The Tortoise and the Hare – West African Storytelling, part 1

Stories reveal so much about the culture they come out of. Take the classic Fable of the “Tortoise and the Hare.” [click here to read]. The way I grew up hearing it, Tortoise challenges Hare to a race, a race nobody expects him to win, but Tortoise does win because he works hard, and doesn’t give up, AND of course Hare is lazy. The Akan people group have a different version of the story. The basic elements are the same, a tortoise, and a hare, and eventually a contest between the two…and the tortoise wins, but how Tortoise wins is different. In the African version, the honor (or honour) of all tortoise are at stake, and so Tortoise calls them together.

“I have called you together because this is a matter that affects not only myself, but the honour of every tortoise. If I win, then the glory will go to our family as a whole; if I lose…then we are all disgraced.”

So Tortoise recruits his brothers who are about his same size, and color (or colour), and gives each a number. “Number one, go hide in the bush some fifty feet from the starting line,” he tells them, “and number two, some 40 feet beyond that.” The plan is for the runner to jump into the bush at the same time the next one jumps out of the bush ahead on the race course. Hare will see what is happening and thinks its magic.

I’m telling this story to Suzanne the other night, how similar the stories are and how differently they reach the same end. When she hears how the African Tortoise wins, she yells, AHHH, HE CHEATS! It’s an exasperated yell, one born of too much time taken dealing with too much of the same issue…cheating. I hadn’t noticed her wearing that Academic Dean hat, but I look closer, and see, ah yes there it is. I wonder if it’s like the pastor’s hat I used to wear, that you can never take it off.

After the race, the King congratulates Tortoise, calling him the swiftest animal in the forest. “It was the triumph of unity and cooperation,” Tortoise says, “we won because we stuck together.”

The author goes to great pains to say that this is not a story about the “means justifying the end,” nor is this the kind of deceit that is considered a value in the Akan society, but then adds, “it shows the value of unity, mutual aid, and corporation for the peaceful and harmonious functioning of human society,” I would add West African Society.

For me the two stories highlight the different values of the two societies. Though it is one of Aesop’s Fables, the version I grew up with really represents the Protestant Work Ethic, that so defined the early United States. That “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” through hard work, and never giving up. It also contains a warning to the lazy, to the ones who are over confident, who think victory is easy. Victory is never easy…it takes hard work, and never giving up.

The Akan version is just as beautiful, for it brilliantly shows how African societies work together. Though to us in the West, it may look like cheating, in this society, it is an appeal to a higher moral ethic, and that ethic is that a family (or village) must work together in unity to see that disgrace never comes to it.

An article in Time Magazine that celebrated Ghana’s 50th last year illustrates this value well [click here to read it]. It talks about one of Ghana’s sons who is 18, and tall and lean. His name is Delight, and Time calls him the chosen one, because frankly, he is his family’s only hope. Later Delight says: “If I fail any of my exams it will be a disgrace to my church and family. Everybody’s eyes are on you.” This quote really disturbed Suzanne last year when she read it; it perfectly describes the magnitude of the problem that institutions like Ashesi face when trying to, in the words of its mission statement, “educate a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders in Africa; to cultivate within our students the critical thinking skills, the concern for others and the courage it will take to transform a continent.” When any failure is seen as a disgrace to the student’s “church and family”, as Delight put it, then how can students really learn? Learning involves challenge, which involves setbacks, which might be viewed as “failure”.

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2 thoughts on “The Tortoise and the Hare – West African Storytelling, part 1

  1. Verrry Interesting.J-M drew my attention to an editorial in the Graphic just last week called “Playing Ananse and the Ghanaian Mindset.” The author was suggesting that the classic Ananse stories were promoting trickery and dupery; passing them off as shrewdness or being witty. I’m still mulling over that article and have now added this post to the file in my brain entitled, “Need More Information.”

  2. P.S. Re dinner. I was kind of kidding, thinking you were going to S.Africa for a check up this week? J-M is back tonight, but I’d love to take you up on the offer for dinner on Thursday night. That is, if you weren’t just “being shrewd or witty.”

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