Alcée Fortier's Encounter with Bouki in Louisiana

By Seck, Ibrahima | Southern Quarterly, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Alcée Fortier's Encounter with Bouki in Louisiana

Seck, Ibrahima, Southern Quarterly

In Africa, the hare is the main character of a series of stories which we call the "cycle du lièvre" (cycle of the hare). This cycle is found primarily in the savannah countries: north of the equator it starts in the southern Sahara and extends to the grassland regions of Mauritania, Guinea, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Mali, northern Nigeria, Niger, and Chad; in the southern savannah the cycle is found throughout the region, from Angola and Namibia to Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa.1 But the stories move easily by word of mouth, and given the similarity of the spirit and themes of the African tales, it is not surprising to find the stories of the hare throughout all of Africa. The hare stories live alongside the many other story cycles, like those of the tortoise, the leopard, the antelope, the praying mantis, the tree frog, and so forth. The hare also makes incursions into the forest countries, and thus we can encounter these stories in the southern Côte d'Ivoire and in Togo.2

The hare carries different names depending on the country and the language, but his characteristics are constant. In Senegal, the Wolof call him Lëk, a weak animal but reputed for being very tricky. He is associated with Bouki, the stupid and greedy hyena, eternal victim of the tricks of his little companion. In Mali, some call the hare Samba, the name given to the second son of the family, considered the most intelligent. Among the Fulbe of the Senegal River valley, Demba is the human name given to "fowru" (hyena). The animals are also associated with the names of families. Among the Wolof, one speaks of Lëk Sèn and of Bouki Njur; among the Fulbe, Njur Demba is another name given the hyena. Other names confer female characteristics to the hare, because of his craftiness and cunning, which we generally lend to women. The hare is also called "bojel kumba" (little kumba hare), Kumba being the Wolof name of the youngest daughter's place in the family.

Like the hare in the savannah lands, the spider is the main character of another important cycle of animal tales, the "cycle de l'araignée" (cycle of the spider). If the domain of the hare is the vast grasslands of the savannah, the forest is the domain of the spider. In fact, it is the forest region of West Africa where the stories of the spider abound: northern Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, southern Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and so forth. The spider may also be found in the savannah, most notably among the Hausa (Nigeria, and Niger), and in Burkina Faso. The spider is known by many diverse names depending on the ethnicity. The Agni call it Akédéba or even Kakou Ananzé. Ananzé or Anansi is the Akan name of the spider. Kakou, Kouakou or Kweku is the name which the Akan give to all male infants born on Wednesdays. The Asante of Ghana call the spider Anansi.3 Among the Ewe of Togo, the spider, called Hevi Golete, is also the main character of the animal tales. That is all the more true that in their culture, spider urine is considered to give flavor to leftover food from the previous day.4

Equatorial Central Africa, more precisely the Congo basin, is the domain of various tales unquestionably dominated by the tortoise. In this region, such animals as Tsetse the gazelle, Moloko the antelope, Kafulu the tortoise and Kalulu the hare, use their intelligence and trickery against Ngo the leopard who is ambitious, but always caught in a trap.5 In the collection of stories published under the direction of Gaston Canu (1975), the tortoise is the animal who plays tricks on all the other animals: the antelope, the eagle, the leopard, the hippopotamus, the elephant, and so forth.6 The tortoise is also found in the Gulf of Benin where some call him Awon. And of course, the tortoise is the trickster hero of tales throughout the Bight of Biafra, from the Niger Delta through to Cameroon and Gabon, where ironically the hare is considered particularly unintelligent. The iconic Igbo folktale, from southeastern Nigeria, "The Calabash of Wisdom," for example, contrasts the famous wisdom of Tortoise with the notorious stupidity of Hare, "who was commonly regarded as the stupidest of animals. …

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