Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales

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Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales. Edited by Marguerite Gordon. New York: Norton, 2002. 144 pp.

The American publication of this volume follows its earlier release in South Africa under a slightly different title. It is a beautiful book: large, squareformat pages on glossy white paper, with colored graphics and headers and frequent, charming illustrations. It consists of thirty-two folktales in English, collected from a variety of African countries and cultures, and retold or translated by writers, folklorists, and journalists. The tales are by and large well and attractively told, with a mixture of oral and literary voices, and with frequent sophistication despite being aimed at a young reader. They are also immediately familiar: despite the differences in setting and nomenclature, their situations and characters are those of a thousand Western tales. Part of their familiarity to a Westernized reader is, obviously, the result of the common motifs found in folkloric traditions across cultures. The collection offers an impressive selection of origin myths, beast fables, trickster heroes, cautionary tales, christening curses, monster husbands, and magical brides, and it exemplifies the usual folkloric concern with pattern, repetition, and simplified quest-plots revolving around essentially domestic objects. This is indeed an effective and enjoyable children's collection, but it is also a fascinating text, offering in its bright and pretty pages a neat but essentially unreflecting encapsulation of many of the tensions and debates that surround folkloric writing in our time.

The collection's packaging immediately betrays its two most obvious marketing focuses: children and a notion of African heritage centered on black identity and history. In its format and the naive appeal of its illustrations, the book is clearly aimed at children, a tendency reinforced by the association with Nelson Mandela's name, and hence the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. (Interestingly, the Mandela association completely elides the identity of the book's actual editor, whose name appears only on the copyright page. However, the book's jacket does not at any point suggest that the Children's Fund or any other Mandela foundation receives any revenue from sales.) Approving comments from Bill Cosby are also prominently displayed on the front and back covers, strengthening the association with family values. Mandela's foreword to the collection expresses the wish that "all the children in the world may experience the wonder of books, and ... the magic of stories" (8). The association of children with fairy tale, which bedevils folkloric expression from the Victorians onward, is here operating at full force, to an extent that tends to overshadow the collection's simultaneous, Grimm-style notion of folklore as cultural heritage.

This dual focus of the collection is underlined by the fact that Mandela and Cosby are even more powerfully icons of black identity, their invocation obviously chosen to authenticate the origin of the tales while providing recognizable and highly regarded points of identification for an American market. The importance of fantasy for children is interwoven with the notion (in easy, popular terms) of African heritage: the foreword and jacket blurb return again and again to the notion of the authenticity of these tales and their roots in African oral tradition. However, in many ways the collection's claim of "African-ness" is shakily grounded, betraying something of a conceptual slippage: most of these tales are from southern Africa, largely marginalizing the rest of the continent. The elegant map at the beginning of the volume identifies tales from Morocco and Nigeria, with the identifying flags becoming more thickly clustered down the length of Africa, to huddle cozily in South Africa, source of fourteen among the collection's thirty-two tales. Solitary tales pop up from Central African states such as Uganda and the Congo; Botswana and Zimbabwe are better represented. …