to the goblin. And the goblin said, "Very well."
Then the goblin gave a banana to the little girl and told her to peel it. He said, "Eat the banana yourself, and bring me the skin." And the little girl ate the banana and carried the skin to the goblin.
Then the goblin said: "Go and pick three ados. Do not pick those which cry, 'Pick me, pick me, pick me,' but pick those which say nothing."
The little girl went. She found ados which said nothing, and she left them alone. She found others which cried, "Pick me, pick me, pick me," and she picked three of them.
Then the goblin said to her: "When you are half-way home, break one ado; when you are at the door, break another; and break the third when you are inside the house."
Half-way home the little girl broke one ado, and behold, numbers of lions and leopards and hyenas and snakes appeared. They ran after her, and harassed her, and bit her, till she reached the door of the house.
Then she broke the second ado, and behold more ferocious animals came upon her, and bit and tore her at the door.
The door was shut, and there was only a deaf man in the house. The little girl called to the deaf man to open the door, but he heard her not. And there, upon the threshold, the wild beasts killed the little girl.
My alo is about a beautiful maiden.
A man, his wife, and daughter lived in one house, in a certain town. And the girl grew up; she grew up very beautiful, and her father and mother were rich.
All the young men who saw her wanted her, and many of them sent presents to her father and mother, asking for her in marriage; but the maiden said she did not wish to marry.
So, whenever men came to ask for her, the maiden continued to refuse. She said, My figure is good, my face is good, my skin is good, therefore I shall not marry till I find a young man who pleases me.
So many young men came that at last the father and mother were tired of urging their daughter to marry, and they said to her: "Very well, choose for yourself; we will have nothing more to do with it."
And the maiden said: "Be not angry, O my father and O my mother! I am handsome, and I will only marry with one who is handsome. If I meet such a one in the town, I will make such and such signs to you when he walks with me to the door."
Now the leopard, living in his own place in the bush, heard this; and he turned himself into a handsome young man.
He came into the town, and all the young girls turned their eyes after him, for he was good to look at, and he wore a silken cloth.
He walked through the town, holding in his hand a duru, and he played on it a tune that was melancholy and sweet.
Now, just at this time the beautiful maiden had come out of her house, and as she walked along the street she saw the handsome young man playing on the duru. And the sounds of the tune he was playing went into her heart, and his appearance pleased her, and she loved him.
So she stood still in the street, looking upon the young man, who came nearer and nearer. And when the young man had reached her, he said, "Beautiful maiden, I am from a far country, to which the fame of your beauty has penetrated, and I have come hither to ask you to marry me, if you will so please."
And the maiden smiled and was glad. But she turned her eyes to the ground, and said to the young man: "O handsome stranger, is it the custom in your country thus to ask maidens to marry? My father and mother are here, near by, and with them lies the giving."
Then she led the way to the house of her parents, and the young man followed. And when she was at the door of the house she made the signs to her father and mother so that they might know that this was a young man whom she was willing to marry.
The young man entered the house, still playing on his duru, and the sound of the music charmed the hearts of the old people, and his appearance pleased them, and they were glad.
And after greetings made, the young man said, "My father and my mother, I am from a far country, to which the fame of your daughter's beauty has penetrated, and I have come hither to ask you to give her to me in marriage."
And the old people said: "This, our daughter, has been many times asked in marriage, and has always refused; therefore we said to her, 'Choose for yourself'; and now, if she says 'Yes,' we will not say 'No.'"
Then the young man took the maiden by the hand and looked into her eyes, and said, "Beautiful maiden, do you agree that we shall be married together?"
And the maiden smiled, but she turned her head to one side, and said softly, "Yes, handsome young man, I agree." And then she ran and hid in another room, for she felt bashful.
Then the young man thanked the old people, and he paid the head money and the head rum, and gave many silk cloths for the bride, and the same evening they were married.
Next morning the young man said to the old people that he would now take his wife and return to his own country.
The old people felt sad at their child leaving them so soon, but they did not refuse. They gave her presents, and goats, and sheep, and fowls, and two female slaves, one that her father gave and one that her mother gave.
Then the father gave a word of advice to his child and the mother embraced her. They walked out on the road a little way with her, and then they turned back.
Then the young woman and her husband went on. They took a road that led into the forest, and the young man walked holding his wife's hand.
Then the husband led the way along a narrow and rough path, and the forest grew darker and denser, and the wife began to be afraid, for she saw she was going away from the cultivated lands into the haunts of wild beasts.
Presently, when they were in the thick wood, the husband said, "Wife, I am hungry."
And the young woman said: "How can I cook anything in this narrow place, husband? Wait at least until we reach the next village."
And the husband replied, "You need never cook for me, wife, for I eat my food raw."
Then the young woman was frightened, and began to have doubts about the man she had married. But she told the two slaves to put the calabashes down on the ground and asked her husband if he would eat some yam.
And he said, "I am not one who eats roots," and he took the fowls and ate them raw. He ate them all.
Then they went again along the path, farther into the forest, and presently the husband said again: "Wife, I am hungry. Is there anything to eat?"
The young woman was very much frightened; she did not know what to do, but she said, "Here are some sheep," and the husband took the sheep and ate them all up.
Then they went again on their way, and, after a little, the husband said, "Wife, I am hungry." And she said, "There are goats." And he took the goats and ate them.
After he had eaten the goats they went on once more, and soon the husband said again: "Wife, I am hungry. Give me something to eat."
And she said: "Is not everything finished? Have you not eaten the fowls and the sheep and the goats that my dear parents gave me? And now there is nothing more in my hand."
And he said, "All is not finished, for there are these two persons."
Then the young woman wept, she wept bitterly, and she cried, "Take them, then, and eat them, if it must be so."
Now, in order to bring down this flesh so that he might eat it, the husband had to turn himself back into a leopard. And he sprang upon the two slaves, and tore them and killed them, and ate them up.
When he had finished eating he again turned himself into a young man, and took his wife's hand and led her along the path. She wished to run away, but she did not know the way out of the forest, and fear had weakened her legs.
Presently the husband said again: "Wife, I am hungry. Give me something to eat."
Then the young woman threw herself on the ground and wept and lamented, for everything was finished, and there was nothing more to give him.
And the husband came and stood near her, looking sideways, and she was plump and soft, and he began to lick his lips.
Now, there was a hunter in the bush near by, and he heard the lamentations of the young woman, and he crept up close and lay hid.
Then the husband said again, "I am hungry" and the wife sobbed and wept, but said nothing, for everything was finished.
Then the husband turned himself back into a leopard, and crouched down to spring upon her. He was just making a leap, when the hunter fired his gun, "Bang!" and he fell down. He was dead.
Then the hunter came out of the bushes. He spoke to the young woman and lifted her up. He cut off the tail of the leopard, and took the young woman to his house, where he made her his wife.
And this is the way of young maidens. The young men come to ask, and the young maidens refuse. They refuse again, again, and again, until at last the wild beasts turn themselves into men and come and carry them off.
This is a story of the hare and the other animals.
The dry weather was parching up the earth into hardness. There was no dew, and even the denizens of the water suffered from thirst. Soon famine came, and the animals, having nothing to eat, assembled in council.
"What shall we do," said they, "to keep ourselves from dying of thirst?" And they deliberated a long time.
At last it was decided that each animal should cut off the tips of his ears and extract the fat from them. Then all the fat would be collected and sold, and with the money they would get for the fat they would buy a hoe and dig a well, so as to get some water.
And all cried: "It is well. Let us cut off the tips of our ears."
They did so, but when it came to the turn of the hare to cut off his ears he refused, and that is why his ears are so long.
The other animals were astonished at this conduct, but they said nothing. They took up the ear-tips, extracted the fat, went and sold all, and bought a hoe with the money.
They brought back the hoe and began to dig a well in the dry bed of a lagoon. "Ha! here is water at last. Now we can slake our thirst a little."
The hare was not there, but, when the sun was in the middle of the sky, he took a calabash and went toward the well.
As he walked along, the calabash dragged on the ground and made a great noise. It said: "Chan-gañ-gañ-gañ; chan-gañ-gañ-gañ!"
The animals who were watching by the lagoon heard this noise and were frightened. They asked each other, "What is it?" Then, as the noise kept coming nearer, they ran away.
Reaching home, they said there was something terrible at the lagoon, that had put to flight the watchers by the well.
When all the animals by the lagoon had gone, the hare drew up water without interference. Then he went down into the well and bathed, so that the water was muddied.
When the next day came all the animals ran to take water, and they found it muddied.
"Oh!" they cried, "who has spoiled our well?"
Saying this, they went and got an image. They made birdlime and smeared it over the image. Then they set it up by the well.
Then, when the sun was again in the middle of the sky, all the animals went and hid in the bush near the well.
The hare came. His calabash cried: "Chan-gañ-gañ-gañ; chan-gañ-gañ-gañ!" He approached the image. He never suspected that all the animals were hidden in the bush.
The hare saluted the image, but the image said nothing. He saluted again, and still the image said nothing.
"Take care" said the hare, "or I will give you a slap."
He gave a slap, and his right hand remained fixed in the birdlime. He slapped with his left hand, and that remained fixed also.
"Oh! oh!" cried he, "let us kick with our feet."
He kicked with his feet. The feet remained fixed, and the hare could not get away.
Then the animals ran out of the bush and came to see the hare and his calabash.
"Shame, shame, O hare!" they cried together. "Did you not agree with us to cut off the tips of your ears, and when it came to your turn to do so, did you not refuse? What! you refused, and yet you come to muddy our water?"
They took whips, they fell upon the hare and they beat him. They beat him so that they nearly killed him,
"We ought to kill you, accursed hare!" they said. "But no—run."
They let him go, and the hare fled. Since then he does not leave the grass.
There was a man of Chama whose wife died. He buried her and mourned for her; and one day, in the evening, when he was walking along the beach, toward the village of Aboanu, thinking about his dead wife, he met a strange young woman.
The young woman, who was very handsome, asked him why he walked alone and appeared so sad. He replied: "My wife is dead, and I am living alone. I feel lonely by myself, and there is no one to cook my meals."
The young woman said she felt sorry for him, and the two walked on, conversing together. She spoke kindly, and the man liked her appearance; so before long he asked her to take the place of the deceased, and come home and live with him. She agreed to the proposal, and, returning with the man to his house the same night, became his wife.
They lived together very happily for a time, but when three months had passed the wife grew restless and uneasy. Her husband asked her what was troubling her, but she put him off with excuses, until at last one day, when he had again asked her what was the matter, she said that she was uneasy in mind because she must leave him to go and visit her family.
The husband said, "That need not trouble you, for I will go with you"; but to this she would not consent, saying that alone she had come to him and alone she must go away.
Then the husband declared that he would go with her, and, as she still continued to refuse, he asked her to tell him her reason. For a long time she would not tell him, but at last he pressed her so much that she said, "I will not allow you to go with me, because you would laugh at me when we returned."
This answer much puzzled the husband. He asked, "Why should I laugh at you?" but she would not say why until he had sworn a great oath that he would never allude to what she was about to tell him. She then said: "You think I am a woman, but I am a fish. My family are fishes, and my home lies in the sea. If you still wish to accompany me, count the breakers as they fall upon the shore, and dive with me under the third one."
As the third breaker dashed upon the beach she threw herself under it, and, her husband following her, they both passed under the water, and arrived at the spot where her family dwelt. There the wife was joyfully received by her relations; she told her tale and introduced her companion as her husband.
The fish family made the man very welcome, and a house was put in order for him, outside which he was strictly enjoined not to venture; but they did not give him any reason for this.
The man complied with the request for some days, and then, one night, being tired of staying in the house, and seeing some young fishes at play, he went out to look at them more closely. He had scarcely left the house when all his wife's family came round him, begging him to return, and, though he could not understand why they were so anxious, he returned.
Three days later, seeing the young fishes again at play, he a second time left the house to go and look at them. Now, since he had taken up his abode in the sea, he had acquired some of the peculiarities of fishes, among others the emission of a phosphorescent light by night; and, coming too near the surface of the water, he was seen by some fishermen in a canoe, who immediately speared him, thinking him to be an unusually fine fish. He cried out for help, and his wife's relations hastened to his assistance. They endeavored to drag him down to the bottom of the sea, but, finding that all their efforts were unavailing, and that the fishermen were still pulling him up, they begged a shark that was swimming by to bite through the fishing line that was fastened to the spear. The shark immediately complied, and the man was once more at liberty. He was taken back to the house, the spear was drawn out of his body, and by means of dressings which were applied the wound soon became healed.
This narrow escape had much frightened his wife's relations, and as soon as the man had recovered they told him that he could not stay there any longer, lest some other accident should befall him through his imprudence. Therefore they sent him back to the land with his wife, giving him as a parting gift the spear, which they specially charged him to keep carefully concealed.
When they returned to the shore the two went back to their former abode, and the man carefully hid the spear in the thatch of the roof. The house in which they lived formed one side of a central court, and other families lived in the houses on the three other sides. In one of these houses was the owner of the whole, and some years after the return of the husband and wife from the sea he determined to put new thatch on all the houses.
After he had got the grass all ready for rethatching, he began taking the thatch off the house in which the man and his fish wife lived, and had hardly taken off three armfuls before he discovered the spear, which the man had forgotten all about. Directly the house-owner saw the spear, he knew it by the marks on it, and said, "This is mine." He said that he had lost it one night when out fishing; that he had speared a large fish with it, which had broken the line and escaped. "How did you get it?" he asked the husband.
The husband pretended not to hear, but the house-owner repeated the question. Then the husband said he did not know the spear was there, but the house-owner said he did not believe him. He called him a thief, and said he would bring a palaver before the chief, because he had stolen the spear. Then the man was obliged to tell all to clear himself, and the house-owner was satisfied, and no more was said; but all the town now knew that the woman was a fish woman.
Nothing bad happened from this for some time, though the husband had broken his great oath never to mention that his wife and her family were fishes; but one day a second wife whom the man had taken quarreled with the first wife—as wives will quarrel—and she taunted the first wife with being a fish, and laughed at her. The first wife was so much hurt at this that she made up her mind to go back to her family in the sea and become a fish once more. She went to her husband and said: "Twice have you done wrong: first, in refusing to let me go alone to visit my family; and secondly, in breaking your great oath and revealing my secret, which you swore to keep. I can no longer live in a place where I and my children will be laughed at and put to shame. I will return to my home."
Her husband endeavored to pacify her, but in vain, for she would not be pacified. He said he would send away the second wife, but still she was not satisfied. He begged and entreated her to stop, but it was all of no use. Then he tried to hold her and keep her by force, but she broke away from him, and running down to the seashore, called to him a last good-by, and plunged into the sea with her youngest child in her arms. After that she was never seen again. Her two elder children remained with their father, and from them is descended the Sarfu-ni-nam clan, none of whom may ever eat sarfu, for the fish woman was, when in the sea, a fish of that kind.
Far from finding fault with the mistakes in science which we observe in the works of the early Christian exegetists, the Rev. John A. Zahm, of the University of Notre Dame, maintains that "we should rather he surprised that the errors are so few. They were certainly not more numerous, nor more serious, than those found in the works of the ablest of the professional exponents of the profane science of the period. It were foolish to expect them to know more about geograpliy than Eratosthenes and Strabo and Pomponius Mela, who had made a life study of the subject; or to demand of them a more accurate knowledge of astronomy than was possessed by Hipparchus or Ptolemy; or to suppose that they should have a more precise and a more extended acquaintance with physics and natural history than had Aristotle or Pliny. Such an exaction would be the height of unreason. As well might we find fault with them for not being so well versed in physics as Ampère or Maxwell, or reproach them for knowing less of astronomy than Leverrier or Father Secchi, and less of geography than Humboldt, Malte-Brun, or Carl Ritter men whose science was based on the experiments and observations of thousands of investigators, and on the accumulated knowledge of well-nigh twenty centuries."
- The Tshi-speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast and The Ewe-speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast.
- Alo, a tale, fable.
- Palm oil, which is made from the nut of the oil palm (Elais guinioisis), is largely used in native cookery, and is one of the chief articles of commerce.
- Iwin, goblin, spirit, or ghost.
- The cowry shell is the currency of the Slave Coast.
- Yams are pounded into a sticky mass with a long wooden pestle, in a wooden mortar, hollowed out of a section of a trunk of a tree.
- Ha-ha the stringy remnant of the pulp of the palm nut after the oil has been expressed.
- The ado is a small calabash, commonly used for keeping medicinal powders in.
- The Yorubas reckon by scores and two hundreds—i. e., ten scores.
- In polygamous households the chief wife, who rules the others, is called the iyale, "mistress of the house." The mother of the little girl was one of the inferior wives, called iya-ivo, "mistress of trade," because they usually sell in the markets.
- From the European point of view this would appear to be a good trait on the part of the iyale, for the inference would be that she did not wish to deprive the subordinate wife of so much property, but that would not be the construction a native would put on it. To the native mind a person only refuses a present when he is nurturing rancor against the donor, and to refuse a gift is regarded as a sign of enmity
- A smooth, glossy skin is considered a great beauty.
- In the Tshi variant of this story it is a python who personates a young man.
- The native guitar, called sanku on the Gold Coast. It has four, six, or eight strings, and is tuned in the diatonic minor scale, C, D, E flat, F, G, A, B, C.
- Parents can not compel a daughter to accept an unwelcome suitor, but if a girl persists in refusing eligible offers without sufficient reason they can, if they choose, refuse to maintain her any longer.
- Contracts of marriage are made by paying a certain sum, called "bead money," and the payment of this sum is the only ceremony. "Head rum" is the term given to the refreshments which are provided for the marriage feast by the bridegroom.
- The circumflex denotes a highly nasal sound.
- Chama is a native town at the mouth of the river Prah.
- Sarfu-ni-nam, "No sarfu flesh"; literally, "Not to have sarfu flesh." The mrfu is a kind of horse mackerel.