Monday, January 23, 2023

ABC 34. East African Folktales

Wow, here we are at the end of January already, with our final book for Anansi Book Club this month. You can see the January Calendar at the website, and you can also see all the Book Club posts from 2022 here at the blog (and additional information at the website about previous months).

Like every month, the final book is an anthology of stories, and in this case it's an anthology of very short stories by Vincent Kituku: East African Folktales from the Voice of Mukamba, which is part of the World Storytelling series from August House Publishers. 

Vincent Kituku was born in Kangundo, Kenya. After graduating from the University of Nairobi in 1985, he came to the United States for his graduate education, completing a Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming; he is now a motivational storyteller and writer based in Idaho. 

In this book Kituku shares 18 traditional Kamba folktales from Kenya, including both the Kamba text and an English translation. In the subtitle, "voice of Mukamba" means the voice of a member of the Kamba community. As Kituku explains in the introduction, Akamba refers to the Kamba community and Mukamba means a member of that community. He also explains how when he was an elementary school pupil in the 1960s, the use of Kamba language was forbidden in school, but he learned the Kamba stories from his mother, and it was important for him to pass them on both in the Kamba language and in English.

The illustrations are by Kelly Matthews based on designs from Kenyan batik art, and you can definitely get that batik feeling in the drawings, like in this illustration for Ndothya the drunkard and the Hyena... and from the Kamba version of the story, I learned that the Hyena's name is Mbiti!

This is a great story that will remind you of the Aesop's fable about the "boy who cried wolf" but this time it is the "man who cried hyena" instead! Another altered Aesop's fable is the story of two hunters who confront a fox, with one friend abandoning his other; in Aesop, it is the story of two friends and a bear. It's recognizably the same story, but considerably changed.

Other Aesop's fables appear here unchanged; there are many fables which move easily from one culture to another because they carry so little specific cultural baggage. In the Kamba story of the chicken and the shilling, a chicken finds a shilling but decides it has no value because the shilling will not fill her stomach. The moral of the story in this version is very much on the chicken's side: yes, a shilling is "worth" more than millet, but not for a chicken who just needs some millet to eat!

Another familiar Aesop's fable here is the story of the greedy dog carrying the meat over the water who gets greedy for the reflection he sees in the water.

Aesop's fables circulated for thousands of years back-and-forth literally all around the world, and that circulation continues even today, as this book shows. Some European fables clearly came from Africa, India, or the Middle East, while some African fables came from India or Europe, and so on. These tiny fables are very mobile, and they are very much at home here in this collection of Kenyan fables.

There are also some strong connections between the stories in this book and traditional African proverbs. No surprise, as the fable genre and the proverb genre often overlap! One of my favorites is the proverbial "water banana" ... and to understand why a "water banana" is proverbial just read this story: The Water Banana. The proverbial conclusion to the story is something like the English proverb, "Easy come, easy go," but much more vivid because it involves an actual series of events involving bananas and water: "A banana plant that is brought by water is taken away by water."

If you are interested in more proverbs, Vincent Muli wa Kituku has also written a book of Kamba-English proverbs: The School With No Walls: Where Lifelong Lessons Begin.

The Internet Archive's copy of that book is actually autographed by the author!

The proverbs are presented in Kamba and in English translation, along with a commentary. There are some illustrations by Susan Ballenger also:

Now, back to this week's book of stories: in addition to the fables and proverb-inspired stories, you will also find versions of classic African folktales that have been told across the continent for uncounted ages, like the story of the animal who is too lazy (or greedy or sleepy, etc.) to go get their tail when the tails are being distributed; in this case it is a story about a hamster

I was delighted to find a story about the trickster rabbit here, and I learned that the Kamba name for the hare is Kavuku: The Hare and the Hyena. The rabbit uses the power of his words to trick the hyena, and the story ends, like so many trickster stories, with the rabbit laughing at the fool who fell for the trick. As you can see from the illustration, the hyena's fear of the lion is a factor in the story.

Another widespread type of story in this collection is the messages-of-life-and-death, where death comes into the world because chameleon is slow to deliver the message. Sometimes the fast messenger is a fast animal, like rabbit, and sometimes a bird, as in this story: Chameleon and Raven. Sometimes the sender of the message is the Creator, as here, but often it is the Moon (who dies and comes back to life itself). Because Chameleon is so slow with the message of resurrection, Raven pronounces the message of death first, which is why there is death in the world. The Raven's message is really eerie too: Die and go down as deep as the roots of mangrove trees.

I'll be back tomorrow with another update to this post; for now, jump in and read some of the stories. They are all super-short, and you can see what you think of the interpretations that go with each story, since they are all meant to be teaching tales. Lots of ponder, and lovely artwork too!

by Vincent Kituku

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