Africa is a land of contrasts. Ancient customs and artifacts, contemporary values and perspectives, bustling urban centers, remote villages, the untamed and formidable bush all coexist, some in close courtship, others in opposition and conflict.
Still, in the midst of these and many other contrasts and distinctions, the heart-beat of Africa makes itself felt and heard through her people’s most intimate and creative means of expression, the arts.
The African oral tradition embodies this ‘pulse’ in an especially inclusive and expressive way. Stories in Africa weave music, audience participation chants and choruses, even dance, into their fabric. Storytelling in Africa is an integral part of the culture. It is a common and effective means of teaching, preserving values and historical events, entertaining and is also an essential aspect of most ceremonial rituals.
To those outside of the African communities some of these folktales may seem harsh or cruel. Natural and supernatural phenomena often display harmful and destructive potential. It is not necessarily the villain who is punished or dies: more often it is someone who is self centered, disobedient, or foolish or one who fails to follow accepted moral codes.
Survival concerns are prevalent in African tales. The village is often pitted against the bush. The village represents family, security, social/cultural norms and expectations. The bush on the other hand, symbolizes the ‘other’, that which is unfamiliar, threatening, unpredictable, inhabited by ghosts and phantoms. Yet, one must venture out into the bush in order to survive-to hunt for instance or to achieve recognition. It is in the bush that much preparation for rites of passage takes place.
Trickster characters are also popular in African folktales. Anansi the spider is one of the most well-known characters. Africans transported to the Caribbean and Americas brought their Anansi stories with them. As a character Anansi straddles the fence between insect, animal and human figure. Anansi moves easily between the human and animal world. He is as heroic in his ability to overcome what sometimes seems to be insurmountable obstacles or societal pressures as he is gluttonous and foolish. Most of all he is familiar. Everyone knows Anansi!