Monday, September 30, 2019

Animal tale bonanza (Following folktales around the world 124. - Gabon)

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!

Where Animals Talk
West African Folk Lore Tales
Robert H. Nassau
The Gorham Press, 1918.

These tales have been collected by the author at the end of the 19th century from local Bantu peoples along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. The first chapter presents folktales from Mpongwe storytellers from Libreville, the second from Benga tellers from the island of Corisco, and the third from a Batanga teller who learned his tales from Bulu people from Cameroon. (In this post I will only talk about the sixteen stories of the first chapter, since Equatorial Guinea has a whole other book). The collector took notes during oral storytelling evenings, trying to keep as much of the vernacular as possible, but he also translated a few of the stories from other written sources. The book comes with a short introduction, and a long list of local animal names at the end. Each tale comes with a list of characters and settings (almost like a theater play), and comments from the collector.


The book is full of animal and trickster tales, both familiar and new types. One of the resident tricksters, obviously, was Tortoise. In one story he fulfilled various clever tasks to win a wife, and though Leopard stole her for a moment, eventually Tortoise had the last laugh.
Next to Tortoise, the other popular trickster figure was Rat, who also was in the business of making a fool of stronger animals. Like Tortoise, he also stole a wife from Leopard, this time by changing his name to "Strangers", so that every time the bridal party was addressed, he claimed all the goods. In another story he stole back the meat that Leopard kept taking from him by force. Leopard eventually caught Rat with the classic "tar baby" trick, but when he came to see the thief, Rat started yelling "I got him! I got the thief! I'm holding him!", which is pretty genius. In the end, Rat managed to take what was his.
In a third similar story Leopard pretended to be dead, to catch animals who came to pay their respects. Gazelle did not fall for the trick, and with the help of Tortoise came up with some tests: He threw bees, ants, and pepper at the corpse, which immediately came alive...
One of my favorite stories in the book was about animals gathering for Crocodile's funeral, and trying to decide who the next of kin was. Birds claimed it was them, because they are also born from eggs, while beasts said they walk on four legs and so did Crocodile. The argument was never fully decided. (In another chapter there was a similar tale, but with Bat).
In another fin tale Manatee, Oyster, and Hog were having a contest over who had the most fat, and used it to decide where they will live. Manatee (the winner) moved into the rivers, Oyster into the edge of the salt water, and Hog, who messed up the contest, lost its horns forever. I was also thoroughly entertained by the story that explained why mosquitoes buzz in people's ears. Apparently, Ear promised some oil to Mosquito, but never delivered, and the insects have been bugging Ear ever since, asking for some ear wax.


There was yet another classic tug-o-war trickster tale: here Tortoise claimed to be as strong as Elephant and Hippo. Another classic, about two animals making trick feasts for each other, featured Tortoise and Monkey. The story about the suitors of Princess Gorilla reminded me of all the tortoise-and-hare tales: Here, suitors had to drink an entire barrel of rum. The contest was won by a family of tiny monkeys, who all pretended to be one monkey that sometimes ran away into the tall grass to pee.
Among the longer stories there was once again a variant for the mysterious and dangerous husband - here, a Leopard in disguise. The girl who married him was rescued by her faithful horse.

Where to next?
Equatorial Guinea!

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