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6 Unusual and Unique Tales from Africa
By Brianna Duff
Stories from Africa were traditionally passed down by word of mouth. You would hear them sitting around a village fire after a long day of work with your friends and family around you. There was never “and they lived happily ever after”–most stories didn’t even end happily. The stories just taught a lesson, and usually, the person who needed teaching learned their lesson the hard way.
Most of the African folktales we know today come from four collections of stories collected in the late eighteen hundreds. I have picked out six of my favorite folktales and shared them below:
1. Cloud-Eating – South African – This short little tale explains why hyenas have shorter hind legs than front ones. Spoiler: it’s all because the silly creature climbed to heaven, ate a cloud, and then trusted a jackal to catch it as it fell back down.
2. How a Hunter Obtained Money from His Friends the Leopard, Goat, Bush Cat, and Cock, and How He Got Out of Repaying Them – Nigeria – In this story, a hunter basically tricks all of his friends (man and beast alike) into giving him money and then killing each other so he gets to keep it all. Then the hunter skins one of his dead animal friends and sells the skin to become even richer. The moral of this story is never to lend money to anyone because if they can’t pay you back, they will kill you. Or poison you. (Fair advice, I’d say.)
3. The Disobedient Daughter Who Married a Skull – Nigeria – Once upon a time, a beautiful maiden married Prince Charming because they met and instantly fell in love with the other’s attractiveness. The only problem is that Prince Charming is actually just a human skull who takes his bride into a land where people want to eat her. The moral? Women should never be headstrong because then they will end up married to skulls.
4. The Curse of the Chameleon – Traditional Zulu – This story is about the wonderful and good chameleon who, while working for God, is invited to dinner by his cousin, the snake. In a bout of family obligation and general kindness, the chameleon goes to the snake’s for dinner, get swindled out of his important God-given package, and must slink away hidden for the rest of his life in shame. Also, the story explains that snakes (and faulted chameleons) are why humans get old and wrinkly.
5. Why the Moon and the Stars Receive Their Light from the Sun – West Africa – Think "Jack and the Beanstalk" with this story, except instead of a giant there is a dragon and instead of getting home to his mother rich and safe, this hero goes up to the gods, who think he’s so awesome they turn him into the sun, his father into the moon, and his friends into stars.
6. The Magician and the Sultan’s Son – Zanzibar (natives of the East Coast of Africa) – This is vaguely reminiscent of "Hansel and Gretel." A boy gets willfully abandoned by his father, finds himself in a beautiful home of a cannibal, and must trick this man into his own cooking pot in order to escape. But this story has a talking horse instead of gingerbread, which makes all the difference. It’s less about not being a chocoholic and more about being cool enough to marry the Sultan’s daughter.
Still interested in African folktales? Check out this cool NPR story about Nelson Mandela's favorite folktales, a new audiobook of them read by American celebrities, and a preview of Scarlett Johansson reading one called "The Snake Chief"!