Anansi Stories from West Africa to Jamaica / "Folklore is fertile ground for the transmission of knowledge across space, time and generations"
If education and governance can be considered synonymous, then folklore -– where myth, and make-believe collide with tradition and virtue -- is fertile ground for the transmission of knowledge across space, time and generations; and serves an almost epistemic function.
Anansi stories served as that connective tissue for me and my family, as every Jamaican grew up hearing the tales in one way or another. The stories originated in West Africa before they were brought to Jamaica and other parts of the Diaspora. Anansi, sometimes spelled Anancy, ‘Nancy, ‘Nansi, or Ananse, exists as a spider, a man, or a combination of the two. He was a trickster, to be sure.
I stumbled on a site that allowed me to sit back and experience, once again, all of the Anansi tales I grew up on.
Following some insights from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on how language, storytelling, memory and survival are inextricably intertwined, I've posted four Anansi stories that are my favorite ones to re-tell.
"Though his language may die, the diasporic African’s memory of Africa does not itself turn into a corpse. It is nurtured in the field slave, who fashions his own means of keeping it alive. In time, out of the re-membered fragments of African speech and grammar the enslaved create new languages. They have different names in different places: Patois, Creole, Ebonics.
Their orthographic representation is problematic, and they are often written as if they were misspelled English or French words. But they became languages, what Kamau Brathwaite calls 'Nation languages,' and they deserve adequate orthographies. In each case, these languages became the diasporic African’s new means of survival ...
From the memory of African orature, what is often incorrectly characterized as oral literature, emerges African-American and Afro-Caribbean orature with trickster characters such as Hare and Anansi of the continent transformed into brother Rabbit and Anansi of the new world. ...
The corpse also began to write and, lo and behold, the Africa that slaves and their descendants were supposed to forget became the founding image of new visionary narratives."
-Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance [pg. 44-45]
1. Anancy and Common Sense
Wance apan a time Breda Anancy mek up im mind seh im gwine callect all a de camman sense inna de wurl. Im was tinking dat he would be de smartest smaddy in de wurl ef im do dis. So Anancy traveled all ova de wurl collecting camman sense. Im go to big countries an likkle ones. Im go to primary schools and universities. Im go to govament offices and businesses. Im go people house and dem work place.
Im tek all de zillions camman sense he had collected fram around the wurl and put it a big calabash. Im tek de calabash wid im to im backyard and climbed a big gwangu tree. His plan was to store it at de tap of the tree for safety-keeping. Nobady woulda get to it but Anancy.
To mek sure it was safe Anancy tie the calabash to de front of his bady. Dis slow down im progress up de tree to a slow crawl. Im did look very clumsy a-go up de tree wid be-caw the calabash dida hamper im.
As im was slowing going up toward de top a de tree a likkle girl below called out to im. Anancy, mek you nuh tie the calabash pon you back insteada in front of yuh. It will git up de tree much fasta and ez-a.
Anancy was bex be-cah de likkle girl show im up for not thinking. She had more good sense dan him he thought. He called out to her “Mi did tink me collected all the camman sense fram all ova de wurl”
He was so angry dat im fling the calabash to the to the groung and it bust. All of the camman sense im did callect fly back to all ova de wurl.
An dat's how you and I manage to have just a likkle common sense for we-self tideh.
2. Anancy and Bredda Lion
Bredda Lion had a new bad habit that he felt was his right an privilege, being the most feared in the village. He developed the biggest belch in the whole village. Every time he ate and went to sleep at night, he would belch really loud all night and wake up the rest of the village.
Anancy loved to sleep. Next to food sleep was the next thing he loved in the whole world. Since Lion had developed this habit he has not gotten one night's sleep. Last night was the worst. Lion had belched every hour on the hour, since 8 pm that night. Anancy’s eyes were blood shot red and he was angry.
He visited Bredda Rabbit and Bredda Snake to see how they were holding up. "Bredda Rabbit, how yuh doing man?" asked Anancy, as he approached Bredda Rabbit outside his home.
"Mi doing just fine." replied Bredda Rabbit.
"Yuh getting any sleep since Lion start dem big belchin?" asked Bredda Anancy.
"Yeah man, nuff sleep since mi buy dem ear muffs whey Bredda Snake tell me bout down a shop." he replied.
"Ear muffs!" Anancy exclamated.
"Yes dem block out every sound, whey yuh nuh go buy some?" Bredda Rabbit explained.
"Is true." Anancy replied.
So he set off down to Mr. Lee's shop and bought him some ear muffs.
That night around 7:45 pm he put on the ear muffs and went to bed.
A large "Buuuurrrrrrrrrrp" sound awoke Anancy.
"But wait," he thought to himself "dem ear muffs nah work." You see, his spider senses were just as sensitive as his ears and could pick up the sound. The others in the village did not have this type of sense so the earmuff worked for them. So again Anancy had a sleepless night.
The next morning he was very angry. He was so angry he walked over to Bredda Lion’s home to talk to him.
Anancy pleaded "Bredda Lion, Mi a beg yuh please stop de all nite belching. Mi cyaan get nuh sleep a nite."
"Yuh mad Anancy? A mi run tings in dis village, an mi will stop when mi feel like." Bredda Lion replied.
"But how yuh so bad mind. Nobady cyaan sleep wid all dat noise yuh a mek." said Anancy.
"Is ongle yuh cyaan sleep. No one else is complaining." replied Bredda Lion.
Anancy was getting really upset.
"Mind yuh belch out all the food you eat for the day while you sleeping." Anancy said in anger.
"Nuh mek me dead wid laff. Mi neva hear nuttin go suh before in my life. Gwan yuh way, Anancy" Bredda Lion replied with a big smile.
At that very moment Anancy had a plan. He secretly started to follow Bredda Lion for the whole day, watching what he was eating. He took a big bag with some containers with him. Every meal that Bredda Lion had, he collected some of the same thing in a container.
That night at 8:00pm, Bredda Anancy snuck into Bredda Lion's house under the bed. He waited to hear the first burp.
He snuck from under the bed and quietly placed a mixture of all the meals beside Bredda Lion’s mouth.
Bredda Lion had a sensitive nose. The smell of the food mixture awoke him. He jumped out of the bed and screamed, "Lawd have mercy, all de food me eat come right back up. Whey me ago do? If this continue me will not be able to full mi stomach. I know what I will do. I will eat this mixture." So he ate the food and went back to sleep.
Again Anancy put some more food by his mouth. And again Lion woke up and ate the food.
This continued four times. On the fourth time he put food by his mouth, Anancy snuck out of Bredda Lion’s bedroom window. He crawled under the cellar to listen.
Bredda Lion ate the food but this time did not go back to sleep.
"Lawd mi belly a hat mi. Mi nuh know ef I can continue this belching business, cah mi cyaan sleep." Bredda Lion whispered under his breath. He had eaten so much food that he was in pain. He was unable to go back to sleep.
Anancy smiled and walked back home.
This is why lions eat big meals but less frequently.
2. Cockroach and Fowl
Once upon a time, Cockroach was a very good music man an everybody whey have dance always want Bredda cockroach fi play fi dem. Well, bredda Anancy wid him usual cunning self guh ask Cockroach fi mek him, Anancy, tun Cockroach manager.
Hear Anancy,”Bredda can Cockroach, mi wi look afta yuh an si to it dat not a soul can tief yuh but miself, of course yuh know, Bredda Cockroach, dat me hooden rob yuh! so jus leave everting to me an mi wi fix yuh up”,
Well po Cockroach neva ave nuh sense fi nutten else but music, soh him mek Anancy manage him. Anytime people gwine keep dance, Anancy guh an charge dem a big price fi Cockroach play, an him get half a de pay in advance. Him tek dat fi himself, an gi de music man de odda half afta him done play. Sometime Anancy hodda tek mos a de money, an tell Cockroach seh de people dem neva mek nuh money an deh beg him fi si wid dem. It gwan and gwan suh till one New Year’s Eve Bredda Fowl an Sista fowl have a dance an get Cockroach fi play fi dem.
Bow dem days, drum was de ongle dance music, an dem did haffi put Cockroach in a de drum fi mek him play sweet, das why anancy cudds tief him soh much. Well, de New Year’s Eve Bredda Cockroach guh ina de drum an start fi play an sing…
me secret, yerry de drum deh guh,tookoo-tum,tookooma-tum
yerry drum, oh me secret, yerry bell deh guh ring ding ding
yerry de bell o!!
see yah!!, de music sweet, yuh see!, All de fowl dem start yanga and merrenge roun de room. Everybody dida enjoy dem self. Wen de fuss tune done, Bredda Fowl an Sista Fowl bring nuff drinks an tings fi eat come fi Anancy fi him an de music man. Anancy nyam off everyting an neva gi Cockroach a chenk. Cockroach play ova an ova an all de time de fowls bring tings fi him eat an Anancy neva gi him none. Po Cockroach play an sing suh till him start get hungry an tiad. Him seh to anancy, “Lawd Bredda
Anancy,mi deh ded fi hungry si if yuh can get lickle sinting fi mi eat nuh?”
Anancy seh “cho Bredda Roach, yuh too craven man! yuh nuh see sey de country deh suffa from food shortage? shame pon yuh, man, fi quarrel ova food inna dese days” Bredda Cockroach sey, “mi nah quarrel Bredda Nancy, but mi nago able fi sing much longer ef mi nuh het sinting fi eat.”
Po Cockroach start paly an sing again, him cudda ongly knock softly an yuh cudda hardly hear him voice. Sista Fowl se “cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck, de music nuh good at all.” Bra Fowl sey, Coocooruuucoruuu, mek we beat up de music man an him manager!” Anancy sey “Lawd a massi Bredda Cockroach! yuh mean yuh gwine mek mi feel shame? Play loudah man!” but all Bra Cockroach try him did too hungry and weak, an not a soun cudden come from him troat. De fowl dem get bex an sey dem gwine beat anancy suh till him sawf. Suh Anancy open de drum an trow out po Cockroach ina fowl yard and de fowl dem gadda roun an nyam Cockroach.
An from dat day till teday, anywhey a fowl si an Cockroach him mek afta him.
4. Anansi and Snake
Tiger was the undisputed king of the forest. Tiger Lilies were named after him. Tiger Moths were named after him. And the stories of the forest were called Tiger Stories.
Anansi was a nobody in the forest hierarchy. When the animals gathered together, they would ask idle questions like "Who is the strongest animal?" or "Who is the bravest?"
All together, they would chorus "Tiger!". And just to poke fun, they would say, "Who is the weakest?" Like a church choir, they would all sing out "Anansi!".
Anansi got sick and tired of it all.
One day he met Tiger face to face in the forest. Anansi bowed low to Tiger, but Tiger did not acknowledge Anansi in the least. He had no time to waste on such an insignificant speck.
"Tiger," said Anansi, "you have it all. Can't you just ease me up and let me have one thing named after me?"
Tiger wanted to ignore Anansi, but his curiosity got the better of him. "And just what is it you want to bear your name, Anansi?"
"The stories," replied Anansi. "I want them to be called Anansi stories."
Now Tiger loved those stories, and did not intend to give them up to this crawling nobody. Still, even the undisputed king of the forest needed a laugh sometimes. So he said to Anansi, "If you can do one small thing for me, I will let you call the stories Anansi stories or any other name you like."
Anansi didn't like the sound of this. "What one thing would that be, Tiger?" he asked cautiously.
"Nothing too hard... just capture Snake for me by the end of the week, and all the stories will be known as Anansi stories forever more."
Good thing Anansi had eight legs to stand on, because at least four of them buckled same time! This Snake was not your flimsy garden variety snake. Snake of the jungle was big. Very big. And Anansi was small. Very small.
But Anansi could think big, so he said "I'll do it."
At that, there was a huge burst of laughter from all the other animals who had been eavesdropping on the conversation. They went home, tears of amusement rolling down their faces.
Anansi went home, very worried. But thinking.
This was on Monday.
Anansi went on the trail he knew Snake travelled on everyday. He made a large noose out of a strong vine, and placed some of Snake's favourite berries inside it. He hid in the bushes, holding the other end of the vine.
Snake came slithering along the path. He spied the berries and his mouth watered. But he also spied the noose. He lay the weight of his body on the vine, then reached in and ate the berries quickly. Anansi tried and tried but he could not pull the vine to close the noose. Snake's body was too heavy!
Anansi went a little further down Snake's favourite trail, and dug a pit in the ground. He placed a luscious hand of ripe bananas in it, then smeared the sides of the pit with grease, so that Snake would slip in when he tried to get the bananas.
Snake came along the path. He spied the bananas and his mouth watered. But he also spied the grease. So he wrapped his tail around a thick tree trunk, then reached into the hole with his head and ate the bananas. If he had lips he would have licked them. He raised his head out of the pit, unwrapped his tail, and slithered away.
Anansi made a square trap out of sticks, with spaces on three sides, and a door on the other. He put some mangoes inside. Soon a piglet came along and went straight for the mangoes. He didn't notice when Anansi shut the door behind him. Anansi figured that Snake could get inside the trap through the spaces, but that he would be too fat to get out after he had eaten the piglet.
Snake came along, and saw the piglet. The creature was so terrified when he saw Snake that he went berserk, squealing at the top of his lungs and smashing the trap into pieces. The piglet fled into the bushes, and Snake's mouth did not even get the chance to water. Anansi muttered to himself, "Fool-fool, good for nuttn pig."
It was Friday, the end of the week, and Anansi was still Snakeless. He went directly to Snake's house, and sat outside, looking dejected. Snake came out and looked at Anansi in surprise. "But you bright, eeh? All week long you trying to catch me, and now you sitting here barefaced in mi yard?"
Anansi looked at Snake and sighed. "Yes, is true. But I was trying to catch you for a worthy cause. Now the other animals will continue to talk behind your back."
"What you talking about, Anansi? What they saying about me?"
Anansi said, "Well, I really shouldn't be telling you, but they saying that you believe you are the longest thing around, and that you think you are God's gift to longness, when even the shortest bamboo around here is longer than you!"
Snake was outraged. "Measure me, Anansi, measure me! Cut down the longest bamboo you can find and let me shut up those backbiters!"
Anansi ran and cut down the longest bamboo. He rested it on the ground and Snake stretched out beside it. "Call them, Anansi. Let them see that nothing around here can test me!"
Anansi scratched his chin. "Well, Snake, there's a problem. You look longer than the bamboo, but how do I know that when I go up by your head you not crawling up to look longer, and when I go down by your tail you not shifting down on that end?"
"Tie mi tail, then Anansi. if you don't believe me."
By this time curious animals were gathering around to watch.
Anansi tied Snake's tail tightly to the bamboo with some vines. Then he said to Snake, "Stretch, Snake, Stretch. You almost there. Stretch till you eyes shut and you can't stretch no more."
Anansi had never seen a snake sweat. Snake stretched till his eyes were squeezed shut, and in a flash Anansi tied his head to the pole, then his middle.
The animals who had been watching were silent. There was no laughing at Anansi this time. He had said he would capture Snake, and he did.
And from that day to this, the stories have been called Anansi stories.