Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales
Tiffin, Jessica, Marvels & Tales
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. The collection's genesis as a South African document is clearly marked, despite its attempt to claim a broader notion of African culture.
Further slippages are present within the selection of tales themselves, and the tensions and contradictions revealed are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the collection. While claiming association with black icons such as Mandela, the book unabashedly presents stories retold by largely white writers, both English and Afrikaans. Out of nineteen writers in the author list, only three appear to be black Africans, and one of those lives in America. In origin, the tales themselves drift casually between oral and literary sources, retellings of actual oral African tales barely differentiated from original stories in an oral style, or from purely literary creations. (The biographical note on writer Minnie Postma, for example, claims that her knowledge of the Sesotho tales is such that "she was later able to create her own tsomo [stories] in the Sotho idiom" , but at no point do notes on the tales differentiate this kind of creation from retellings of actual Sotho tales.) The stories range from the more famous African origin myths, utilizing figures such as Lion, Hare, and Mantis, to contemporary children's tales ("Fesito Goes to Market," while using fairy-tale repetition, has its main character riding a bicycle), Afrikaans folktale (the old Van Hunks and the Devil story about Table Mountain), Cape Malay and Islamic stories, and historical tales with fairy-tale elements (Asmodeus rather entertainingly trapped in a genie-bottle by the Governor of the Cape). The hodgepodge is a little bewildering, and at no point is the wide cultural range supported or contextualized by the short introductory notes. Despite the collection's title, many of these "African folktales" are neither African nor folkloric.
The drift from oral to literary forms is, of course, an ongoing problem in folkloric studies, particularly given the tendency of literary versions to both mimic and supplant the oral voice. By their very nature, authentic oral forms are few and difficult to transmit; in order for us to access them freely, they must be written down, and the act of writing transforms them. This problem is exacerbated in the African context by the complex cultural and political issues around colonization, as well as the power relations between the indigenous peoples whom this collection implicitly claims to represent and the European colonizers who are, in fact, largely doing the representation. I find it interesting that, given the extreme political awareness in post-apartheid South Africa, these important issues are not addressed by the collection's editor. The claim of authentic African-ness made by the collection's framing and title is not supported by the variety of cultural forms it invokes or by the choice of writers to transmit the tales, and no attempt is made to situate this multiculturalism within a wider definition of "folklore."
This failure of contextualization is continued in the forms and patterns of the tales themselves. The Cape Malay, Afrikaans, and Islamic tales, which form a significant minority in the collection, could at least be seen as authentically "African" folklore in the sense that they represent cultures within Africa and a genuinely folkloric transmission of tale patterns across various levels of retelling and cultural influence. While existing partially in opposition to the collection's subtextual claims of black African heritage, there is certainly a sense in which they are "African folktales." More complex in genesis are those tales that appear to be Africanizations of familiar Western stories. Some tales, however, are close enough to well-known Western tales that questions of influence and transmission must be raised. "Natiki," for example, is essentially the Cinderella story retold in African idiom; "The Wolf Queen" is an Islamic version of the Donkeyskin tale, complete with animal pelt and three dresses of silver, gold, and diamonds. In claiming such stories as authentically African, the collection's rubric tends to ignore the complex processes of cultural influence in their retelling. In a sense they are authentic, certainly; they represent the ongoing process of folkloric adaptation over both oral and literary forms. But the complexity of such processes is overwritten completely by what is obviously a marketing decision in the collection's format: African heritage and Nelson Mandela are powerful marketing tools. I cannot help wishing the collection's editors had shown a little less awareness of the market and a little more self-consciousness and sophistication in their framing of this collection of "African folklore."
University of Cape Town
Jessica Tiffin recently completed her doctoral thesis at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, where she is a lecturer. Her interests include fairy-tale narrative and other forms of nonrealist fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, and the gothic as well as fan fiction and internet culture.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales. Contributors: Tiffin, Jessica - Author. Journal title: Marvels & Tales. Volume: 19. Issue: 2 Publication date: July 1, 2005. Page number: 303+. © 2003 Wayne State University Press. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.