African Folk Tales: Background Information

Distribute an article that details the various types of African folk tales and gives examples of them. You can use this resource as a supplemental worksheet when studying African culture, such as during Black History Month (February) and for Kwanzaa (December 26).
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Types of African Folk Tales


These are very well-known folk tales from Africa. In the Uncle Remus stories, Bre'r Rabbit is the outstanding trickster figure. Hare, or Little Hare, appears in this role in the eastern part of Africa. The tortoise is a primary trickster figure in the Nigerian tales. Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby is similar to Anansi and the Gum Doll of West Africa. The Tar Baby motif has been traced from India to America through Africa, Europe, and Spain.


In African versions of this tale, the tortoise wins because he uses his wits. In the European versions, on the other hand, the tortoise wins through sheer endurance and grit. The triumph of brain over physical strength is a common thread that runs through the trickster tales from Africa. The trickster figure is clever, witty, and unscrupulous, as are trickster figures all over the world, but the African trickster almost always wins out because of his brilliance.


There are many thousands of proverbs from African folk tales. A single tribe may have as many as a thousand--or even several thousand--of their own. So there are proverbs in abundance from this continent. Many times, a proverb is spoken in a tale by a character, rather than being left for the end of the story. Some of the more familiar proverbs do not need a story context in order to figure out the meaning. For example, "Do not set the roof on fire and then go to bed"; "He who runs and hides in the bushes does not do it for nothing; if he is not doing the chasing, we know that something is chasing him"; and "Chicken says: We follow the one who has something."


Many stories are deliberately left without an ending. This leaves the ending wide open for audience discussion and participation. The ending of the tale would be determined by the group of people involved in the exercise. The ending, therefore, is flexible and might change depending upon who is participating.


Making a simple loop from string and telling a tale with the string by twisting and turning the string to represent different parts of the story, is one of the oldest forms of storytelling in the world. In parts of Africa, the native children who cannot speak a word of English can often communicate with an English-speaking foreign visitor via a string story. It is a way of getting acquainted without words, and is a form of communication as different cultures share string stories. Some of the African string figures are the same as those of Pacific Ocean islanders or Eskimos of the far north.


Many of the folk tales have musical participation by the audience that adds much to the tale. It is common for the audience to answer questions aloud, to clap their hands in rhythm to word repetition (chorus), and to join in the chorus. The audience participation cannot be cut short, or the audience will let the storyteller know it. Some of the tales have a repetitive quality to them (such as, the same chorus may be used repeatedly) because the audience wants to enjoy the story and participate in the experience for as long as possible.


There are a wealth of crocodile tales from Africa. In parts of West Africa, a person attacked by a crocodile is said to be the victim of the vengeance of someone he has harmed. It is said that he who kills a crocodile becomes a crocodile. A South African Vandau proverb reminds us that: "The strength of the crocodile is in the water." In another tale, the fox claims to have the answer to killer-crocodiles who terrorize the people. He says the solution is simple. He eats their eggs. The ending proverb is, "Get rid of your enemy before he is stronger than you."


Language can be conveyed by drums. The Ashanti and other West African tribes, just by the rhythms and intervals in beating their drums by their fingers, the flat of their hand, or the thumb, can convey messages and be understood over long distances. Many different tones can be made by the pressure of the arm under which a drum is held. The stick for beating the drum came later. We still refer to a turkey leg as the "drum stick."


This type of tale is from Africa, where lions live in the wild. It is the idea that the Lion, King of the Beasts, lets his victims go for one reason or another, and then this good deed is rewarded in the end by the victim saving the life of the lion. It is the "one good turn deserves another" motif. This kindly lion theme spread from Africa to Europe.


"Opete" is the Twi term for the vulture. This bird is believed to be an instrument of the gods by the Ashanti and other West African peoples. This feeling of the sacred bird has survived in the New World and in the Caribbean.

Complimentary lessons can be found in Activities for African Folk Tales.

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