Lest we forget our folktales
Beaven Tapureta Bookshelf —
The NAMA award-winning collection of folk stories titled “Around the Fire: Folktales from Zimbabwe” (2014), edited by prominent writers and playwrights Raisedon Baya and Christopher Mlalazi, is an immortalisation of our sociocultural values which our ancestors founded on experience and wisdom long, long
The anthology is blessed with thirteen beautiful tales, long and miniature, tragic and humorous, creatively retold by local writers who were drawn from diverse cultural backgrounds. The tales reflect the enduring art of storytelling in Africa.
Although written tales do not capture the substance of African orality which includes song and performance shared between storyteller and audience in real life, they do move with interesting stylistic qualities such as settings in the distant past, magical or miracle performing songs imbedded in the plots and the different morality issues expressed through the actions and words of animal and human characters. The relationship between the characters and their environment is paramount.
Before the art of writing came about, these tales used to be passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth among the common folk or people who descended from a common ancestor.
The stories would be told to young people by a grandmother/father around the fire and hence the title of the anthology. There were also itinerant storytellers who moved from one village to another.
Times have changed and what used to be completely an oral art has developed into many various forms. The written form is common. However, the written form appeals to today’s child whom “Around the Fire” contributing co-editor Raisedon Baya calls ‘the global child’.
It is the same child for whom another senior Zimbabwean writer and storyteller Ignitius T Mabasa is developing the folktale or ngano genre to sync with the modern context.
The written tales in “Around the Fire” break the audience barrier to reach out to those I would call the “global adults”.
More importantly, they are a reminder to the Zimbabwean folk to go back to its basic social values and do away with foreign influences which have disintegrated the centre that holds our identity and humaneness. By leaving the magic songs or chants un-translated in all the tales the editors were surely making sure they do not distill the rhythmic vitality of folktale!
In “The Chief’s Son” by Sibongile Mnkandla, a village realises that its views about old age and gender are twisted when an old man and an eight year girl save the Chief’s sick son.
Still on how old people are viewed by a certain village, Naison Tfwala’s tale “Nsoyenyoni and Honkwayivas” clearly shows the old woman Makhohlomba being wrongly perceived as a witch, something still common today in African society.
Her old age and disability are a curse or spell under which she was put by an evil monster which, through magic also, “transformed all the people of Buhweland into monsters that looked like itself”.
The monsters are called Honkwayivas in this tale. Nature, seeing her suffering, responds by giving her power over an enchanted spring and as the tale unfolds her true queenly, youthful identity is restored.
The tales come with a brilliant demonstration of the animals’ different innate qualities which either save them or put them in danger.
Drought and hunger are life-threatening natural disasters against which the animal and human characters fight. Yet in various cases when a character is ‘chosen’ to possess supernatural powers that overcome drought (or any other danger) on behalf of his/her folk, he/she becomes boastful, selfish and eventually loses all.
In “Sky Black” by Raisedon Baya a young stock named Sky Black loses his feathers to a certain cunning woman because of his glutton and disrespect for his folk’s values of family togetherness which guarantees safety.
What happens to Sky Black shows that temporary gratification yields problems or death itself. Sky Black loves “independence”.
He occasionally flies alone and on one of his errands he meets his fate when a woman, a lover of stork meat, takes advantage of his uncontrollable appetite for grasshoppers and makes him pay with his feather for each grasshopper the woman gives him. This leads to his disaster!
In various tales we are shown the protest by animal characters against the plunder of their precious environment by humans. For instance, in “Jackal Refuses to Stay with Humans” by Thabani H Moyo we are told that the forest had been a good habitat for Jackal and other animals before the arrival of humans.
Where the storytellers in this anthology use animal characters, they do it on purpose, that is, either to ‘explain’ the mythical origin of certain animal physical features as in the tale “Hyena Gets A Zebra Kick” which ends with the words “from that day, Hyena’s mouth has remained dark and in bad shape due to a Zebra’s kick”.
The tales also help to understand the innate skills/talents of the personified animals in order to highlight a moral value.
In the tale “Hyenas Don’t Climb Trees” by Nelson Mapako a widowed Dove’s ‘creative weaving skills’ are displayed when she builds a nest that makes her ‘the envy of the woodlands’.
However, over excitement makes her forget lurking danger in the form of jealous Hyena who has a “score to settle with Dove for refusing to teach him how to fly”. She lacks confidence in the advice she gets from caring, loving friend Rabbit who keeps telling her that hyenas don’t climb trees.
Fear overtakes her and she loses her newly hatched chicks to Hyena who angrily behaves as if he could climb the tall acacia tree on which she built her nest.
The legendary trickster Hare does it again in “Hyena Gets a Zebra Kick” by Thabani H Moyo when he (Hare) twice outwits Hyena. However, Hare’s literary prototype in another story “Hare Meets His Match” by Bekezela Dube is a total failure.
To the reader or listener of Dube’s tale, Hare’s death, although a relief to all animals that he had tricked before, is unusual and a sad resolution to the tale’s conflict.
However, the tale shows that a person who is too proud and who makes other people unhappy will one day meets his/her fate. In the tale “Hare Meets His Match” all animals in the whole jungle hate Hare who had “established himself as the top trickster on the land”.
On the fateful day, Hare is challenged by Qhude’s gift of “upturning his wings and hiding his head right inside under his armpits”, thereby making him (Qhude) look headless yet alive! Qhude’s boasting that he has removed his head and “sent it to fetch . . . some smoke” fills Hare with jealous.
Not wanting to be outdone, he goes home, orders his wife to cut off his head with an axe, hoping he will remain alive to send his head “to do more complex errands than what Qhude could ever dream of”.
Unlike in some tales in which child or young characters ignore their elders’ advice, Themba in “Themba Gets Himself An Angel” by Sithandazile Dube, listens and adopts the wisdom of his mother and the magical belt he inherited from his late father.
The illustrator Aubrey Bango did a good job too. The lively illustrations are strategically inserted in the tales to blend with the plots without overwhelming the text.
“Around the Fire: Folktales from Zimbabwe” is an Intwasa Arts Festival publication. Other tales in the anthology are “Mbijana’s Wife Loses A Leg” by Thabani H Moyo, “Ant Comes to the Rescue” by Tinashe Muchuri, “The Goddess of Kalope Valley” by Nelson Mapako, “A Meal for Crocodiles” by Raisedon Baya, and “The Mud Crocodile” by Christopher Mlalazi.