"MOUNT KENYA is burning!" a group of Kikuyu students once sang for a baffled visitor while Mount Kenya itself stood glaciered sentry on the skyline. "We must plant green leaves so the porcupine will not laugh at us."
What does it mean?
"It is impossible to explain," one girl explained. "It is just funny . . . and beautiful."
Prank, riddle or poignant pun, epic, proverb or debate, African folktales have been stalked and snared by anthropologists now for centuries. Resisting extinction, they have been quietly revealing their place in the pattern of world literature with the help of people like Roger Abrahams. In his latest offering, African Folktales: Traditional Stories of the Black World, the Scripps College scholar provides another masterful addition and accessible introduction to the captured myths of what the Mende call "God's Chiefdom."
Most of the stories here are disembodied scripts, pulled from performance and ceremony and deprived of the gestures and musical charms of a good storyteller. The characters seem uneasy in print, gagged and bound, threatening to leap off the page and take their revenge on the tyranny of Western syntax. They seem as unbridled as Giriama drumming written out on the five-line staff.
But what's lost in translation is made up for in presentation. Abrahams sensibly groups the tales thematically into five sections--the fantastic "Tales of Wonder from the Great Ocean of Stories"; the open-ended "Stories to Discuss and Even Argue About"; the sadistic exploits of "Trickster and Other Ridiculous Creatures"; two adventure "Tales in Praise of Great Doings"; and lessons to help in "Making a Way Through Life."
Drawing on a variety of sources and translation syles, Abrahams gives, in all, 45 tribes the chance to tell nearly a hundred stories. Sweeping across the continent as swiftly as a pair of enchanted Togo sandals, the juxtaposition of tribes and pacing of story lengths makes for lively reading. It also invites the reader to view the stories as a whole, as the collective treasure of one people, laying aside all the individual influences that may have shaped each tribe's view of the world. Abrahams has packaged an example of what stories provide in the African tradition--a world of refrence portraying "the basic stuff of life . . . vitality in opposition." As Abrahams explains, the lock-horned relationships of hot and cold, day and night, sky and earth, male and female are never resolved, only dramatized.
Abrahams never mentions the parallel here to the Chinese "Yin/Yang" dynamic; and to the layman, it is only one of the many temptations to read external influences into these samples of African folklore. Several plots and details prick the mind weaned on Western myths: the Basuto king who threw his daughter out of the village (and into the jaws of an ogre) because she had eaten the fruit of a forbidden tree; the Swahili tale of a certain sultan who gave orders that all male children born in his kingdom should be put to death (the only survivor developing into a supernatural hero); the glorious destiny of Mwindo foretold by his unusual (Caesarian) birth, all seem more that coincidence. The evidence of whether they are may be lost forever --that has happened before, but the Great Ocean of Stories goes on bathing all shores, being fed by all rivers.
There are stories with surer lineage, stories in what Abrahams calls "international circulation." "The Password" is the Dahomey version of "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," and "Demane and Demazana" the Kaffir variation on "Hansel and Gretel." Both, in their choices of plot and prop, offer an intimate glimpse into Africa.
But it is the power of the wisdom and poetry in these stories that makes them worth reading. Even Swift would get a wry chuckle out of the ribald Hausa tale that ends with the proverb: "When you see water flowing uphill, it means someone is repaying a kindness." And for advice wrapped in a twist of phrase, Gassire, the great Soninke hero, speaks in language worthy of Macbeth:
"The rest of us incline more to life than fame. And while we do not wish to die fameless, we have no wish to die for fame alone."
The story of Gassire and his lute is as much a miniature novel as any in Borges' Ficciones.
But for sheer mystery and delight, few stories in this collection rival "Never Ask Me About My Family," a Kikuyu tale from the foot of Mount Kenya.
One day, Mwenendega, the handsome son of a poor man, meets a beautiful girl by the river. She was "very attractive, fair as the moon and bright as the stars in the sky, with a halo on her head like a rainbow. She was timid and silent like the sun."
The girl, who remains nameless, agrees to an abrupt proposal of marriage, but only on one condition--Mwenendega must never ask about her father or mother or country during their whole life together. He agrees, but years later, overjoyed by the circumcision ceremony of their first child, Mwenendega forgets his promise. He wants to know why his wife's parents have not come to see their grandchildren on such a happy day. The spell from the interlocking forces is broken.
The wife jumps into the air and lands making a crater seven miles deep, "all the while shooting in the air stones, trees, rubble and mud, like a blast of gunpowder." Then she screams, "My father, my mother and all my kinfolk, where are they? Children of Mboto, come out." It would be unfair to spoil the ending for the reader and tell of the creatures that awoke on Mount Kenya, came down into the village and what they did there. Suffice it to say that it's the reason all wise Kikuyus keep a close eye on the glacier-tipped mountain-- the throne of God's chiefdom threatens more than the laugh of a porcupine.