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Interfaith Themes in Sub-Saharan African Tales (for Kids)
by Vicki Garlock
Interfaith engagement serves as a near-constant reminder that the central teachings of the world’s belief systems are more similar than different. This is especially true when working with kids. For centuries, adults have taught important life lessons through stories, handed down from generation to generation. The importance of story in cultural transmission may explain why most faith traditions possess rich narrative traditions. From the Hindu/Vedic traditions, we have the tales of the Panchatantra. From the Buddhist tradition, we have the Jataka tales. From the Sikh, Sufi, and Hasidic traditions, we have the tales of the gurus, dervishes, and rebbes. Time and again, similar themes emerge. Pride, greed, dishonesty, and anger should be avoided; kindness, wisdom, thoughtfulness, and harmony should be embraced. The folktales of Sub-Saharan Africa are no exception.
Stories are inherently interesting. Even the most restless audience member will settle in when the speaker begins telling a story. But narratives may offer more than campfire entertainment. Brian Boyd in his book On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Belkman Press, 2010) proposes that storytelling may offer a highly effective approach for focusing our attention, highlighting our commonalities, and promoting social cohesion. All these things would have been extremely important for Sub-Saharan indigenous communities on the African continent – a region that currently consists of over 1,000 languages and almost 1 billion people living in nearly 50 countries.
Not surprisingly, prominent themes found in many of the world’s belief systems are also found in the diverse and colorful African folktales. This article highlights three topics, Peace, Compassion, and Creation, and some of the stories we use in our interfaith curriculum for kids.
In our peace unit, we use two rich tales that incorporate classic elements of African folktale literature: “Elephant and Hippopotamus Refuse to Fight” and “Wise Boy Refuses to Fight with the Chief.”
In the Elephant/Hippopotamus story, which comes to us from the Hausa of West Africa, we find the classic elements of Anansi, the trickster spider, and a tug-of-war.
The story begins when Anansi convinces Elephant to provide food for Hippopotamus during a famine in the land. In return, Hippopotamus will give Elephant a tasty bull once the famine ends. But, Anansi also convinces Hippopotamus to provide food for Elephant in return for a tasty bull once the famine ends. In reality, Anansi keeps all the food for his family and himself.
When the famine ends, both Elephant and Hippopotamus request their promised tasty bull. Anansi tells them both that the tasty bull is tied to the end of a rope. Elephant and Hippopotamus begin to pull and pull. In reality, the rope is tied to a tree, and the tasty bull is nowhere in sight. The offspring of Elephant and Hippopotamus eventually recognize the trick. Furious, Elephant and Hippopotamus both vow to decimate the other species, but then think better of it, choosing instead to maintain peace in the land, which is kept to this day.
The “Wise Boy Refused to Fight with the Chief” contains the classic literary form of three tests. Kids also enjoy this tale because it emphasizes the ever-important message that wits are often better than force.
In the story, a tribal chief is told that a boy named Wiser-than-the-Chief lives in the village. The name does not sit well with the chief, so he tries to eliminate the boy by asking him to perform tasks that will surely end in punishment or even death. Instead, the boy outwits the chief on three different occasions. Finally, the chief decides to let the boy return to his family and live in peace.
Another theme found across the world’s religious traditions is compassion. One of our favorite compassion stories comes from Malawi and tells the tale of Wanjohi and the magic bird. Both Wanjohi and the bird exhibit compassion at various points in the story, so even older kids (through middle school) can learn something from it.
In this tale, Wanjohi captures the bird one day while hunting. Wanjohi is quite relieved, since he and his wife are poor and often hungry, but when the bird pleads for her life, Wanjohi releases her. In return, the bird gives Wanjohi two magical feathers that will provide ample food and drink for the rest of their lives. The condition is that Wanjohi never share his secret with anyone. Wanjohi’s wife, Mandisa, nags him incessantly about the source of their good fortune, and even threatens to call the witch-doctor. Wanjohi, forgetting his promise to the bird, tells Mandisa about the magical feathers, and their good fortune immediately dries up. As luck would have it, Wanjohi captures the beautiful bird once again while hunting. Wanjohi releases the bird almost immediately, and then saves her from the jaws of a hunting dog. This time, the bird gives Wanjohi two new magical feathers with no conditions attached.
An abridged version of this story can be found on this Theater4Youth site. A longer version can be found in The Best of African Folklore by Phyllis Savory (author) and Gina Daniel (illus.) (Struik Lifestyle, 2015).
Another theme that spans cultures and belief systems, is creation. For my previous articles on this topic, please see How the World Came to Be (for Kids), Animals, Butterflies, the Sun, and the Sky, and Caring for Creation (for Kids).
The wide-ranging and vibrant folklore tradition in Africa is full of tales about how the world came to be. Many focus on features of the animal kingdom and include narratives about:
- Why the Hawk Catches Chickens
- Why the Hippopotamus Lives in the Water
- Why Monkeys Live in Trees
- Why the Turtle Has a Hard Cover
- Why the Elephant is Large in Front and Small Behind
- Why the Praying Mantis Has a Thin Belly
- How Crab Got his Shell
- Why Tortoise is Bald
- Why the Lizard Bobs its Head
- How the Hyena’s Fur Became Striped
A nice set of these stories, including several about Anansi, the tricky spider, can be found in The Hat-Shaking Dance and Other Tales from the Gold Coast by Harold Courlander with Albert Kofi Prempeh and Enrico Arno (illus.) (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1957)
The Influence of Indigenous Stories
The diverse nature of the African continent is easily seen through the lens of its religious practices. The vast majority of the population self-identifies as either Christian (40-45%) or Muslim (40-45%); however, since northern Africa is mostly Muslim and southern Africa is mostly Christian, there is wide geographical band spanning the continent that is essentially interfaith.
Moreover, the current religious landscape in Africa is largely due to an almost 70-fold increase in the number of Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa during the 20th century (from about 7 million in 1900 to about 470 million in 2010). The upshot is that many Africans still adhere to indigenous beliefs and rituals, including witchcraft and traditional healers. It’s worth noting that living indigenous traditions in Africa, though sometimes oppressed, tend to not be involved in the host of Christian-Muslim conflicts plaguing the continent.
This continuing devotion to ancient and ancestral practices, while sometimes raising ire in strict Christian communities, has also helped preserve the narratives. Although only a small portion of this literature has been captured and translated into English, the stories we have provide a wonderful glimpse into the mythos of this amazing continent. And in sharing them with kids, we just might gain a greater appreciation of these wide-ranging traditions for ourselves.
Our story of “Elephant and Hippopotamus Refuse to Fight” is adapted from “Elephant, Spider, and Hippopotamus” found in When Elephant Was King by Nick Greaves (narr.) and Julie Bruton (illus.) (Struik Publishers, 2000).
Our story of “Wise Boy who Refuses to Fight with the Chief” is adapted from “Wiser than a King” found in West African Folk Tales by Hugh Vernon-Jackson (author) and Patricia Wright (illus.) (Dover Publications, 2003).
“Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 15, 2010) Accessed November 7, 2017.
Header Photo: pxhere, CCO