Wednesday, May 21, 2008


“If this is your land, where are your stories?” Edward Chamberlin asked in his book by the same name. This question carries with it the impact of a doubled-edged blade: Not only do the stories of a people define who they are and the space they possess, but the stories of a people are also the tools used to possess that space. There are two African folktales that so poignantly illustrate this. One, The Departure of the Giants, is from the Horn of Africa, while the second, Strength, is a Limba tale from West Africa. Each is too long to convey in its entirety, so a summary will have to suffice.

The Departure of the Giants is a tale of giants and how they once occupied the land to the detriment of the “little people.” Reluctantly, God decided they could no longer be on the earth and gave them the choice of leaving with his blessing or leaving with his curse. They chose to leave with his blessing, which was to honor their desire for the women to give birth to only sons and the cows to give birth to only females. Eventually both – the giants and the cows – died out. The story has a wonderful ending: "The roofs of the tombs fell long ago, and all that remains are piles of stones. Because they remember what happened to the giants, people of the tribes sometimes say when life seems too generous to them: Take care, let us not die from blessings like the giants did."

Strength is a tale that turns from delight to disaster. It is endearing, sobering and thought-provoking. One day elephant has the idea to have a contest to see who was the strongest. Chimpanzee tied a small tree in a knot. Deer ran three miles into the forest and three miles back. Leopard mightily scraped the ground with his powerful claws. Bushbuck plowed a road through the cane-fields with his horns. Elephant bought down a huge tree. With each feat, all declared that, indeed, it was a show of strength. Then it was man’s turn. He whirled, twirled, did somersaults and cartwheels. “That’s not strength,” the animals said. Man climbed a tree and threw down the palm nuts. “That’s great, but not strength,” the animals said again. Then man took a gun and shot elephant dead.

Man was jumping and bragging.
“Strength! Strength!
Wasn’t THAT strength?!”
“Strength. . . .”

Man looked around.
The animals were gone.
They had fled into the forest.
“Strength! . . .”
There was no one left to hear him brag.
Man was alone.

In the forest the animals huddled together and talked.
“Did you see that?”
“Was that strength?”
“Would you call that strength?”
“No. That was DEATH.”
“That was DEATH.”

Since that day the animals will not walk with Man.
When Man enters the forest he has to walk by himself.

The animals still talk of Man . .
That creature Man. . . .
He is the one who cannot tell the difference
between strength
and death.

Cultural anthropologist C. McKinney said, “The collection and study of oral traditions are crucial for understanding essentially oral societies, and they serve as the bases of the literature of literate societies. Events in both oral and literate societies are the bases for the continued development of oral traditions.” It is not until the role of story in worldview and culture is firmly grasped that one can fully comprehend the value of story in worldview change and in life and cultural transformation.

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