The Insight of Story (Excerpt)

An excerpt from 'Time for the World to Learn From Africa'

Time for the World to Learn From Africa by Ruth FinneganThe following is from Ruth Finnegan's It's Time for the World to Learn From Africa by Ruth Finnegan. From the publisher: It is a common notion that Africa has, and indeed ought to have, learned much from the west. This is not wrong; all cultures rightly learn from each other. But less is said of what there is to learn from Africa: from her stories, myths, music, proverbs, insights - and more. Here an acclaimed African scholar steps into the gap by uncovering for us something of the great legacy of African thought and practice in ways that will astonish many. 


Whether we realise it or not, western culture is shot through with the insights and experiences of African story—origin myths, intriguing tales of human ingenuity and suffering, antics of animals (who now fails to see the human faces behind these Greek-like animal masks?), side-splitting exploits of fantastic twins and triplets. Still a vibrant form today, not least in the masses of newly written novels, there is still much to learn from the narrative traditions of Africa: both from the wisdom—the plots, the characters—of the tales and epics and also, though existent, only too often overlooked in our own culture, the multisensory qualities and audience interaction of live performance.

The magic moment of performance is one indeed inescapable quality of story-telling. We will never come near the power of African stories if we forget their multisensory performance qualities, their participating audiences, the craft of their expert tellers in the settings of the moment: drama as much as narrative. This is the first feature to bear in mind.

But the narrative themes and motifs are of interest too. They are both embedded in particular situations and stretch our imaginations beyond the bounds of some given time or place. Let us plunge straight into another Limba story to introduce this chapter (which will turn out to be a light-hearted counterpoint between, on the one hand, some Limba (and other) stories in Africa and, on the other, a selection of the larger narratives that have been told about Africa).

So—“A story for you”, as a Limba narrator might say:

A spider once lived on earth who was very full of fight.
He went to the elephant and said, 'I want to fight you.’
The elephant said ‘Huh, you’re not strong enough to take me on!’
But the spider got a rope and said, 'Hold onto this; when you feel
it shaking and quivering, yigbë yigbë [an ideophone depicting the
quiver of the rope], it’s me; the fight’s coming.’ He went off.
He went on some way and met a hippopotamus.
‘Hippopotamus, I want to fight you.’
The hippopotamus said, ‘Huh! You’re not strong enough to take me on!’
‘Well, hold onto this rope.’ The hippopotamus took it.
The spider went off saying ‘When you feel it shake and quiver,
yigbë yigbë, it’s me, me’. (He’d said the same to the elephant you know.)
Well, when the spider had gone off, the elephant moved along not
far away from the hippopotamus. When he felt yigbe on the rope, he
said, ‘Aha! look at that! I can feel the spider I’m fighting with.’ The
hippopotamus tugged too at the end where he was.
They spent all day, the whole of that day, struggling.
But the spider just went and lay down këlëthë ! [ideophone—lightly and easily].
They spent the whole long day like that.
Then the hippopotamus let go the rope: ‘I’ll go and see if it’s really
true that all that long time I was tugging away it was really the spider.’
Well, the elephant was coming along too. They met and asked each
other: ‘Where were you today?’ and ‘Where were you today?’
'The spider gave me a rope today, saying we would fight.’
The hippopotamus answered, ‘That’s right; it was me he gave the
rope to; he said, “Let’s fight.”
They stood there greeting each other and saying, ‘The spider has
tricked us. Look, we were fighting each other not the spider. Brother,
wherever we see the spider, let’s kill him for that.’
The spider didn’t want to be killed. That’s why he ran away here into our houses.


This is a tale (translated into English of course) from 1961. It was told in the veranda of his hut by an old man named Bubu Dema in the hill-top village of Kakarima in the Sierra Leone northern uplands. It can serve as an initial focus for considering some of the frames and characters in Limba narrative before going on to a wider perspective.

First, the characters in African stories. Most familiar of all are the animals, particularly the wily hare, tortoise, spider, and their larger dupes. But there are also stories about people, ordinary and extraordinary. They are also occasionally woven round other personified objects like, say, the parts of the body, vegetables, minerals, the heavenly bodies, or abstractions like hunger, death or truth. These various characters do not usually appear in separate cycles, but interact among themselves: thus a story mainly about animals may introduce a human being or even God as one of the figures, or a human hero can succeed through his magical powers in speaking with and enrolling the help of various animals. The same plot may centre on different types of characters in different areas or on different occasions in the same society. In Lamba stories, to cite just one instance, the exploits of the little-hare and of a curious little human, Kantanga, are very much the same.

It is sometimes ambiguous whether the central figure is animal or human. The Kikuyu Wakahare, for instance, appears sometimes as a squirrel, sometimes as human; the Zande trickster is called “spider” but envisaged as a man, while the famous Zulu equivalent of Tom Thumb and Jack the Giant Killer rolled into one, uHlakanyana, is usually a tiny clever boy, but in other contexts a weasel.

The characters of African stories vary in different places but there are some remarkable consonances. As with the Limba there is often a “trickster” figure, sometimes shy and wily (the antelope), sometimes bombastic like the spider. It may be—to mention only a few instances—a hare, a spider, a mouse, a tortoise or, in the American and Caribbean versions, Brer Rabbit, or the Spider, Anansi. The large animals tricked are most commonly an elephant and a hippopotamus, but sometimes a rhinoceros. Another common plot, known in fact widely throughout the world, describes the aggressor out-tricked: an animal tries to kill his rescuer but is outdone by a third character who persuades him to re-enter the trap to prove the truth of the story, and leaves him in it. Among other characters are: for the aggressor, a snake, leopard, or crocodile; for the intended victim, a child, baboon, gazelle, water antelope, rat, or white man; for the wily character who foils the aggressor, a jackal, hare, pygmy antelope, or spider.

If you like this article, please consider becoming a patron and supporting the work we do here at The Mantle.

Besides the leading animal figures, others who come in in secondary roles. Some of these stock characters are common to many areas of Africa: the lion, strong and powerful but not particularly bright; the elephant, heavy, ponderous, and rather slow; the hyena, the type of brute force and stupidity, constantly duped by the little quick animals; the leopard, untrustworthy and vicious, often tricked in spite of his cunning; the little antelope, harmless and often very bright; the larger deer, stupid and slow, and so on. Surprisingly, other animals, the zebra, buck or crocodile, seldom occur, or, if they do, tend to come in just as animals and not as the personified characters presented by those already mentioned. One rather different is the mantis in Bushman tales, their favourite hero. He shares some of the trickster characteristics (powerful and foolish, mischievous and kind), but his supernatural associations and the unusual type of action in these stories set him apart from other animal characters.

With few exceptions, these animals are portrayed as thinking and acting like human beings, in a human setting. This is sometimes brought out by the terminology, like the personal prefix neatly and economically used in Sotho to turn the ordinary form of, say, lion (tau) into a personal form (motau—Mr Lion) or the honorific class in Lamba which makes an ordinary animal term into a personal name—Mr Blue-Snake. In other cases no grammatical change is, or needs to be, made. The animals act like human characters, experiencing human emotions. And yet the fact that they are also animals is not lost sight of. This can be exploited either through grammatical forms, like the alternation in Zande stories between animal and personal pronouns, or through allusions to the animal’s characteristic cry, appearance or behaviour to add to the tale’s wit or incongruity. In a Limba tale, for instance, a spider is shown taking off his cap, gown, and trousers in a vain attempt to placate his magic pot; in the story he is unquestionably like a man, albeit an absurdly foolish man, with a house, wife, and human garb, but the fact that he is, nevertheless, a spider struggling with all these clothes adds just the touch in the telling which makes the whole story hilarious.

Many of these stories are light-hearted, even satirical, set in a wide range of adaptable and adapting situations. But there are also more serious themes. One common form is a story ending up with a kind of moral, sometimes in the form of a well-known proverb. The listeners are told that they can learn a lesson from the experiences of the animals in the tale—that, say, one should not be rude to one’s mother-in-law, that men’s words are more weighty than women’s, that strangers should be treated well, that it is ill-advised to oppress the weak, or even that determination sometimes triumphs over virtue. In some places too, Christian morals are specifically introduced.

In some narrations the moral element seems to form the core of the story, so that we could appropriately term it a parable rather than just a tale. But in other cases, sometimes even those from the same area or teller, the moral seems no more than a kind of afterthought, appended to give the narration a neat ending. Another common framework is when an explanation is given for some behaviour in the present world, or a known characteristic of some animal or bird. For example, there are stones about how the ringdove came by its ring or got her name, how Squirrel robbed Coney of his tail, how Squirrel and Jackal became distinct, how Skunk came to be a helper of man, why Duiker has a fine coat and coloured tail, why Zebra has no horns, why there are cracks in Tortoise’s shell—and so on.

Aetiological themes (explaining the original cause for something we know in today’s world) are not confined to animal stories but come in all types of African tales. However, they are particularly popular—and fertile—when the lead protagonists are animals. Striking animal characteristics, well known to the listeners from their own observation, are wittily “explained” in the story. Not all these tales are equally humorous and light-hearted. A few explain more serious matters: the animals are depicted as interacting with humans or with God as well as with other animals; they explain, for instance, the origin of murder, of death or of chiefship. An explanatory ending, in fact, can apparently be tacked on to almost any plot as a pleasing and conventional conclusion fitting in with current literary conventions. Animal trickster stories, aetiological tales, or even “myths” are not mutually exclusive types but merely favourite themes which may or may not be combined in any one story.

An example of the non-essential nature of an aetiological conclusion can be seen from the rollicking Kikuyu tale about Wakahere (a popular squirrel-human story-figure; the explanation at the end seems very much an afterthought.

"Hyenas" by Martiros Sarian (1909)

One day a Hyena went with Wakahare to collect honey in the forest,
where men used to hang their beehives from the trees. Wakahare
climbed the tree, extracted big lumps of combs full of honey from
a beehive, and when he was satiated, said to the Hyena: ‘Open your
mouth and I will drop some honey into it.’
The Hyena did so and swallowed the honey with great pleasure
several times, until she was also satisfied.
Then Wakahare left the tree and returned to the ground. He asked
the Hyena: ‘How did you enjoy the honey?’
‘Very, very much, what bliss, my dear friend.’
‘But remember,’ said Wakahare, ‘this is a kind of sweetness that
must not be evacuated from your body.’
‘Yes, I think it must be so; but how can one prevent it from going out?’
‘I’ll tell you what to do. I will stitch your orifice together with your
tail and you may be sure that no sweetness will come out.’
‘Good, my friend, do it for me, please.’
Wakahare fetched a few sharp thorns and stitched the orifice with
the tail of the Hyena and went off.
After some time the Hyena felt a terrible urge to evacuate. She
looked around for help, but nobody was to be found. At last a Jackal
happened to pass there. “’Oh, dear friend Jackal,’ said the Hyena,
‘come please, and help me.’
‘What can I do for you, dear friend?’
‘Please, release a little bit the stitches which are at the neck of my
tail. I cannot bear it any longer.’
‘Sorry, my friend, I am unable to do that. I know you have
diarrhoea habitually, and don’t want to be splashed with a discharge
of that kind.’ And so saying, he went on.
After some time a Serval arrived on his way to the forest. The
Hyena beseeched him for help.
‘Sorry, Mrs. Hyena, you are very prone to discharge violently,’ said
the Serval, I don’t want to be buried under your excrements.”
He too went his way without looking back.
Later on a Hare passed by. The Hyena asked again for help, but to no avail.
‘I am very sorry,’ the Hare said. ‘Don’t you see how clean I am? I
am going to a feast. I don’t want to soil my dress and get untidy for
your dirty business.”
He too went his way leaving the Hyena groaning and tossing on
the ground on account of the pain she was suffering.
At last, a Crow perched on a tree nearby. Looking down at the
Hyena lying still on the grass, he thought she was dead, and began
to foretaste a good meal: but as he was planning what to do next, the
Hyena opened her eyes and seeing the Crow on the tree, said: ‘Oh
dear Crow, dear friend of mine, help! help! please.’
The Crow left the tree and approached the Hyena.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ he asked.
‘Oh please, release a bit the stitches in my tail. I am dying of the
urge of my body and I cannot evacuate.’
‘You say dying--dying?’
‘Yes, help me, please.’
‘But you see, I am only a bird with no paws. How can I help you
with that business?’
‘Oh dear try as much as you can and you will succeed.’
‘I doubt very much, and besides that I am very hungry. I have no
strength to do any work.’
‘Oh nonsense! My belly is full of meat. You will eat today,
tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow and be satiated.’
When he heard that, the Crow set himself to think and after a
little while decided to see what he could do. With his strong bill he
succeeded in extracting the first thorn, and truly, two small pieces of
meat fell on the ground. The bird devoured them very greedily, and
encouraged by the success, began to tackle the job seriously.
After a great effort he succeeded in extracting the second thorn, but
alas! a burst of white excrement gushed forth with such vehemence,
that the poor Crow was cast back ten feet and was buried head and all
under a heap of very unpleasant matter.
The shock was so great, that he remained buried for two days,
until a great shower of rain washed the ground, freeing the Crow of the burden.
He remained a full day basking in the sun and regaining strength.
He was so weak that he could not fly. The Crow was washed by the heavy rain,
but his neck remained white. That is the reason why crows today
have a white collar in their plumage. The Crow very much resented
the alteration of his plumage and decided in his heart to take revenge.
One day he heard that the hyenas had arranged for a great dance in a
thicket he knew very well. He cleaned himself with great care in the morning dew,
put on a beautiful string made of scented roots and proceeded to the meeting place.

On his arrival he was greeted by the hyenas and several of them asked
him to give them some of those little pieces of meat he wore around his body.
They took his ornamental beads to be meat. He refused to give any of the beads away,
but rising on his feet with an air of dignity, he said: ‘My dear friends,
forgive me this time, I cannot give away this kind of meat, which is specially
reserved for our kinship, but I promise you a great quantity of good meat and fat
if you follow me to the place I am going to show you.’
‘Where is it?’ they asked anxiously.
‘You see, we birds fly in the air and our deposits of food are not on earth,
but on high for safety’s sake. Look up at the sky and see how many white heaps of fat
we usually store there. That’s where you will find meat and fat in great quantity.’
The hyenas gazed up to the sky and asked: ‘But how can we get there?’
‘I will show you. You can reach there very easily. Now, let us make an appointment.
The day after tomorrow we will meet here again. Tell your people, old and young,
men and women to come here with baskets and bags; there will be meat and fat for all.’
On the day appointed the hyenas came in great numbers.
I think the whole population was there. The Crow arrived in due time.
He started by congratulating the crowd on their punctuality, and with great poise said:
‘My dear friends, listen now how we are going to perform the journey
to the place of meat and plenty. You must gr apple one another by the tail,
so as to form a long chain. The first of the chain will hold fast to my tail.’

There was a general bustle among the hyenas, but after a few moments all were in order.
At a given sign, the Crow began to fly, lifting the hyenas one by one
till they looked like a long black chain waving in the air. After some time he asked:
‘Is there anybody still touching ground?’
The hyenas answered: ‘No, we are all in the air.'
He flew and flew up into the sky for a long time and asked again:
‘What do you see on earth? Do you see the trees, the huts, the rivers?’
‘We see nothing but darkness,’ they answered.
He flew again for another while and then said to the hyenas nearby:
‘Now, release for a while, that I may readjust my ornaments.’
‘But dear friend, how can we do it? We will surely fall down and die.’
‘I can’t help it. If you don’t release me, I will let go my tail,
I am sure the feathers will grow again.’
‘Oh dear friend, don’t, please don’t for your mother’s sake, we would die, all of us.’
The Crow would not listen at all. He thought the time had come for his revenge.
With a sharp jerk he turned to the right. The feathers of his tail tore out,
and with them the long chain of hyenas. They fell heavily on the ground and died.
One of them escaped with a broken leg. She was pregnant and so saved the kinship
from total destruction. That is why hyenas these days limp when they walk.

One of the obvious points in these stories is just the sheer entertainment afforded by the description of the amusing antics of various animals, and they are often told to audiences of children. The fact that most of the animals portrayed are well known to the audience —their appearance, their behaviour, their calls, so often amusingly imitated by the narrator—adds definite wit and significance that is lost on readers unfamiliar with this background. The gentle, shy demeanour of the gazelle, the ponderous tread of an elephant, the chameleon’s protuberant eyes, or the spider’s long-legged steps are all effectively conveyed and provide a vivid and often humorous picture for those present. It is true that the imagery associated with the animal figures in tales hardly matches that implied in other contexts (praise songs for instance). But on a straightforward and humorous level the animals in stories are appreciated and enjoyed simply for the vivid portrayal of their amusing antics.

But there is more to be said than this. On another level, what is often involved is a comment, a satire, on human behaviour. When the narrators speak of the actions and characters of animals they are also representing human faults and virtues, somewhat removed and detached from reality through being presented in the guise of animals, but nevertheless with a well-understood relevance for observed human action. As Smith writes of the Ila, in words that can be applied far more widely: “In sketching these animals, not Sulwe and Fulwe [Hare and Tortoise] only, but all the animals in these tales, the Ba-ila are sketching themselves.”

So there is no need to try to explain these animal stories by outdated theories about, say, “totemism” or the ridiculous notion that “primitive man” could somehow not clearly distinguish between himself and animals. Nor need we refer to literalistic interpretations of the stories, and assume that they are there simply to give moral messages. Rather these animal are a medium through which, as in much of our fiction, the experience of narrators and listeners can be represented and in a way judged.. The foibles and weaknesses, virtues and strengths, ridiculous  and appealing qualities known to all those present are touched on, indirectly, in the telling of stories and are what make them meaningful and effective in the actual narration. In contexts in which literary expression is neither veiled by being expressed through the written word nor (usually) voiced by narrators removed from the close-knit listening group, comment on human and social affairs is expressed less rawly, less directly, by being enmasked as animal characters.

If you liked this article, please consider becoming a patron and supporting the work we do here at The Mantle.


From Time for the World to Learn From Africa. Used with permission of Balestier Press. Copyright © 2018 by Ruth Finnegan.

Anthropologist Ruth Finnegan (website) received a degree in Classics and a doctorate in Anthropology at Oxford. This was followed by fieldwork and university teaching in Africa (principally Sierra Leone and Nigeria). She then joined the pioneering Open University as a founding member of the academic staff, where she spent the rest of her career apart from three years (and more fieldwork) at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and is now an Open University Emeritus Professor.