Different people have different minds


Yes, of course, some people tell stories one way, some another. Perhaps it is because people sometimes separate for a while and still go on telling stories. But in all these stories about the old time, people use different words and names for the same things. There are many different ways to talk. Different people just have different minds.

!Unn /obe, storyteller of the Ju/’hoansi, in the Kalahari; Megan Biesele, Women Like Meat: The Folklore and Foraging Ideology of the Kalahari Ju/’hoan, Johannesburg: Witswatersrand University Press, 1993, p. 66

Illustration inspired by a drawing of a turtle from the Mimbres Culture


Would that it ended there


We are stories.’ It’s a notion so simple even a child could understand it. Would that it ended there. But we are stories within stories. Stories within stories within stories. We recede endlessly, framed and reframed, until we are unreadable to ourselves.

Ivan Vladislavic, 101 Detectives: Stories, Cape Town: Umuzi, 2015, p. 147

Illustration inspired by a traditional drawing from Rwanda 

Who gives much tribute of words


[S]hé-mutúro wábinwa/who gives much tribute of words: this is not a praise, nor is it to criticize the individual who speaks too much, but refers to one who gives tribute in words, one who is helpful because of his skill as a judge and speaker.

Daniel Biebuyck and Kahomb C. Mattene, The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic), Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, p. 80 note 143  
Illustration inspired by a kamon, a symbol used by the samurai

Not a figure of speech



If, then, the griots, active today in towns and villages of the Sudan, are still carrying on all the popular culture of African tradition and making the ‘illiterate’ masses perfectly civilized and cultivated people who are conscious of themselves and respectful of others, we must fear what will happen when their voices are no longer heard, for their sons and [grandchildren] now attend the European school and the family profession is no longer handed on.

As for the loss resulting for Africa and for the world we can only measure its importance if we are also aware of the importance of this heritage. For too many foreigners and African who are modern and ignorant, it is only a question of a few unimportant tales. […] However, on looking closer in certain areas of Africa, a very diversified literature is to be found, including different categories [and not only ‘tales’]: epics, cosmogonic myths, adventures, popular comedies, love poetry, oratory poetry (funeral, war, marriage, praise), ritual dram and religious songs, not to mention of course all the sayings, tales and fables, riddles and proverbs. All this forms a whole just as vast in importance and quality as the mediaeval literature of our ‘douce France’. [….]

Every person of French culture should be asked to think for a minute about what a voice this would create and the fresh spring which would be dried up, if by misfortune, this ancestral heritage were lost and with it faith, history and poetry, grandeur, wisdom and experience. It is only after such reflection that one can wonder whether in the name of economic development and European-style education it is right to deny the African of today his foundations in his fundamental original culture.

Theodor Monod said in 1934, not without humor: ‘The African did not come down from a tree yesterday’. Hampaté Bâ warns us today: ‘with the death of each old man, a library is burn’ and it is not a literary figure of style that he means!”

[As far as I know, this is, with its context, the first instance in which this much-repeated sentence was put in print, surely in the French version of the journal, which was published simultaneously to the English one. Kesteloot’s short article deals with the epics of West Africa. The English version is somewhat pedestrian, the last sentence meaning “he doesn’t mean it as a figure of speech” –Ed.]


Lylian Kesteloot, “The West African Epics”, Présence Africaine, vol. 30, 1966, pp. 201-202
Illustration inspired by a sculpture representing an ancestor from Indonesia  

The narrator would never recite the entire story in immediate sequence


The Nyanga epic is not a text performed only at certain times or on highly esoteric ceremonial occasions. There is nothing secret about it; it is to be heard and enjoyed by all the people. Normally a chief or headman or simply the senior of a local descent group, in order to entertain his people and guests, would invite the bard to perform a few episodes of the epic in the evening, around the men’s hut in the middle of the village. Large crowds of people, male and female, young and old, would come to listen or rather to be participant auditors. […] The interesting point is that the narrator would never recite the entire story in immediate sequence, but would intermittently perform various selected passages of it. Mr. Ruerke, whose epic is presented here, repeatedly asserted that never before had he performed the whole story within a continuous span of days.

Daniel Biebuyck and Kahomb C. Mattene, The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic), Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, pp. 13-14

Illustration inspired by shamanic instrument from Indonesia

Epics come from the other side of life

Huevo Tierra


The nvet songs we sing [those that are within the epics] are composed by people. For example, if something happens to you, good or bad, you can compose a song that tells about that. Epics are not made up or composed. Epics come from the other side of life [that is, from the world of the dead]. Only a mbom nvet, an old mbom nvet like myself, can bring epics from the other side of life. And the little singers, the small fry, take advantage of this and tell the epics that others like myself bring from the other side of life. That is, the things that have happened, those haven’t yet happened and those that have already happened. But I don’t perform all my epics. I perform something, something, something. Because if I unfolded a big epic here, before dawn we would all be tied [as imprisoned criminals]. That’s why I play good and smooth epics.

From an nvet epic song by Eyí Moan Ndong, in Ramón Sales Encinas, Eyom Ndong, el buscaproblemas y Mondú Messeng: epopeyas de Eyí Moan Ndong, Barcelona: CEIBA, 2007, p. 118
Illustration inspired by traditional folk motifs

The story lives on


Everyone can share in the magic of the story

But no one must ever claim sole ownership

So that whatever happens to the storyteller

The story lives on.


Gcina Mhlophe (back cover of the book Stories of Africa, Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, second edition, 2004)  
Illustration inspired by rock art from Lesotho