African Folk Tales – Background Information

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Way of Communicating

There is a rich, fertile legacy of folklore from Africa. On this vast continent, folk tales and myths serve as a means of handing down traditions and customs from one generation to the next. The storytelling tradition has thrived for generations because of the absence of printed material. Folk tales prepare young people for life, as there are many lessons to be learned from the tales. Because of the history of this large continent, which includes the forceful transplanting of the people into slavery on other continents, many of the same folk tales exist in North America, South America, and the West Indies. These are told with little variation, for the tales were spread by word of mouth and were kept among the African population.

In addition to the folk tales, there are myths, legends, many proverbs, tongue twisters, and riddles.


Anansi, the Spider, is one of the major trickster figures in African folk tales. This spider can be wise, foolish, amusing, or even lazy--but always there is a lesson to be learned from Anansi. The spider tales have traveled from Africa to the Caribbean Islands. Sometimes the spelling is changed from Anansi to Ananse. In Haiti the spider is called Ti Malice. Anansi stories came into the United Stated through South Carolina. The Anansi spider tales are told as "Aunt Nancy" stories by the Gullah of the southeastern part of the U.S.

Use of Nature

In the African folk tales, the stories reflect the culture where animals abound; consequently, the monkey, elephant, giraffe, lion, zebra, crocodile, and rhinoceros appear frequently along with a wide variety of birds such as the ostrich, the secretary bird, and the eagle. The animals and birds take on human characteristics of greed, jealousy, honesty, loneliness, etc. Through their behavior, many valuable lessons are learned. Also, the surroundings in which the tales take place reveal the vastness of the land and educate the reader about the climate, such as the dry season when it hasn't rained for several years, or the rainy season when the hills are slick with mud. The acacia trees swaying in a gentle breeze, muddy streams that are home to fish, hippos and crocodiles, moss covered rocks, and giant ant hills that serve as a "back scratcher" for huge elephants, give the reader a sense of the variety of life in this parched or lush land in this part of the world.

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