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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/June 1898/Literature of the African Negroes


THE researches of students of folklore in Africa have been directed to all branches of popular literature, and a rich collection has already been accumulated of proverbs, enigmas, songs, national legends, religious traditions, stories, animal fables, and other works. The literary merit of all this production is not very great, but it is. interesting in that it exhibits certain peculiarities in character. Proverbs are especially noteworthy in this respect. They express general and simple ideas in concise form, under familiar figures, and truly represent the first instinctive effort of man in search of a literary language. The thoughts revealed in these proverbs indicate a state of mind in the blacks quite similar to ours, while the greater part of them find their counterparts in the proverbs of other races. For example, there is a saying of a tribe of the Bantu, "He who goes into a strange country will not sing a solo but a chorus," which corresponds with the European, "He who goes with the wolf will learn to howl," or, "When you are in Rome, do as the Romans do," and nearly with the Mussulman Arabian, "If you find yourself in a country where they worship a calf, pull grass and feed it." The English and French say, "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb"; and the people of Nupe, where the ox has no tail, "God keeps the flies away from it." We say, "Don't sell the skin of the bear before you have killed it"; the Suaheli, "Don't cut the gown before the child is born." While speaking of the Suaheli we may mention one of their adages that is full of sadness and resignation: "The poor man's hen lays no eggs; if she lays them, she does not sit on them; if she sits on them, they do not hatch; and if chickens are hatched, the hawk catches them."

It is sometimes said that slavery, polygamy, and the custom of purchasing the wife have destroyed the family feeling among the negroes. The following proverbs of the Suaheli prove that this affirmation is too absolute: "Thy mother is thy second God"; "A son, even if he be deformed, is the joy of his parents"; "Who is not willing to hear his son cry will cry himself." The enigmas or riddles of the negroes are simple, like these, among many, which have been collected by the German missionaries at Hohenfriedberg, in Usambara: "There! there it is! catch it! What is it?" (answer, "The shadow"); "What house has no door?" (answer, "An egg"). Sometimes, however, riddles are presented in such an allegorical form as to become fables, like the following, which an English writer obtained from the Zulus, and which resembles Menenius Agrippa's famous apologue: "Guess this: A person is invested with the functions of a king. He does nothing; his people work for his profit, while he continues idle. He tells them what they have to do, since he sees for them. It is he who directs them to where there is something to eat, then his people bring the food to the house; but he himself does nothing; he remains the sovereign, and only deigns to help his subjects. One day they rebelled. They came to the king and said: 'You ought not to be our sovereign and to be doing nothing; we do not feel any good from your power.' He answered: 'Yery well; since you will not have me for your king, I will be still and look on the ground, and it will not be long before you find out that I am indeed your king; you will fall over precipices, you will be eaten up by wild beasts, and you will starve to death because you can not find anything to eat. You will go blind if you try to fight against me.'

Then the rebels saw indeed that he was a sovereign if he could talk that way. And they said: *We will recognize you as our ruler so that we may live, since, if we starve to death, the royal majesty we claim for ourselves will do us no good. A man is no king if he is not alive.' So he was recognized as sovereign by all the country, and his kingdom was happy.

He was a person who never worked, and always stayed at home. If he fell sick, all his people were in danger of starving; nobody left his house, for fear of falling into a pit; every one prayed for the recovery of the monarch, and rejoiced when he was well."

The answer to the riddle is, "The eye."

Songs are abundant among the blacks, and fill partly the functions of the Greek comedies in the time of Aristophanes and of newspapers in modern states. They denounce suspected persons, glorify victorious soldiers, and abuse the enemies of the country. Sometimes the singers improvise variants and celebrate the praises of their hearers, but this very rarely happens with respect to the whites, for the negroes generally cherish a great aversion against them, and they apply satirical verses to Europeans. For example, a Hottentot pupil ridiculed his European master: "O son of a little woman—who never had milk enough—you were sent among us! The white man first examines carefully the place where he is going to sit—and only then helps you. Oh, the little man—son of a little woman—our people are sons of lions."

The songs vary much in construction according to the tribe. They consist of strophes and are generally rhymed. Among some peoples, however, the ear is gratified with a simple assonance. The musical sense is much developed among the blacks, and a European who hears their music for the first time is annoyed, but as he becomes accustomed to it he enjoys it. Bishop Steere says that the music of a very popular song among the Suahelis resembles that of the Gregorian chants.

While the proverbs and the riddles are generally too truthful in expression to let the personality of the authors be seen in them, in the songs, on the other hand, the man appears behind his work; he relates by preference adventures in which he has been the hero—victories over his enemies or great successes in hunting.

Sometimes the author gives a pompous eulogy of himself; and even when he sings the praises of the lady of his heart he begins with proclaiming that he is no less a brave champion than an excellent poet, and declares himself ready to defend his double reputation in single combat. He takes the part of one or another of the personages he puts in the scene, and makes personal observations of his own concerning their conduct—as, for example, in mentioning some horrible crime, he says, "So it is told, but it is hard to believe that the story of such a crime can be true."

The higher classes of the blacks, as the caste of the Magi, or of the doctors and noble families from whom the members of the government are chosen, are jealous custodians of the history of the tribe and its cosmological traditions. These cosmological myths, in which are unfolded the origin of the universe, the creation of man, the entrance of death into the world, the alternations of the seasons, and other natural phenomena, undoubtedly date from a very remote antiquity; it is not certain that they have always existed in the same form they have now, but it is probable, from the veneration with which they are regarded, that they have been preserved substantially intact. They confirm the opinion that primitive mankind had a common fund of ideas which varied very little in different places; and, indeed, the mythological representations of the negroes may often lead us back to a prototype which is also that of similar representations among the Aryan peoples.

The Timmi, for example, have a giant who resembles the Atlas of our mythology. He has to sustain the earth, which is disk-shaped. In the long course of the bearing of this burden the head of the giant and the earth have become one body; the grass which we tread upon and the trees that cover us with their shade are the hair of the giant; and the animals of every kind are the unwelcome guests of his hair. When the giant, tired of standing all the time in the same position, turns quickly, there is an earthquake. The traditions of the Timmi, like those of the Judæo-Christians, teach that evil and death came into the world in consequence of the sin of one man, while there was nothing terrible in the matter at first. God permitted man to remain on the earth seven or eight hundred years. Then he sent one of his servants to warn him to prepare to go. The man took leave of his family, and serenely started on the journey to the other world. The legends which give the explanation of natural phenomena are, as may be imagined, extremely ingenious. Take, for instance, the Suahelian account of the ebb and flow of the tides: "An enormous fish, named Keva, lives under the sea; a great rock stands upon its back, and upon this an enormous ox with sixty thousand horns and forty thousand legs. His feet are planted on the rock, his nose rests upon the water, his hair sustains the earth. The animal breathes once a day, and as the volume of his body increases with his inspirations and diminishes with his expirations, so the level of the sea rises and falls."

African literature is very rich in fables of animals, which may be divided into the two categories of moral apologues and simple narrations. In the former such an identity is noticeable with stories of the peoples of Asia and Europe as almost to cause us to think that both proceed from a common source whence they were drawn in prehistoric times. To this may, however, be opposed the hypothesis of an original and simultaneous origin in different places; a question for the discussion of which we have not yet all the elements. One of the most brilliant of the African apologues comes from Somaliland, and is perhaps better than the corresponding European fable: "The lion, the hyena, and the fox went a-hunting, and caught a sheep. The lion said, 'Let us divide the prey.' The hyena said, 'I will take the hinder parts, the lion the fore parts, and the fox can have the feet and entrails.' Then the lion struck the hyena on the head so hard that one of his eyes fell out, then turned to the fox and said, 'Now you divide it.' 'The head, the intestines, and the feet are for the hyena and me; all the rest belongs to the lion.' 'Who taught you to judge in that way?' asked the lion. The fox answered, 'The hyena's eye."

In the second category of animal stories no hidden moral is proposed, but adventures are related corresponding to the character of the animals to which they are attributed. In Africa, as in Europe, the principal cycle is formed of what is called the Romance of the Fox; only there is no complete epic, but merely a number of isolated anecdotes, in which the hero is usually the fox, but sometimes the jackal, the hare, or the rabbit.

In the fables of the Hottentot tribe of the Nama, the jackal is directly glorified as a national hero, as the incarnation of the race of the Nama, and by his astuteness overcomes all his adversaries, first among which are the wolf and the "man of the white race." It is in place to observe here that when the primitive versions of the fox romance began to be current in Europe, the fox, with his thievery, was odious to those peoples which, like the Germans, held brute force in high esteem. To call a man Reynard was regarded among the Franks as a grave offense, to which the Salic law attached a severe penalty. The negroes of Africa, on the other hand, set astuteness away above force. This idea dominates in all their literary production with which we are acquainted; and this confirms the assertions of travelers, who agree in saying that the Africans, when they try to get rid of their enemies, use force only when cunning fails. Herr Olpp cites the following fable of the tribe of the Nama: It came to pass one day that the jackal, having made away with some object, fell into the hands of the white man. He was carefully bound and condemned to death. Then the jackal asked his judges, 'How do white men perform executions?' They answered, 'We beat the culprits to death with clubs.' The jackal replied: 'It is a very poor way of putting people to death; take my advice: when you want to put anybody to death, begin by making him eat tallow and fat; then grease him outside, and make a fire on a rock; take him by the tail and throw him into the fire.' The white men did as the jackal had told them, but their hands slipped on his skin, and he escaped. Thereupon the dogs chased him, and the fugitive had barely time to get into a cave. The white men, who had come up, stuck their hands into the hole, and one of them took the jackal by the tail and called out, 'We have got you, we have got you!' The jackal said, 'Oh no, my friends, you have not got me, but a root.' The white man holding on to the tail answered, 'No, it is you.' The jackal answered: 'I tell you it is not me. Get a sharp stone and then come back and cut what you have in your hand. You will see that it is a root.' The white man ran to get a stone, and the jackal went farther into the cave. So he saved his life."

This very succinct summary of the researches of the students of folklore of the African school may go to show that thought does not abound in the traditions of the negro tribes; the few flowers that are found here and there form only a very poor garland.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Minerva (Rome).


Describing to the London Physical Society his observations on the Peak of Teneriffe, Prof. T. C. Porter g-ave an account of his method for measuring the diameter of the earth. It consists in observing the shadow cast by the peak upon the sea, and measuring the time that elapses between the moment when the apex of the shadow touches the sea horizon and the instant when it is eclipsed by the shadow of night. He observed, further, that the heated air ascending from the peak casts a shadow, seen as a faint prolongation of that of the peak.
  1. From an article in the Bibliothèque Universelle et Revue Suisse.