Why the Moon and the Stars Get their light from the Sun
West African Folk Tales
Once upon a time there was great scarcity of food in the land. Father Anansi and his son, Kweku Tsin, being very hungry, set out one morning to hunt in the forest. In a short time Kweku Tsin was fortunate enough to kill a fine deer—which he carried to his father at their resting-place. Anansi was very glad to see such a supply of food, and requested his son to remain there on guard, while he went for a large basket in which to carry it home. An hour or so passed without his return, and Kweku Tsin became anxious. Fearing lest his father had lost his way, he called out loudly, “Father, father!” to guide him to the spot. To his joy he heard a voice reply, “Yes, my son,” and immediately he shouted again, thinking it was Anansi. Instead of the latter, however, a terrible dragon appeared. This monster breathed fire from his great nostrils, and was altogether a dreadful sight to behold. Kweku Tsin was terrified at his approach and speedily hid himself in a cave near by.
The dragon arrived at the resting-place, and was much annoyed to find only the deer’s body. He vented his anger in blows upon the latter and went away. Soon after, Father Anansi made his appearance. He was greatly interested in his son’s tale, and wished to see the dragon for himself. He soon had his desire, for the monster, smelling human flesh, hastily returned to the spot and seized them both. They were carried off by him to his castle, where they found many other unfortunate creatures also awaiting their fate. All were left in charge of the dragon’s servant—a fine, white cock—which always crowed to summon his master, if anything unusual happened in the latter’s absence. The dragon then went off in search of more prey.
Kweku Tsin now summoned all his fellow-prisoners together, to arrange a way of escape. All feared to run away—because of the wonderful powers of the monster. His eyesight was so keen that he could detect a fly moving miles away. Not only that, but he could move over the ground so swiftly that none could outdistance him. Kweku Tsin, however, being exceedingly clever, soon thought of a plan.
Knowing that the white cock would not crow as long as he has grains of rice to pick up, Kweku scattered on the ground the contents of forty bags of grain which were stored in the great hall. While the cock was thus busily engaged, Kweku Tsin ordered the spinners to spin fine hempen ropes, to make a strong rope ladder. One end of this he intended to throw up to heaven, trusting that the gods would catch it and hold it fast, while he and his fellow-prisoners mounted.
While the ladder was being made, the men killed and ate all the cattle they needed—reserving all the bones for Kweku Tsin at his express desire. When all was ready the young man gathered the bones into a great sack. He also procured the dragon’s fiddle and placed it by his side.
Everything was now ready. Kweku Tsin threw one end of the ladder up to the sky. It was caught and held. The dragon’s victims began to mount, one after the other, Kweku remaining at the bottom.
By this time, however, the monster’s powerful eyesight showed him that something unusual was happening at his abode. He hastened his return. On seeing his approach, Kweku Tsin also mounted the ladder—with the bag of bones on his back, and the fiddle under his arm. The dragon began to climb after him. Each time the monster came too near the young man threw him a bone, with which, being very hungry, he was obliged to descend to the ground to eat.
Kweku Tsin repeated this performance till all the bones were gone, by which time the people were safely up in the heavens. Then he mounted himself, as rapidly as possible, stopping every now and then to play a tune on the wonderful fiddle. Each time he did this, the dragon had to return to earth, to dance—as he could not resist the magic music. When Kweku was quite close to the top, the dragon had very nearly reached him again. The brave youth bent down and cut the ladder away below his own feet. The dragon was dashed to the ground but Kweku was pulled up into safety by the gods.
The latter were so pleased with his wisdom and bravery in giving freedom to his fellowmen, that they made him the sun the source of all light and heat to the world. His father, Anansi, became the moon, and his friends the stars. Thereafter, it was Kweku Tsin’s privilege to supply all these with light, each being dull and powerless without him.
The Story of the Lightning and the Thunder
by Elphinstone Darrell (1910)
IN the olden days the thunder and lightning lived on the earth amongst all the other people, but the king made them live at the far end of the town, as far as possible from other people’s houses.
The thunder was an old mother sheep, and the lightning was her son, a ram. Whenever the ram got angry he used to go about and burn houses and knock down trees; he even did damage on the farms, and sometimes killed people. Whenever the lightning did these things, his mother used to call out to him in a very loud voice to stop and not to do any more damage; but the lightning did not care in the least for what his mother said, and when he was in a bad temper used to do a very large amount of damage. At last the people could not stand it any longer, and complained to the king.
So the king made a special order that the sheep (Thunder) and her son, the ram (Lightning), should leave the town and live in the far bush. This did not do much good, as when the ram got angry he still burnt the forest, and the flames sometimes spread to the farms and consumed them.
So the people complained again, and the king banished both the lightning and the thunder from the earth and made them live in the sky, where they could not cause so much destruction. Ever since, when the lightning is angry, he commits damage as before, but you can hear his mother, the thunder, rebuking him and telling him to stop. Sometimes, however, when the mother has gone away some distance from her naughty son, you can still see that he is angry and is doing damage, but his mother’s voice cannot be heard.
A story about a test of skill
by Maalam Shaihua, tr. by R. Sutherland Rattray (1913)
A story, a story.
A certain chief begat children, three males. One day his councillors assembled. He said he himself wished to see the most skilled among them. There was a huge baobab tree (near) the entrance to the chief’s house. He said he wanted them to mount (their) horses, (and) come (and) show their skill, where this baobab tree was.
So they mounted their chargers, (and) went far away. The eldest galloped (and) came, (and) thrust that baobab with (his) spear. The spear went right through and he followed, passing through the hole made by the spear, with his horse. And he passed on.
The next to follow the eldest came on. When he was near to the baobab tree he lifted his horse (on the bit) and jumped the baobab.
When the youngest galloped, he came, (and) pulled up the whole baobab, roots and all, and came on waving it aloft at his father, and the place rang with applause.
Now I ask you who excelled among them. If you do not know, that is all.
A story about an orphan, showing that
‘he who sows evil, it comes forth in his own garden’
by Maalam Shaihua, tr. by R. Sutherland Rattray (1913)
This is the story about orphans. A story, a story. Let it go, let it come.
A certain man had wives, two in number. He died and left them. One among the wives fell ill. She saw she was near to death, so she said to the second wife, ‘Now you have seen this illness will not leave me. There is my daughter, I have left her as a trust to you; for the sake of Allah and the prophets look after her well for me.’
So the woman died and was buried, and they were left with the maid (her child). Now always they were showing her cruelty, until one day a sickness took hold of the maiden. She was lying down. Her stepmother said, ‘Get up, (and) go to the stream.’
The maid got up, she was groaning, she lifted a small calabash, (and) took the road. She went to the stream (and) drew water; she took it back (and) said, ‘Mother, lift the calabash down for me.’ But her step-mother said, ‘Do you not see I am pounding? Not now, when I have finished.’
She finished husking the grain, she was winnowing, the maiden was standing by. The maiden said, ‘Mother, lift down the calabash for me.’ But her step-mother said, ‘Do you not see I am winnowing? (Not now), when I have finished.’
The maiden stood by till she had finished, until she had washed; she paid no attention to the maiden. The maiden said, ‘Mother, help me down (with the water-pot).’ She said, ‘Do you not see I am pouring grain into the mortar? (Not now), but when I have finished pounding.’ The maiden kept standing by till she finished pounding; she re-pounded, she winnowed, she finished, the maiden was still standing.
The maiden said, ‘Mother, help me down,’ but she said, ‘Do you not see I am putting porridge in the pot? When I have finished.’ The maiden kept standing by till she (the step-mother) had finished putting the porridge (in the pot). The maiden said, ‘Mother, help me down,’ but she said, ‘If (I) come to help you down the porridge will get burned; (wait) till the porridge boils.’ The porridge boiled, she took it out of the water, till (then) she pounded it, squeezed it, and finished.
She did not say anything to the maid, till the wind came like a whirlwind; it lifted the maiden and went off with her (and) she was not seen. The wind took her to the forest (bush), there was no one but she alone. She was roaming in the forest till she saw a grass hut. Then she went (up to it). She peeped in, (and) met a thigh-bone and a dog inside.
Then she drew back, but the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’, and the dog said, ‘He says you are to come back.’ The maiden came back, and the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’, and the dog said, ‘He says you a , to enter.’ The maiden entered the hut, and bowed down and prostrated herself, and the thighbone said, ‘Us! us!’, and the dog said, ‘He says, Can you cook food?’ And the maiden said, ‘Yes.’
So they gave her rice, one grain, and said she was to cook it. She picked up the single grain of rice. She did not grumble, she put it in the mortar and pounded, and when she had finished pounding, the rice filled the mortar. She dry pounded the rice and finished, and poured it from a height to let the wind blow away the chaff (sheke).
She went to the stream and washed (it) ; she brought (it) back home, she set (the pot) on the fire, she poured in the rice and in a short time the rice filled the pot. Then the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’, and the dog said, He says are you able (to make) soup?’ The maiden said, Yes, I can.’ The thighbone said, ‘Us! us!’, so the dog got up and went to a small refuse heap, (and) scraped up an old bone, and gave it to the maiden. She received it and put it in the pot.
When a little while had passed, the meat filled the pot. When the meat was ready, she poured in salt and (daudawa) spice, (and) she put in all kinds of soup spices. When the soup was ready she took the pot off the fire, she served out the food and divided it up. Ten helpings she set aside for the thigh-bone, for the dog she set aside nine helpings, (and) she set out for herself two.
They ate (and) were filled. So it is, because of this, if a stranger has come to you, honour him, give him food to eat. Meanwhile you study his nature, you see if (it) is bad or good. To return to the story. They went to sleep. At dawn the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’, and the dog said to the maiden, ‘He says, Can you make “fura” cakes?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ The thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’ Then the dog got up (and) came (and) lifted one grain of corn; he brought it and gave her. She received it (and) put it in the mortar; she poured in water, she lifted the pestle, she was pounding; as she (wet) pounded, the corn became much.
She took it out, she winnowed, she took it to the water, she washed it, she returned, she pounded, she took it out, she winnowed, she returned, (and) poured (it in again). She pounded it very finely, she took it out, rolled it into cakes, and put it in the pot until it boiled. She took it off (the fire), set it down, poured it into the mortar, pounded, took it out, rolled it up into balls, and gave to the thigh-bone three balls, to the dog she gave two.
When it was dawn the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’, and the dog said, ‘He says, Are you going home?’ She said, ‘I will go, but I do not know the way.’ Then the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us! ‘, and the dog rose up; he went and brought (servants), he brought cattle and sheep, horses and fowls, camels and war-horses, and ostriches, and robes, everything in the world, the dog brought and gave to the maiden.
He said, ‘There they are, the thigh-bone says I must give you (them); you will make them the provision for your journey. And he says he gives you leave to set out, and go to your home.’ But the maiden said, ‘I do not know the way.’ So the dog told the thigh-bone, and the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! Us!’ And the dog said, ‘He says let us set out, (and) I must show you the way.’ So the dog passed on in front, the maiden mounted a camel, the camel was led.
They were going along. The dog brought them till (they reached) close to (her) home. The dog turned back, but she herself sent into the town; she said, let the chief be told it was she who was come. The chief said, ‘Let them go and meet her.’ They went and met her. They drew up at the chief’s doorway, the chief gave them permission to alight, they alighted, She took out one tenth and gave the chief. She stayed there until the chief said he wished her in marriage. They were married. She also, that step-mother of hers, (her late father’s second wife) was envious, so she told her own daughter to go to the stream to draw water for her. But the little girl said, ‘Mother, I am not going.’
But she (the mother) lifted a reed and drove her, (and) she went to the stream by compulsion. Now the girl went to the stream, drew water, and took (it) home. She came across her mother as she was pounding; she said, ‘Mother, help me down (with the pot).’ But her mother said, ‘I am pounding, (wait) till I have finished.’ She finished pounding, and the girl said, ‘Mother, help me down.’ But she answered, ‘I am about to winnow, (wait) till I have finished.’ She finished winnowing (and) the girl said, ‘Mother, help me down (with the pot).’ She replied, I am just going to pound-when I have finished.’ When she had finished pounding then she sought the girl low and high; she did not see her, the wind has (had) lifted her (and) taken her to the bush.
It cast her there, she was roaming in the forest, when she saw a grass hut. She went and peeped in the hut, and she saw a thigh-bone and a dog. Then she drew back, and the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! Us!’ The dog said, ‘He says you are to come.’ So she came and said, ‘Here I am.’ The thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’ The dog said, ‘He says you are to sit down.’ So she sat down, (and) said, ‘Mercy on us, a thighbone that talks. What sort of a thing is Us! us?’ But they gave no answer.
A short time after the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’ Then the dog said, ‘He says, Can you (cook) food?’ And she said, ‘Ah, it’s a bad year when the partridge has seen them planting out the young trees (instead of sowing, when it could eat the seed). A thigh-bone, too, even it has an interpreter. I am able, you, I suppose, have the grain, when you are asking if people can cook food.’
They gave no answer, (but) the dog got up; he lifted one single grain of rice (and) gave her. ‘What’s this?’ she said, ‘to-day I am about to see how one single grain of rice makes food.’ The dog replied, ‘As for you, make it thus.’ She lifted the rice and put it in the mortar, she was pounding, and after a little while the rice became much. She dry pounded it, took it out, poured it out so as to blow away the chaff, poured on water, cooked it.
By the time she had finished cooking it the rice filled the pot. She was amazed. The dog lifted up a year-old bone, brought it, and gave her. Then she said, ‘What am I to do with it, this is a year-old bone?’ The dog replied, ‘As for you, make it thus.’ She said, ‘Are you supposed to be conjurers? I warn you; it is not my business that wizards should eat me.’The dog remained silent; not a thing did he say.
She washed the bone and put it in the pot, and in a short time the pot was full of meat. The girl was amazed, but she stirred the food, she took it out (and) set the soup down. She put aside for the thigh-bone three helpings, for the dog two. But the dog was angry because he saw her share was large, theirs very small, and he said, ‘What’s this?’ When he would have said, ‘Haba,’ he could only say, ‘Hab hab,’ because he had not told the thigh-bone first before he spoke.
Formerly the dog was a minister at court and used to talk like a person, when (on this day) he got in a temper in front of the king, he condemned him to say ‘Hab! hab!’ if he rose up to quarrel. And the moral of this is, a youth must not lose his temper in the presence of an elder.
Now they had eaten their food and slept. At dawn the thigh-bone said, ‘Us! us!’ Then the dog was not able to speak, but he went and brought blind men, and lepers, and blind horses, and lame asses, and sheep, robes and trousers were brought to her, (and) the dog showed her the way. He brought her to near (her) home and turned back.
But the thigh-bone drove him away, so he came back very quickly and joined them, and followed them until they reached the house. That is the first time the dog came to the house, formerly he was in the bush. Well, to continue, when they had got near the house, then she (the girl) sent one leper from among her retinue. He sat on a blind horse and his message was to tell the chief she has come. The chief allowed her to be met.
The chief made the galadima and many people to go and meet them. When they reached the open space in front of the chief’s house, then a stink filled the town. Then the chief said they were to be taken far back to a distance behind the town. They were led behind the town, far away they were to make their houses. When the mother of this maiden saw all this, then she became black of heart, (and) died.
That was the first appearance of wickedness, (which) is not a beautiful thing. Whoever commits a sin against another it comes back on himself, as a certain learned man sung, may Allah dispense mercy on him, he says, ‘Whosoever sows evil it comes forth in his own garden. That is true without a doubt, have you heard?’