Monday, February 3, 2020

Incredible transformations (Following folktales around the world 141. - Tanzania)

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!

Folk tales from Buhaya
R. A. Mwombeki & G. B. Kamanzi
Institute of Kiswahili Research, 1999.

This book contains 64 tales from the Haya people, from the Kagera region of Tanzania. The authors created this collection to preserve the quickly disappearing oral tradition, recording the stories in Swahili and in English for the younger generations (the book is in English). At the end of every story they note the morals, which are often strange to European readers, but they reveal a lot about the cultural values represented in the tales. The book is a crowded read, peppered with typos, but it contains a whole lot of amazing stories. It definitely became one of my favorite folktale collections from Africa.


The best tale in the book was about A woman who sought her husband's favours. To win back his love she turned to a magician, who used medicine on her and made her stand on an anthill. When she walked off, she turned into a lioness - when she returned to the hill, she was human again. She eventually managed to get a message to her family, and they came to see her sitting naked on the anthill, but since they couldn't help, they gave her up for dead. She lived as a lioness for a long time, only occasionally returning to the hill to "remind herself she was human"; living as a lion made her stronger and younger. Eventually she found the magician - who turned out to be a slave, forced by his master to test the medicine on her. They made a plan, killed the master, fell in love, and lived happily ever after.
The story of The prince who changed into a woman was also fascinating. He was castrated for seducing one of his father's wives, and chased into the wilderness in woman's clothes. He eventually married another prince, revealing the secret on their wedding night, but the prince didn't mind at all. Eventually when the royal family got suspicious, an old nurse helped change her into a female body.
The story of Ak'omu-Bukuma was eerie but clever. A man had a daughter with a leopard, and she sometimes changed into a leopard for fun, scaring everyone. When she got married, she promised not to do it again, but her father-in-law insisted on seeing the transformation. She found a clever way to show him, and then make everyone believe he was out of his mind, instead of revealing her secret. In another story a leopard stole a boy, but the women of the village stole him back with a clever trick.

I was fascinated by the story of The king's son who conquered Rwangoigo mountain. It was the story of an exploration, where the tenth son of a king set out with his dogs, wandered around the mountains, and reached a distant kingdom where he found a new home. Another long and exciting travel tale was that of The fisherman and his kite, in which the bird carried the man to faraway kingdoms, where he could grow rich and powerful by knowing about foods and crafts the locals were not familiar with. The first time he lost his wealth because he was ungrateful to the kite, but the second time around he became a powerful king, and broke the curse that turned a prince into the kite.
The story of Mbiliizi, the calabash child was also along, complex dynastic tale filled with divorce, remarriage, infertility, love, and tragedies. I loved the moment where the hero was helped by his mother in eloping with a woman whose husband was about to kill her. But among all the long and complicated tales, the best one was The wood of enticers, with a poor man turned into a king, a queen turned into a monkey than human then a monkey again, a murdered ruler, a monkey child, and all kinds of scheming and double-crossing. In the end, the "evil" monkey queen got to live happily ever after.
I liked the tale about How Hare got a wife for his son. First, he won the bride by winning a challenge of not scratching himself in a cloud of mosquitoes (he just "pointed" at places, talking about how he had a spotted cow at home). Then he sent out his son for the bride, telling him to be kind to everyone; it was a "Queen Bee" type tale from there, with helpful mosquitoes, termites, and birds.
The story of Ishe Migani, king of the monkeys, had a rather sad ending. He was lured into a trap by a human king, being told that he was offered a high ranking position at court. When his people dispersed, working on roads and building projects, the humans hunted them down one by one. The story is told in verse, in the first person, by the monkey king himself.
The story of The children trapped under a tree was more of a legend, and a very interesting one. A falling tree trapped a bunch of kids and their animals in an underground hollow, where they lived for seven years. By the time a woodcutter found them, some of them had kids of their own, and a great number of animals; they returned home happy, but with their skin changed because of the lack of light.


There was a Cinderella variant where the girl fled from her evil stepmother on a flying tree. It was interesting that her father divorced her mother, and later the stepmother too, but when the girl, as queen, returned to visit her family, she convinced him to re-marry both women. I also encountered the international folktale type about the king who ordered old people (anyone over 35) to be executed... until he got into trouble, and only the wisdom of an old man could save him. (One more year and I'll be wise too!)
There was a nice variant for the ungrateful animal story type; here a leopard was rescued by a man from a trap, and wanted to eat him. All domestic animals said the leopard was right, but the dog helped him lure the leopard back into the trap - and he became man's new best friend. There was also a Clever Maiden tale, with a girl answering a king's tricky questions.
The story of Kajunju the giant reminded me of other tales from Africa where the father left his family out of greed in times of famine. The mother and her children ended up in a giant's house, managed to kill him, and got rich from his treasures (I read a similar story from Swaziland). There was also yet another story about a girl who married into the spirit world - in this case, she wanted a husband who could spit gemstones, and ended up being kidnapped by ogres in disguise. She was rescued (along with her friends) by an old woman half-eaten by the ogres, who did not only carry the girls home in a basket on her head, but also left a magic bomb behind that killed the ogres.
The resident trickster was Nyakami, the Hare. He used his wits to get rid of the evil hyena and lion, found a way to kill an evil elephant king (after all other creative assassination attempts failed), and made Hippo and Bison play tug-o-war. However, he also had some pretty bad stories (rape, torture, murder, etc.), which made it hard to particularly like this character.

Where to next?

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