Ananse – West African Storytelling, part 4

No treatment of West African storytelling would be complete without mentioning Ananse the Spider, that Ghanaian genre of storytelling that both entertains and teaches “the young and old after a hard day’s work out in the field,” at least according to our local paper The Daily Graphic.

Ananse, (sometimes spelled Anansi) or as he is more formally known Kweku Ananse, is a trickster. In his stories he plays various rolls, sometimes more human than spider like, but generally ending with a with, moral advice, a wise saying or proverb. But then other times, his stories explain natural world, such as why spiders hide in the corners, or why they are bald. I gather that in years gone by, they were told more than they are today, especially in the rural environments.

Still, ask a Ghanaian to tell you an Ananse story, and most will know one or two. Eric, our driver, says that the elders of his village used to tell them at night when there was a full moon. For example, Ananse once decided to collect all Wisdom from the earth and hide it at the top of the tallest tree in the forest, then people would come to him for wisdom, and he would be famous for being the wisest. When he thought he had collected all the wise sayings, moral advice or proverbs in a large clay pot, he decided to climb the tallest tree. He held the pot in his right hand, and and tried climbing with his left. He kept falling. Along comes his son, Ntikuma, watches him climb, and fall, climb and fall, and then suggests to his father that he tie the “Pot of Wisdom,” to his back; then he could use both hands to climb the tree. Ananse becomes furious with his son, and maybe even himself, realizing he had suggested something wise, something that didn’t come from his pot of wisdom. In anger he throws the pot at his son and misses. It shatters, and wisdom is scattered everywhere, reminding us that Rain does not fall on one roof alone. (meaning:Wisdom is for everyone). For a full telling of this story [click here].

These Ananse stories also came across the Atlantic in the slave trade. In the Caribbean, they became known as Aunt Nancy stories, and in the Deep South, Brer Rabbit. It has been interesting reading the familiar story lines, having grown up on some of them in the form of Brer Rabbit. Anna is our current expert on them.

There is some element of caution about these tales now, some blaming the Ghanaian Mindset on their former use in the educational system. LoreliC writes about it in a comment on this blog [click here], quoting from this article: Playing Kwaku Ananse and the Ghanaian mindset. The author wonders if Ghanaians have missed the point of the stories, which was often to show the folly of cheating someone, “mistakenly confusing ourselves and making wit synonymous to dupery.”

In one such story, Ananse and the Tree of Ripe Fruit, there is a great famine in the land and Ananse sets out on a journey to find food. Mournfully he walks for miles until he is overcome with hunger and fatigue. He lays down under a tree to pray for death when his eyes see a tall tree full of ripe fruit and hundreds of birds, eating.

With whatever strength he has left, he cries out for help. The birds have compassion for him and fly down to where he was. Each plucked one of their feathers and gave it to Ananse, who attached it to his body. Soon he had enough feathers to fly, which he did to the top of the tree, and ate his fill of the ripe fruit. Then he began to plot for a way to keep the whole tree for himself.

The birds leave, but before doing so, each ask for the feather that they had given him. He was overjoyed at the immense success of his treachery.

But that joy was short lived, because soon he is thirsty and because the birds had taken their feathers, there is no way to get down to the stream that flowed beneath the tree. He had exchanged one evil for another, hunger for thirst.

At this point the storyteller might finish off the story with some sort of moral maxim like, “If you do not wish for your neighbor to prosper, you will not prosper, or ifyou trample on another’s right in order to seek your own, you will be disappointed in the end.

Famine and hardship are common themes in these stories. In another, The Victims of Kwaku Ananse, the spider learns that his father-in-law plans to visit, a visit he ordinarily he would have welcomed, but it was dry season and as they say here, “the rains had failed the crops.” He had neither the head of a salted fish, nor the tail of the herring to feed his guests. Day after day his family ate yams and fufu without meat for their soup, pretending it did not matter, but in the village, his wife complained bitterly. Now with his father-in-law coming, Ananse had to find meat. He went to the ocean, but the fishermen complain about their inability to land a catch. He sat and carved, making a walking stick with a woman’s head on its handle. He was a good wood carver, and the woman he carved had beautiful braids. On the way home, he passed by the home of Tortoise.

He asked Tortoise and Madame if the walking stick was a fitting present for his father-in-law. The couple greatly admired the work, and Madame asked to meet its artist. She wanted her hair braided as beautifully. Ananse told her the artist lived in a village called “Its up to You” and he could take her to the artist who was the expert in hair braiding. He warned it was a long ways away, and if she did not return by nightfall to not come searching for her, she would be home soon. In this way, Kwaku Ananse led the wives of Deer, Turkey, Sheep and Rabbit to the house of the “hairdresser” and to their same fate.

His in-laws came and enjoyed their hospitality, especially the tortoise meat soup which was his father-in-law’s favorite. They went home with bundles of assorted game meat, and along the way bragged about their son-in-law, Ananse the Weaver.

The story goes on to tell of the husbands showing up at the house of Ananse, looking for their wifes. It’s a case of mistaken identity, “oh, you are looking for Ananse the wood carver…” and eventually ending up with Ananse dropping a load of rocks on tortoise, shattering his shell, and by the time he recovers, he has forgotten all about his missing wife, and thus explaining why the tortoise shell looks like it was once broken in many pieces. This also seems to be a common theme in West Africa in storytelling. [read that blog entry]

On the way to pick up the kids this week, I asked Sheila, our house keeper and Eric’s cousin, if she knew any Ananse stories. She told me the one “How the Spider became Bald,” it’s a story I’ve read in many different forms, some short, some long, there is even a video telling it [click here to see it on YouTube]. Riding in the car wasn’t the right setting, there were too many distractions, I couldn’t hear all of it, or enjoy the telling, and I wonder if that is why story telling like this is going out of style in the urban environment. I wonder what else we are losing, and what we will only realize when it is too late. What I find myself longing for is a dark night in a far away village with a full moon, and one of the elders in a Storytelling mood.


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