Often called ‘The Cradle of Mankind’, many believe that Africa, my home continent, is the birthplace of mankind. Whether or not this is true, Africa is the source of myriad legends, folklore tales and unbelievable – to most Western minds – beliefs. African folklore includes everything from the origins of the universe and life after death to ancestral spirits, magic and celestial and other beings.
In some African cultures, the Earth is believed to be a goddess who created all living creatures, while other African tribes believe their ancestors live inside the Earth, in homes similar to the ones they lived in before their deaths.
Elephants appear in many African folktales and fables, the latter usually portraying them as wise chiefs who settle disagreements between forest creatures. Elephants are usually depicted as noble, kind and wise. Ghana’s Ashanti people believe that elephants are the spirits of their ancestral chiefs and give dead elephants chiefs’ burials, and Tanzania’s Wachaga folklore says that the first elephant was once a human who was deceived into losing all his limbs other than his right arm, which is now his trunk.
A Southern African tale tells of a girl who became so fat that no man would marry her. Accused of witchcraft, she was exiled. While wandering in the wilderness, she came across an elephant that spoke to her in Zulu. She agreed to stay with him, and he helped her to find food. The girl birthed four human sons, who were the Indhlovu clan’s ancestors.
The Kamba people of Kenya have a tale about how elephants originated. A poor man heard about Ivonya-Ngia, who reportedly fed the poor, and made the long journey to find his mansion. Ivonya-Ngia told his men to give the poor man a hundred cows and a hundred sheep, but the poor man replied that he did not want charity. Instead, he said, he wanted to know the secret to being rich. Ivonya-Ngia gave the poor man a flask of ointment and told him to rub it on his wife’s canine teeth in her upper jaw, wait for them to grow and then sell them. After a few weeks, the teeth started to grow, eventually becoming arm-length tusks. The poor man pulled out his wife’s huge teeth – after some persuasion – and sold them at the market. A few weeks later, his wife’s canine teeth were even bigger than before, but she refused to let her husband pull them out. Her entire body began to grow bigger, and her skin grew thicker and turned grey. Eventually, she went to live in the forest, where she gave birth to a son, who was born an elephant. She went on to have more children, all healthy – and all elephants. According to the story, this is why elephants possess almost human intelligence.
An interesting Yoruba belief that sounds quite New Age to me is that a person’s success depends on what choices he or she made in Heaven before his/her human birth. According to this belief, poor people should be patient, because, if they chose the right life when in Heaven, it will still manifest as earthly wealth.
Many Africans believe that every large tree has at least one spirit, whose voice one can hear if one listens carefully with a knowledge of the spirits’ language. Hence, trees are often revered. When cutting down trees to make boats or drums, for example, drum- and boat-makers try to preserve the tree spirit so that it can protect or bless the object/s made from its wood. A tree in Namibia is reported to eat people, and it’s believed that only a woodpecker can rescue them.
In Central Zaire, dwarf-like beings called Biloko are believed to reside in rainforests, protecting the forest and its inhabitants. Biloko are restless ancestral spirits who have grudges against the living, and are known to bewitch and eat humans.
Then there’s the West African trickster god, Anansi, who is usually depicted as a spider, human or spider-human who tricks humans into performing immoral acts that he gains something from. These tricks usually fail, thus teaching valuable life lessons. For example, one story says that Anansi wanted all the knowledge in the world for himself. He eventually got the knowledge in a pot, which he tried to hide in a tree. When he tried to climb the tree, he kept slipping, so his son eventually asked him why he didn’t tie the pot to his back rather than his front, as that would make climbing easier. Just then, the pot became untied and fell, causing the world’s wisdom to fall out. A flash rainstorm washed the wisdom into a river that fed into the ocean; hence, everyone in the world now has some knowledge. Some stories also depict Anansi as the messenger between the ‘supreme god’, the sky god Nyame, and this world.
Perhaps the East African good spirit called the Malaika is where the ‘devil and angel on your shoulder’ originated – at least, in Africa. Folklore says the Malaika were sent from Heaven to help humans, and they sit on a human’s right shoulder and whisper to them what they should or shouldn’t do.
According to the Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast, humans once lived deep inside the Earth. One day, five women, seven men, a dog and a leopard crawled out of a massive hole made by a large worm. They became frantic with terror, but the first man to set foot on the surface, Adu Ogyinae, calmed them and took charge of co-ordination the construction of their first shelters.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear about myths in your home country!