Monday, July 1, 2019

Humor and hard lessons (Following folktales around the world 113. - Liberia)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Grains of Pepper
Folktales from Liberia
Edythe Rance Haskett
The John Day Company, 1967.

The book contains twenty-five folktales collected and retold by an American woman for American children, so that she could show a glimpse of the storytelling tradition of Liberia. In the introduction we can read a little about the country's history, and at the end there is a list of Liberian proverbs. The colorful illustrations are pretty neat, and I found a lot of fun stories in this collection.


In the tale of Sima and the crocodile, a crocodile kidnapped Sima's wife and daughter - he, in return, stole the animal's skin when it went to play cards in its human form. The story had some fun rhyming dialogues. Similarly fun, although with a dark ending, was the story of the Catfish, whose bird friend lent him some feathers so they could fly up and steal palm wine from trees together. Sadly, when the owner of the trees appeared, the bird took its feathers back and escaped, leaving the catfish behind. This was not the only fun-and-dark story in the book either. Another one explained Why yam and cassava grow underground - apparently because they used to march around villages, making rude noises and disturbing people with their "frisky dancing", until people found out they are edible, and they had to go into hiding. Similarly, we got to learn about how Leopard bullied Dog about his noisy eating habits at an animal feast - and that is why dog lives with the humans now.
I liked the underlying message of The dicot tree and the deer - the tree refused to hide a deer, saying it was not his problem, even though the deer pointed out that whatever could kill him would also kill the tree. He turned out to be right: After killing the deer, the hunter wanted to make a drum from the skin, so he chopped the tree down as well. As far as morals went, the most adorable was that of The king of the monkeys, in which an ugly bird hid underground in a hole, and made the monkeys believe that it was a terrifying monster. It was the baby monkeys who found out that their leader is in fact nothing but an ugly, thieving creature. (Ahem.)
I liked the genderswapped dilemma tale of The four wives, who all saved their husband in their own way - one ran away with him, one fed him, one led him out of the woods, and one protected him. At the end of the story, the teller asks the audience: Whose help was the most important?
I liked the local beliefs about The Wuuni who ate nine evil spirits. The Wuuni is an invisible creature that can be summoned by magic that devours bad spirits. The interesting part of the story was when they put the spirit on trial, and figured out why it turned evil after its death, due to its family's bad treatment.
The most unexpected turn happened in the story of Disobedient Hawa. She was warned not to fish in a certain river - but she did anyway, and managed to escape the bad spirits dwelling in the water. The story set an unexpected moral: The girl's disobedience to the old rules was what saved her starving family's live.


There was a beautiful variant for the tale type of the handsome suitor (here titled Tola and the Sea Monster). Here the monster pretended to be perfect by borrowing the sea goddess' smooth skin. The girl was saved by her ugly yet clever magician brother, who turned into a fly and followed her into the underwater realms.
I found a more complete version of a tale I read from Guinea-Bissau. A father could not decide which one of four suitors should get his daughter, so he made three copies of her out of a dog, a cat, and a rooster - they became the ancestors of different personalities.
There was, yet again, a Magic Flight story, and also a version of Cinderella with a male protagonist.
The resident trickster was definitely Hare. He asked for wisdom from Man (I have seen this type in Africa and the Caribbean before), but when he fulfilled all set tasks with trickery, he was told he already has enough wisdom to go around. There was also the classic story of Hare riding Leopard like a horse to win the hand of Miss Deer. In another tale it was the monkeys who fooled Leopard, who tried to trick them into being his dinner.

Where to next?
Ivory Coast!

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