African Folktales Still Influence Modern Thought

African Folktales Still Influence Modern Thought


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



“Why the Hippopotamus Lives in the Water” proves that the person

who serves arrogance as the main course will get his just deserts.



African Folktales Still Influence Modern Thought

 By Van G. Garrett


African folktales are studied, recited, and reinvented ethnographic documents that offer a plethora of information, which supplies moral, cultural, global, and historical perspectives about life. These parables, widespread across the pallets of America, are likened to tales and morals contained in every holy book, with regards to the manner in which vivid illustrations incorporate people and animals to comment on life and its bitter and sweet moments. 

These commentaries, which can be narrated by a spider, donkey, frog, snake, dog, monster, human, or another being is instrumental in conveying elaborate plots and scenarios. However, most African folktales usually incorporate two central characters, a protagonist and antagonist, to present a broad commentary about life.

The protagonist, often fun loving, good-natured, or naïve, experiences a struggle with an over-zealous greed, which becomes a weakness exploited by an antagonist who is usually a trickster. This interplay is not only seen in folktales. But it is demonstrated in epics and poems, as edited by T.V.F. Brogan in The Princeton Handbook of Multicultural Poetries (1996, Princeton University Press, p. 3), “African oral epics [and folktales] have now been recorded in a wide belt of populations ranging from Ghana and Mali to Nigeria, in West Africa, to the Bantu-speaking peoples of Cameroun and Gabon and culminating among the Bantu-speaking peoples of Zaire.”

This continent and world-spanning phenomenon is a continuum of a rich legacy that is African and American. Before these tales were recorded in written fashion they were stories verbally passed from generation to generation. Due to migration and travel, stories have become more expansive and modified renditions that serve as catalysts for other literary conventions (i.e. fiction, epics, and various narratives), as well as influence the other humanities. 

These stories often sung or chanted for purposes of memorization, would later manifest into “pattin’ jumba,” a type of African oratory expression that is a form of patting and rapping experienced by mid-nineteenth-century enslaved.

This patting and rhyming evolved over decades and in the late twentieth-century the combination of folktales and music became known as “rap,” a highly lucrative art form born in Africa and widely appreciated in America. Folktales, the proverbial grandparents of pattin jumba and rap, have become more modern and adaptive to the times. However, their functionality has not changed. They still offer instruction about life and they still are widely enjoyed by intellectuals and non-intellectuals because of their ability to address humanistic appeals. 

Additionally, these tales, originating in Africa transcend race and age, as they explore concerns and angst experienced by all nationalities.

What makes these works memorable and respected is that even the most basic or unpredictable being can be used to convey or relay a message about life without condemning or sounding overly pious. Furthermore, this type of lesson without condemning is effective and popular because it verbalizes experiences many people feel are qualified in isolated scenarios, referring to death, sickness, loneliness, and rejection.   

The following folktales, anthologized in the One Hundred and One African-American Read-Aloud Stories edited by Susan Kantor (1998, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers) illustrates the infusion of characters specific to Africa and shared morals and lessons experienced by Americans. 

In “Dividing the Cheese” we see via two central characters (antagonist and protagonist) that the adages of “easy come easy go” and “there is no honor among thieves” are axioms that are as true as the tale’s commentary about honesty.

Dividing the Cheese

When the monkey cheats the cats out of their cheese, they’ve gotten just what they deserve.

Two cats stole a cheese. Neither thought the other would divide it equally so they agreed to ask the monkey to do it.

“With pleasure,” said the monkey. He sent the cats to fetch a scale. Then he got out his knife. But instead of cutting the cheese in half, he made one portion larger than the other. He put both pieces on the scale. “I didn’t divide this quite right,” he said. “I’ll just even it up.”

The monkey began to eat the cheese from the heavier side. As he ate, the heavier side became lighter than the other piece. Then he changed over and began to eat from the other side.

The cats, watching their snack disappear, said, “We’ve changed our mind. Please, let us have the rest of the cheese, and we will divide it ourselves.”

“No, a fight might arise between you, and then the king of animals would be angry with me,” said the monkey.

And he continued to eat, first on one side, and then on the other, until all the cheese was gone. 

In this tale the antagonist capitalizes on the protagonists greed and desire to conceal their ill-gotten cheese. The antagonist exploits their weaknesses, solicits their services, and depletes their food supply. This concise tale is a commentary about how dishonesty begets dishonesty and how there is no such thing as a balanced scale when wrong is being weighed.

“Why the Hippopotamus Lives in the Water” is another example of how weaknesses, foibles, and excessive pride (in humans) can be exploited if one is not careful.

Why the Hippopotamus Lives in the Water

The tortoise uses a clever trick to uncover the hippo’s secret name.

Many years ago, the hippopotamus, whose name was Isantim, was one of the biggest kings on the land—only the elephant was bigger. This hippo had seven fat wives, of whom he was very fond, and they went everywhere together. Now and then he used to give a big feast for the people, but though everyone knew the hippo, no one, except his seven wives, knew his real name.

At one of the feasts, just as the people were about to sit down, the hippo said, “You have come to feed at my table, but none of you know my name. If no one can guess my name, you shall all go away without your dinner.”

After some time, as no one could guess his name, they reluctantly prepared to leave. But before doing so, the tortoise stood up and asked the hippopotamus what would happen if he told him his name at the next feast?

The hippo replied that if the tortoise discovered his name, he and his whole family would leave the land, and for the future would dwell in the water.

Now, the tortoise knew that it was the custom for the hippo and his wives to go every morning and evening to the river to wash and have a drink. The hippo used to walk at the head of the line, and his seven wives followed behind. One day, when they had gone down to the river to bathe, the tortoise dug a small hole in the middle of the path, and then hid himself behind a nearby bush and waited.

When the hippo and his wives returned, two of the wives were some distance behind the others, so the tortoise came out from where he had been hiding, and crawled into the hole he had dug, leaving the greater part of his shell exposed. When the two hippo wives came along, the first one knocked her foot against the tortoise’s shell, and immediately called out to her husband, “Oh! Isantim, my husband, I have hurt my foot.” As you can imagine, hearing this made the tortoise very glad! As soon as all of the hippos were out of sight, the happy tortoise went home.

At the next feast the hippo reminded his guests that they could not eat unless someone knew his name. The tortoise got up and said, “You promise you will not be angry if I tell you your name?” The hippo promised. The tortoise then shouted as loud as he was able, “Your name is Isantim!” When the hippo admitted that this was his name, a cheer went up from all the people, and they sat down to dinner.

When the feast was over, the hippo and his seven wives, in accordance with his promise, went down to the river, and they have lived in the water from that day till now. And although they come ashore to feed at night, you never can find a hippo on the land in the daytime.

This tale of trickery demonstrates determination in the turtle and arrogance in the hippo. The hippo, thinking more highly of himself than his guests made himself susceptible to the ploys of his challenger. The victor of this tale was willing to plan, get in the mud, and suffer injury and bodily harm to achieve his objective. Often times one cannot see the determination in others because he focuses on his vanities. “Why the Hippopotamus Lives in the Water” proves that the person who serves arrogance as the main course will get his just deserts.

In “Dividing the Cheese” and “Why the Hippopotamus Lives in Water” the reader and listener is lulled by the musicality of language and mesmerized by the brevity of the passages. It is this “traditional” approach to education found in these tales and hundreds of others that offers lessons to Africans and Americans about the quality of life and the complexities of living. 

These rewarding tales are vital to the communities in which they are shared and to the world at large. By exploring and appreciating African and African-American folktales one obtains information, which supplies moral, cultural, social, and historical perspectives about the world.

Van G. Garrett, a writer, photographer, and teacher from Houston, TX can best be described as a “contemporary courier of creativity.”  Garrett, a 1999 graduate of Houston Baptist University, has a BA in English (with an emphasis in creative writing) and Mass Media (with an emphasis in print) which he has utilized as demonstrated by his various publications and honors. He was awarded the Danny Lee Lawrence prize for poetry in 1999, a 2002 Callaloo Creative Writing Fellowship for poetry, and his poems have appeared in Rolling Out, Life Imitating Art, Swirl, Drumvoices Review, Curbside Review, Shanks’ Mare, Urban Beat, E! Scene and elsewhere. His photography has appeared in Source, has been contracted by Capitol Records, and has been on display at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston.

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