Monday, September 23, 2019

Strange dilemmas and just decisions (Following folktales around the world 123. - Republic of Congo)

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!

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Fjort
(French Congo)
R. E. Dennett
The Folk-lore Society, 1898.

It is tricky to find folktale collections from some parts of Africa, because political and cultural borders shifted around so much in the past two centuries. This book contains folktales from French Congo, mostly from the regions that are now the Republic of Congo (and a small part of Gabon). Since I could not locate any more recent folktale collections from the RC, I settled for this one, collected by a British merchant in the 19th century. He spent 17 years in the colonies, learned the local languages, and studied customs, folklore, and religion. The book was organized and edited by famous traveler Mary Kingsley, who also wrote an introduction and some additional studies for it. There is a separate chapter that introduces storytelling traditions, complete with examples of call-and-response stories and story-songs. At the end of the book we find some local songs, in the original language as well as English and Latin (translated with the help of Ms. Kingsley). The book was not always easy to follow, and parts of it are definitely dated, but I found a lot of cool stories on its pages!


I appreciated the tale about the married couple that went on a journey and entrusted their son to a neighbor. The neighbor mistreated the boy, who fled into the forest, and was threatened by chimbindi (ghosts). Luckily, his parents got home, decided not to believe the neighbor's lies, and went looking for their son. They arrived just in time to chase the ghosts away with a gun loaded with chili pepper, and a basketful of pepper powder.
The story of How gazelle got married was thoroughly entertaining. The suitor had to find out the secret names of two girls in order to marry them. His dog spied on the girls and found out the names, but on the way home was always distracted by something and forgot them, so he had to keep returning. Eventually he made it to the gazelle and disclosed the names... but on the way to the girls' home they both forgot them again, so the names had to be retrieved one more time.
My favorite story from the collection was the surprisingly titled Ngomba's balloon. A girl was abandoned by her mean sisters, and kidnapped by a monster. While the monster was away, she worked together with the other prisoners to create a balloon, and they eventually flew safely home. When the monster followed them, the villagers helped chase it away. I also loved the story about The younger brother who knew more than the elder. They lived apart, but when the younger brother almost lost his wife as a result of his pride and a bad agreement with someone, the elder showed up just in time to trick the other party, and help save the wife.
I was very happy to find a new fire-theft tale in the collection, in which a team of animals - spider, tortoise, woodpecker, sand fly - stole fire from heaven together. Since spider was their leader, he would have won a wife for the effort, but the girl's father decided not to make her life miserable, so he gave everyone money instead. This was not the only wise decision in the book, either. A crafty woman overreached herself when she set a trap for someone in the hopes of demanding a payment for her stolen goods. However, the judges examining the case decided that her loss was intentional, and thus the decision was not made in favor of the trickster. Even Nzambi, the creator mother goddess was called in front of judges once, for stealing the world's first drum made by a small wagtail bird. She claimed that as creator, she had a right to everything, but the judges declared that she did not create drums, only creatures with free will who had a right to their own inventions. Therefore Nzambi had to pay for the drum, and also had to pay a fine for stealing it.
Flora and fauna featured prominently into the stories. In one "true story" a local man described a fight between a gorilla and a chimpanzee ( in which the latter lost). Another tale explained Why crocodile doesn't eat chicken - with the fact that chicken convinced him that they are related, since they are both born from eggs.


I once again encountered the tale about the wives who saved their husband together. Dreamer, Guide, and Raiser of the Dead brought the man back to life, and then demanded to know which one of them was the most valuable. The man chose the last one, and the men of the village agreed, but the women declared that he should have given each of his wives equal appreciation.
The story of the Twin Brothers is well known in Europe, and I have also seen it in Africa before. One brother sets out on an adventure and dies, but the other saves him. In this version there was an intriguing house full of mirrors that all showed different places (including the forbidden village where the first brother perished). Sadly, after the rescue, the two brothers had an argument and they killed each other.
Among the local beliefs there were mentions of people who could shapeshift into crocodiles or leopards - the crocodile-people even had their own village on a river island.
A nameless trickster started a fight between two friends by walking between them in a coat that was half red and half blue. I knew this story with the Yoruba trickster Eshu. Another trickster tale featured Rabbit secretly eating up the food he stored with Antelope - for which Antelope captured with with the use of the classic "tar baby" trick.

Where to next?

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