Folk tales around the world, observes the author, often contain similar narratives, providing, perhaps, yet another example of the universal brotherhood of man. This volume of West African folk tales includes a number of such tales, among them, "The Cricket and the Toad," "The Greedy Hare," "The Tortoise and His Broken Shell," "The Story of a Farmer and Four Hyenas," "The Man with Seven Dogs," and "The Boy in the Drum." Animals, both natural and magical, play large roles in these stories. Collected by the author over the years from West Africans of all ages, these charming tales will not only delight folklore enthusiasts but will also appeal to anyone fascinated by African cultures. Parents and teachers in search of cross-cultural material for children will also find this volume a wonderful resource.
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West African Folk Tales
By HUGH VERNON-JACKSON, Patricia Wright
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Story of a Hunter and his Antelope Wife
Once upon a time there lived a hunter. He knew much about the ways of animals, but not enough to keep his antelope wife.
One day when he was out hunting in the forest he came to a pool where animals used to come to drink. The hunter hid himself, and while he was watching, a herd of antelope appeared. He prepared his bow and his arrows, but the antelopes did not bend their heads down to drink. Instead, they took off their skins and changed their shapes to become like human beings. They dressed themselves in fine clothes, and the hunter heard them say to each other that they were going to the nearby market.
After they had gone, the hunter went to where they had hung their skins.
"I shall take one of these skins," said the hunter to himself, "and then I shall wait to see these strange antelopes when they come back."
The hunter chose the best skin, and then climbed into a tall tree overlooking the pool.
When evening came and the sun was setting, the creatures returned. They took their skins, put them on over their human forms, and became antelopes again. But one of them, who was in the shape of a young and beautiful woman, could not find her skin.
The other antelopes helped her look for her skin. But it was nowhere to be found because the hunter had taken it. Finally, the antelopes went on their way, leaving behind the one who could not find her skin.
The antelope woman began to cry, and the hunter, seeing that all the other antelopes had gone, came down from the tree in which he had been hiding.
"Why are you crying, young woman?" the hunter asked.
At first the antelope woman would not tell him.
"You can trust me to keep your secrets," the hunter promised her.
At last the antelope woman admitted that she had lost her skin which would have made her an antelope again.
"I now have no home and do not know what to do," she cried.
"You must marry me," said the hunter, and he told her about his family and that she would be welcome in his compound.
"Your other wife will learn my secrets from you," said the antelope woman.
The hunter assured her that his other wife would never be told about her secrets. Finally, the antelope woman agreed to marry the hunter. He then admitted that it was he who had taken her skin, but she said she would still marry him. Thus she followed him along the paths of the forest back to his compound.
"Where does your new wife come from?" the hunter's first wife asked, but the hunter never told her the truth. Sometimes he said she was the daughter of another hunter; sometimes he said she came from a distant village on the other side of the forest.
The hunter and his new wife lived happily together for some years, and they had three children. However, the hunter's first wife was always curious about the wife who had been brought out from the forest.
"Where is your father's home?" she asked the antelope woman many times.
"Far away," the antelope woman told her, but never said anything more.
One day, the hunter's first wife made some very excellent palm wine from the juices of a palm tree which a man had sold to her. It was such good-tasting palm wine that the hunter drank too much of it. The first wife saw her chance.
"Tell me, husband," she asked, "tell me where your second wife really comes from."
The hunter was not in control of his senses. After a little more urging he told all the secrets of his antelope wife.
The next day the two wives quarrelled. They quarrelled about how much rice and soup made of meat should be given to the antelope woman's three children and how much to the first wife's children who were bigger and older. The first wife became very angry.
"Do not be so proud," she cried, "you are only an antelope and your skin is hanging from the roof in our husband's room."
The antelope woman, seeing that her secret had been discovered, decided to return immediately to the forest. Quickly, she went to her husband's room and took down the skin from where it had been hanging. She soaked the skin in a pot of water and measured it to the size of her body; she soaked it and pulled it until it fitted her once again and she changed herself back to the shape of an antelope. Meanwhile, her husband and her three children were away, working on their ground-nut farm.
Running with speed, the antelope woman left the compound and bounded along the path through the high grasses which lead to the ground-nut farm.
When she came to the farm, she beat her three children with her tail, and instantly they changed into handsome young antelopes.
"Farewell!" she cried to her husband, "you have been good to me and to my children, but now your first wife knows my secret."
"Stay, stay," the husband begged.
"We must go for ever!" the antelope woman cried, and with her children she ran down the path and disappeared into the forest.
The husband returned, very angrily, to his compound and drove his first wife away from his house.CHAPTER 2
The Tortoise and the Leopard
Once upon a time there was a tortoise who lived in a forest. She was a large, fat tortoise with a green and brown shell on her back, and over her stomach she wore a yellow shell.
One day she was going for a walk in the dark, shady forest where she lived. She came to the edge of the forest beside a river, and in the sand beside the river she found some big eggs. She recognized them as being the eggs of a crocodile.
Now the tortoise was very fond of eating good food, and she knew that crocodile eggs have a delicious flavour. She picked up the eggs and hurried with them to the compound of a family which lived near the river.
After the tortoise had greeted the family and the family had greeted the tortoise, she said, "Please, may I enter your compound, for I have something to tell you?"
"Certainly," replied the chief man of the compound, and he and his family allowed the tortoise to enter.
"If you let me use a cooking pot," said the tortoise, "and some firewood, some oil, and some pepper, and if you let me use three big stones to support the cooking pot over the fire, I will make a magic cake for you with the eggs which I am carrying. After you have eaten the magic cake you will always have good luck."
The chief of the compound and his family agreed to what the tortoise suggested. They brought a cooking pot, firewood, oil, pepper, and three big stones to support the cooking pot over the fire. The tortoise asked them to put everything in the room where the family stored its corn. When everything was made ready, the tortoise thanked the family, entered the room and shut and bolted the door.
All day the tortoise cooked the crocodile eggs. She mixed them with the oil and the pepper and the corn which was stored in the room, and she made a very large cake.
When night came and the family were sleeping, the tortoise put the cake in a bag, left the compound very quietly and then ran quickly into the forest.
The next morning the people in the compound woke up. They looked for the tortoise but they could not find her. They knew they had been tricked.
Meanwhile, the tortoise was going deep into the forest carrying the bag with the cake inside it. The day became very dark, for there were many clouds in the sky. The tortoise heard thunder; then she felt rain. The day became darker and darker, the rain became heavier and heavier. The tortoise was beaten by the rain, but she did not dare return to the compound where she had cooked her cake, so she went on and on, hoping to find shelter. At last she came to the top of a little hill where, through the clearing in the trees, she could see smoke. The tortoise knew that the smoke came from a house and that where there was a house there was shelter. She walked and walked while the rain became stronger and stronger. At last she reached the house.
"Greetings, friend," the tortoise called at the doorway, "please will you let me in, for I am tired and wet from the rain?"
It was a leopard that came to the door.
"Greetings," said the leopard. "Come in."
Inside the house the tortoise found a warm place near the fire. She took her bag with the cake in it, and hung it up on a bamboo pole inside the house. As night had come by that time, the tortoise said good night to the leopard and went to sleep beside the fire.
The next morning when the tortoise woke up she saw that her bag was empty and that the cake had disappeared. It had been eaten by the leopard. The tortoise feared the leopard, so she did not say anything about the cake. Instead, she said, "I thank you, leopard, for giving me shelter. Now, if you will do what I say, I will make a magic powder for you. The magic powder will make you successful whenever you go out hunting."
The foolish leopard was very pleased and he agreed to do what the tortoise said.
The tortoise said that he should go out into the forest and bring forked sticks, four of them, each about six feet high. This the leopard did. The tortoise then said that the leopard should bring two strong poles to be tied on the tops of the forked sticks. The leopard went into the forest again and brought back the poles, tied them to the forked sticks, and drove one end of each forked stick firmly into the ground.
Then he allowed the tortoise to tie him to the poles and sticks.
"When will you untie me?" asked the leopard.
"Never," replied the tortoise. "You ate my cake without asking my permission to eat it. Therefore I shall not untie you. I shall leave you to your fate."
The tortoise then ran off and disappeared in the thick forest.
After several hours some monkeys passed the leopard.
"Monkeys," said the leopard, "please untie me."
"Not us," replied the monkeys, "we are too frightened of you."
The monkeys went on their way. The leopard became very hungry. After several more hours an old mother monkey passed the leopard.
"Oh, Monkey," cried the leopard, "please untie me. I have been here for a long time."
The old mother monkey came back.
"Very well," she said to the leopard, "although I fear you, I will untie you."
The monkey freed the leopard, but she was not free from him. The leopard jumped on her and ate her up. After that, with a roar of rage, he ran into the forest to look for the tortoise.
The leopard went through the forest, but he could not find the tortoise. The leopard went beside the forest near the river, but still he could not find the tortoise. For ever afterwards the leopard searched beside the forest, and whenever one sees a leopard beside a forest, one knows he is looking for a tortoise.CHAPTER 3
An Elephant, a Bush Dog, and the Villagers
Once near a village there lived a large and angry elephant, who frightened everyone. The villagers had tried but they had not been able to kill the elephant or drive him away. In fact, they were very often too frightened to leave their houses in case the elephant tried to kill them.
The village head held a meeting in the entrance hall of his compound.
"He who destroys this elephant," he announced, "will be given a large reward worth many pounds."
Encouraged by the thought of a large reward, the best hunters in the village dared to go out and shoot at the elephant with their bows and arrows. All failed.
At last a wild dog from the bush thought he would try for the reward. He went to the village head and said that he would kill the elephant.
"If you are successful," the village head told him, "I will give you good food and a mattress, and let you live in my comfortable house instead of living in the bush. You shall also receive the large reward worth many pounds."
The wild bush dog said that the villagers would have to clear a stretch of ground twenty miles long and a quarter of a mile wide and that it must be straight. The village head arranged for the work to be done when the elephant was not near the village.
When it had been done, the wild bush dog went to the elephant.
"I should like to have a running race with you," the wild bush dog said to him.
"What do you mean by that?" the elephant asked.
"I should like to prove," the wild bush dog replied, "that I am able to run faster than you."
"Nonsense!" said the elephant.
"Prove it!" said the wild bush dog.
The elephant and the wild bush dog then arranged that they would have a race on the following day.
The wild bush dog left the elephant and went to the other wild bush dogs to ask for their help.
"Why should we?" they asked.
"If the elephant is killed, the village people will go farther away from their houses," the wild bush dog replied, "and we shall then be able to catch them and eat them ourselves."
The other wild bush dogs agreed that such words were wise; they said they would give help.
"There are twenty of you here," said the wild bush dog. "One of you will be the starter; you others will each go to a hiding-place in the grass. You will hide beside the running track which the villagers have been foolish enough to clear. Each will hide one mile apart."
The next morning each wild dog was in his position. The leader of the wild bush dogs and the elephant joined the starter at one end of the running track.
The starter cried "Go!" The elephant and the wild bush dog started running. After they had gone one mile the waiting wild bush dog quickly took the place of the other, and the exchange was unnoticed by the elephant. After the next mile another wild bush dog took the place of the other, and so on for every mile, and never once did the elephant notice. At the end of the race the mighty elephant was utterly exhausted and he fell down dead.
"Now," the wild bush dog said, "I shall go and collect my reward." And he told the other bush dogs that they should watch the paths and the farms, because the villagers would be coming out again and could now be caught.
But when the treacherous wild bush dog reached the village, he found that the village head and all his people had taken advantage of the time when the elephant and the wild bush dogs were racing. They had packed their loads and their food, their goods and all their belongings, and they had fled. They had all run away to a far-distant place.CHAPTER 4
The Story of a Farmer and Four Hyenas
Once upon a time there was a farmer named Musa, who lived in a village five miles away from the nearest town. He was very pleased when his wife gave birth to a baby boy.
"It is the custom that you should have very good meals of meat for the next seven days," Musa said to his wife.
"With pepper," his wife replied.
"Pepper and meat I shall buy for you," said Musa, "when I go to the town."
On the following day Musa walked through the forest and the high grass of the bush to the town which was well known for its market. As Musa approached the market he could hear the drums beating which told him that the butchers had fresh meat for sale.
First of all, Musa bought a pocketful of red peppers. Next, he went to the butchers.
"Let me have four legs of a cow," Musa asked the butchers. "My wife has given birth to a baby boy and I must give her much meat that is sweet for her to eat."
"The legs make excellent soup," said the butchers as they gave the meat to Musa, "together with peppers."
Musa paid for the meat, and then spent the rest of the day visiting friends and relatives in the town. In each compound which he entered and to each friend whom he met in the street he said, "My wife has given birth to a boy."
Each friend and each relative replied, "I see that you have much meat to take back to her."
In the evening, after the priest outside the mosque had called for prayers, Musa left the town for his home. On his shoulders he carried the four legs of the cow.
Before he had travelled two miles it became dark. Now the part of the country through which Musa was walking was infested with very fierce hyenas. Soon Musa heard their laughing, and he began to walk quickly. Suddenly, in an open space beside the path, there was a rush of feet and movement on the sandy soil, and Musa was looking into the yellow eyes of a hyena. Musa at first stood still with fright, and then suddenly started to run as fast as he could go. The hyena came quickly after him, preparing to attack. In despair Musa threw down one of the cow-legs which he was carrying. While the hyena stopped to eat the meat, Musa ran on.
Excerpted from West African Folk Tales by HUGH VERNON-JACKSON, Patricia Wright. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
The Story of a Hunter and his Antelope Wife,
The Tortoise and the Leopard,
An Elephant, a Bush Dog, and the Villagers,
The Story of a Farmer and Four Hyenas,
The Greedy but Cunning Tortoise,
The One-legged Man and the Tortoise,
A She-goat and her Children,
How the Hyena's Fur became Striped,
The Boy in the Drum,
The Man with Seven Dogs,
The Story of Muhammadu,
A Hunter, when the World began,
The Son with a Big Head,
Koba, the Hunter who stopped Hunting,
A Rich Man and his Goat,
The Boy who had to choose his Father,
A Boastful Man who was not Brave,
The Story of Ja'afaru and his Mother's Sons,
The Story of Mullum the Soldier,
The Story of a Princess and Two Princes,
The Marriage of the Hunter's Sister,
How the Cat destroyed the Rats,
A Good Fortune in Camels,
The Fisherman and the Ring,
The Magic Crocodile,
The Contest between Fire and Rain,
The Wise Old Man and the Ferocious Leopard,
A Father's Warning,
The Lion is not the King of Men,
The Hare and the Crownbird,
The Forgiving Wife,
The Medicine for Getting a Son,
The Present is the Most Important Time,
Wiser than a King,
The Lion, the Monkey and the Clever Bird,
The Rivalry for the Lizard King's Daughters,
The Superiority of a Man Twenty-five Years Old,
The Magic Cooking Pot,
The Tortoise is not as clever as he sometimes thinks,
The Greedy Hare,
The Tortoise and his Broken Shell,
The Cricket and the Toad,
The Pig's search for a Grinding Stone,
The Poor Man who became King,
Another Cause of Enmity between the Cat and the Rat,
The Singing Bird and the Dancing Farmer,